Long-tailed Duck at Rehoboth Beach, DE. Photo by Mark Buckler.
Great Locations for Winter Waterfowl
By Mark Buckler
By this time of the year, many of our familiar birds have migrated farther south. However, for some species of waterfowl (ducks, geese and swans), the southeastern United States is a prime winter destination, attracting hundreds of thousands of birds. In January and February you can find remarkable photo opportunities within easy driving range of Georgia, where huge flocks spend the winter loafing and feeding in preparation for the spring migration to their far-north breeding grounds.
Of course, for many bird photographers, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico is the ultimate bucket-list destination for winter bird photography. But with Covid-19 cases surging and long-distance travel more problematic, now is a great time to explore close-to-home options that offer similar world-class photography experiences.
Snow Geese at Pocosin Lakes NWR, NC. Photo by Mark Buckler.
Here are some of my favorite winter locations for bird photography (especially waterfowl):
Northeastern North Carolina
I often describe winter in this area as “Bosque del Apache times ten.” You’ll encounter far more birds here than at Bosque, but they are spread out over a rather wide area. There are 11 National Wildlife Refuges nearby that are home to one of the most significant wintering waterfowl regions in all of North America. Your best photographic options are the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR (massive numbers of tundra swans and snow geese) and Lake Mattamuskeet NWR (ducks, swans and a smaller flock of snow geese). The Pungo Unit is home to approximately 30,000 tundra swans and upwards of 50,000 snow geese. Lake Mattamuskeet (the largest natural lake in North Carolina) often boasts 300,000+ ducks, geese and swans.
Eastern Shore of Maryland, Delaware & New Jersey
In downtown Cambridge, Maryland (at Oakley Street) on the Choptank River, you’ll find a well-known spot for some amazing duck photography. Due to decades of feeding, the birds here have become habituated to people, and you will have literally hundreds of ducks (scaup, canvasback, widgeon, mallard, bufflehead, redhead and more) at your feet. At nearby Blackwater NWR, you can find large flock of snow geese, tundra swans and ducks, along with many bald eagles. Visiting coastal Delaware and New Jersey will provide lots of opportunities for photographing sea ducks.
Lesser Scaup at Cambridge, MD. Photo by Mark Buckler.
I absolutely love photographing at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Orlando Wetlands Park. Here you will find many species of birds in addition to a smattering of ducks. That wide variety is part of the appeal. Photographers will discover a smorgasbord of shorebirds, water birds and some waterfowl. You can also venture to other nearby areas, such as Viera Wetlands and Cape Canaveral National Seashore, which offer additional opportunities.
Purple Gallinule at Orlando Wetlands Park, FL. Photo by Mark Buckler.
Hiawassee NWR in Tennessee
This is not a place to photograph waterfowl, but it does host perhaps the biggest congregation of sandhill cranes in the eastern third of the United States. This will provide you with the closest thing to a Bosque del Apache experience that you can find in the East.
Photographing waterfowl is a lot of fun, but presents some real challenges. Ducks are very fast flyers (reaching speeds of over 50 mph) and are incredibly hard to locate and track through a telephoto lens. If you hope to photograph them in flight, you had better practice on some slower-moving birds first. I also suggest that you use some type of gimbal head with your tripod that will allow you to track the birds much more easily. I am a huge fan of the FlexShooter line of products, which are essentially ballheads that also act as a true gimbal head.
Setup at Pocosin Lakes NWR
Photo by Frank Clemenson
EDITOR’S NOTE: Be sure to check out Mark Buckler’s GNPA article about how to photograph birds in flight by clicking here.
You will need at least a 400mm lens to photograph waterfowl, but I strongly suggest a 500-600mm lens to provide more reach. Set up your camera as you would for any fast-moving object, and position yourself according to the sun and the direction of the wind.
Ducks and geese are among my favorite photographic subjects. Consequently, I spend nearly every day in January and February at one of the locations I listed above. I hope to see you out there!
Photo by Jamie Anderson
By Jamie Anderson
When people see an awesome photo of the night sky or the Milky Way, the first thing they typically ask is, “What camera settings did you use?” Well, that’s certainly part of the equation for doing this type of photography, but there are a few other considerations as well. Let’s take a quick look at seven tips for taking great night sky images.
