Saturday 27 March 2010

The lean spell continues

I think every photographer most go through a period where they just don’t have much success or get any lucky breaks, well, I’ve been going through one since September last year.  I’ve managed to take little in the way of a picture that I would regard as a ‘wall hanger’, of course the weather hasn’t helped, but I just don’t seem to be in the right place at the right time.

So far this year, one of my favourites subjects to photograph, Kingfishers, are nowhere to be seen and so far have not seemed returned from their winter hunting grounds so I can only think the harsh winter has taken their toll on them.  Other animals I like to photograph, Foxes and Deer, I have only managed glimpses of.  This weekend, I took an extra day off on Friday so that I could re-visit Cresswell in the hope to photograph Barn Owls.  The weather forecast was ok, cloudy at first but improving greatly as the day went on – it pored with rain when I got there and with winds of around 40 km per hour, it wasn’t exactly ideal weather for man nor beast and so unsurprisingly, didn’t see any owls…actually, I didn’t see much of anything.  About the only excitement of the whole morning was a Swan taking off and a Heron being chased by a gull.




After a while, I decided to wrap up and brave the elements and make the most of the scenic Northumberland coastline, so armed with my Canon 1d Mk IIn and 17-40mm lens, both being weather sealed, I ventured out.  Making the most of the sand dunes contours to reduce the worst of the wind I was able to take a few  landscapes though struggled to keep the camera still with the strong wind.


Looking along the sand dunes that make ideal hunting ground for owls and kestrels.



Mini ‘sand storm’

Venturing out on Saturday, proved equally fruitless, hoping to see Little Owls and Short Eared Owls at opposite ends of Tyneside, but, although it was mostly sunny, it was again extremely windy and never even took my camera out of its bag.

Saturday 20 March 2010

Wet, wet, wet…


 …and I’m not talking 1980’s pop group.  They say that the British weather is three months of winter and nine months of bad weather, well, today was no exception.  When I got up, it was a down-poor of biblical proportions – not quite the ‘light’ rain forecasted, so I decided to still go out but take shelter in one of the local hides for the morning, though when I arrived I was starting to think even the local wildlife wasn’t stupid enough to be out in this weather.

After ten minutes or so a few signs of life appeared, a Moorhen, a Pheasant and a Grey Squirrel.  This particular hide at Clara Vale, is also well known for Kingfisher appearances, though I tend to be unlucky when it comes to see them here and today, this seemed likely to continue as no sign has been seen of them since the beginning of the year.  I did think I may have got lucky as the heavy rain would have caused the nearby River Tyne to be too difficult for the Kingfisher to feed at, which is where they might otherwise be.


After a cold 30 minutes, I was starting to doubt the wisdom of my decision to get up at the early hours on my precious Saturday off.  One of the reasons I do such a crazy thing is that more and more I feel the need to get out and away from it all after a week in a stressful job full of conflict.

I find the peace and solitude of being out in the countryside or at least somewhere reasonably wild, therapeutic, not to mention the exercise gained from spending the day wandering around with half a ton of camera equipment on my back!  It’s also a chance to use your senses that you tend to forget during a normal week – hearing, smell and sight. 

I suppose it’s some primeval tuning into nature.  There’s also something very honest about nature – what you see is what you get.


Pheasant scurrying between shelter


After about an hour the deluge turned into the ‘light’ rain originally forecast and life started to appear.   A number of Pheasants, a few more Squirrels and some songbirds.


The tail makes a good umbrella


Having a wash and prune


Male Pheasant


Female Pheasant


TBP_3311One of my favourite songbirds, the Robin,this one went from one location to the next, singing, presumably staking its territory.  Robins seem the more ‘friendly’ and least timid of the songbirds, especially during winter where I have managed to have them feeding out of my hand, also as a child helping out in the garden, they would often be right up around you as you dug the ground up.

Because of the very poor light, I was unable to get very good photographs of the other smaller birds which wouldn’t stand still for very long.  As it was I was working mostly at 1600 ISO.

After three hours, I had hoped for sightings of the other wildlife known to appear here such as Heron, Rabbits, Stoats, Sparrowhawk and Fox such as the one below which completely took me by surprised when it turned up a couple of years ago and was one of the rare times I wish I had a zoom lens as I was too close to it.


Soon the rain became heavy again and wildlife started to disappear so decided to call it a day.  Hopefully, next weekend will finally bring some decent weather…yea, right!


One for the road

Sunday 14 March 2010

A Weekend of Mixed Fortunes

With the weather on Saturday, at least forecast to be dry with some long overdue sunshine, I decided to head to Cresswell on the Northumberland coast in the hope of photographing owls, in particular, Barn owls which are often sited there.  This part of the coast has beautiful stretches of beaches with sand dunes which also helps makes it a popular hunting ground for the owls and Kestrels.


Northumberland Coast at Cresswell

I reached Cresswell late morning with the plan to spend the day going to various locations, but first wanted to visit one of the hides overlooking a large pond.  In the hide was another photographer who had already been there since seven in the morning in the hope of seeing the normally nocturnal Barn owl and had been coming there on a number of occasions that week, seeing them on each time, so it was looking promising for me.

