Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The 2000 club

Some of the examples used in this article have not been shot in Malaysia. The object is to show that the dramatic rise in ISO values in recent years is the major contributory factor in the advance of nature photography.............. and is universal.

Most of us rejoiced when the first prosumer digital camera appeared on the market. There were a number of photographers who swore they would never abandon film but their ranks thinned markedly before 3 years elapsed. The instant gratification of viewing digital images and correcting errors during shooting sessions was indeed a major innovation. We did in fact go backwards for a while with some photographic parameters. Obtaining prints from even slightly cropped images from the early digital cameras was problematic especially since slide film could be scanned with very powerful digital scanners. There are three variables to consider when making exposures: aperture (f-stop), speed and media speed ISO value). The number of frames per second is also a consideration for action photography. The lens determines apertures so they have not changed. Let us compare the Canon D30 camera, released in 2000 with the Canon 1DX released in 2012. The D30 megapixel capture was 3.1 compared to 18.1 in the 1DX, roughly 6 times larger, The frames per second was 3 compared with 14, nearly 5 times faster but the maximum ISO capability was 1600 compared to a whopping 204,800 which equates to a 128 fold increase. Film ISO values ranged from 40-100 for most purposes but film could be pushed by one or two stops with altered processing or there was 400 ISO film available for the really adventurous. Quite a bit of visual acceptability was lost with the high ISO film. 

12 years of advance from the Canon D30 (above) to the Canon 1DX

In my opinion the high ISO values claimed by Canon and Nikon are rather extravagant. These values will allow you to capture some sort of image in very adverse conditions but there will be a lot of noise apparent. However you look at it the increase in ISO values  has pushed the boundaries of wildlife photography and especially action photography. With each increase in camera speed it allows us to go into areas that we were denied several years back. Let us examine some of these areas: The following 3 images show two portraits that were obtainable with film and early digital compared with an action shot of a Kingfisher capturing a frog that requires an ISO value of at least 2000 even in excellent light. The latter shot wound simply be impossible with camera and image capture technology 10 or even 5 years ago.

I shoot manually all the time thus having full control over f stop, shutter speed and ISO values. I use spot metering often setting initially on a neutral grey zone near the area where the subject will be.....such as a perch (like the one shown in the image below).

When photographing portraits I always bring the ISO value down, to say 400, but action can happen any time and you must be prepared to ramp up the ISO to that magical 2000. Bee-eater sex scenes are VERY actioned-packed.

Practical considerations

Photographers should ascertain the ISO value that suits their own requirements.

As mentioned above the manufacturers claims are rather inflated and you should experimentally determine what is the maximum ISO value that you can work comfortably with. I have found this value to be ISO 2000, hence the title of the article, going up to 3200 (and even 4000) in certain conditions. I need a certain quality in my images for image banks and for exhibition work. Even at these values I need to “de-noise” the background. For this I use Topaz deNoise as a Photoshop plug-in. Other de-noise products have been seen to be equally as good (Nik, Noise Ninja, Neat Image). 

In the following image in Photoshop I would select the bird and the perch and then do an inverse selection and apply deNoise to the background that is often grainy at ISO values over 1000

Birds on Sticks 
The majority of nature photographers and especially bird photographers wish to record as many species as they encounter. Recording those subjects in open locations have been least affected by innovations in the last 1.5 decades however many species live in jungles or forests and generally in compromised light conditions. In the film days it was standard procedure to fit a flash, with or without an extender, on the camera before going ‘hunting’. Currently I hardly use my flash. To illustrate how values of 2000 plus allow images before not possible I will use a recent example where my intention was to write an article about Australian Bowerbirds. Three species were targeted on my recent trip to the Cairns Hinterland; the Great Bowerbird, the Golden Bowerbird and the vociferous Tooth-billed Bowerbird. Great Bowerbirds mostly build their bowers in relatively open positions but both of the other two species build their bowers in relatively dull rainforests. 

