Friday, December 30, 2011

Bird Poker Year End Review 2011

Sometime in October of this year, Lee Daniels and myself started playing our little game of one one-upmanship with bird photos. For the first month, Lee and I played our game on the weekends and those that watched got some good entertainment as we trash talked while posting our shots. In early November more people had joined in and we needed a way of keeping track of the posts so on Nov. 15th the #BirdPoker hashtag was born. From there it grew rapidly to the point were 100 posts a day seems to be the norm. The BirdPoker circle now has over 225 people in it and it grows daily. Version 2.0 of the rules is out which gets rid of a couple of rules that are no longer part of the game.

I want to take this time to thank everyone who plays the game and especially those who commented on my photos. As you can imagine I comment on over a 100 posts a day on top of processing photos for my photo business, and work full time. Luckily it's been my off season with work so I have had extra time to spend on the game. 

I am happy to announce that Mia McPherson and Jeff Wendorff have joined in to help with commenting on photos and collecting names for the BirdPoker circle. Mia also helps with deciding on the daily themes. Kjetil Greger Pedersen has volunteered to make us a Google page and run it which will give the game a home and a place to post the daily themes and rules.

Today's theme of Little Brown Jobs (LBJ) has been a big success and will continue overnight and through the daytime tomorrow. Starting New Years Eve the game will change and the theme will be your top 5 photos from 2011.  Post them one at a time as usual and then take the time to comment on other's photos. (Use the hashtag Top5) Remember commenting on other photos is part of the game! January the 2nd the game will go back to normal play.

Thank you for playing BirdPoker and Happy New Years to you and your family.

Phil Armishaw

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Posting to BirdPoker

#BirdPoker Plumage curated by +Phil Armishaw 

Just a reminder to everyone playing #BirdPoker that your first line in every post should look exactly like my first line above. Any changes such as adding a colon or putting text in bold will cause your post to be ignored by the Google+ search engine! This will result in your photo not being seen by many, if at all.

Replace Plumage with the day's theme.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What makes a Bird Photo interesting?

I saw this question asked today and thought this would make a nice hook for a short beginner article about bird photography. The following is a list of what I think are the most important things to try and include in your bird photography.

1) Eye contact... A good photo will have eye contact, be the sharpest part of the bird, and preferably have a "catchlight".

2) Try to have the bird facing or flying toward you. Wait for the bird to turn towards you before shooting if needed. The over the shoulder look is also a very pleasing photo as long as you have eye contact.

3) Avoid shooting at midday and instead use early mornings and late afternoons. The light at noon is harsh and rarely makes for a good photo. 

4) Use the rule of thirds when you crop your photo leaving more room in front of the bird so it has somewhere to walk or fly into.

5) Pay attention to what's behind the bird. Nothing ruins a bird photo quicker than square lines or a man-made object in the background. Even worse is some object growing out of the bird's head. 

6) Shoot the bird at eye level. It might mean getting wet or dirty to get that perfect shot, but it will be worth it when everyone is in awe after you post your photo online.

7) Is your photo telling a story? A shot of a Mallard maybe be OK, but the same photo with her ducklings is much more interesting. A Songbird singing or Eagle with a fish can also make for a great photo. (Showing movement or action in the photo will help make it more interesting. suggested by +Fred Brundick )

8) Depth of Field... Use the longest lens you own for two reasons. First it brings the bird closer to you without it flying away, and secondly it blurs the background and creates depth to the photo. Also use the lowest f stop that your lens will allow and still be sharp. 

9) Horizons... If you can see the horizon in the photo make sure it is level. It's very hard to get it perfect in camera, so it will have to fixed in Photoshop. Even 1 degree off can be very disturbing to the brain even if it isn't noticed by the viewer. There are exceptions of course, but if it is close to being horizontal... make it perfect.

10) Another important point to bird photography is to photograph the whole bird in most cases. A photo can be jarring to those who view it if the legs are clipped when the photo is made. Unless; of course, it is a portrait or a close up of the bird. If the bird is in the water I try to leave room in the frame for the part of the legs that are under water. If the bird is perched I try to leave room for the length of the tail if it is hidden. Added by +Mia McPherson 

Ignore any or all the above rules if you can get a shot of an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. :-) In other words if the photo has such a great story or is a rare bird this trumps every other rule. 

This is just some of the things I believe make for a great photo. You might only get one or two of them in a photo, but sometimes that is enough. If you can cover all of this in a photo you will have a great photo.

Don't be afraid to post a photo online that you think is good. The feedback you will receive will help improve your bird photography. If you are posting to Google+ add the hashtag #PlsCritique to the photo. This is the ONLY time others should critique your shot and the replies you get will help a lot.

My hope is that others will post any points I have missed below in the comments.

Photographing Birds in Flight

I have been asked several times by contacts in the #BirdPoker game to write an article on photographing Birds in Flight (BIF) and to share camera settings and any tricks I have learned. There are lots of BIF photogs with lots more experience, so this will not be for you, but instead be more for beginners, and what works for me.

