Saturday, 28 October 2017

Shooting with the Canon 80D

Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)
Canon 80D & Tele Vue 60 refractor, 1/1250 sec, ISO 640

I tend to steer clear of technical write-ups on this blog as the Internet is already stuffed with photographers telling you all about what their camera can do rather than what they've actually done with it. However, given that the bulk of the traffic to my Flickr pages this year has been driven by people specifically looking for photos taken with the Canon 80D, I thought I'd share my impressions after several months of shooting with it. Please bear in mind that this is all very subjective and I can only compare the 80D against other Canon DSLRs I've used (namely the 350D, 40D and the 7D Mark I).

Noise-handling is significantly improved over the 7D Mk I. Tastes vary of course (I don't mind a little grain as long it doesn't look too obviously "digital" - and I actually prefer it to the over-aggressive noise reduction that some photographers insist on), but I find the 80D gives exceptionally clean images up to ISO 400, and stays workably clean all the way up to ISO 3200. The image below was taken in very gloomy conditions at ISO 3200, but I was still able to get a good 12x8 print out of it.

Coot Chicks
Canon 80D & Tele Vue 60 refractor, 1/1250 sec, ISO 3200

From ISO 4000 the noise gets progressively more obtrusive, but still manageable (as demonstrated in this shot of a black cat, taken in poor light at ISO 5000 and downscaled to 12x8). Even at the highest ISOs the 80D's large pixel count means that you should be able to get an acceptable 6x4 print provided you don't have to crop too much.

The 80D's default colour setting seems slightly desaturated compared to previous models, but this can be easily fine-tuned in-camera or in post. The "Peacock Butterfly" test certainly produces reds that look closer to nature than the over-saturated reds of older Canon DSLRs.

I use manual focus for most of my wildlife photography so I can't really contribute anything to the 80D vs. 7D Mk II autofocus debate, but on the occasions I've used the touchscreen focus I've found it to be fast, responsive and very intuitive to use. If, like me, you plan to use your camera for astrophotography now and then, you might consider the 80D's articulated touchscreen to be a more valuable feature than the 7D Mark II's advanced tracking.

Birds-in-flight are always going to be a challenge using manual focus, but so far I've found that my hit-rate is better than with any previous Canon DSLR. Would autofocus have successfully tracked this tern or would it have zeroed in on the coots in the background?

Tern (with fish)
Canon 80D & Tele Vue 60 refractor, 1/1600 sec, ISO 400

Much has been made of the 80D's improved dynamic range at lower ISOs, and you'll find plenty of examples online where photos have been deliberately underexposed by an extreme number of stops and then fixed in Lightroom/Photoshop to demonstrate the camera's capacity for shadow recovery. In real-world terms you'd have to be doing something drastically wrong to underexpose a photo by that much without realising (and the metering is almost always spot-on - more so than any other camera I've used), but the improved DR does give you scope to be more adventurous in your post-processing, especially when trying to emphasise a particular mood. See this black-and-white shot of Whitby Abbey below for an example (move your cursor across the image to toggle the before-and-after):

Canon 80D + EF50mm f/1.8; 1/250 sec, f/8.0, ISO 125

I'm struggling to think of anything I don't like about the 80D: I miss the mini-thumbstick from the 40D and the 7D, but the touchscreen makes up for this. Overall the Canon 80D is a user-friendly and feature-packed camera (including settings for time-lapse, multi-exposure, minimum shutter speed, flicker detection, and so on) that does everything I would want from a DSLR.


See also:
More of my photos taken with the Canon 80D


Monday, 8 May 2017

Answer: "It's a Tele Vue."

Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus)

The question being, typically: "What's that on the end of your camera?"

