The Sea Lion

The sea lion didn’t like seagulls or photographers. It just wanted to eat fish.

The sea lion couldn’t believe his good fortune. There was a run of salmon here, just off the end of the pier. They were running so shallow he could just reach down and pick them out of the current, he didn’t even have to dive. Surrounded by the constant squawking of scavenging gulls, he was enjoying a satisfying meal.

He reached down again and grabbed another fish, jaws clenching it tightly just behind the gills. Dragging it to the surface, he shook the fish back and forth with fierce movements of his head, breaking it into pieces that flew off in all directions. Seagulls swept in for the fragments. They were careful to avoid the raging sea lion.

Sea lion feeding on salmon
Click to enlarge
Sea lion feeding on salmon

“Damn gulls,” thought the sea lion. He didn’t like the birds, resented them for eating half his kill. Parasites. They were noisy, and their fluttering wings made him nervous. In order to calm himself, he grabbed another salmon and ripped it to shreds.

Close to the pier there were dangers you had to look out for, he knew. Fishermen with their hooks in the water. Boatmen blindly running you down. He took a cautious look around. Up on the pier, he noticed a man running excitedly toward him. A photographer, he thought to himself. Another stupid photographer. The man’s large, telephoto zoom lens was extended to its maximum, so excited was he to see a sea lion eating fish.

Sea Lion feeding - shakes fish violently
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Fish is shaken violently and broken into pieces

The sea lion didn’t like photographers. They were annoying, voyeuristic pests. Like the birds, they were freeloaders, although he didn’t really understand what sort of thrill this guy got  from watching him eat. There were restaurants down the pier with outdoor seating. Why didn’t he go bother the people eating there? But the sea lion consoled himself with the thought that, unlike the gulls, photographers don’t steal your fish.

Which didn’t mean that they weren’t a nuisance, the sea lion considered. Photographers made him nervous: they pointed lenses at him, produced an obnoxious clicking sound, and made him feel conspicuous with their constant gawking. Cursing, the sea lion shook another fish to pieces, making sure to splash enough water around to prevent the guy from getting a decent picture.

Sea Lion Feeding - carries fish fragment in mouth
Click to enlarge

The photographer was right up at the edge of the pier now, pointing his telephoto and clicking fervently. Maybe he’ll fall in, thought the sea lion. He turned his back on the man to frustrate him, denying him a facial shot. Then, grabbing another passing fish, he let the fragments fly in the photographer’s direction. The swooping birds will block his view, the sea lion thought to himself. The bastard’ll spend hours in Photoshop trying to get rid of them all.

Glancing back at the pier, he saw that the guy had gotten down on one knee and was leaning against a pylon to steady his camera. “What a dweeb,” thought the sea lion. “I hope he gets bird shit on his pants.” Then, he dove down beneath the surface for a few moments to see if the man would go away.

Sea Lion Feeding - Fish is shaken violently and broken into pieces
Click to enlarge
Flying fish fragments attract birds and other scavengers

But when he surfaced, the photographer was still there. He was standing up now, stamping his feet because it was cold on the pier. But as soon as he saw the sea lion, he raised the camera and pointed it at him. In the still morning air the animal could hear the irritating, repeated clicking of the shutter.

Infuriated, he slapped at the water with his tail, hiding from the camera behind the splashed cascade. Then he dove again, abruptly cutting down through the schooling salmon.

Sea Lion Feeding
Click to enlarge

Startled, the fish dispersed. In an instant they were gone. The birds, sensing immediately that the opportunity had passed, began drifting away toward the shallows.

The photographer was the last to realize that something had changed. But after a while he, too, turned around and walked back toward the foot of the pier.

Sea Lion Feeding
Click to enlarge

Toronto Travel Notes

Toronto is a big city in Canada, which is a foreign country. I went there and survived. This is my story.