First, you should know that you probably already own most or all of the photo equipment that you’ll need for these shots. Most images can be created with a single long exposure. All of the photos in this article are either single-shot exposures or panoramas of single shots stitched together.
Photo by Jamie Anderson
To begin with, you need to find a dark location, and the darker the better. Getting away from city lights is a necessity, because there is simply too much ambient light in urban areas to see the stars. In fact, a single streetlight in the area can spoil your attempt. All of the light generated by manmade sources (sometimes referred to as light pollution) will block your view of the stars and, in particular, the Milky Way. DarkSiteFinder.com is a helpful website that can help you find dark sites (see https://darksitefinder.com/maps/world.html#4/39.00/-98.00). On this map, you can see the problem with light pollution in the eastern United States. But take heart, it’s not impossible. On the east coast of Georgia for example, communities keep the lights dimmed so the sea turtles will come ashore and lay their eggs. Also, we’re often pointing our camera to the east, southeast or south to capture the Milky Way. This is away from the city lights and out toward the darker ocean.
The best time for star photography is during the new moon. During this phase, the moon is actually in front of or near the sun. So at night, the moon will be out of the way. A full moon, on the other hand, can ruin your shot if you’re attempting star photography, because its brightness will overwhelm the night sky. (However, a photo of the full moon itself can be pretty impressive in its own right). For Milky Way photography, you’ll need to know when the Milky Way is up at night. In particular, you’ll want to know when the “galactic core,” which is the brightest part of the Milky Way, will appear in the night sky. It rises and sets like the rest of the celestial objects in the sky. In the early spring, early-morning hours are best. At midsummer, midnight to early morning is best. In early fall, about 1.5 hours after sunset is prime time. In the winter, unfortunately, the galactic core is actually up during the day and sets before sunset. So spring through fall are the best times for photographing the Milky Way.
Obviously, you need clear sky conditions in order to see the stars. Even a partly cloudy night can ruin your view. However, if the weather report says “mostly clear,” it may be okay. Sometimes the clouds dissipate at night, and an incoming cool or cold front can clear away the clouds, creating great opportunities. You may just want to step outside the house and look up at night to see if the sky is clear. If you can see stars in the city, you’ll see a lot more when you get to your dark location.
Here’s a list of some of the equipment you’ll need:
- Camera body that works well with high ISO (in the 3200 range)
- Wide-angle lens with a wide (fast) aperture in the f2.8 range
- Sturdy tripod (think long-exposure photography)
- Shutter release (optional, for taking the photo with hands off the camera)
- Normal stuff for photography – spare batteries, cards, lens cloth, etc.
Photo by Jamie Anderson
To figure out the proper setting for your camera and lens, let’s start with the 500 Rule:
500 / Focal Length / Crop Factor = Maximum Exposure Time (in seconds)
The 500 Rule estimates the maximum amount of time that you can expose your camera for the stars at a certain focal distance before “noticeable” star trails begin to occur from the earth’s rotation. Yes, with this type of photography, you can get noticeable camera movement just from the rotation of the Earth! Of course, “noticeable” is often a matter of opinion and varying degrees (“barely noticeable” to “very noticeable”). As with all mathematical equations, an example can help. Let’s use the equation for a 24mm lens and a full-frame camera. So, 500/24mm = 20.833, or about 21 seconds maximum exposure time before “noticeable” star trails begin to occur. If I have a Canon crop-sensor camera, on the other hand, I would need to divide the 21 seconds by a crop factor of 1.6 (the Nikon Crop Factor is 1.5). So, 500/24mm/1.6 = 13.02, or a maximum exposure time of about 13 seconds.