As a preface when shooting birds I prefer to set an f-stop of f8-9 to accommodate the depth of the bird and with all living creatures you need speeds above 1/100th second to avoid the slightest motion blur…..although the faster the speed the better. However in nature photography as in life most things are a compromise.

f8-f9 is used as standard for bird photography to get all of the bird in focus

The Tooth-billed Bowerbird builds a non-conventional bower on the floor of the forest. It clears a patch of ground and then decorates it with selective leaves arranged bottom-side up. The male then sings above the ‘bower’ to bring in receptive females. To record him singing in dark forest recesses I typically had to resort to ISO levels of 4000 with speeds as low as 1/50 and f values around 6.3….both below my preferred values. The background had maximum noise reduction applied.

ISO values of 4000 were necessary to capture images of the Tooth-billed Bowerbird

Golden Bowerbirds are more reclusive than most others in the Bowerbird species list and they are forest dwelling. I recorded the male Golden Bowerbird primping his bower, going about his daily life and bringing flowers to attract his lady. ISO values were set at ISO 3200 with f stops around 7.1 and speeds of 1/80 second….again lower than I would have preferred. I could have set higher ISO values but I wanted to avoid any noise on the main subject. 
NB You cannot use anti-noise software on a detailed main subject unless your desired outcome is something that looks plastic.

The Spotted catbird is a Bowerbird without a bower and is often foraging for food around sunrise. They have preferred feeding stations and these can be staked out to get good portraits. The light is not optimum at this time and ISO values at 1250-2000 had to be set to capture the birds at f8 and 1/125.

Nearby in a forest by a stream a number of little birds chased insects, captured small fish or had a nice cool swim. The Black-faced Monarch was captured at ISO 2000, f5.6 and 1/80th second while the Azure Kingfisher exposure parameters were ISO 2000, f7.1, and 1/60 second….both not quite at optimal settings.

Azure Kingfisher

Black-faced Monarch
Similar conditions were experienced in the local context while photographing a Common Flameback Woodpecker pair nesting. The nest-hole was in shade in broken forest and required a typical exposure combination of ISO 2000, f8 and 1/200 second.

Even landscape shots of forests and stream needs a relatively high ISO Value in compromised light before the sun fully rises. A landscape image of Mossman Gorge, Northern Queensland was captured at ISO 2000, f9, and 1/125 second. It is better to shoot forest scenes in early morning light because patchy sunlight in forest is difficult to expose for and makes a very patchy background

All of the above examples of images would have been nearly impossible to capture in the film days or the early digital era. Flash could have been used in some circumstances but some birds react adversely to flash and the resultant image is usually harsh.

Most behavioural shots incorporate some action so it is best to set an optimal ISO value to capture that key interaction. Although Great Bowerbird males construct their bowers in relatively open locations I often set an ISO value of 2000 in order to capture such behaviour. Three examples are shown of the Great Bowerbird rearranging some of his favourite attractant ‘toys’. A typical setting is ISO 2000, f8 and 1/320 second, which reflects a cloudy morning light but enough speed to freeze action. 

A typical bower of the Great Bowerbird

Another example of behaviour shot in less than ideal light was the display of the male Victoria’s Riflebird. Tree stumps, often within a forest setting, are used by the male to display to females. In this particular case a fern tree stump was in the clear at the edge of a carpark but a patch of forest obscured the morning sun so the main subject was in heavy shade. Value for these shots were ISO 1250-2000, f8 at 1/125.

A further example of the value of 2000 ISO was when shooting a Blue-winged Kookaburra at a nest-hole in a tree. Because of surrounding trees part of the nest surroundings were in shade for most of the day. The shot I sought here was a feeding shot at the nest entrance as flight shots were precluded with the prevailing conditions. A combination of ISO 2000, f7.1 and speed of 1/1600 was chosen. The higher speed was selected to obtain wingspread landing or take-off shots as shown in the second image below.

The most impactful nature images are those showing action. These shots freeze action the human eye cannot visualize, which contributes to their impact. Experience with flight shots shows that you need speeds in excess of 1/2000 sec to freeze wing action. Even then you need the wings either fully up or fully down where they are at their slowest and present the thinnest in-focus zone.