I went to Toronto for Asha’s wedding. Asha is my grand-niece, and she married a guy in the RCAF. His military status allowed them to hold the ceremony in the officer’s mess of the Canadian Forces College. It was all very formal and British, if in some ways unconventional. Polished floors and coats of arms on the walls. There was even a sword. It was held during the ceremony by the the groom’s sister, who was the best man. The parents conducted the ceremony.

Lake Ontario

The Toronto Beaches

After that, I had a day or two to look around Toronto. Canada’s largest city manages to be both cosmopolitan and reassuringly colonial, not unlike the wedding. A freewheeling modern multiculturalism is fused with a bit of Anglican staidness. It’s a civil place where transit runs on schedule, even if some of the new trams can’t get through snow.  A place where people debate a fair price for top-quality weed, expected to be legalized shortly. A cab driver named Mohammed told me real estate is skyrocketing, and people pay for things with polymer currency , the notion of paying with plastic having become universal.

I stayed at a BnB in my niece’s neighborhood, The Beaches, near Lake Ontario. The marketing drivel you find online describes it as a “relaxed neighborhood” with a “small town vibe”. My place was on the block between the beach and a commercial strip on Queen Street (“vibrant”). So, I decided to walk a loop down Queen and back up the boardwalk that follows the beach.

Queen Street

The neighborhood on the slopes above the lake is made up of large brick houses with chimneys and small, damp yards. It is at once cramped and roomy. I walked along Queen Street’s safe, narrow sidewalks among polite seniors and past crowded coffee shops and sushi bars that alternated with old brick apartments. The apartment houses had small patches of grass by their entrances where narrow lawn sales sometimes took place. On my corner, one of these yards had accumulated a more or less permanent contingent of lawn chairs and ashtrays. I ran a gauntlet of smoke each time I passed.

Along the lake shore there is a park full of black squirrels and dogs. The two species appear to have overlapping habitats that also include the streets of the town, but only the dogs venture onto the beach and into the intertidal, where they fetch atlatl-flung sticks and leave feces. Along the boardwalk aging blondes stroll among Chinese couples and accented European professors. Piles of rocks form scenic jetties along the gravel beach. The lake waters glisten. The public restrooms are actually unlocked, and families getting out of parked cars make use of them before heading to the beach.

Something Like Graffiti

Kensington Market

Later on, I went closer to downtown and the vibe was different. The sidewalk on Spadina Avenue was busy with office girls chatting on their way to lunch. A blonde and a fat brunette with a baby stroller were leaning against a doorway smoking. At the corner of Dundas, a Chinese woman stood alone screaming at her phone. Dundas separates Chinatown from an area called Kensington Market.

Kensington is a neighborhood of turbocharged bohemian kitsch. The buildings are completely covered with an amalgamation of contrived graffiti and painted urban mural. There are several blocks of this, a massive chamber-of-commerce retailing ploy spawning a made-to-order bohemian market. “Indie shops” and “cheese shops”. Souvenirs and coffee. There are Indian textiles and incense burners, and of course there is reggae. You can’t sell souvenirs of Toronto without reggae.

Further on there is Graffiti Alley, literally just a random garage-lined back alley nearby that has been spray painted mercilessly until the camera-bearers came. Is the usurpation of urban graffiti by commercial entities to be detested as cultural appropriation? A good thought to put before the accented professors, but I was too tired for such liberal angst. It was hot. I needed food and beer, and not the gluten free nonsense they were serving around here. I headed toward the neighboring downtown area in search of something more upscale. Colonial, if you will.

Nieces

Downtown Toronto

Downtown is a forest of towers, just like every other city. Some of them face right onto the sidewalk, while others cluster behind lawns on little campuses. Out in front of the smoke-free office blocks, guys on break congregate, lighting up and talking on their cell phones. You have to go inside for fresh air. But Toronto also offers many small parks, where you can go to escape the glass walls.

