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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Are you Putting your Best Foot Forward?

FORSYTH COUNTY, NC -  This is a topic which has the potential to make some of you angry and others take action.  It is a topic that gets to the very core of why we do what we do as nature photographers.  Simply put, "are you putting your best foot forward?"  Are you, as a photographer, showing the world your best work or are you so excited that you got a shot, and posting it as quickly as possible on social media?

I think to answer this question, you have to ask yourself what motivates you.  Here are some possible motivations I have identified:

1.  You want to show others where you have been, and what I have been doing.
2.  You want to attract buyers to buy your photographs.
3.  You want to impress your peers with your stunning photography.
4.  You want a private documentary gallery of images so you can document your travels.

If you answered anything other than #4, you might want to pay particular attention to what I am going to tell you in this article. 

As a more seasoned photographer, I have seen thousands upon thousands of photographs over the years.  I have seen beautiful images by some of the best photographers, and I have seen poor images generated from the very beginner.  I myself have made many many bad images right along side the good ones, but you will never see the failures posted on social media or sent to a potential client.  These images, except for the few I keep for demonstration purposes, are sent to the trash.

I do not care if I got a great action shot of an anhinga spearing a fish or a bald eagle fighting in mid air.  If it doesn't meet my standard guidelines for quality it goes into the trash.  So here are my standard guidelines for culling my images.

1.  Is the photograph sharp (essential)?   
2.  Is the photograph properly exposed (essential)?
3.  Is the lighting in the photograph better than acceptable (mostly essential)?
4.  Does the photograph tell a story or does it have gesture (mostly essential)?
5.  Is this my best work, given the situation?

If I can answer yes to all five of the preceding questions then the photograph is not only a keeper, but is marketable or worthy of posting online.  Now I want to address each of these five questions.

Is the Photograph Sharp?
Sharpness is not subjective.  It can be defined and it is repeatable and is absolutely a must  A sharp photograph is the culmination of focusing the lens and also making sure the shutter speed is set high enough to avoid camera shake (blur).  You should be able to zoom into 100% on your editing software and see a sharp, detailed image.  The only exception to this is when you are using creative blur (advanced technique).

The above image is not sharp at 100% magnification.  It will be rejected by photo editors and stock agencies.

The above image is sharp at 100%.  It has been accepted by publishers and agencies.

Is the Photograph Properly Exposed?
This is mostly subjective, but also takes some work to determine if your image is properly exposed.  In short, the whites should be white, the blacks should be black and the highlights should not be blown out.  You should be able to see detail in both the highlights and the shadows.  Obviously, this is a much larger discussion than a simply blog post can provide, but make sure you have the exposure right!

The above image is underexposed by a full stop. Notice the muddy and lifeless appearance.

Is the Lighting in the Photograph better than Acceptable?
Taking photographs of nature when the sun is directly overhead does not normally flatter a subject.  On animals it produces harsh shadows, making the eyes black holes. It basically increases the contrast to the point that it is hard to see details in the highlights and shadows.  A general rule in wildlife photography is to have the sun at your back.  Another way to look at this, is to point your shadow at the subject.  To do this, shoot between sunrise and plus three hours.  In the afternoon, shoot three hours before sunset to sunset.  This will give you that golden look with flattering highlights in the eyes of animals.   Not only wildlife, but landscapes also take on this beautiful golden glow.

The photo above has beautiful morning light being applied from right over my shoulder.

Does the Photograph Tell a Story or Have Gesture?
There are many times that I take a photograph which has neither gesture nor storytelling attributes and it is true that these kinds of images can sell and gather likes online.  However, I am always looking for images that tell a story or have peak action.  This can mean the difference between a boring portrait and an engaging and exciting photograph.  You don't have to start here, but strive to make this happen.  Strive to find the engaging shot.  Perhaps it is a coyote pouncing on a mouse or a bird fighting with another bird.  Maybe it's look deep into the eyes of a massive black bear that stops us in our tracks.

The above photo has action and gesture.  The bird is running from a crashing wave which helps draw the user into the photograph and tell a story about this birds life.

Is this my Best Work Given the Situation?
This is a question we must all ask ourselves.  If the answer is no, it doesn't necessarily mean the image is no good.  It might just mean that you have to try harder next time.  Look for better angles such as going low or going higher.  Maybe you needed a longer lens to compress and blur the background. Maybe you need to gather inspiration from other photographers. Check out other photographers books, magazines and videos.  This can all help inspire you to making better images.

In conclusion, I ask you to work hard, and get the best images you can. Do not be afraid to throw your image away.  In a few months you will forget about it.  Strive only for the best images and post those.  I promise it will be much more rewarding both from a personal perspective and if you would like, from a business perspective.

I hope you enjoyed this months newsletter.  There is much on the horizon at Matt Cuda Nature Photography.  To be specific, the time has come for the continuation of the Hummingbird Project and the Bluebird projects.  These two projects generally keep me busy from May through June, so expect to see some of those images in next months article.

