Sunday, 24 December 2017

2017 in Pictures

I normally leave end-of-year round-ups to the more prolific bloggers, but this year I've taken a lot more photos that usual, partly because I bought a new camera, and also to serve as a welcome distraction from the daily hourly news maelstrom generated by Brexit and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Retweeted. It's reassuring to know that there are still some quiet corners of the world where wagtails still wag, kingfishers still fish, and kestrels still hover, unconcerned by the sound and fury of angry old men who never stop to listen.

But enough of all that; here are some highlights.

Photographers often rhapsodise about the "golden hour" just before sunset, and it doesn't get much more golden than this:

White on Gold

A Water Rail breaks from cover at Grove Ferry:

Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus)

This colourful Pheasant took it upon himself to greet visitors to the Stodmarsh car park:

Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) 

A smart Shelduck flies overhead at North Foreland:

Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)

A dull and drizzly May Day at Grove Ferry was livened up by this magnificent Kingfisher (one dive, one fish caught, one lucky photographer):


Later in the month, a decent view (for a change) of a Cuckoo:

Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

The dragonflies at Grove Ferry / Stodmarsh attracted lots of visitors, including this dashing Red-footed Falcon:

Red-footed Falcon (Falco vespertinus)

Fortunately there were still plenty of dragonflies left after the Red-footed Falcon departed, including this Norfolk Hawker (aka the Green-eyed Hawker):

Norfolk Hawker (Aeshna isoceles)

Lots to see in North Yorkshire, including Red Grouse:

Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus)

...and the famous Gannets of Bempton Cliffs:

The Gannets of Bempton Cliffs

Back in Kent, a relative newcomer to Grove Ferry, a Willow Emerald Damselfly:

Willow Emerald Damselfly

Some drastic Photoshopping saved this image from the bin. The Marsh Harrier changed direction so suddenly I cut off half of the upper wing and had to clone it from the other one. I wouldn't normally do this much work to an image, but I think in this case it was worth it:

Marsh Harrier

Fortunately my reflexes were a little better when this Kestrel made a quick getaway:

Flight of the Kestrel

After seeing a Red-throated Diver in 2014 and a Great Northern Diver in 2015, I wondered how many years I'd have to wait to see a Black-throated Diver in Ramsgate Harbour. Turns out it was only two:

Black-throated Diver (Gavia arctica)

Another new visitor to Ramsgate Harbour, an Iceland Gull:

Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides)

The year started with a Little Egret against a golden backdrop, so it seems fitting to end it with its larger cousin, a Great White Egret, looking for fish in front of the golden reeds of Grove Ferry:

Great White on Gold

No autofocus was used in the making of these pictures.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Shooting with the Canon 80D

Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)
Canon 80D & Tele Vue 60 refractor, 1/1250 sec, ISO 640

I tend to steer clear of technical write-ups on this blog as the Internet is already stuffed with photographers telling you all about what their camera can do rather than what they've actually done with it. However, given that the bulk of the traffic to my Flickr pages this year has been driven by people specifically looking for photos taken with the Canon 80D, I thought I'd share my impressions after several months of shooting with it. Please bear in mind that this is all very subjective and I can only compare the 80D against other Canon DSLRs I've used (namely the 350D, 40D and the 7D Mark I).

Noise-handling is significantly improved over the 7D Mk I. Tastes vary of course (I don't mind a little grain as long it doesn't look too obviously "digital" - and I actually prefer it to the over-aggressive noise reduction that some photographers insist on), but I find the 80D gives exceptionally clean images up to ISO 400, and stays workably clean all the way up to ISO 3200. The image below was taken in very gloomy conditions at ISO 3200, but I was still able to get a good 12x8 print out of it.

Coot Chicks
Canon 80D & Tele Vue 60 refractor, 1/1250 sec, ISO 3200

From ISO 4000 the noise gets progressively more obtrusive, but still manageable (as demonstrated in this shot of a black cat, taken in poor light at ISO 5000 and downscaled to 12x8). Even at the highest ISOs the 80D's large pixel count means that you should be able to get an acceptable 6x4 print provided you don't have to crop too much.

The 80D's default colour setting seems slightly desaturated compared to previous models, but this can be easily fine-tuned in-camera or in post. The "Peacock Butterfly" test certainly produces reds that look closer to nature than the over-saturated reds of older Canon DSLRs.

I use manual focus for most of my wildlife photography so I can't really contribute anything to the 80D vs. 7D Mk II autofocus debate, but on the occasions I've used the touchscreen focus I've found it to be fast, responsive and very intuitive to use. If, like me, you plan to use your camera for astrophotography now and then, you might consider the 80D's articulated touchscreen to be a more valuable feature than the 7D Mark II's advanced tracking.