It is best to capture flying birds with wings fully down.........

..........or wings fully up to get them 'frozen' and in focus.

I have spent some time shooting Bee-eaters in action and to achieve the best results you need:
(a) Full early morning sun
(b) ISO 2000
(c) f8
(d) Ideally 1/4000th second
(e) A pleasing smooth background ) I often use a 1.4x extender on my 500mm f4 lens to further blur the background

The following shots exemplify these parameters

Although my selected value of ISO 2000 is somewhat short of the manufacturer's claim it is 20 times faster than film days and 5 times faster than the optimum ISO value of early versions of prosumer digital cameras. Such values produce quality images that can be used for a number of purposes, as illustrated above. Images from dull light conditions and especially action shots have become more possible. The increase in ISO speeds is the biggest advance in digital photography. In the future it will be interesting to see if this advance continues or innovations come from other areas, such as a reduction in size and weight of equipment.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Common Flameback Woodpecker nesting behaviour

 The Common Flameback or Common Goldenback (Dinopium Javanense) is a medium-sized, golden-backed woodpecker with long and solid black irregular lines on the head and neck. Both sexes have black eye-stripes joined to a black rear neck stripe. The male has a red crown and the female a black crown. Each sex has black-scaled underparts and a red rump with a black tail. The bill is smallish and the bird has only three toes. 

The male Common Flameback Woodpecker

Female Common Flameback Woodpecker

The species ranges through Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, China, India, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Locally the natural habitats are subtropical to dry forests, lowland moist forests or tropical mangrove forests.

The male Flameback at the Singapore nest in 2007

I first came across the species in Singapore and one male liked to look at himself in the mirror of our parked car. I photographed one nest in 2006 in broken forest territory near the Mandai Zoo. The woodpeckers were very shy and did not approach the nesting tree if any human was visible. I set the lens on a tripod and aimed it on the nest hole entrance and fired the shutter via a radio release. In my current location in Penang, Malaysia I have come across a small density of the species at Air Hitam Dalam and another mangrove area near Nibong Tebal. Recently a friendly bird photographer in the pointed out an active nest to me at Air Hitam Dalam. I decided to spend some time observing and photographing the nest to add to the knowledge base of the species.

Two female Flamebacks appear to chase a male at nearby Nibong Tebal

The partly or fully dead tree where the nest cavity was located was not in the best location for photography. The entrance was oriented towards the early morning sun. Normally this would be ideal but there were a number of broad leaves from an adjacent tree in close proximity and these cast shadows in and around the hole. Bright overcast light was a more ideal light for photography. Initially I set up my camera at right angles to the entrance hole and as long as the sun did not shine brightly my background and surroundings were acceptable.

Sunrise at Air Hitam Dalam

The female probes for insects

The male inspects a redundant nest hole

I have photographed other local bird species supplying nests and the best action shots occur when adult fly towards the nest with prey in their bill. An example of this is the White-throated Kingfisher flying towards the nest with a small-legged skink in its bill. The Blue-throated Bee-eater likewise carries fresh, often live prey, back to the chicks.

A White-throated Kingfisher carrying live food to the chicks

A Blue-throated Bee-eater carrying a butterfly to the nest

Other behavioral shots around the nest are obtained when the adult, carrying fresh food, interacts with the chicks at the nest entrance, as illustrated by the Olive-backed sunbird and two very enthusiastic chicks. Other woodpecker species such as the diminutive Sunda Woodpecker supplies its young with insects and their pupa, as illustrated. 

Enthusiastic Olive-backed Sunbird chicks compete for an insect

A Sunda Woodpecker delivers an insect pupa to the chicks

The Common Flameback is a regurgitation feeder and the adult mostly goes inside the nest to bring up the food to feed the chicks, therefore it is less spectacular from an action photography viewpoint.