Now get out there and enjoy nature!

God Bless,

Matt Cuda

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Monday, May 21, 2018

Plans are Fraught with Peril

Photography, in general, takes a lot of planning.  Sometimes it is planning that big trip to Yellowstone and sometimes it is just planning to photograph some of the local flora and fauna in your own backyard.  Whatever you choose to photograph,  I think we can all agree that we need a plan to be successful.

About two months ago, I started preparing and planning for a particular shot to be added to my "Bluebird Project."  I invested both time and equipment to try to get everything figured out beforehand.  In particular, I was using a new IR triggering system to capture songbirds in flight.  I had practiced on several occasions and I got fair enough results to apply them to actual project. I determined to use my newly acquired experience to capture flight shots of the bluebird as they traveled to and from their nest box.

I carefully monitored and waited for the bluebird eggs to hatch, as they always do.  One day, while performing a normal check, I found that the nest had been raided.  The eggs had been removed, thrown to the ground and mostly eaten.  I determined it was not the normal suspects such as the raccoon or opossum since the nest was still fully intact, and the pole I use would not support the weight.  At one point, I even blamed the neighborhood black snake.  I believe, after quite a bit of examination, it was most likely done by a competing bird species.

The whole situation was completely out of my control, but none the less, my plans were ruined.  There would be no flight shots.  It was is at this point, that we all have a choice.  We can "throw ourselves" and have a pity party.  This might involve moping around, questioning why it happened , and what could have been done differently.  I could beat myself up for weeks with the question "why?", but the results would have been the same.  I would not have photographed any birds and not changed the situation at all.

Instead, mostly based on experience, I picked myself up and immediately started the next wave of plans. I knew that I could not get the flight shot I wanted, but I could improve the situation by starting back to feeding the birds.  Generally I stop feeding birds once nesting starts as it upsets the bluebirds and could interfere with nesting.

Forsyth County, NC - Taken soon after the nest failure.  Move on to the next plan!

So, I began feeding the birds and also setup my hummingbird feeder for the next project.  This will start the creative energy and anticipation flowing again.  There will be another time for the flight shots, but that can't stop you from shooting and planning. Sure, it is a big disappointment when plans don't come together and sometimes it can be really tough when several big plans fail in sequence.  The latter, of course, being the reason many people quit.

The bottom line is that I many never convince you with mere words to hang in there and never quit. In the end, it is a matter of personal ambition that drives you to the next level.  I see it in myself and others all the time.  It is what sets all of us apart from the average quitter.  Don't fall into the trap of expecting all of your plans to succeed, because they never will.  Instead, focus on making the next plan successful.

Your photographic career will be filled with other quitters.  They are the people who don't get what you are doing and try everything to make you unsuccessful.  They could be your girlfriend, wife or even someone you thought was your best friend.  You cannot listen to them, because they will drag you down and keep you from completing your plans.  This goes for any area of your life.  Quitters always hang out with other quitters!  Don't let yourself be sucked into that world.

I will leave you with these steps to becoming successful in life as they were told to me many years ago by a wise man...

  • Never make a major decision in the midst of a personal crisis.
  • Never seclude yourself from friends/family when going through a storm.
  • Never listen to your fears. Dread distorts your view of reality.
  • Never give in to self-pity.
  • Don’t dwell on “if only” and “what could have been."
  • Don’t overlook the good things that happen to you everyday.
  • Don’t become absorbed with yourself (focus on the needs of others).
  • Don’t quit living while going through your storm.
  • Never forget that God Almighty is sovereign.

To find out more about Matt Cuda Nature Photography, navigate to the following resources...

Monday, May 7, 2018

PhotoWild 2018 - How to Cover an Event

FORSYTH COUNTY, NC -  Spring is finally moving into a higher gear, and I see more signs of activity in the animal world.  Up until now, songbirds have been reluctant to build their nests due to the bitter cold temperatures and windy conditions.  It really, in many ways, has been a harsh and unforgiving winter in North Carolina, but there was still much to look forward to this Spring.

As part of my early spring activities, I often can be found photographing raptors at the Carolina Raptor Center for their event called PhotoWild.  PhotoWild, is a special time set aside for wildlife photographers to have an opportunity to photograph raptors in a controlled environment.  This equates to getting images that really are not generally possible in the wild.  At least there is not a practical way to get these images.  Furthermore, it is an opportunity to photograph species from other parts of the world.  Finally, it is a great time to meet other photographers, talk a little shop and check out what gear and techniques they are using.

In this article, I thought I would layout how I approach photographing an event such as PhotoWild and share some of the images as examples.