As the name of this blog suggests, I do most of my photography with a telescope - a Tele Vue-60 refractor to be precise. What it lacks in autofocus and aperture control it more than makes up for in sharpness and colour correction. It's compact and portable and it doesn't need to be stopped down to hit the sharpness sweet spot. Recently Tele Vue embraced the world of social media and - as part of their ongoing 40th anniversary celebration - they asked if they could feature me on their new blog, in particular why I chose the TV60 and why I've stuck with it over the years. You can read the resulting post here:

http://televue.com/notamnomen/2017/05/02/tele-vue-is-for-the-birds/#.WRC_XNQrL4Y

Three scopes in one: astro-scope, spotting scope and telephoto lens

Astronomers of course need no introduction to Tele Vue, but for those who don't know, they're a Chester, New York-based company founded in 1977 by Al Nagler. Prior to that Al designed lunar landing simulators for the Apollo missions, using his knowledge of optics to create realistic wide-field vistas to aid the astronauts' training.

Tele Vue started out making lenses for large projection-screen televisions, but they've since become renowned for their high-quality eyepieces and telescopes. If you ever get the chance to look through one of Tele Vue's wide-field eyepieces, I highly recommend it. They call it the "spacewalk" experience and with good reason: if, like me, you started out in astronomy squinting through a cheap and cheerful 0.965" eyepiece, the difference is startling. When looking through a Nagler it's as if the eyepiece "gets out of the way", leaving you immersed in the stars (or suspended above the moon if lunar observing is your thing). And if the 82-degree apparent field-of-view of a Nagler isn't enough for you, they also do an Ethos range, which goes up to a whopping 100 degrees.

In the interests of fairness and transparency I should point out that:

a) Other telescopes and eyepieces are available
b) I was not offered any incentive by Tele Vue (financial or otherwise) to contribute to their blog or write this post. I'm just a proud TV-60 owner and I wouldn't dream of parting with it.

See also:
Tele Vue home page
My TV-60 photos on Flickr

Sunday, 8 January 2017

A few thoughts on Google's Nik Collection

Back in March, Google made the entire Nik Collection photo-editing suite available as a free download. Despite my initial scepticism (and wariness of filters that claim to replicate the "look" of film), I have to admit - now that I've been using it for a few months - it is actually really good and serves as a helpful complement to Photoshop. The Control Point technology is particularly useful for carrying out localised enhancements, saving a lot of time compared to manually creating masks.

Selective sharpening using colour range masking

Of course, no amount of software wizardry can turn a bad photo into a good photo, but with a little care you can get some interesting results, as shown below. (Note: my photo-editing steps are usually a lot more subtle than this. I provide these photos as examples because it's easier to see the difference.)

Move your mouse across the images to see them as they appeared before processing. Most of these results were achieved using Color Efex Pro, but the first image (the helicopter over the house) was enhanced using Silver Efex Pro to create a High Dynamic black-and-white luminosity layer.

Helicopter at North Foreland, April 2016 

Stodmarsh Hobby, May 2016

Bright Wake on a Dark Sea, November 2016

Common Tern, May 2016

Stodmarsh NNR, June 2016

The complete Google Nik Collection suite is available at:
https://www.google.com/nikcollection/
It works best as a Photoshop plugin (under the Filter menu), but you can also run each application as a standalone program if you create short-cuts to the individual .exe files.


Saturday, 10 December 2016

Birds of Ramsgate Harbour

Given that one of the attractions of going out with the camera is to escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, a busy harbour wouldn't normally be my first choice of destination. However, a visit to Ramsgate during the winter months may occasionally provide close-up views of certain sea-bird species which, while not being particularly rare, are more usually seen as distant specks flying above the waves.

Afloat 

This Red-throated Diver, photographed in November 2014, visited Ramsgate at a time when the harbour was getting a bit of a reputation for being a Diver graveyard. It wasn't feeding and the only time I saw it do anything other than float listlessly was when it was being harassed by a seal.

Great Northern Diver (Gavia immer) 

The R-TD eventually disappeared (almost certainly perished), but this Great Northern Diver, which arrived at Ramsgate the following winter, was in a much healthier condition. During its long residence it demonstrated that the harbour is home to a surprising variety of fish and crabs (at least, it was until the Diver ate them).

