Posted tagged ‘technique’

PHOTOGRAPHING A BELTED KINGFISHER: A New Technology in Bird Photography

March 12, 2014

FINAL BELTED KINGFISHER

With a flurry of dry rattling calls, two Belted Kingfishers appeared to be battling over the shore of our little lake on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, flying back and forth, back and forth, chasing one another. This goes on late every autumn; I assumed it was a territorial battle, but perhaps it is a mating ritual. Ever since I observed this behavior, I’ve wanted to photograph these fascinating birds. Actually, I’ve enjoyed seeing them since first watching kingfishers from my family’s cabin along the Muskegon River in Michigan.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, Male

Belted Kingfishers mostly eat fish, as the name implies. An individual can sit on a high perch, glaring at the water surface below, looking for a fish. If it sees a small fish below, if will instantly leave the perch, fold its wings, and dive head-first into the water with just a small splash. This is often a successful fishing technique. Alternatively, the kingfisher can hover above the water, then dive from the hovering spot. I think they can do their rattling call while diving, so I can only assume the fish can’t hear it or that it petrifies the prey like rebel yells or bagpipes were purported to scare enemy soldiers.

Kingfishers nest in burrows dug into high banks along rivers, lakes, or the ocean. I have seen a couple of nest holes that I believe were made by kingfishers here in the Puget Sound region, but I’ve never photographed a kingfisher near its nesting hole. After exiting the nest, the parents stay with the kids and teach them to fish. A parent can teach a youngster to fish by dropping dead fish onto the water surface; apparently kingfishers know a birdy variant of the old proverb give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, Male

Every autumn and winter the kingfishers come to Fawn Lake; they are here occasionally year-round, but I’ve learned to expect them especially during the November through January period. Their appearance has been reliable enough that several years ago I set up a curving branch attached to our dock so that the kingfishers would have a place to perch. More to the point: I would have a place to potentially photograph them.

Time went by, and a couple of times each year I would notice that a kingfisher was indeed using my branch, but it happened so rarely that I could not commit the time to working in a blind down on the lakeshore. It might have been weeks and weeks of waiting; I’m a patient man, but not THAT patient.

Other birds also used the perch. I’ve had Wood Ducks, Violet-green Swallows, a Great Blue Heron, and a Bald Eagle perched there, but again not long enough or frequently enough that I could justify the time of sitting in a blind.

In the last few months, things changed. Starting in December, a male kingfisher came and sat on the perch almost every morning. It became a ritual for me each morning, as soon as it got light enough to see down to the lake, to check if the kingfisher was sitting there, and it often was.

The first couple of weeks of perching were rainy, then we had a long, dry stretch that gave me a chance to check out some new technology in the form of a CamRanger. This little electronic device attaches to the camera’s USB port and sets up a wifi network. When I set my Canon camera on “Live View,” I can view what the camera sees right on the screen of my Mac laptop.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleThe Belted Kingfisher has a thin head from the front view, shaped almost like a hatchet to enable it to cleanly cleave the water surface. From the front, the head looks disproportionately small for the body.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleFrom the side view, the head appears unusually large in proportion to the body

The CamRanger is not just a dumb box transmitting an image; the CamRanger software also allows me to control several important aspects of the camera. I can focus remotely, as well as change the exposure and ISO, so it is almost as good as being in a blind–though not quite, since I don’t have a motorized tripod head that would enable me to remotely change the composition. The best quality motorized tripod head would cost about $9,000, so I think I’ll hold off on that purchase.

Early one morning, after I had tested the technology, I set up a tripod and carefully composed the view through a long telephoto lens. I tested the CamRanger and found that it was working, then waited. Within a few minutes, the kingfisher showed up and I was able to photograph it remotely using my computer mouse as a shutter release. The first images were stunning!

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleOne of the first photographs I took using the CamRanger

Each day, for the next couple of weeks, I dutifully set up the camera and CamRanger, but with less success than I had the first day. I found that the camera battery only lasted about two hours when working in the Live View mode. Worse, the CamRanger would shut off frequently, especially when the weather was foggy (if it was crystal clear, the unit was more likely to stay on). When this happened, I could reboot the software remotely, so it wasn’t a big problem. I also found that the location of the laptop was important. I tried to use the laptop from the comfort of a leather sofa in the living room, but the signal wasn’t strong enough. I found that I had to go downstairs to my daylight basement, and there it worked far better if I had the laptop elevated, sitting right in the doorway, with the glass door open. It required frequent attention, and keeping the door open. I was prepared that as soon as I saw a kingfisher from inside the house, I would run downstairs to try and take a photograph.