Looking for the Full Length Portrait
The full length portrait is an image, which is composed to show the entire bird.  It might also have other compositional elements added to make the shot more interesting.  Below is a shot of a barred owl where I not only utilize a full length portrait, but use the foliage to provide a more interesting framing element.  Note the tree to the left of the owl, providing a framing element, and the leaves wrapping around him in the foreground also support framing.

Looking for the Close-up Portrait
Next, I begin looking for close-up portrait to give the viewer a more detailed and often times unseen image of the raptor.  With close-up images, sharpness and higher megapixel images can really make them pop.  Below is an image of a male American bald eagle.

Looking for the Extreme Close-up
Again, for this type of shot, think detail.  Think about making images you simply cannot make very easily in the wild.  Look for feather detail and talon detail.  Below is an image showing the detail in the golden eagle's feathers.

Looking for Gesture
Gesture is what makes images unique.  It can be anything from an unusual look from your subject, to yawning, eating and anything else that evokes emotion.  This is really what I want every time I go out to photograph a subject.  Whether it is in captivity or the wild, this is a must for any photographer to be able to capture.  Below is an example of gesture.  This turkey vulture is opening his mouth very wide and is something I have never witnessed from a vulture in the past.  A perfect opportunity, and one to never waste.  Patience is key here.  When everyone else is leaving, you stay and work the subject.  Good things often happen to those who wait.

I hope you enjoyed this months blog.  There is much on the horizon at Matt Cuda Nature Photography.  To be specific, the time has come for the continuation of the Hummingbird Project and the Bluebird projects.  These two projects generally keep me busy from May through June.

God Bless,

Matt Cuda

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Doctor

This is  not going to be a nature blog entry so to speak, but going to the doctor can be a freak of nature. In this blog entry, I am going to outline why I hate going to the doctor.

Waiting and Waiting
I have to admit, that I find this less of a problem than it used to be, but it is still an issue.  Upon entering the doctor's office it becomes immediately clear that you are not in Kansas anymore.  The smell of disinfectant, the look of despair on the faces of the people in the waiting room tells the story of what is to come.

So I sit down on the less than comfortable chairs (as much as we pay they should have theater recliners).  I occasionally look around the room at the poor other souls waiting for their turn.  I wonder if they are thinking the same thing I am.  What seems like years later, I hear the ominous sound "Matthew."  No one calls me Matthew except for nurses, and maybe my Mom from time to time.  So, I rise to my feet and put on the fake smile which really means, "Oh crap, here we go!"

The Scales
The nurse leads me to a scales and asks me to step up onto it.  At 44 years old, the battle of the bulge is constantly an issue and the last thing I need, is to be weighed like a steer being led to auction.  Of course it is 4 lbs heavier than it is at home.  Of course I dismiss this as being caused by the extra clothing I  am wearing.  At least that excuse provides some comfort in this terrible time of need.

The Torture Chamber (AKA The Examination Room)
The nurse, trying to be somewhat chipper, but obviously tired of trying, opens the door to the examination room.  I grab a seat.  The room is almost always either much too hot or much too cold.  This is the room where middle aged men fear to tread.  It is room where all manner of tests are done, and where additional tests are ordered.  It is a room which has a cloud of anxiety hanging over it. Any number of things can go wrong here, but the following is a list of things that happen to me...

  • Inevitably my blood pressure will be up significantly while being in this room, which then makes the doctor think I need more blood pressure meds.
  • Personal questions are asked here such as:  are you sexually active?  Do you smoke?  Do you drink?  Have you had an STD?
  • Prostate exams happen here and you never know when will be the day.  I don't think I need to explain why these give me a bad day!
  • Throat cultures happen in this room!  Also known as the gag stick!
  • I am forced to take off my clothing and put on a gown.  No one knows how much clothing to take off, but one thing is for certain, people will get a view through the crack in the back.  Trust me, this is not a great view.
  • The doctor is sure to complain about high cholesterol, BP and my weight.  This, of course, brings my self concept down to rock bottom.  It will take at least 50 compliments to get me back to where I was over the course of the next six months. And then the cycle will start again on the next visit.
  • The last time I was in this room, I ended up apologizing for having two different socks on.  Oh the embarrassment. ugh.
  • No matter what I say to the doctor he gives me a look like I have no idea what I am talking about.
  • I always end up with nurse ratchet even though I see about three pretty nurses on the way in.
  • Oh did I mention I am nervous the entire time.  I am either convinced he is going to find something terrible or worried he will schedule me for some endoscopy in some bodily orifice. Again, being middle aged any number of procedures are available at the doctor's whim.
  • Now that I am middle aged, every visit to this room involves the ordering of a blood test (more on that later).
  • The testicular exam.  My doctor is a female, so she has to call a male nurse in to watch her go through the procedure.  So I have a 45 year old woman and a gay man looking at my junk.  Things could not get any worse than this!  I try not to think about what they are thinking.  I know that I am thinking, "God, please get me out of here!"

