In my defense

… he says, with a touch of self-consciousness and insecurity.

First off, an apology for being away as long as I have, especially when I said I’d be following the progress of the hawks. I’d actually started this post many days ago, but while it was in draft form, a little over a week back, I was away for the day and the hawk fledglings chose that day to leave the nest. I’d been monitoring their progress by their size and feathers, and while they were big enough, I didn’t think their feather coverage was adequate yet – so much for my judgment. I have seen no sign of them since, though I occasionally hear an adult sounding off with territorial cries, but basically I lost a lot of desire to follow up when I had zilcho to follow up with. Just for the sake of it, I’m going ahead with the original post immediately below.

You might have noticed that the photos of the red-shouldered hawk family are not up to the same quality seen throughout the blog and main site; if you haven’t, well, good, but your eyes suck. As a regular visitor to Why Evolution Is True and his featuring of readers’ wildlife photos a few times a week, I don’t even bother submitting the hawk photos since I feel they’re not up to the standards already set therein.

red-shouldered hawk Buteo lineatus juveniles standing erect on nest near sunset
I’d like them to be better myself of course, but it likely isn’t going to happen anytime soon, and isn’t possible right now. Here’s why.

red-shouldered hawk Buteo lineatus nest in full frame without croppingFirst off, recognize that the nest is fairly distant, and even my longest lens doesn’t get all that ‘close’ – the Sigma 170-500mm can only do so much. The image to the right is full-frame, my typical view in the viewfinder before cropping down to provide a better image of the subjects. Then, autofocus is out of the question; even in the center of the frame, the distance of everything that it might lock onto varies by several meters, so it’s much better to go with manual focus where I know it’s on precisely the subject I want it to be on, and can’t suddenly decide to wander off to something else right as interesting behavior is being displayed.

But the viewfinder is only so clear; the catchlight in the eyes, visible in the top, cropped version of the same image, is barely visible when I’m focusing, and that’s only when the hawks are in a position and the light is bright enough to provide this, which isn’t often. At all other times, I’m trying to nail sharpest focus by picking the speckled plumage, or the edge of a beak. There’s too much room for slop.

The Sigma 170-500 is an ‘okay’ performer – all right for non-critical uses, but not up to the quality of many other lenses. All of those cost quite a bit more, however, and I have a simple operating principle. While I take my nature photography seriously, it brings in a very limited income, and amounts to just slightly more than a hobby; I make more from students than I do from selling these images. It would be nice to think that, by investing in a better lens, I’ll get more income, but the macro lenses I use are ridiculously sharp and haven’t been resulting in more sales, so that assumption isn’t holding up. I don’t have a lot of disposable income and am notably frugal; if it will pay for itself, I’ll drop the money, but that isn’t being demonstrated, and I have more important things to direct that money towards.

Then there are the traits of the lens itself. It gets noticeably sharper as it’s stopped down to f11 or so, and backed off slightly from 500mm. Stopping down, naturally, means longer shutter speeds or a higher ISO, both of which can degrade the image. It’s easy enough for the hawks to move just a little during a slower shutter speed and blur themselves away from critical sharpness, to say nothing of the tree swaying. Also, the focus ring is designed with a very short travel, handy for quick focusing, but it means that a very small twitch can make the difference between ideal focus and being far enough off to wreck image quality.

non-magnified view of nest
Roughly what the normal, unaided view of the nest is – that bright spot in the double-fork, upper right
On top of that, there are the facets of shooting with any long lens. The more the magnification, the more chance that camera shake will actually be seen in the image as motion blur, and there’s only so much that a tripod can do. The vibrations of the mirror slapping up and the shutter opening actually start the camera shaking, very slightly, but at 450mm or so it’s occasionally enough, worsened by a longer shutter speed where the camera has time to bounce back and forth a tiny bit while the shutter is open. To counteract this slightly, I’ve been using a remote release cord so I’m not even touching the camera, but that only eradicates my vibrations, and not the camera’s. Somewhere around here I have a secondary support arm to help stabilize the camera when using a long lens but I haven’t actually dug it out for these photos; that’s my laziness, since it greatly increases the setup time, but I really should be using it.

Since I’m 183 cm in height (6 feet,) the tripod has to be tall to hold the camera at eye level, more so when it’s aimed up and thus should be slightly higher. But the higher and more extended the tripod, the more vibration it’s prone to. The simple improvement for this was to move a handy chair to my shooting location and lower the tripod down to eye-level when seated; I could have lowered it further and just sat on the ground too, but my shooting location was not ideal for this.

All of these present things to consider when pursuing nature photography. One can spend a lot of money on it, but even the best lenses won’t overcome all of these issues, and there will always be a situation that exceeds the capabilities of one’s equipment. As I’ve always recommended, the first thing that you do is concentrate on overcoming the limitations with what’s immediately available: stabilizing the lens and camera more, or getting closer (or more light.) Using the equipment in its optimal configurations, like stopping down the aperture. Finding subjects that are more ideally situated. There is often a lot that can be done first without throwing new equipment (and thus more money) at the problem. And on top of this, it helps to know what the equipment can do for you, and what it can’t. While another 100mm in focal length is nice, it’s not that much more magnification, and if it comes at the expense of sharpness or maximum aperture, it won’t improve things much, if at all.

And all of it depends on how cooperative, or not, your subjects are ;-)