"Any camera can take great pictures" this is a quote I read often and if your shooting landscapes at f/11 it's true. If you want to shoot BIF then you are going to need better equipment. Any recent DSLR camera will work, but the prosumer or pro bodies have better focusing systems that will yield better results and more keepers. Far more important is the lens and this is where you should spend your money if you want to shoot BIF. There is no way around it... It's not cheap! The minimum focal length needed is 300mm, with 400 and up being the norm. $1500 will get you into a new 300mm f/4 professional lens and when coupled with a 1.4 teleconvertor will produce very good results at 420mm. I use this exact setup so I know it works, but there are other lenses such as the Canon 400mm f/5.6 that work just as good. Both lenses I have mentioned are primes because zooms are not as fast at focusing and your keeper ratio will be lower. The Canon 100-400mm f/5.6 will work, but don't go past 350 or you will lose sharpness. Nikon makes similar lenses as well as other manufactures, but not as much variety as Canon. Moving up from these lenses is the 300mm f/2.8 lens which in my opinion is the best handheld birding lens made. Also moving up is the price tag which for the latest Canon version is over $7000 cdn. Don't be afraid to buy used with pro lenses. I have had very good luck buying used. YMMV

So now you have the equipment and settings are next. Here is my starting setup for every time I go birding... ISO 400, f/8, 1/1600 these settings are referred to as "sunny 16" and are suitable for shooting BIF on a bright day with most birds. I shoot in manual so ISO400, f/8 if you want to shoot in aperture priority. If you want to get good results when shooting white birds in flight, learn how to shoot in manual. Aperture priority and exposure compensation don't work under bright skies with white birds and after trying for two years I switched to manual and rarely use anything else. As light conditions vary you might have to drop your f stop if there isn't enough light, or up the ISO as a last resort. The minimum shutter speed should be over 1/500 to have any hope of keeping the bird sharp, or preferably over 1/1000. Don't be afraid of using very high ISO settings as getting the shot is more important then anything else. Noise will probably be in the background and not the bird and can be fixed later on your computer. Seriously... Don't be afraid of ISO 3200 even. If you have the bird exposed correctly it will have little noise. 

Other settings which are very important are... Change you focus to AI-servo or continuous focus mode. This is a must for moving objects in order to keep the bird in focus during flight. Use center point focus only and If you have a newer high end camera try the center point expansion settings to see what works best for you. I use expansion on for BIF if there is only sky behind the bird, and turn it off when shooting birds in trees. Change the drive to high speed motor drive. You want as many photos as you can get in order to have choice of wing position. I don't care how good you are, you can't time the wing position to get it perfect every time. 

These following settings are optional, but are very helpful... Shoot in RAW is the cheapest way to improve your photos without spending a cent. I haven't used jpg in years and once you learn the power of RAW you won't either. Shooting a BIF against a clear sky is a guessing game for exposure so you need the ability to fine tune everything on the computer later. The other in camera setting I use is "rear button focus" Normally as you push the shutter button down halfway the camera locks focus on the object in the center of your viewfinder. It's simple enough, but has problems with BIF. As an example... A Bird is flying across in front of you and it passes behind an object such as a branch. The focus will adjust to the branch and stay there until you release the shutter. With rear button focus you can release the focus as soon as you see the branch and reapply it after the bird is in the clear again. It is a pain at first to use, but if you stick to using this feature you will learn to love it. Read your manual to find out how to set your camera up for this feature. (Canon is custom function #4 and set it to 3)

Now on to the "how to" section...
The best place to learn is at your local park with a pond or creek that has Gulls and Ducks. They make easy targets and are not afraid of people. DSLR cameras focus by contrast so grey skies are not your friend. (Cameras actually use phase detection for focusing and not contrast, but a grey bird against grey skies still won't focus properly) Pick a nice day and do nothing but practice shooting BIF. Learn the birds habits so you can predict the direction they will take off or land from. Perched birds will deficate before taking flight so use that as a clue for your timing. It won't come easy but if you keep at it you can get some amazing flight shots.

I am sorry for this getting so technical, but there was no way around it. If your still reading this far I hope you got something out of it and try shooting BIF. I would appreciate your comments or questions, so I know if I should continue writing about Bird Photography. Anyone wishing to debate anything I have said in this article please respond as well.

Feel free to share this if you find it of any value.

Bird Poker Rules

BIRD POKER RULES V2.0 #BirdPokerRules

Bird Poker was originally played by the beautiful +Lee Daniels and myself. On weekends Lee would post a photo of a bird and I would try to post the same bird in a better pose or somehow outdo her photo. Over the course of the evening we would post many photos trying to one up each other. A very important part of our game was trash talking and we entertained anyone that was following us with our comments.(so I hope) After playing for several weeks, others joined in the game and it became hard to keep up with everyone's great photos so the hashtag #BirdPoker was born. The trash talking is very limited now to the point of being almost polite (I do miss that part, Lee) and is only done between regular players of the game and not towards new people joining so we don't intimidate anyone.

The Bird must be alive, in the wild, and photographed by you. No zoo photos. No dead Parakeets nailed to the perch (but it's not dead it's only sleeping)

Method of Play...
Anyone can join in the game at any time! There is always someone playing worldwide, 24 hours a day. New themes are posted every day around midnight EST.  Examples of themes we have used are... Raptors, Owls, Woodpeckers, backyard birds, etc. I would suggest watching the game to see how it progresses before joining so you post the right kind of bird. If it is a new game please open low instead of opening with an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (IBW) as that would be a very short game. The idea is to slowly raise the quality of play keeping everyone in for as long as possible. As the game plays on some people will drop out due to having no photos left or having to leave the game for some reason. No winner is ever announced and there are no prizes. Spectators are welcome to watch.

The easiest way to follow BirdPoker is to enter #BirdPoker into the search bar in Google+ or just click #BirdPoker anywhere you see it in a post. Once you figure out what the day's theme is add it to the search bar. This will eliminate a lot of old posts that have been reshared. 
Example... #BirdPoker Shorebirds

I made the new hashtag #BirdPokerRules so we could point newcomers to this page and the rules. Please don't use this hashtag for anything else.

Warning: This game is highly addictive and a totally enjoyable waste of time!