The Vampire
After leaving the torture chamber I am ALWAYS ushered to the "the lab", where I again sit and wait for some poor sap in front of me to get his work done.  A few minutes later, I am called into another room and asked to sit down.

 Upon sitting down in the chair, I look forward and there is a sign which say "relax, it is only a blood draw."  Now, for the average person this might be "only a blood draw", but for me, the man who apparently has no veins, this is a nightmare.

Once, I had one of the vampires tap my left arm, right arm, and hand.  And the result was no blood in the tube.  I had blood running out of my arm from them ripping my skin apart for five minutes, but I guess that blood was tainted. 

Generally, the doctor's office is a thing of cruelty, but I guess I am better off for it.  Sometimes I honestly wonder, but I know they are doing their best (I think).  I guess part of me thinks we should have Star Trek quality medicine at this point, but maybe that is too much to ask for.

Frankly, I would rather work overtime for a month than go to the doctor for a physical.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Common Sense Nature Conservation

There are so many different ideas and paradigms which come to mind when I think about nature conservation.  It is such a complex topic, that I have hesitated for years to even write about it.  Finally, I decided that today, I would approach this topic in my usual common sense manner.  

Note, that this is not the unequivocal last word in conservation, and by no means do I discount another's opinion on the matter.  I am neither a biologist nor a philosopher, but I intent to speak on both.  I am going to speak as an amateur ornithologist, a concerned citizen, a Christian, and a wildlife photographer of many years.  I hope that you can have an open and objective mind while reading this, because I do sincerely care for the animals and my natural surroundings.  I want my children and the generations to come, to experience God's beautiful creation as I do.

I intend to layout my points into an outline of sorts and approach "hot button" topics as I do.  So grab a cup of coffee, and sit back for a ride into the mind of Matt Cuda.  

What is Convservation?
I do not think we can have a series look at this topic without first defining it.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary conservation is:
 "a careful preservation and protection of something; especially planned management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect"
It is the second half of the definition where this article will focus its efforts.  "The planned management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction or neglect."  

I don't think anyone of balanced intelligence would actually argue with this definition of natural resource conservation.  Whether, you tend to be on the far left or the far right, this definition is one which cannot effectively be disputed.  However, the question is not whether this definition can be disputed, but rather, how do we as a society go about handling this management as defined here.

To me there are several positions or paradigms currently taken on conservation, and I will approach each of these and describe why I think they are effect or ineffective.

The Eco Zealot
I think we should start off with the most militant of the conservationist.  I have given them the label Eco Zealot, which I think suites them well.  I could describe this person as uncompromising, head strong, and a person who will stop at nothing to get his point across.  

Sometimes these folks are militant and will actually harm people in order to save an element of nature.  I think, however, most in this category would probably not go to this extreme.  Essentially, this type of person believes that man and animal are in essence equal and should be treated exactly the same.

Although these folks mean well, often times the results are anger and negative press to push their agenda.  Maybe I am just a wimpy guy, but I would much rather win the fight through positive interactions and maintaining my cool.  I also probably relate the least to the Eco Zealot.  The ones I have met (again just my experience) tend to be hot headed, uncompromising and down right hostile.  That is no way to live your life.  That anger will eat you up inside!  The old adage holds true.  You catch more flies with honey than you do vinegar. 

The Hunter

I was born in a very rural area of northern Pennsylvania along the Allegheny Mountains.  I would actually say that this area is the most dense and mountainous area of Pennsylvania.  As you can imagine, most of the people in this area were hunters and fisherman. It was simply the way they are brought up and the way they lived.

My grandfather was an avid hunter and fisherman, but he was also a conservationist.  What, how can a hunter be a conservationist?  Well, it's actually a natural process of hunting, if you have a head on your shoulders.  How would a hunter be guaranteed to always have animals to hunt and provide  him with food?  The answer is to be concerned about their population numbers.

My grandfather had an almost a Native American view of his quarry.  If you hunted it, you ate it and used whatever you could practically use from the animal.  In our family there was no option to shoot something and leave it.  That was not acceptable!

Today, I still enjoy fishing, but I am not a hunter.  I am much too tender hearted to kill wild animals, and I 'll bet many of you reading this are as well.   So as you can imagine, I am not opposed to law abiding hunters who use the animals that they kill for food supplements, but I do not hunt.

I am, however, angered by wasteful hunting, where deer are left in the forest with a missing head for trophy purposes.  I am angered by a bear being shot for no reason other than it was "fun."  I am angered when I see a beautiful elephant hunted for it's tusks and left to rot in the hot sun.  What good can come of this type of hunting other than the loss of a species for a children to enjoy.  This is evil and frankly I believe it is a sin.

I am also equally angered by wasteful and illegal fishing.  I have been fishing where I have seen people fish a lake so heavily that they leave nothing behind.  That my friends is not conservation!  That is pure greed.