Eider (Somateria mollissima) 

This female Eider (a sturdy sea-duck usually seen bobbing up and down a long way offshore) visited the harbour in January 2016. It paddled in, spent about half an hour looking around, diving, and flapping its wings, and then it paddled out again. Fortunately I happened to be in the right place at the right time (for once).

Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) 

Although you can't see it from this angle, this Shag, photographed in November 2016, is sporting a blue colour ring (letters AUR). As reported by Scott Haughie, it was ringed on Staple Island up in the Farnes in June and made its way south to Ramsgate (other sightings from the scheme have been in Holland).

Guillemot (Uria aalge)

The Collins Guide says of auks: "Most commonly seen at coasts during and after gales", and so it proved with this little Guillemot, which took shelter in the harbour after Storm Angus had swept through the Channel.

Sea-going species aren't the only birds that make Ramsgate their home during winter. If you're lucky you may spot one of the local kingfishers, as documented by Keith Ross.

See also:
More of my photos from Ramsgate Harbour (Flickr)
Keith Ross's Video Channel (YouTube)

Friday, 17 June 2016

Birds of East Kent: Peregrine Falcon

Latest in an occasional series of posts discussing the different birds that can be found in East Kent.

Beady Eye

The peregrine makes its presence felt long before you see it: a dead pigeon lies on its back on a windswept beach, its wings spread and its breastbone stripped of meat; a golfer notices your camera and calls out to tell you that you "just missed a peregrine"; fulmars cackle their disapproval as a crossbow-shaped shadow glides over their nests and across the cliff-face. You walk and you walk until finally you see a hunched, powerful-looking bird poised on an outcrop of flint. On the beach below a man is walking his dog, blissfully unaware of the apex predator right above his head, but when you peer through the lens you see that the peregrine is looking at you, not the dog or its owner. A peregrine sees everything and misses nothing. It spotted you the moment you stepped into its field of view, and now that it knows you're looking at it, the peregrine alone will decide how close you will be allowed to get.


Peregrine Falcon


Thanks to works like J.A. Baker's The Peregrine, the eponymous falcon enjoys a near-mythical status unmatched perhaps by any other British bird. Baker's account (I can't really call it a memoir since the author effectively excises himself from the narrative) condenses a decade's worth of observations into a single year, a structural choice which also has the effect of condensing his patient study of the peregrine into a singularly obsessive quest. Reading it, you're left in little doubt that Baker - short-sighted and afflicted with a rare and rather unpleasant form of arthritis (I speak from experience on the latter) - wishes he were a peregrine himself:

Free! You cannot know what freedom means till you have seen a peregrine loosed into the warm spring sky to roam at will through all the far provinces of light. Along the escarpments of the river air he rose with martial motion. Like a dolphin in green seas, like an otter in the startled water, he poured through deep lagoons of sky up to the high white reefs of cirrus.

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

Like dark chocolate, Baker's dense, synaesthetic prose is probably best savoured in small chunks. And yet, for all the linguistic fireworks on display, the narrative is tinged with a wistful, elegiac tone. Baker had good reason to be pessimistic; at the time he wrote his book the peregrine was in serious decline - its numbers ravaged by persecution and pesticides.

But for once, the story has a happy postscript (albeit one that Baker himself didn't live to see). Peregrine Falcons have enjoyed a spectacular resurgence and you can now see them right across the country, repopulating urban environments as well as their more traditional hunting grounds. If you live near a cathedral or a high chalk cliff, there's a good chance you also live near a peregrine. And when you see one for yourself you'll understand why these majestic birds inspire such reverential prose.

See also:
More of my Peregrine photos on Flickr
Keith Ross's YouTube channel (includes a series of short films on the Ramsgate Peregrines)
Peregrine Falcon (RSPB)
Peregrine Falcon (Birdforum)
Peregrine Falcon (Birdguides)

Friday, 8 April 2016

Oare Marshes

Grey Heron in Flight

Alternative Title: A long overdue write-up of a long overdue trip 


The Oare Marshes KWT reserve is a bit further afield than my usual haunts, but I fancied a change of scene and so I took advantage of a warm March day to pay my first visit. The walk from Faversham station is actually quite pleasant if you don't mind a bit of a trek, but it seems a lot of the visiting photographers/birders park along the road that runs through the middle of the reserve, get the required photos/ticks, and then drive off to the next location - sometimes without even leaving their cars! Such is the accelerated and competitive nature of modern life, but you'll forgive me if I prefer a more sedate approach.