There appears to be only scant information on the nesting habits of this species. I had read the astute observations of Wong Chor Mun from Selangor who observed a nesting in 2007 with some friends.
As the eggs are unseen it was difficult to determine when egg-sitting ended and raising the chicks began as the frequency of the adults visits did not change a great deal. Two to three eggs are laid and the incubation period is 25-28 days. It takes about the same time until the chicks fledge. The pair that I observed  part time for four weeks had quite distinct patterns of behavior. The female would visit the nest tree 6-7 times in an hour and spent quite a lot of time in the decaying wood above the nest entrance.  She was an infrequent visitor to the actual nest. The male on the other hand would arrive in determined fashion around 3 times every two hours.  He usually landed on the opposite side from the entrance but quickly made his way to the cavity. He would then spend from 2-10 minutes inside and would often emerge carrying droppings to deposit elsewhere. Occasionally the adults would interact with each other around the nest entrance and would frequently call each other away from the nest.

The male usually landed on the back of the tree (redundant nest below)

The male checks out the nest status before going inside to feed the chicks

The female regurgitating prior to feeding

Male/female interaction at the nest entrance

I was mainly semi-hidden behind a tree or in long grass. Any movement in the open resulted in the departure of the adult although I observed they paid little attention to grass-cutters operating nearby. Other species passed by while I was waiting for more woodpecker action; Spectacled Leaf Monkeys rested on the suspension bridge, Common Iora flitted through the vegetation, Blue-winged Pitta called and Green-billed Malkoha explored the leaves or flew like slow arrows to a new destination. 

A Spectacled leaf Monkey rests nearby

A Common Iora looks for insects

A pair of Blue-winged Pittas reside in the near vicinity

A Green-billed Malkoha hunting for food

The entrance hole was quite small and the adults had to squeeze through it when entering or leaving the hole. There would not be many predators that could fit through a small opening. Several times during my visits a Plantain Squirrel got close to the nest opening and was chased off by the male woodpecker.

An inquisitive Plantain Squirrel was chased away by the male woodpecker

The male enters the nest cavity

The female emerges after a feeding session

The male emerges carrying a fecal sac

When the chicks got older a male and a female could be seen just inside the nest opening and often a wide-open juvenile bill greeted the adult. The adults would often start the regurgitation process when approaching the hole. Both chicks take on the adult appearance at an early stage as there is no need for camouflage in a dark cavity.

A male chick peers out at the outside world

The adult male arrives to feed the chicks

The adults could be seen probing nooks and crannies in nearby trees when searching for insects. They approached the nesting tree or adjacent trees with the rapid and slight laboured undulating flight. There was no opportunity to get incoming flight shots as the adults usually appear from the foliage of adjacent trees.

I was present on 2nd July 2014 when the first chick fledged around 8.30am. The young male was having a very good look around at the outside world and occasionally calling to his parents. They replied from nearby. I had seen this type of behaviour with Bee-eaters trying to induce chicks to fledge. The adult male came to the nest and did not feed the chick, In response the chick was angry and appeared to snap at the adult. The adult male flew off and 15 seconds later the chick followed......mission accomplished. The nest cavity was quiet for the next hour and no feeding or chicks looking out occurred. I went to investigate elsewhere and when I returned another male chick appeared at the nest entrance.

The male chick had a good look at the world before fledging

Technical note;
For the Woodpecker shots I  used a tripod-mounted, Canon EOS 1DX with a Canon 800mm, f5.6 lens. The nest is around 6-7metres above ground level and with the appropriate angle of shooting the 800mm lens is best (a 500mm to 600mm with a converter would be fine). I always shoot on manual and require an f stop of f8-f9 to accommodate a reasonable depth of field. 1/100th sec is the slowest speed that wildlife should be exposed at......as there is always subtle movements. The most recent models of Canon and Nikon allow greater ISO speeds and I have mine set at ISO 2000 a lot. This enables speeds of 1/4000th second for flight shots in good light and respectable shots in bad light. The above nest was best shot in relatively poor light to avoid excessive contrast. The nearby Pittas are often in a fairly dark corner and the ISO speed advantage again prevails.  Incidentally the colours of the Pitta are best portrayed when the bird in shadow.