The Lobbyist
Lobbyist groups abound.  Groups like the NRA, The Audubon Society and various conservancies exist across the US and the world.  Without politically charged organizations it would be difficult for the people to voice their concerns to their governments.  Money gets things moving and the world runs on the stuff.  Money can make politicians support the cause in which you most want pushed to the forefront. 

However, I think there is room for caution when it comes to supporting these organizations.  You may find they do not line up with your way of thinking.  Remember they are politically charged.  One case where I saw this with the Audubon Society is in its handling of wind mills.

Let me just say that categorically I am opposed to wind mills.  I'll never forget the first time I saw them dotting the mountains of Pennsylvania.  Each one represented a scar on the mountain top.  No longer did I have this beautiful view of the mountains in the fall.  They were ruined by these huge steel propellers.  It was as if someone had cut my heart.

Fast forward years later and we discovered that not only were these monstrous eye sores, but they were killing birds at an alarming rate (including our national treasure, the bald eagle)!  Yet, the headlines at the times within the Audubon's publications gave this very little coverage.  Once in a while to placate the masses, they would run an article, but there was no big drive to see them removed.  But why was this?

Ah, now we see the politics.  You see, the same people who are involved in Audubon also "rub shoulders" with the people who instituted the wind mills as a means of alternative energy. Perhaps some of these folks are even big donors to the Audubon Society (speculation). 

 Now, I get it, they are in a tough spot, right?  And that, in my opinion, is the entire problem.  Political organizations are always put in tough spots where they cannot maneuver very well or have to go down a path they don't fully agree with.  It's a compromise if you will.  I am not saying that Audubon does a terrible job, I am just saying that for some of you, the compromise may be too great to support an organization like this.  That is a personal decision we all must make.

The Wildlife Photographer/Conservationist
I decided to make another category here called "The Wildlife Photographer" because, let's face it, things are a bit different for us.  We all want to make beautiful photographs of animals, but the shot cannot be the only concern for us.  Do you think we should do whatever it takes to get the shot?  If you do, I would ask you to reconsider to a point.

The wildlife photographer is probably the least understood and sometimes the most persecuted of the conservationists.  Sometimes I think hunters get a better wrap!  Most of us just want to make great images of animals and show them to the world.  We want the animals to forever be seen in our images.  We strive for image perfection. 

Recently groups like the Audubon have started waging "war" if you will, against wildlife photographers for getting too close to animals.  There is no doubt, there are a few of us out there who push the animals too much, but I can honestly say that I don't, and all the other photographers I know are always keeping the animal's welfare in mind. Ironically, the same people who complain the loudest are the ones who buy our images.  These images are not taken from 100 yards as you well know, but more like 30 yards at most.  Kind of breaks some laws doesn't it?  But, being close to animal doesn't necessarily cause him to behave differently.  This is why I oppose laws which put some arbitrary number of feet we must be from a species.  

There are many ways we can approach animals in a non-threatening way.  Just think of blinds, for example.  Biologists actually recommend blinds for photographing and observing birds, but you don't hear them championed.  I can approach shore birds slowly on my belly and half the flock is asleep and I am only 10 feet away.

Honestly, I have only been in a few situations where I thought the animals were too nervous and we had affected its ability to move naturally. Once I realized this, I moved away and the animal is better off because of it.   Birds in Florida, for example are incredibly tame, yet in these areas we hear the battle cry the loudest against wildlife photography.  I see this whole thing as misplaced aggression.   I could go on and on with this topic, but I will leave it here before I go off on a huge rant.

The Christian 
Probably the least known and definitely the least understood is the Christian Conservationist, but we are out there in some large numbers.  What does this conservationist believe?

  1. We believe that God created the world and all the animals in it.  Not a popular notion these days (Gen Chapter 1).
  2. We believe that God loves his creation and because of that so should we.  (Luke 12:6, "Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God.")
  3. We believe that all life is precious whether it be man or animal and God has provisions in nature to take care of them. (Matthew 6, "Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?"
  4. We believe that God told us to take care of his creation and be good stewards of it. (Gen 1“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”)
  5. We believe that man was originally designed to eat seeds and fruit, but after the fall of man, meat was introduced to our fallen bodies. (Genesis 1:29, "Then God said, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.")
  6. We believe that it is wrong to make fun of another for being a vegetarian. There are also several key references to vegetarianism (Adam, Eve and Daniel).  
  7. We believe that sin entered the world and death by sin.  We are condemned to death, but by accepting Christ as our savior we choose to overcome death.  Death was never supposed to be part of the equation.  Humans and animals were to live in perfect harmony from the beginning!

Now, as you can imagine, many Christian Conservationists also tend to be conservatives politically and some of the principles above come in conflict with the beliefs of fiscal conservatives.  Moral conservatives, which I consider myself to be, do not believe in murdering humans.  We equate the abortion of a human as murder.  So because liberals tend to not vote against abortion, we tend to vote conservative.  It's really that simple and that is something some people cannot accept.