Pintail (Anas acuta)

The reserve is quite contained; you can walk all the way around it a lot quicker than, say, the extended Grove Ferry/Stodmarsh circuit. I must have walked round it one-and-a-half times while I was there - perhaps more if you factor in the distance I covered trailing after the mixed flock of Goldfinches and Lesser Redpolls:

Lesser Redpolls (Carduelis cabaret)

For those who wish to give their feet a rest, there are three hides on the reserve. On the day I visited they were all in pretty good condition. They also happened to be completely empty, which is not entirely surprising given that a) there were no birds anywhere near them, and b) they were facing directly into the wind - which made for an eye-watering experience. Fortunately most of the highlight species could be seen quite easily from the viewing points along the road, including this uncharacteristically obliging Water Rail:

Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus)

I don't generally keep lists, but on this occasion I jotted down all the birds I'd seen and heard (written that same evening, from memory). I counted forty-one different species, which were - for those who are interested in such things - as follows: Avocet, Bearded Tit, Blackbird, Black-headed Gull, Black-tailed Godwit, Blue Tit, Canada Goose, Carrion Crow, Cetti's Warbler, Coot, Curlew, Dunnock, Goldfinch, Green Woodpecker, Grey Heron, Greylag Goose, Herring Gull, Lesser Redpoll, Little Egret, Little Grebe, Magpie, Mallard, Marsh Harrier, Meadow Pipit, Moorhen, Mute Swan, Oystercatcher, Peregrine Falcon, Pintail, Redshank, Reed Bunting, Robin, Shelduck, Shoveler, Skylark, Snipe, Starling, Teal, Tufted Duck, Water Rail, and Wood Pigeon.

Not bad for a first visit, though having read subsequent reports it's possible that I may have walked past a Little Owl without spotting it. Sounds like a good excuse for a return trip...


See also:
More of my photos from Oare Marshes
Oare Marshes (Kent Wildlife Trust)
Oare Marshes Latest Sightings (KOS)

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Birds of East Kent: Curlew

Latest in an occasional series of posts discussing the different birds that can be found in East Kent and how easy (or not) it is to get a decent picture of them.

Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Curlews in April
Hang their harps over the misty valleys

A wobbling water-call
A wet-footed god of the horizons

Ted Hughes, "Curlews", Remains of Elmet (1979)

What's your favourite bird song? Probably the first birds that spring to mind are Robins or Skylarks (or even a Nightingale if you've been lucky enough to hear one), but for me there are few sounds more evocative in English nature than the fluting call of a Curlew echoing over a mudflat or across a fog-shrouded beach. It has something of a plaintive quality to it, which is perhaps appropriate as the Curlew is now sadly on the UK's Red List due to severe declines in its breeding population.

In the winter at least there are still plenty to see around the coast as the numbers are bolstered by European visitors. In my little corner of the country, they're a common sight at low tide, probing for food with their unmistakable long bills on the seaweed-covered rocks. At high tide you'll often find them sheltering in one of the communal roosts between Foreness and Kingsgate Bay, protected by the cliffs on one side and the sea on the other. You may also spot them on the fields near the North Foreland lighthouse, or flying in loose flocks close to the shore:

Flight of the Curlews

With regards to photography they don't tolerate people as much as the other local seaside birds like Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers, but as they're Britain's largest wader you don't need to be that close to get a good shot. Best advice is to approach very slowly, keep low if possible, and always be ready for that dramatic take-off:

Curlew (Numenius arquata)

And of course, that amazing song.


See also:
More of my Curlew photos on Flickr
Curlew (RSPB)
Curlew (Birdforum)
Curlew (Birdguides)