THE OTHER SETTINGS
Ideally, minimum settings at 24mm are f2.0, ISO 3200, and a 20-second exposure. These settings on a full-frame camera body will work really well. However, if you can’t meet just one of the settings, you’ll need to adjust something else. For example, what if your lens only goes down to f2.8? A movement from f2 to f2.8 is a full “stop” of exposure, which cuts your light in half. So, in order to compensate, you would need to double your exposure time to 40 seconds OR double your ISO to 6400. A good compromise might be to increase exposure to 30 seconds and adjust your ISO to 4000. If your lens aperture will go to f1.4, that would represent a full stop from f2.0 and provide twice as much light. You could then decrease the exposure time to 10 seconds OR adjust the ISO down to 1600. The good news is, once you find the correct settings for your lens and camera body, you can use the same settings every time you do this type of photography.
Other Settings to Consider:
- Obviously, use Manual Mode to control all the settings we’ve been talking about thus far so the camera doesn’t change them automatically.
- Turn off Auto Focus OR use Back-Button Focusing, and make sure you don’t press the Back Button accidentally (more on focusing in a minute).
- Set White Balance using the Kelvin setting. A setting around 5500 will give you the natural-looking black skies. I dial it down to 3500 because I like the cooler blue-looking night sky. In my opinion, it works better with the light pollution.
- Turn these settings OFF:
- High ISO Noise Reduction
- Long Exposure Noise Reduction
Photo by Jamie Anderson
NOTE: The light meter in your camera is useless for this type of photography. You are overexposing a completely dark scene, so just rely on your manual settings.
You’ll also need to learn how to focus in the dark. Your autofocus will have a hard time focusing, but it may not be entirely useless. If there is a bright light in the distance, autofocus may actually be able to focus on it. In the scene above, there is a bright light on the horizon. This might actually be enough light for autofocus to work. You can autofocus on any bright light as long as it’s a long distance away, and your stars will also be in focus.
What if you want to make sure the objects in your foreground are in focus? In this situation, create some distance between your camera and the foreground object so both your foreground and the stars in the background will be in focus. As a general rule, stand at a minimum of one foot per focal distance from the nearest foreground object that you want in focus. So, if you are shooting at 24mm, stand at least 24 feet away from the foreground object. If shooting at 14mm, stand at least 14 feet away. One method for focusing on the foreground object (with autofocus) is to have someone stand parallel to the object and shine a flashlight back to your camera. You can then focus on the flashlight, which is the same distance away from the foreground object.
The best method for focusing goes like this:
- Put your camera in live view, then zoom in 10x.
- Shine a bright flashlight on the foreground object.
- In live view (zoomed in 10x), use manual focus and focus on the area where you are pointing the flashlight.
- Take the camera out of live view and make sure your lens is on manual focus.
You may be surprised, but you can actually get the foreground tack-sharp using this method.
Like any photography skill, astrophotography takes some trial-and-error at first. Once you determine the proper settings for your camera and lens, then you can experiment with different locations and setups.
A word of caution: I do recommend having a buddy with you when you’re doing this type of photography, unless you are very familiar with the area and know that it’s safe.
I look forward to seeing your new astrophotography images! If you have any questions, I can be reached at: Jamie@CoastalGeorgiaPrints.com
Jamie Anderson is a native of Savannah, Georgia, and enjoys photographing the one hundred miles of barrier islands, inland waterways, and historic sites known as Coastal Georgia. He currently volunteers as the Coastal Chapter coordinator and is a member of both the Conservation and Communications committees.
Sophie DeBacker, Roswell Chapter
In our newsletters, we feature short profiles of GNPA members from across the state. This month, it’s Sophie DeBacker from the Roswell Chapter.
When did you join GNPA?
Some years ago, haha! I don’t remember exactly, around 5-6 years ago, I think.
What’s your occupation?
I am a Jewelry Artist.
How did you get into photography?
My dad put a camera in my hands when I was 13 because I was bored. I took pictures on and off for a long time, but only became really passionate after moving here in 2009 and seeing all the new and wonderful birds that were around.
What are your favorite photography subjects?
Birds for sure! But I also like anything else nature-related – flowers and macro photography, and other animals.
What are your favorite places to shoot?
My backyard, but also anywhere I can observe and learn more about wildlife.
What would be your photographic “dream trip?”
Australia and South America. They have such beautiful and colorful birds!
Which camera and lenses do you use most often?
Canon 5DIII with a 300L F2.8
What are your go-to websites for photography information?