Many of you who are reading this just became angry.  I am sorry that you feel this way because I probably have more in common with you than you think, but I cannot condone murder on any level. 

We also may not like other aspects such as fracking in areas which damage the environment.  We also believe in the conservation of birds and mammals of all kinds. We do not like waste, period!  Life is precious, period!  

Finally, Pure Subjective Opinion and the Wrap Up

When I view an animal, it is much different than most of society.  When I view it, I see an amazing creation, created by God.  I view, marvel and respect his creation, but I also see myself as a potential predator.  

Much as a hawk will kill a rabbit if he needs it for food, so would I (if I had to, to survive).  This always has to be balanced against the population and conservation of the species. God has given me a sharp mind and I have the ability to conserve his creation.  I choose to not hunt because I do not need to.  I would rather let the creature go about his life and let me document his behavior than shed its blood. I long for the days of The Garden, where man and animal could live in perfect harmony.   

As far as eating animals, If I had to choose a diet for pure health reasons, it would be fish, seeds, fruits and vegetables.  I feel like this offers the human body the best sources of protein, sugar, minerals and vitamins.  I do not condemn those who are vegetarians or those who eat meat.

The key difference between the human and the animal is the ability to use our minds to affect the outcome of diverse situations and the fact that we have a spirit.  We were created to worship and take care of God's creation.  We have within us the power to take care of God's creation just as he intended us to and the capacity for eternal life. We were created higher than the animal.  That is why we must take them under our wing.

I do not want to argue with you on any of this.  This is just a stated opinion and I do not want to debate this.  Life is too short to argue at length on this topic.  Just consider the opinion, adapt it or agree to disagree and move along.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Canon 7D Mark II Autofocus Guide (Part II)

In the previous article, I mainly examined the use of the AF Configuration Tool, which is part of the menu system of the 7D II. These cases are a very important feature when using AI Servo. In this post, I will look at the remaining features of the 7D II's auto-focus and how they are best used for wildlife or general nature photography.

AF Area 

Canon now supports seven options for selecting various groupings of AF points.  Along with these new options, the 7D II has a new AF group selection lever.  This lever surrounds the joy stick on the back of the camera, but the lever has to be enabled as the group selection lever in the button settings. Below is a view of the new AF group selector switch.

To Configure the AF Group Lever to Scroll Through the AF Areas:
  1. Navigate on the Menu to Custom Function III - Display/Operation
  2. Enable Direct AF Area Selection

Single Point Spot

Single point spot has been around for several generations of camera bodies.  You can really think of it as a more precise version of single point.  In essence, it uses a very small point within the outer AF point rectangle.  This is useful for photographing a subject where getting a precise part of the image in focus is very difficult .  For example, if you were photographing a still bison portrait, you could use this feature to focus on the eye only and not have to worry so much about getting the eye lashes in focus.

In practice, I and most other wildlife or general nature photographers do not use this feature.  I am not saying it can't be used, but it has a very unique application and should not be used with AI Servo.

Single Point

Single point has been around since the invention of auto focus.  Essentially, you just move this point around the view finder, and place it over the area you want to be in focus and half press the shutter button to focus.  This is an important tool in my photography and accounts for probably 95% of my AF needs.  I use this when photographing landscapes, static subjects of any kind and macro.  However, most of the time I use manual focus when photographing static subjects and use live view to zoom in and focus for critical applications.

To use this feature, you must understand how to navigate the AF Rectangle around the view finder.  There are several ways to do this, but the best way to do it is as follows:
  1. Press the AF mode button on the top right of the camera body and immediately release it.  This puts you in a mode to actually select and AF point.
  2. While looking through the view finder, move the joy stick on the back of the camera, and watch the AF rectangle move from point to point.  
  3. Find the point which will allow the best focusing for your subject. For example, always focus on the eye when taking a portrait.
It is also important to note that this is the only way to use the center AF point when using an f8 lens.  It must be on the center point when using this feature. It is fine to use this mode in AI Servo continuous focus mode.

AF Point Expansion (4 Surrounding Points)

This AF group was part of the original 7D and one which I find useful from time to time.  I have used this successfully when photographing birds in flight, and it is one of my go to options to this day. It is good for slower moving birds and birds which are dipping into tree line. 

Essentially, when using this group, the center point is still the main AF point, but if the photographer gets sloppy or the subjects moves, the AF system will hand off to one of the surrounding points so the subject is kept in focus. Canon calls these extra points "assist points."  Note that as you move this focus point around, you can see the surrounding points move with it.  

AF Point Expansion (8 Surrounding Points)

This is the same type of AF group as the 4 point expansion.  The only real difference is that it contains 8 points to which it can hand off to when needed.  This was not included in the original 7D, but it is one in which I may test.  I could see using this mode when photographing birds against a blue sky for example.  I do not think this would be a particularly good mode for mammals in a wooded area however. 

