22 Jun 2009 Podcast 196 : Good Things Come To Those Who Wait
There’s no doubt, that patience is a virtue. I can be very impatient with things that I can control. But, once I decide that I “need” a piece of gear for example, as long as I can budget for it, there’s little that can stop me from buying it. I’ve been burned with this a number of times too. Let me recall a story from some 7 years ago, which was when I found myself teetering at the top of a long slippery slope that I feel as though I’m actually still slipping down at break-neck speed.
Having shot with a film SLR for over ten years, I’d bought a Canon PowerShot S10 point and shoot in 2000. From the moment I bought it, I’d used the compact digital for most of my photography, though I still took the film camera with a bunch of FujiChrome Velvia slide film, when I was going to be shooting something special. I found the immediacy of digital incredibly refreshing, but was not all that thrilled with the quality of the images. Vibrant colors were a mess, there was way too much depth of field for my liking, so I figured that I’d take a look to see if there was now such a thing as a digital SLR, so that I could use some of my old EF lenses and get more control over the process. This was early 2002, and I found that Canon had a revolutionary camera called the EOS D30 on the market. At 3 megapixels it was a whole 1 megapixel more than my 2 megapixel PowerShot S10. I had to have it!
I almost ran to the camera store in Shinjuku, and once I found that there was a ¥20,000 (about $200) rebate on the D30 if you bought it before the end of the month, I’d parted with my ¥380,000 (about $3,800) before you could say “digitalitis”. I failed to read the tell-tale signs of the rebate to get rid of stock that would soon be old. Until that point, to me a camera had been something that served a purpose, and once bought, could be used for years until it basically wore out. I’d had my previous film Canon SLR body for ten years for heaven’s sake! Still, just two weeks after I took my baby D30 home, the D60 was announced. Not only did it have double the pixels, it was the same price as my D30! I was devastated! It was only after this that I checked and found out that the D30 had been out for two years at this point. My impatience and lack of understanding the market had thrown me a left hook that I couldn’t duck away from. I actually managed to resist the D60. I didn’t upgrade until the 10D was released. Then the 20D! Then the again legendary 5D! Of course then there’s the 1Ds Mark III and the 5D Mark II, but who’s counting!?
I had no way of knowing at the time by the way, that being able to view images at 100% would show me just how crap my original EF lenses were. I’d jumped of the platform almost with my eyes closed, and was at the part of the slippery slope where the angle is so steep, you’re literally free falling, with your behind just skimming along the surface, with barely no friction at all. I replaced all of my in the first year, mostly for L glass, and this was before I’d signed a pact with my wife to allow me to spend all of my photography income on photography. As the pixels increased, they showed me flaws in the non-L glass that I’d picked up, and prompted me replace those still relatively new lenses with L glass as well. Now some 7 years later I have just about everything I “need”, note the quotes, and I’m just rolling down the slope at a steady pace now. There’s no end to the slope in sight, but I’m going slow enough now that the wind in my ears has died down, and I can faintly hear the Canon board members, that I now realize had pushed me off the slippery slope in the first place. They were laughing, as they made their way to the bank.
Anyway, enough talk about my impatience when it comes to buying gear. Let’s talk about what prompted me to do an episode on this the topic of “Good things coming to those who wait”. The wildlife photographer in me has long admired the beauty of the pretty common turtle dove. This is in my opinion a greatly underrated bird. Sure, it’s only a little bit prettier than a common pigeon, but I like them. I like them so much that until now, whenever I’ve seen them on plain grey gravel, or brown dusty tracks, I’ve only admired them with my camera down. I’ve never even thought about photographing them in those conditions, because the shot would be as boring as hell. I knew that one day I would come across some of these birds that were in better surroundings, and when I did, I’d be able to do them justice.
Well, literally years after I decided that I wasn’t going to shoot a dull, drab shot of a turtle dove, although I never went out of my way to make a better image, I came across about six of these lovely birds in a patch of lush green grass that had gone to seed, and there was violet and yellow wild flowers intermingled in the grass. The mid afternoon light was shining through the trees, a little harsh, but still good light, and I realized that this was it. I had to make something out of this opportunity. I opened up my tripod legs, without extending them, as I wanted to be very low to the ground — as close as I could get to eye level of the doves without getting too much of the grass in the way. I stuck the 300mm F2.8 lens on the tripod, attached the 1.4X Extender between the lens and the body, and I started to shoot. I uploaded six images from this series, and the first one is image number 2269 (below).
You can see how low I am to the ground in these shots, and in many I actually have eye contact with the turtle doves. The grass is obscuring the bird’s body, but I’m making art here, not documenting wildlife for an encyclopedia. Actually, note that in many circumstances it is necessary to get a straight shot with nothing obscuring the animal, but here I just don’t think it was necessary. Remember that I’d been waiting to capture this subject in surroundings that bring out the best in them for years. The heavily filtered light through the trees meant that I had to raise my ISO to 400, to get a shutter speed of 1/400of a second at F4. Autofocus was out of the question too, with the subject moving around very fast, in all that deep grass. I just kept locking in on the grass, and so manually focused for the whole series.
The first shot is a pretty straight pose, but in the next image that I uploaded, number 2270 (below), I caught a little bit of behavior. As I said, in the last shot, we had a bit of eye contact. These doves were well aware that I was there at the edge of their patch of grass, and every so often tilted their heads like this, like a dog trying to figure out what they are looking at. This is shot with exactly the same settings as the last image. We can see the dark shadow of a second bird in the background here too. I think there were six in total, so I just kept focusing on the one in the group that was in the best location and best light.