Birds-in-flight are always going to be a challenge using manual focus, but so far I've found that my hit-rate is better than with any previous Canon DSLR. Would autofocus have successfully tracked this tern or would it have zeroed in on the coots in the background?

Tern (with fish)
Canon 80D & Tele Vue 60 refractor, 1/1600 sec, ISO 400

Much has been made of the 80D's improved dynamic range at lower ISOs, and you'll find plenty of examples online where photos have been deliberately underexposed by an extreme number of stops and then fixed in Lightroom/Photoshop to demonstrate the camera's capacity for shadow recovery. In real-world terms you'd have to be doing something drastically wrong to underexpose a photo by that much without realising (and the metering is almost always spot-on - more so than any other camera I've used), but the improved DR does give you scope to be more adventurous in your post-processing, especially when trying to emphasise a particular mood. See this black-and-white shot of Whitby Abbey below for an example (move your cursor across the image to toggle the before-and-after):

Canon 80D + EF50mm f/1.8; 1/250 sec, f/8.0, ISO 125

I'm struggling to think of anything I don't like about the 80D: I miss the mini-thumbstick from the 40D and the 7D, but the touchscreen makes up for this. Overall the Canon 80D is a user-friendly and feature-packed camera (including settings for time-lapse, multi-exposure, minimum shutter speed, flicker detection, and so on) that does everything I would want from a DSLR.

See also:
More of my photos taken with the Canon 80D

Monday, 8 May 2017

Answer: "It's a Tele Vue."

Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus)

The question being, typically: "What's that on the end of your camera?"

As the name of this blog suggests, I do most of my photography with a telescope - a Tele Vue-60 refractor to be precise. What it lacks in autofocus and aperture control it more than makes up for in sharpness and colour correction. It's compact and portable and it doesn't need to be stopped down to hit the sharpness sweet spot. Recently Tele Vue embraced the world of social media and - as part of their ongoing 40th anniversary celebration - they asked if they could feature me on their new blog, in particular why I chose the TV60 and why I've stuck with it over the years. You can read the resulting post here:

Three scopes in one: astro-scope, spotting scope and telephoto lens

Astronomers of course need no introduction to Tele Vue, but for those who don't know, they're a Chester, New York-based company founded in 1977 by Al Nagler. Prior to that Al designed lunar landing simulators for the Apollo missions, using his knowledge of optics to create realistic wide-field vistas to aid the astronauts' training.

Tele Vue started out making lenses for large projection-screen televisions, but they've since become renowned for their high-quality eyepieces and telescopes. If you ever get the chance to look through one of Tele Vue's wide-field eyepieces, I highly recommend it. They call it the "spacewalk" experience and with good reason: if, like me, you started out in astronomy squinting through a cheap and cheerful 0.965" eyepiece, the difference is startling. When looking through a Nagler it's as if the eyepiece "gets out of the way", leaving you immersed in the stars (or suspended above the moon if lunar observing is your thing). And if the 82-degree apparent field-of-view of a Nagler isn't enough for you, they also do an Ethos range, which goes up to a whopping 100 degrees.

In the interests of fairness and transparency I should point out that:

a) Other telescopes and eyepieces are available
b) I was not offered any incentive by Tele Vue (financial or otherwise) to contribute to their blog or write this post. I'm just a proud TV-60 owner and I wouldn't dream of parting with it.

See also:
Tele Vue home page
My TV-60 photos on Flickr

Sunday, 8 January 2017

A few thoughts on Google's Nik Collection

Back in March, Google made the entire Nik Collection photo-editing suite available as a free download. Despite my initial scepticism (and wariness of filters that claim to replicate the "look" of film), I have to admit - now that I've been using it for a few months - it is actually really good and serves as a helpful complement to Photoshop. The Control Point technology is particularly useful for carrying out localised enhancements, saving a lot of time compared to manually creating masks.

Selective sharpening using colour range masking

Of course, no amount of software wizardry can turn a bad photo into a good photo, but with a little care you can get some interesting results, as shown below. (Note: my photo-editing steps are usually a lot more subtle than this. I provide these photos as examples because it's easier to see the difference.)

Move your mouse across the images to see them as they appeared before processing. Most of these results were achieved using Color Efex Pro, but the first image (the helicopter over the house) was enhanced using Silver Efex Pro to create a High Dynamic black-and-white luminosity layer.

Helicopter at North Foreland, April 2016 

Stodmarsh Hobby, May 2016

Bright Wake on a Dark Sea, November 2016

Common Tern, May 2016

Stodmarsh NNR, June 2016

The complete Google Nik Collection suite is available at:
It works best as a Photoshop plugin (under the Filter menu), but you can also run each application as a standalone program if you create short-cuts to the individual .exe files.