Note: You may also have trouble with the AF locking onto other parts of the animal that you do not want in focus.  Canon literature does state that this mode resists grabbing the background inadvertently.

Zone AF

This is an AF feature which uses 15 AF points which can be moved to essentially 9 different locations on the view finder.  Zones are really best to use when you have a faster and more erratic subject.  Use this when you simply cannot hold the AF point on the subject.  At least it will lock on to part of the subject and with enough depth of field you will be in pretty good shape.

Large Zone AF

Large zone AF takes clusters of auto focus points and arranges them in three possible zones (left, center and right).  Using large zone, the camera will focus automatically on the closest subject in the zone.  This might be undesirable if you are in an area with many distracting objects in the foreground or at the same level as the subject.  This is also new with the 7D Mark II.  

All AF Points

In this mode, the subject is determined by the entire view finder.  Holding the shutter button half way down will cause AF to search for the subject and then the AF point will appear over the subject.  The problem with this mode is that you are leaving the subject finding and tracking to the camera body.  As you can guess this might, for example, track the foot of a bird and not his head.  This mode is best used when you have a solid background such as a blue sky and depth of field is not a real issue. 

I use this mode when I have a ridiculously erratic subject such as a swallow or a chimney swift.

Which Mode is Best for You?
Without a doubt, I recommend starting with "single point" and mastering its use.  For most subjects this is going to work fine.  Only use the more advanced zone features when you have no other alternative or you have a very shaky hand when shooting flight shots or rapidly moving mammals.  If you are photographing very erratic subjects and you simply cannot get them in focus, try one of the group modes.

I hope you enjoyed this third posting on the Canon EOS 7D Mark II!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Canon 7D Mark II Autofocus Guide (Part I)

There is no doubt, that the Canon 7D Mark II's auto-focus system is a huge leap from the previous Canon 7D.  In this article, I will attempt to unravel the complexity of this system by gathering expert sources as well as my own experiences with the new system.  Particularly, part 1 will look at the basic configuration of the AF points and the AF cases.  This, of course, will be written from a nature photographers perspective.  

65 AF Points
The most obvious improvement I first noticed is the expansion from 19 AF points in the Canon 7D to 65 in the Mark II.  As shown in the image below, this gives the photographer almost edge to edge AF point coverage.  All 65 of these images are cross type on lenses which have an aperture of 5.6.  What this amounts to is the camera uses both vertical and horizontal planes to find focus on the subject.

Of course having 65 AF points, all cross type is a welcome addition, but what does this mean in practicality?  If the photographer is using one of the popular Sigma and Tamron 150-600mm lenses, they cannot reliably use cross type auto focus above 400mm.  At that point, the lens becomes a 6.3 lens and not a 5.6 lens.  So for wildlife photographers on a budget, cross type points may not be that big of a gain. If, however, the photographer is using lenses such as the Canon EF 100-400 II or the Canon EF 400mm 5.6, they can take full advantage of the entire grid of AF points in regard to cross point functionality.

Center Point AF
The center AF point, as with most professional bodies, has two additional properties which make it very useful for the wildlife photographer.  First, if the photographer is shooting at f8, the camera still maintains AF when using the center point.  Secondly, if the user is using a 2.8 lens, then he can benefit from the high precision diagonal cross type.  For most wildlife photographers reading this article, the high precision point, will not be an important feature as most do not own longer 2.8 lenses, but having a camera that can still reliably auto-focus at f8 is a huge advantage.  With this feature, one can use a teleconverter on his 400mm 5.6 lens and effectively be able to shoot at f8, 560mm.

The AF Configuration Tool
With the 7D Mark II, Canon has introduced a new configuration tool in the menu.  This tool allows the photographer to move through six different "cases" to better tailor the camera to handle certain auto-focus conditions.  Please note, that these cases only apply to AF when you have the camera set to AI Servo.  In other words this is for action shooting only.  Below each case will be examined and explained.

Case 1: Versatile multi purpose setting
As I expected, this case is best used when I have no idea what conditions I will be shooting in.  In essence, it is a general setting from which to start.  This is the setting I am currently using for all my songbird setup photography.  It is fast enough to handle a bird jumping from perch to perch as well as basic flight such as a slower moving great egret.

In this case, the tracking sensitivity, acceleration/deceleration tracking and AF pt auto switching are all set to 0 by default.  This provides a balanced approach to shooting moving subjects.  My personal feeling is to start here first and only change cases when the subject you are shooting demands the change.

Case 2: Continue to track subjects, ignoring possible obstacles
Use this case when you are shooting wildlife in and around other obstacles.  This is often a problem when photographing birds in flight that dip down through trees or bushes.  Because the tracking sensitivity, accel./decel tracking and AF pt auto switching are all set to a lower value, your auto-focus will not change focus as quickly to other obstacles in front of or behind your subject.