Parks

I found my way to a very spacious bar where I was given a table in a shaded courtyard and a pint of ale and left alone with my thoughts. I looked around the room, saw businessmen in suits, and recalled the darker suits at the Britannically-tinged wedding. In both cases ties had been loosened once the formalities were over. At the bar, a big Bulgarian with a small head was telling stories to his long-haired friend. Above the open collar of his pink dress shirt, a small bubble of chin with a thin fringe of beard looked like graffiti on a bowling pin. I ordered the fish and chips for lunch and waited ‘til the time came to meet my niece.

Click on any image to enlarge. More photos of Toronto can be seen here

Photographing Birds in Flight

Practical considerations for flying bird photography

Pelican Making a Turn
Pelican

Let’s discuss shooting flying birds. Not with intent to kill, but rather to immortalize. Moving objects are hard to photograph, and birds are among the most difficult. They’re quick and unpredictable, but with a systematic approach and some advance preparation superior results may be achieved. At least, such was my belief as I set out recently to photograph members of our local shore bird community.

Concepts
Turkey Vulture
Less valiant

I usually have some idea of the shot I want when I go into this sort of thing, a background and a valiant posture for the bird. This ideal is never realized (birds don’t cooperate), but it’s a place to start. There are a couple of things to keep in mind.

First of all, the best shots are taken from positions level with the bird or above it. This lets you get the head and plumage, though it may require climbing to high places. Shots taken from below, of a hawk’s belly, for example, are less valiant. An alternative to climbing is to photograph shore birds, as they often fly low over the water. You can just climb on a jetty. Another thing to keep in mind is that better pictures are obtained with the bird moving toward the camera rather than away. As with any subject, this offers the opportunity for eye contact, and birds have wonderful eyes.

Around here we have pelicans, leathery looking creatures reminiscent of pterodactyls, and I wanted to photograph them as they fly along the coast. I imagined a shot in which a flight of three or four, in chevron formation, fly toward the camera with blue sky, cliff face, and a small inlet, slightly off-focus, in back. Pelicans like to fly along the coast in groups, sometimes high, along the cliff edges, other times skimming the water. Do they fly loops? Low in one direction while fishing, then return on high to start again? I had tried to consult wildlife experts but found only the kind who tell you that pelicans eat fish and like to winter in Baja. I’d like to winter in Baja too, but I wasn’t about to go there for these pictures.

Still, despite my limited knowledge of the birds’ personal habits, I felt I was well prepared for my outing. After all, I had a Pretty Big Lens.

Equipment
Seagull in flight
Blurred background suggests context

Since it is quite difficult under most circumstances to get close to a flying bird, the occasion called for a telephoto lens, one of at least 300mm. Not only that, but due to the unreliable nature of the subject as well as the distances involved, it was likely that extensive cropping would be required, so that a camera of many pixels was needed. I had a Nikon D600, 25 megapixels, with a 70-300mm zoom lens that is f/5.6 at full extension. Not too heavy at 3/4 kilo. It’s an old lens and the autofocus is slow, but I felt it would be equal to the task.

A better choice would have been the 300mm f/4 E PF VR. Faster autofocus and an extra stop of aperture in a prime lens. I seldom use zoom for these shots, anyway, just the maximum magnification, so it would make perfect sense, and it weighs the same. But it costs two grand. For a while I coveted the 80-400mm AF-S, desirous as I was (still am) of the greater focal length. It has fast autofocus but  weighs about 1.5kg, which is a lot for a weakling like me to swing around at birds all day. Nikon’s 400mm primes all seem to be f/2.8, weigh twice as much as even that, and cost the equivalent of several house payments. Interestingly (if not usefully), Canon makes a 400 prime at f/5.6 for 1200 bucks that weighs 1.25kg. These lenses all have vibration reduction systems. Turn them off, they’re useless at very fast shutter speeds.

Most cameras now have some sort of predictive autofocus feature, which tracks a moving subject and anticipates where it will be. You point the spot at the bird and then half-press the shutter button, and the camera stays focused while you shoot away in continuous shutter mode. But you do have to keep the camera pointed at the bird, and birds tend to revise their itineraries quite suddenly and without notification. If (when) the subject flies completely out of frame, there often ensues an interval wherein the photographer flails about wildly, the shutter button fully depressed, recording frame upon frame of empty sky while searching for his lost bird. At such times, it would be preferable that he release the shutter completely, re-engaging it only when the errant avian has been rediscovered, for the autofocus requires resetting in this manner. Unfortunately, such poise may prove beyond him.