I don’t really visit photography websites unless I have a specific question I need answered.
Have any photographers inspired you?
Not specifically. It is more about the emotion, mood, color and composition of a photograph. I do like Marina Cano; she is a wonderful wildlife photographer.
What’s your favorite part of belonging to GNPA?
Being able to share my passion with other people with the same interest. GNPA has some wonderful members and talented photographers!
Something about you most people don’t know:
I love dancing, and I won the European Championship of Line Dance in 2005.
Where are you from?
‘I didn’t do it!’ Male Northern Flicker snacking in dogwood tree. Photo by Sophie DeBacker.
‘Fly-Through’ American Robin taking off with a berry. Photo by Sophie DeBacker.
‘Farniente’ Baby Barred Owl relaxing in the afternoon sun. Photo by Sophie DeBacker.
Photo by Eric Bowles
Get Involved in GNPA
Eric Bowles, GNPA President
I don’t know about you, but I’m glad to put 2020 behind me. GNPA has had a pretty good year, but it certainly had its challenges. We’re looking forward to better times in 2021 and beyond. As a result of cancelling the Expo and chapter meetings, GNPA revenue is down for 2020. But we were able to successfully trim insurance, rent and other charges, so we had a small surplus for the year. Our financial position is solid and we are moving forward.
Meanwhile, we’re starting to work on the annual election of officers and board members for GNPA. This process is how we select the leaders to represent you and guide the strategy of GNPA. If you have an interest in becoming more involved, be sure to let us know. We’re especially looking for people with experience on other boards, or with relevant professional skills. We are lucky to have a lot of very talented business people involved in GNPA, and those professional backgrounds are very helpful.
We also need to help rotate some of the chapter coordinators out of their current role and into other positions within the organization. The chapter coordinator, co-coordinator and other leaders of our local chapters are critical to our member experience. Of course, the job of chapter coordinator is a lot easier when we have a team of people working together, and it’s another good way for members to get involved. We always are looking for people to help with membership, lead or coordinate field trips, plan chapter meetings and support communication (Meetup scheduling, email reminders, announcements, etc.). Many hands make light work, and it’s member involvement that makes our chapters successful and prevents great volunteers from feeling burned out. Please contact your chapter coordinator if you are willing to help out.
Finally, we have made the decision to cancel the Expo 2021 due to the ongoing risks associated with Covid-19. We have confirmed the dates and signed a contrast to hold the 2022 Expo at Jekyll Island on April 7-10, 2022. We hope it will be a more traditional Expo with some much needed in-person events. We do have a team of members working on a possible Virtual Expo later in 2021, and if you are interested in helping plan this concept, please let me know. We would like to have some input from members who have attended virtual conferences in the past. We are still planning to hold the Smokies event in November, 2021.
Thanks again for your continued support of GNPA.
Pre-dawn mist in the Okefenokee. Photo by Eric Bowles
By Eric Bowles
Many GNPA members participate in photo contests, online competitions, or gallery submissions of various types. But once you submit your images, you may not have a good idea of how they are evaluated, what the selection criteria are for winners, and what you can do to improve your odds. I typically judge more than a thousand images a year for various competitions, critiques, and contests, and I’ll share some tips and observations.
Follow the rules
Most contests are strict about the rules. Photos that fail to follow the rules are routinely removed from the judging early even if the image has merit. There are some small mistakes that can be frustrating – including a signature or watermark when it is prohibited, submitting images that are outside geographic restrictions (an African lion in a contest for Georgia and adjoining states), late entry, etc.
Don’t push sliders too far
There is a trend toward highly saturated images, particularly in online competitions. Excessive vibrance or saturation can easily go too far and cause an image to fail in the eyes of a judge. The same is true for other sliders and edits – clarity, contrast, texture, and sharpening can all be used excessively and create detail beyond what is needed. Sharpening or increasing contrast in an out of focus background can detract from an image. Consider applying some of these adjustments locally rather than globally.
Oxbow Bend is a heavily photographed location. Even a well-composed image with peak fall color is relatively common, with hundreds of similar images being made each day. Photo by Eric Bowles.