One day, after I had set up, I went downstairs to check on the computer after the door had been open for a while. While I was looking out and down to the lake, a black-and-white mammal ran between my legs and out the open door. It had come in while I was upstairs. We have no pets, and I hope beyond hope that it was a cat rather than a skunk!

Persistence eventually paid off, and one morning almost immediately after I set up, the kingfisher appeared. I ran down the stairs and saw the image on my computer screen. I proceeded to take over 60 photographs as it modelled for the camera, turning its head this way and that, sometimes looking up, other times looking down into the lake. It was magical.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleThe end of a yawn with its bill closing

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleTiny water drops spraying out in an arc when the kingfisher instantly turns its head

Those were the last pictures I got this year, as the kingfisher has apparently moved on. Twice, during the period when I was watching, but not photographing, it came to the branch with a small fish. Each time, it perched for perhaps five minutes with the fish in its bill, perhaps waiting for the fish to die before downing it. I didn’t capture that behavior; perhaps next winter I’ll have another chance.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, Male

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

If your are interested in remote photography using the technology described here, go to CamRanger.

OLYMPIC PENINSULA: The Magic of Winter Nights

January 14, 2011

Snow falling on cedars at my Olympic Peninsula home

Huge snowflakes drift down from the inky sky, as if in a hazy dream, deep in the ocean at night, in a cloud of tiny, luminescent jellyfish. So much snow, an inch an hour, with school closures likely tomorrow. The snow reminds me of driving through an upstate New York blizzard on the way home from a New Year’s Eve party years ago, with snow so thick that I had to hold open the car door while driving to see the edge of the road. That night, a honking big upstate snow plow was in the ditch; we stopped our little Chevy to offer help, but he had a two-way radio.  Somehow we made it home, and the next morning I used our huge snowblower to clear the driveway and give my face a frosty beard.

A stairway into an enchanted evening

The place we live now–near sea level in the Puget Sound region of Washington State–doesn’t get much snow. Our winters are generally long, dark, and rainy. But once in a while we get a snowstorm, as was the case this week, when we got about six inches of heavy snow in an evening. It was a classic snowfall, with wondrous trillions of flakes falling fast and thick. Just the night to try out my favorite new photography technique on snow around my home.

Snowflakes illuminated by electronic flash on the camera; with a bit of orange light contributed by a high-pressure sodium streetlight

This technique is simple, and involves using an electronic flash on the camera.  I used a tripod and a high ISO and a powerful flash, and incorporated various street lights around the house to give a bit of color to some of the scenes.  These photographs are the result, and I think they show the everyday scenes around my house in a magical new way.  One of the aspects of photography that I have always loved is its ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.

An old bicycle in front of a massive cedar in my garden

Snow falling on a Western Red Cedar

Snowfall along the road near my home

The heavy, wet snow clings to every branch of the maples and alders

The high-pressure sodium light of the streetlamp adds interesting color to the nightscape

Photographing up into the night sky, with countless billions or trillions of snowflakes drifting toward earth

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com.

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

For another view of the landscape at night, go to my weblog:  Yoho National Park at Night.


February 11, 2009: Jogging at 175 Photos Per Hour; Part 1

February 17, 2009

I occasionally jog along the Clear Creek Trail in Silverdale, Washington. Although I am a poor jogger with knee and muscle problems, it has been my primary form of exercise for 35 years and I still enjoy each outing.  Sometimes I take a small digital camera with me and grab some photographs along the way.  This day was special, in that I took 295 photographs along my 4 1/2 mile route, stopping every time a potential photograph grabbed me.

These impressionistic photographs were not created by using filters or Adobe Photoshop tricks.  They all look pretty much as they came from the camera, with just a few tweaks of contrast and brightness and color to make them look a bit better on the internet.  They are experimental, and I intend to experiment with this technique in the future, since it gives such a transformative look to an everyday scene.  I will discuss my technique here in the future, but for now you can just enjoy the view.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

NEW: To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

 

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