Shooting and exposure

Pair of pelicans over the breakers

I headed down the coast south of HMB, where the road runs along the top of the bluffs and you often see flights of birds. Having scouted a couple of locations with promising background views and comfortable seating (a rock or patch of dry dirt), I was arriving at a time of day when southbound birds should be well illuminated. That much was under control. But you can’t trust the goddam birds.

Photographing things from the tops of cliffs entails certain intrinsic hazards. You should be careful not to fall off. Unless you have someone willing to hold onto the back of your belt (someone you trust), it’s safer to be seated than standing. Do not ever attempt to shoot down toward the water while looking through the viewfinder if you are standing. Get prone. And use a camera strap.

At my first location, there was a small bay to the north, where the birds were supposed to come from. A little mist and a strong morning sun. I decided to set the exposure manually, since the light was steady. To stop motion, a very fast shutter speed is needed, at least 1/1000. Never mind panning, you’re going to be swinging the damn camera all around just trying to keep the stupid bird in frame, anyway.  You have to expose for the bird, and not for the background, so I took a test shot in P mode of some pelican-colored dirt for reference settings, and ended up with 1/1250, f/5.6 at ISO 720. I consulted my depth of field calculator and concluded that the bay and cliff in the background would be nicely out of focus if I caught the birds coming toward me at about halfway. I even took a reference shot of a grey card, because the auto white balance would be guessing anyway if there is only blue sky and red cliff in the picture. I had it all figured out.

I sat down on the packed dirt at the edge of the bluff, carefully watching the cliff face to the north, and waited for the stupid birds.

Photographic depth of field
Depth of field ratings for the lenses discussed in the text at typical ranges.

Later, at a spot further down the coast, small white clouds were blowing across the sun on a rising sea breeze. I had come here because at the first spot the birds were all flying the wrong way. First I had seen a group offshore, low over the water. They were headed in the right direction, but too far out. Then, abruptly, five of them burst from behind me, ten feet overhead. Frantically, I shot pelican ass pictures as they receded to the north. It was not what I had been hoping for. I soon realized that all the southbound birds were over the water, and all the ones up where I stood were headed north, with the sun inconveniently right behind them. There was a system to these flight patterns, and I was not going to see southbound, cliff height pelicans there this morning. I don’t know what governs these patterns: wind, feeding, or time of day. At the second stop, though, I got luckier.

At the foot of the bluff down below me, a group of large boulders protruded from the surging tide. There was another bay, with a smaller cliff across from me. And there were birds! As soon as I got there, a flight swept across the bay at cliff height, swooping down among the boulders and back up the cliff face before disappearing down the coast.Pelican - Pillar Point Harbor

I wanted to shoot them flying up toward me, rocks and surf in the background. This would be tricky because, when they are low, the autofocus can lose them and lock onto a rock or something. The background is too close. But, you have to try.

Since the light on the birds would be variable, I decided to set the exposure with the spot. In shutter priority at 1/1250, I let the ISO float with an initial value of 100. This causes the shutter to open first, then the ISO adjusts until the exposure is correct. Basically, at these shutter speeds, you’re always shooting with the lens wide open. It’s worth noting, if you are shooting a flight of several birds, that you want the lead bird in focus, and it’s hard to control which one the autofocus latches onto. A lens with shallow depth of field will be harder to manage, despite the lovely bokeh.

Flight of Pelicans

 

And then I sat and waited for the birds some more. I was well prepared with candy bars, a drink, some weed, and music on the mp3 player. Now and then a flight would suddenly appear, and just as quickly be gone.  I held my camera constantly ready,  vigilantly watching the direction from which they were flying. Then shot away like mad for a few seconds until they disappeared.