Be Interesting / Avoid Common Images
There is nothing wrong with making your own photos of common subjects – we all like landscape images of Sparks Lane in the Smokies, Yosemite from Tunnel View or Gates of the Valley, or iconic formations in Arches, Zion, or Canyonlands. These classic locations have been photographed by millions of photographers, so for your image to stand out, it’s subconsciously being compared with the best of those millions of images. What will make your image stand out as spectacular and unique compared to those well-known images? Look for exceptional images or unique views of common subjects.
A Great Egret is a common subject, but the unusual head position, tight composition, angled feathers and brilliant breeding plumage make this a winning image. Photo by Eric Bowles.
Key Moments – Behavior or Action
Wildlife images have their own common subjects – wading birds are big, slow, and abundant so they are easy to photograph. If a judge sees 3-4 great egret images in a contest, only a spectacular image will be selected. The same is true for common mammals. What makes your bear, elk, deer, lion, or elephant image unique? In national contests, photographers look for perfect timing on key behavior. Two thirds of the images are showing feeding, fighting, courtship, or similar behaviors with perfect light and timing. A simple portrait can be successful, but it needs to be extremely well done. Think about it this way – is the image unique because you rarely see it, or unique for someone who lives in the area and photographs the subject on a daily or weekly basis? Look for unique images of uncommon subjects or unique timing that makes an image special.
Watch the Details
It’s easy to look at a good image and fail to notice little details that make a difference. I recall one image that had a sharpening halo around the subject of what was otherwise a great image. A recent entry was produced as a high key monochrome image for an exhibit and it had wonderful content and composition. But it also had magenta and green chromatic aberration that could have been easily removed. Sensor dust spots always need to be removed. Small details – reflections, unwanted color, bits of debris or trash, etc. – can make a difference and should be addressed to show your best work.
While generally a good image, the butterfly is slightly clipped. That’s a major flaw and would prevent this image from doing well in a serious competition. Photo by Eric Bowles.
Watch the Edges
Before you finish with an image, check the edges. Ideally, you’d check the edges when you make the image, but be sure to check the edges when you are deciding to submit an image. Is there anything cutoff by the edge of the frame? Does it look intentional? Do the edges of the frame attract attention to a distraction or something that might be outside the frame? Do you have spots of bright colors or extreme contrast at the edge of the image? Normally you want to focus the eye on your subject, and avoid taking the eye to the edge of the frame. Be careful to compose and crop with intention and avoid clipping.
Pre-dawn mist in the Okefenokee captures wonderful soft colors and reflections. By 9:00 a.m., however, the mist is gone and this same scene would be rather bland. Photo by Eric Bowles.
Choose the Time of Day or Season
I often see images of landscapes or wildlife made during the middle of the day. I wonder if the photographer chose that time of day because it was the best for the image, or because of convenience. We all understand you may not be able to photograph during the golden hours or when there are great clouds and color in the sky. With contest submissions, the time of day or time of year is a choice. For wildlife, breeding season can bring great color and behavior. With birds, look for breeding plumage, courtship and displaying behaviors, or similar timing to show your subject at its best. With other mammals, breeding season brings action that is uncommon at other times of year. Adult bears are healthy in the early fall as their coats are glossy and they are eating to prepare for hibernation.
Don’t Expect Every Judge to Have the Same Perspective
Judges usually have similar perspectives, and with conversation bout an image, they can form a consensus opinion. But each judge has their own expertise and views in how an image is assessed. Some judges will have hot buttons that immediately reject images. Others have subjects they see or photograph regularly, and may have strict standards for what makes a good image. Don’t worry if your image is Best of Show in one competition, and not even a finalist in another competition. Judges and competitions are different. Competing images may be different. You’ll get a better idea of how judges view your image if you have multiple perspectives.
The nice thing about competitions is they are supposed to be fun. It’s a good way to share your images, get feedback, try out new ideas, and possibly be recognized for your photography. But above all, make sure you have fun sharing your images and seeing the work of others.
“Photography is the easiest medium with which to be merely competent. Almost anybody can be competent. It’s the hardest medium in which to have some sort of personal vision and to have a signature style.”
– Painter/photographer Chuck Close