Sure enough, within twenty minutes, in the distance a white shape appeared, flying backwards and forwards and occasionally diving down and perching on distant posts.  All too quickly, the owl disappeared up towards the farm at which point the now two other photographers, rushed out to the back of the hide in the hope of catching a view of it out in the open but I chose to stay inside.


The best of the bunch

I continued to train my camera and lens on the location I hoped the owl would return to when out of the corner of my eye, right outside the front of the hide the owl flew by and made its way back to where it was originally hunting, giving me only the chance of taking a photograph…of its backend.  It landed on a distant pole then flew further away and continued for another five minutes hunting before disappearing again.


Only the rear end!


Just the back end again!

After the commotion had died down, the photographer who had been camped inside the hide since dawn, said that the owl usually went back to its roost after a successful hunt and then returned a couple hours later and also that it would often land on one of the poles right outside the hide, so I decided to wait for this rare opportunity.  And wait I did as two hours later, nothing.  Still nothing four hours later.  By five hours later, with the sun going down, I thought it must make a reappearance and in the orange light of late afternoon, I thought what a shot I would get now, especially if it came in close, but still no show.  Eventually, with the light fading fast and time running out for me, I reluctantly left, though even if I couldn’t have took another photo because of the poor light, it would have been worth just seeing this lovely owl again, but go I had too.


Snow capped hills in the distance



Although happy that I had seen a Barn owl in the wild for the first time on Saturday, I was left, from a photographic point of view, disappointed.  One of the photographers I was speaking to in the hide said about how some people were just lucky when it came to being at the right place at the right time.  I seem to require a lot more work when it comes to seeing wildlife.  With this in mind and the usual unpredictable weather and a forecast that seemed to be hedging its bets as to whether it was going to be nice or not, I hummed and hared about if I was going to go to my planned trip to the coast to photograph waders.

With the weather looking good but forecast bad, I decided to kit up and go, knowing I only had a short time to catch the tide coming in – the best time to see waders.  I arrived at my favourite patch of beach to find it still empty and some Sanderlings there.  I had just settled down when a family complete with dog came along the beach.  I had deliberately placed myself at the far end of this particular section of the beach, knowing there was a dead end past me, so if someone saw that I was at the end photographing they would hopefully, go no further, having some five miles stretch of beach to walk along already.

However, they did and their dog scared all the waders away and they then chose to stand right in front of me – doing nothing but standing there while their dog ran around, including around me.  After ten minutes I decided to go, packed up my gear and started to head off – so then did they, so I went back in the hope it wasn’t too late to catch some late arrivals on the high tide, settled in again then another family came up and did the same thing.  I decided it was time to find new pastures and climbed up a steep bank to reach the top of the cliffs.  Amazingly, so did they, following me.  With paranoia setting in, I decided to double back along the cliff and saw that ‘my stretch’ of beach was again empty again!

With my not being in the best of moods and thinking of calling it a day, I wandered around in the last hope of seeing something, but there was nothing on this cold, windy day.  About to give up, I came across a small pool of water and seeing some movement on the water I noticed some frogs.  I only had my 500mm lens but thought I would see what I could take.  Surprisingly, I was able to get some quite good close ups and lying down with the lens wide open at f4.5 giving me a shallow depth of field, I was able to take some photographs normally reserved for a close up lens.

Of course, all good things must come to an end, in this case it was in the shape of, of course, a dog who decided to walk around and over me, smudge the front of my lens with its nose and drink out of the pond which, unsurprisingly, made all the frogs disappear.  Paranoia rising again…


Sigma 500mm does ‘Macro’


Watching me watching you


ahem…they’re just good friends, really!


is it just me, or do frogs look funny!

I decided to head for one of the view points that overlook St. Marys wetland, at least it’s difficult for dogs to get to.  Not much happening, some Rabbits in the distance and a pigeon. 


Checking along each of these view points, I noticed four Curlews a short distance from the blind in front of the the wetlands.  Carefully, and quietly, I unpacked my camera and lens at which point, a couple come along and the man shouts ‘zoom lens’ at my connecting my lens to my camera.  This scared two of the Curlews away.  He then proceeds to ask how close can I get with that.   At such a obviously stupid inept question, I refrained from telling him what I thought of him, instead saying, quite close.   After scaring off another of the Curlews they thankfully left.

Finally, with some peace and quite and the sun coming out, I was able to take some photos of this bird finding plenty of juicy morsels.  I actually found it quite difficult taking photographs if it, knowing I had a very narrow depth of field I had to focus on its head which was small and constantly moving.  I also had a converter on the lens which slowed the focus down a bit as well, but was quite pleased with the results.




After some twenty minutes or so photographing this very cooperative Curlew, I headed for home, feeling a bit better than I did at the beginning of my trip.