Sorting and post-processing
Great Blue Heron photographed in flight
Heron

It is the nature of this type of photography that you go home with a thousand exposures, and count yourself lucky if even ten of them have any value. So the first challenge in post-processing is triage. A couple of things can help with this. If your camera has a setting that prevents shutter release when the lens is unfocused, use it. Many of us override it, thinking that even our out-of-focus shots must have artistic merit, but in this case that may be a poor choice. Also, in Lightroom, you can use the auto-stacking function to group exposures taken within, say, 5-second windows. This should group the bursts of shots taken of a particular bird or group. While it doesn’t really save time, it does break the task up into more manageable pieces.

Shots taken at high ISO can display luminance noise, particularly in shadow areas. You can usually get this out in Lightroom. Another common issue is sky color. If you expose properly for the birds, the sky, especially on overcast days, may be blown out. One approach, in Lightroom, is to add blue globally and use the Adjustment Brush to paint over the bird. (There’s a good summary of Lightroom sky fixes here). If this doesn’t work, take the image into Photoshop and make a selection of the sky. A useful trick for selecting is to work in the blue channel, which should offer the most contrast between the sky and the rest of the image. Now add a blue photo filter, gradient, paste in another sky, whatever.

Egret
Egret

Birds are strange creatures. Pelicans, in particular, seem to treat photographers with contempt. In the harbor, they sit on pilings and watch disdainfully as I approach with my camera. They don’t like me, and finally hop away, but I can get all kinds of pictures of them on land. It’s easy. Shooting them in flight requires a little more coordination. And luck. Some day, maybe I’ll actually get one of those idealized images I set out to shoot. Who knows? In the meantime, I’ll have to settle for the near-misses and the occasional serendipity. But that’s all right. After all, better one in hand than two in the bush.

For more photos of coastal birds, check out this gallery at Pillar Point Posters!

 

Hayden Bridge

A covered bridge in Oregon offers a photo opportunity

On a back road in north west Oregon, this old bridge spans the Alsea River. Every online resource that I consulted (2) assured me that it is of Howe Truss construction, so I want to be sure to pass that information along. The trusses are the triangular shapes that bear the load. William Howe came up with a design made of wood and metal, handsomely executed here.

 

The bridge was first built in 1918, at which time it was smaller, with rounded openings. These were enlarged in 1946 during a refit to accommodate heavier traffic (lumber trucks; the Cascades were/are being raped). The plaque says it was refurbished again in 2003, and my exhaustive research on Google revealed that it needed extensive repairs after a lumber truck ran into it in 2006. Can’t seem to make these things wide enough for lumber trucks.

There was no one around on the day that we happened by, so I set up my tripod in the middle of the road and tried to take a picture of the inside, which shows a really neat ceiling and the triangular trusses. Not that I had any idea what they were at the time.

Shot at 1/4 sec, f11 with the Nikon 28-200 zoom at 28mm. A speedlight just out of sight on the right threw additional light on the ceiling, The trees in back were almost blown out on the raw file, burned them back in photoshop.

The Water Tower

Inside the dome of the Capitol Hill water tank

The water tower sits on top of a hill in Volunteer Park in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. I hiked up there early one morning hoping for pictures from its vantage above the city, but the fog was thick and I couldn’t see 5 feet. The place was deserted. I climbed a winding staircase to the gallery at the top of the tank, a small, domed chamber. The Seattle Parks and Recreation Department refers to it as an observation deck, however, since the windows appear not to have been cleaned since the tower was built in 1906, I suspect that observation is difficult even on clear days.

The room is only a couple of dozen feet across. I squeezed the tripod into the narrow passage on one side of a fenced-in central area. With the camera in vertical format, I took sets of 12 exposures, six across the top and six below. Later these were assembled in Photoshop. Shot with my widest angle lens, somewhat anemic in this regard, the Nikon 28-200 at 28mm, 2 sec at f/22, ISO 200.

 

Water tower panorama