But, it is not just birds in flight that cause this type of scenario in wildlife photography.  Even photographing elk or backyard birds, sometimes it is best to not have the AF too jumpy and moving from subject to subject in the scene.  Sometimes we lose focus for a second and we don't want the AF to grab the background or some tree.  Case 2 is something I am currently experimenting with in my photography.

Case 3: Instantly focus on subjects suddenly entering AF points
This is almost the opposite of case 2.  In this case, we want the AF to jump to the subject as it enters the view finder.  

To me, this case, is a bit too jittery for most uses.  I know that there are situations out there where this might be the best solution, but I will most likely stay clear of this case for the most part.  Primarily in wildlife photography, we are trying to track the subject throughout its entire movement and not changing focus from one subject to another.  This case has souped up tracking sensitivity to force the AF to move to the new subject when  it is encountered.

Case 4: For subjects that accelerate or decelerate quickly
This case might become useful in scenarios where you are tracking raptors as they turn quickly and dive for example. I could also see this being useful when tracking a predator running after its prey.  I have not used this setting in the real world yet, so more to come on that in the future.

Case 5: For erratic subjects moving quickly in any direction
This case differs from the others in that it was specifically designed by Canon to work with AF focus modes such as center point expand and zone.  It increased the AF point switching so even if I were to move my tracking point off from the subject, the AF system will hand off to another point within the zone.  Although I have not used this case, I could see this being something which might be effective for older or beginning photographers who might find it very difficult to hold the AF point on the subject.  

One concern I have with this mode, is the potential to switch points of from the subject.  I may try to work with this case a later point in time, so stay tuned.

Case 6: For subjects that change speed and move erratically
Here, we have a balanced approach to extremely erratic subjects.  To me this would have to be a very unusual type of subject.  Canon uses the example of photographing a Kayak moving through the rapids.  It is changing direction and speed constantly so this option was recommended.  

In the wildlife world, the only scenario I can really think of is a case where a predator is chasing its prey around in circles and has sudden shifts in direction and speed.  Although this mode might be best in this scenario, I don't think I would have time to switch to this mode in time to photograph the action.  I think this one has better application in the sports world.

What other Professional Photographers are Saying about AF Tracking
As is state earlier, I wanted to gather more information than just my own experiences or what the Canon documentation specifies.

Martin Bailey - Martin is a professional nature photographer based out of Japan and I respect his opinion as being his own and not that of Canon or some other sponsor.  Martin, in the end, did not use any of the cases but rather changed the tracking, accel/decel and AF pt auto switching manually. He ended up using the setting he used on his 1DX for best results.  Here are his settings below:
"For both the snow monkeys running towards me, and birds in flight, both subjects moving erratically, I found these settings to work the best. I have Tracking sensitivity set to -2, Accel./decel. tracking set to 1 and for AF pt auto switching I’ve been moving between 0 and 1 depending on the subject, depending on how accurately it’s working in a given situation.With erratically moving subjects it’s important for the AF points to switch around quickly, so it’s tempting to increase the AF pt auto switching sensitivity, but as you increase the sensitivity, the focus often switches to an unwanted part of the scene too readily, so I found myself with AF pt auto switching set to zero most of the time." - Martin Bailey
Art Morris - Art, who up until recently was a Canon explorer of light, worked with the 7D II for several months and this is the setting he like best for birds in flight:

  • Tracking sensitivity: -2
  • Acceleration/Deceleration tracking: +2
  • AF pt auto switching: +2
This looks like a much more radical approach to AF, but you can't argue with Art's success. My recommendation is try it and see what you think.

Grant Atkinson - Grant is a Canon Explorer of Light and instead of using the default cases, he creates his own menu for the settings and essentially creates his own cases. Below are his settings:
  • Tracking sensitivity:  Grant doesn't have one setting for all scenarios, but he adjusts it as the conditions warrant it.  For example, if he notices that his lens is grabbing the background, he will turn his sensitivity down.  I got the feeling, although he did not state this, that he starts out at 0. He did say that in his opinion this was the most important setting in the cases.
  • Acceleration/Deceleration tracking: Leaves it a 0 for subjects that are moving at a standard speed.  Turns it up for erratic animals.
  • AF pt auto-switching - I got the feeling from his thoughts on this that he didn't use this too much.
Grant was definitely not someone who seemed to not have a "set it and forget it" attitude when it comes to auto focus settings.  I did find his videos informative, but I thought that he was largely just regurgitating Canon's literature.  

I thought that these three photographers give us a good cross section of what the pros are doing out there when it comes to the AF cases.

I hope you enjoyed this article on the Canon EOS 7D Mark II's AF.  In part 2, I will examine the various AF modes and when to use them.