Backyard Birding – Take Two!

| 17 images

As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, I am currently renting a 300mm supertelephoto lens. Not long ago, only a couple months, I felt I was reaching a brick wall with my bird photography. I was unsure whether it was just me…that I’d somehow reached the limits of my ability, or something else. I knew I could do better than I had been doing, but I wasn’t really sure how much better. After my grueling hike on Friday, was left without any energy and a whole lot of lethargy today. I didn’t want to waste the time I have with this lens rental, so I “set up shop” in my back yard. I’d picked up a couple of lichen covered branches that I thought would make some great perches, set out a wide variety of bird seed (safflower, sunflower, nijer, millet and a few others). I set up my camping chair, and just hung out with the lens. The day actually turned out superbly! It was pretty relaxing, and some birds did show up after a while, presenting me with a whole load of excellent opportunities.

The day started with some doves. Mourning doves, to be exact. These are another frequent visitor to my yard. Unlike many of the song birds, which seem to be brave little birds, doves have a large comfort bubble. At 600mm, I was able to photograph them in detail, with nicely blurred backgrounds, without getting too close that I made them uncomfortable. The soft, blurry backgrounds really help isolate my subjects, making them stand out better than they ever did with my 100-400mm lens (outside of the few cases where I was able to sneak in very close.)

Fluffed Dove : 1/640s @ f/5.6 – ISO 1600

Having used this lens all day, and seeing a marked improvement in fine detail, particularly that elusive feather detail I’ve been chasing after for so long, I feel a little vindicated. I no longer feel that I’ve reached the limits of my capabilities. Instead, I feel as though I could go much, much farther than I have. I think part of my problems have had to do with my lens. The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS is a good lens…but its an old lens design. It was first introduced in 1998, making it 14 years old this year. It lacks over a decade of knowledge Canon has gained in lens design, optics, anti-reflective coating, etc. It is also a zoom lens, which generally require some level of compromise, and it seems to be worst at 400mm. In comparison, the 300mm lens is a complete dream. The images it produces are absolutely phenomenal! Sharpness, detail, color fidelity all blow me away. I think I’ve surprised myself, as after my photos from the last two months…riddled with noise and requiring considerable sharpness improvement with Lightroom…I have a hard time believing these photos are mine!

Munching Crumbs : 600mm – 1/250s @ f/5.6 – ISO 1600

The day started with Chickadees. Well, it actually ended with Chickadees as well…they are kind of ubiquitous. They’ve been here all year…back when I first started bird photography in late winter, through spring, and here at the end of summer and beginning of fall. Chickadees are great birds. Highly photogenic, incredibly cute. They have a whole language of vocalizations…they chatter, chirp, sing, whistle, cry, and coon. They also seem to utterly LOVE safflower seeds. They’ll swoop down, snatch a seed, then proceed to extract the tasty innards while clamping it to a tree branch with their claws. Its rather hilarious watching them eat.

Husking a Safflower Seed : 600mm – 1/125s @ f/5.6 – ISO 800

When they aren’t chowing down seeds, Chickadees are rooting around tree branches for grubs and other tasty morsels. Between safflower seeds and the occasional sunflower seed chip, the Chicks hunted around the branches of my pines, often exhibiting a deft, acrobatic skill at hanging from the sides of branches and even at times upside down! They seem quite adept at pecking grubs from beneath tree bark without damaging the tree itself…there only ever seems to be a small remnant of a hole where they would peck through and nibble out their juicy snack.

Acrobatic : 600mm – 1/400s @ f/6.3 – ISO 1600

After photographing the chickadees at 600mm for a while, I decided to change teleconverters and try out 420mm. I am quite familiar with this focal length, as its what I’ve been shooting at for a solid seven months. I wanted to see how it compares to my lens. Despite being the same focal length, I feel the results with the newer 300mm lens and TC are far superior to any of my previous photographs. Colors are definitely richer, background blur smoother. I like how my subjects become the key center of the photograph.

The major benefit the 300mm f/2.8 lens has over my 400mm lens is aperture…even with a 1.4x TC attached, the aperture is an amazing f/4. That’s a full stop faster than 400 at f/5.6, which is double the amount of light. It also means a considerably larger physical aperture, and my hope was that it would help produce sharp shots with nice, blurry backgrounds. It definitely did. When I was able to get closer to my subjects, the backgrounds at f/4 blurred into a colored cream. Boke was beautiful, soft, smooth…perfectly isolating the subjects I am actually interested in: the birds! The constant movement of a Chickadee often means you can capture funny moments. This one brave little guy kept hopping back and forth on the railing of my deck. I managed to capture a shot of him in mid-hop, simultaneously munching down a sunflower seed chip!

The Hop : 420mm – 1/1600s @ f/4 – ISO 400

The photograph of the day, the one I was really hoping to capture, was a Chickadee framed on one of my lichen-covered branches against the creamy dark green boke of a pine in the background. The lighting was great…a touch harsh, but at such an angle as it enhanced every facet of detail in the Chickadee. Detail was so high I can see a basic reflection of my yard in the Chickadee’s eye.  The moment lasted for less than three seconds, but thanks to the Canon 7D’s 8 frames per second, I managed to capture my money shot:

The Money Shot : 420mm 1/640s @ f/4 – ISO 200

After my grueling trip on Friday, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get out and about and use the lens enough to make the rental worth it. Thanks to the ever-present Chickadees, and the Mourning Doves that frequent my yard, I was able to put the lens to good use. I also feel pretty good about my photography again. Even after I return this lens, I’ve learned some new things that I think I can apply to my own gear. I may not be able to extract as much detail as I could with an $8000 lens, but I feel I can continue to work on my skill. I also managed to take my best bird photos yet today, and I’m pretty pleased about that.

While I don’t think I can do any more hiking for a few days at least, I think I’ll head out to Cherry Creek, to the Cottonwood Creek wetland area, and see if I can photograph some herons and egrets. These larger birds tend to be more skittish subjects, and I’m hoping to learn whether 600mm is enough reach to photograph them the way I want to without encroaching on their comfort bubble and scaring them off. I have a spot very close to the rode I can hobble down to, set up shop, and wait for the birds to come to me. Till tomorrow!