Next is image number 2272 (right), in which the bird almost fills the frame. Again, I captured some behavior, as we can see a grass seed in the birds open beak. We can also appreciate the beautiful blue markings on the doves neck, and the orange outline, looking almost like fish scales, on the wings. The bright orange ring in the eye is very nice too, and this is of course what I was focusing on the whole time. You don’t get a lot of depth-of-field at 420mm at this shooting distance, so the bird does start to run out of focus at the extremes, but had I stopped down the aperture, I’d have lost that dreamy feel in the bokeh that I love so much. I’d much rather shoot wide open and risk losing missing focus, as I did on a number of these shots from this series, than stopping down for more focus, and loosing that dreamy look.
Finally, probably my favorite from the series is image number 2274 (below). Here I’d gone to a horizontal format, again, trying to get both horizontal and vertical shots whenever possible, got another nice head angle, and both of those beautiful big orange eyes tack sharp. The dove was very close to me for this, still at 420mm, but literally just a couple of meters away. There’s that violet colored wild flower on the left side of the frame, almost mirroring the position of the dove, and some nice longer grasses framing the bird as it looks back towards the camera. Here too, the beak is outside of the depth-of-field, as is most of the birds body, but the eyes, and the birds neck and chest are tack sharp, so this is a winner for me.
A few notes on technique; I was using my Really Right Stuff BH-55 ball-head, so panning around with these turtle doves was more tricky than say if I’d used my Wimberley gimbal head. The great thing about the Really Right Stuff BH-55 though, is that it has both a large main locking knob, to literally lock the ball-head down solid, in any position, and a drag set knob, which you use to set just enough tension to stop your outfit from flopping around. This means that you can still move the camera around to take photos, but enjoy the support of the tripod and ball-head. If you set the tension well, you can actually take your hands away from the camera and lens, and they’ll stay in that position, but you can still grab hold of them and move them if necessary. It’s a wonderful piece of kit.
A quick note on the manual focusing, which is how I focused all of these shots. I always shoot with my left hand cupped under the lens, and this puts my thumb and index finger right on the focus ring of the lens. Most modern lenses have what Canon calls “Full Time Manual Focusing”. What this means is that it doesn’t matter if you have the lens set in Autofocus mode or Manual focus mode, if you to grab and turn the focus ring, the camera stops trying to focus until you let go of the focus ring again. This means that you can focus manually, without flicking the lenses focus switch to manual, and also without the lens trying to focus while you hold the focus ring. This used to happen on many of the old lenses, from Canon at least. Anyway, with that left hand cupped around the lens’ focusing ring, I just had to keep adjusting the focus all the time as I was tracking the turtle dove. They do move around a lot, and have that quick juddery head and neck movement that can make it very difficult to focus on the eyes and head with this shallow a depth-of-field.
One other thing to note here as well is that I have my cameras set up to not focus when I half press the shutter button. This is of course the default action, but you can change the camera using the custom functions so that when you half press the shutter button all it does is meter the scene for exposure checking etc. and does not make the focus mechanism kick in. You then use the focus button on the back of the camera to actually focus using auto-focus. Splitting these two functions has merits and demerits. The merit of course is that it allows you focus with your thumb and then let go, then as you half-press or fully press the shutter button to take your photograph, the autofocus does not kick in, and focus on something that you did not intend it to. This is especially useful if you are recomposing your image after focusing. It’s like having the lens in Manual focusing mode, again, without touching the switch on the lens barrel. I’m mentioning this now, because it’s also useful to use the back-focus button at times like this, because if my shutter button started the auto-focus, if I didn’t have my hand on the focus ring when I half-press, I would start the auto-focus, and it would have started the lens searching, with all the grasses etc. in the scene, that I didn’t want to focus on. That can cost you shots in situations like this.
The down side of course is that when you use this mode, you can release the shutter even without achieving focus, and that means that you can actually forget to focus. I’ve been using this focusing method for about 18 months now after my friend Holly Sisson, from Toronto got me onto this, and I still forget to hit that back focus button with my thumb every once in a while. This never happens with medium to long telephoto lenses, because it’s obvious when you’re out of focus, but when using wide angle lenses when pretty much everything looks sharp through the finder, I do sometimes forget to focus. Luckily this is rare, and I’ve never forgotten to the point where I walk away from the scene without a shot, but it does still happen. Just something to keep your eye on if you try this focusing method.
Before we finish, I should say that by good things come to those who wait, I’m definitely not talking about waiting, and doing nothing. You have to continue to sow seeds. You have to either keep your eye out for subjects that you would like to shoot, if or when the conditions are right. You decide how much effort you put into getting to the right location at the right time. In this case, it was me liking the subject, but deciding not to shoot it in the conditions I’ve seen so far. I wasn’t that worried about visualizing what I could get, and then trying to investigate how I might find them in the conditions that I found them in on this day. They’re pretty photos, but not to the point where I would have really gone out of my way to photograph these turtle doves in these conditions.
You might remember my image of the Red-Crowned Cranes in the mist and frosty trees. This is image number 1704 (above), called Distant Dance. This and indeed that whole series that I shot on that beautiful morning during the 2008 Hokkaido Workshop where presented to me after many days at this location over the years. I’d commuted to this location for five mornings in a row at the end of 2006, and still didn’t get these conditions, despite it being just like this the day before I arrived. Some conditions will require investigation, perseverance, and at the end of the day, a bit of luck often helps too. The point is, you’d rarely come across a scene like this by just sitting around with your thumb up your behind.
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