After another weekend of getting used to the Sigma lens, I have noticed that it tends to attract attention, being quiet large, and it would appear, also attracts stupid questions.  I am also going to need a new bag, as my trusty AW Trekker cannot hold the lens with the camera attached which means I have to keep unpacking and packing it up again.  I’m already used to the weight of it and so far, have not found the lack of IS a problem as I use it in the same way I did with my 400mm + converter – resting it against poles, walls, my bag or using a monopod.  The focusing is fast and with the 1.4 converter, as fast as my 400mm was with it attached.  F4.5 is sharp and so feel happy shooting wide open.  I’m looking forward to the opportunities summer will hopefully bring.

Saturday 6 March 2010

Sigma 500 f4.5

First, I'd like to get a gripe out of the way – the British weather and forecasters.  Last weekend was grey damp and miserable.  Monday morning when I had to go back to work, it’s sunny, as was Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday but today, off work for the weekend – grey, damp and miserable.  On Monday, the 5 day forecast had Saturday as being dry and sunny as it still did on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday raising my hopes for getting out for the weekend but then on Friday they changed their mind and forecast rain!  Only politicians' can get things so badly wrong consistently and get away with it. Gripe over.

One of the reasons I was looking forward to this ‘promised sunshine’ was that at the beginning of the week, I took ownership of a second hand Sigma 500 f4.5 lens and wanted to get out and try it out.  I’d been looking at this lens for a number of years seeing the odd one appear on the market for a bargain price and have done a lot of research on it.  All reviews and information seemed to be saying this was a very good lens, being smaller and lighter than the Canon equivalent but slightly slower and without IS.  The only question marks I had were how good it was wide open and with a converter.

The first thing I noticed about it was how big and heavy it was compared to what I was used to with my Canon 400 5.6.  Clearly, I wasn’t going to be hand holding this much.  It was also too big to fit into my backpack with my camera attached so had to keep them separate.  With it packed away in my bag, it didn’t seem too heavy though I don’t think I would feel quite so confident to go on any of the 5 mile hikes I do with the 400mm.

I had hoped today for optimal weather to test the lens but of course it wasn’t – grey, drizzle and cold, but I was determined to go out and try it out so I decided to go to one of the local hides.  On approaching the hide I saw a Kestrel at the top of the tree, a good opportunity to test the lens.  Unfortunately, by the time I got it out of the bag, attached it to the camera and then put it on my monopod, the Kestrel was off!  On reaching the hide there was only one other person there, someone I’ve seen regularly the year before and we got chatting, which helped pass the time by as there was nothing around.

Eventually, a Heron appeared, finally a chance to test it.  At first I just used it at the bare 500mm, the focusing seemed good on the 1D Mk IIn and I tried some shots wide open and stopped down to f6.3 at 800 and 1600 ISO.  Couldn’t see any differences on the screen and so decided to keep shooting wide open due to the poor light taking advantage of the f4.5.  A Heron was an ideal candidate to test the lens out as they are slow moving, often staying still for minutes on end waiting for small fish, frogs or rodents.


Shot bare at 1/1250 f4.5

As it slowly moved away I switched to using my 1.4 converter.  Most reports online I had read said this caused the camera to ‘hunt’ and was best to manually focus.  Despite the dull light, this was not the case and seemed to be as good as it was on my Canon 400mm.  It wasn’t quite quick enough to keep the Heron in focus when it suddenly took off (below) though.


Fortunately, it only flew back to where it had started then continued looking for food and so I was able to continue to try variations of apertures.



At one point, it remained motionless and so I thought I would take the opportunity to take a number of photographs  of it at different f stops to see if there was any differences.  The image right was taken at f4.5 at 1/250.  When I got home and compared the different variations I could tell little between the wide open shot and the one stopped down to f7 other than the depth of field, so far this seems a very good and sharp lens.  I also tried some shots without the converter and again I could find little difference amazingly. 

So far this lens was turning out to be better than I was expecting. 





Canon 1DmkIIn with Sigma 500 f4.5 + converter

After a while the Heron flew away and soon it became quite and lifeless again until I noticed a small silhouette at the top of a tree which looking through my binoculars could see it was a Kestrel.  First impressions were that there was no point attempting to photograph it as it was too far away and with the bland grey sky it would just look like a black blob.  However, I stuck the converter on and compensated the exposure by +2 stops and took some images and was fortunately to take some just when it took off and briefly hovered. 


Sigma 500 f4.5 + converter at f4.5  1/800

Although these Kestrel images aren't great, they’re not bad considering the circumstances and something I previously couldn’t have achieved.  They are not completely sharp due to the relatively slow shutter speed/long focal length combination and very heavy crop.


Sigma 500 f4.5 + converter at f4.5  1/1000


I finished off the day with a few of the remaining wildlife – Mallards and Coots, though the light seemed to be getting worse.


So far so good.  I didn’t test the lens as I would have liked to – a big question mark is how it will handle on my monopod when out in the field instead of a hide.  It’s unlikely I’ll be using it with a tripod as the one I have is really not ideal for a lens this heavy, besides I like to travel ‘light’.

The one thing I did notice about the images from this lens though it may be too early to tell, but they seem to be a bit ‘warm’ in colour, almost film like.  I can’t quite make my mind up about how I feel about this effect though it can easily be changed in processing.  All I need now is some decent weather…long range forecast for next weekend? Rain!