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Thursday, December 27, 2018

Matt Cuda Nature Photography - Top Ten Images for 2018

What a year it has been!  This year started off relatively slow for my photography, but ended with one of the best trips I have had for Florida bird photography opportunities.  As is my tradition, this article will take a look at what I think were my best images for the year.  I hope you enjoy it!  I start with #1 being my best image.


#1 - Great Blue Heron at Sunrise, Viera Wetlands, FL
December 8, 2018,  Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C, 232mm, f13, 1/3200, ISO 400

A highlight to this year, was a week of photographing birds along the space coast of Florida.  This photograph was from that trip.  I particularly like how the heron was stretching his neck in this photograph to provide the perfect pose for this sunset silhouette. Beams of light shoot through openings in the clouds to provide a great supporting backdrop.



#2 - Lanner Falcon Landing, PhotoWild 
October 13, 2018,  Canon EOS 1DX Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C, 252mm, f13, 1/1250, ISO 8000

Even when photographing captive birds, it is very difficult to get a good flight shot where everything comes together as it should.  In this shot, the falcon is moving very quickly, and the shot was taken  just as he began to pull back to make a landing.




#3 - Great Blue Heron Nest Building, Viera Wetlands, FL
December 8, 2018,  Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C, 232mm, f13, 1/3200, ISO 400

The second great blue heron to make the list and the second from my trip to Florida.  Here, the heron is taking twigs to his new nest.  Although some might consider this a fairly common shot, I still think it deserves 3rd in my overall list of images for 2018.  Of course, the twigs in the bill and the wing position help to make this shot a good one.




#4 - Blue Jay in Snow, Forsyth County, NC
January 17, 2018,  Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C, 324mm, f6.3, 1/1000

This was a tough one as there are probably two that could have taken #4.  In the end, I ended up choosing this, because it has so many elements going for it.  First, snow is always a crowd "pleaser" and here, we have snow falling and an inch or two built up on the log the blue jay is perched on.  Secondly, the jay is compressed into a defensive position and warning off other birds from his food source.  This shows the harsh realities of winter for songbirds throughout the mid-Atlantic and northeastern states.



#5 - Roseate Spoonbill Reflection, Merritt Island, FL
December 7, 2018,  Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C, 316mm, f5.6, 1/4000, ISO 400

It is hard to not have a nice reflection shot in the top 10.  Again, a Florida bird is part of the top 10 with this roseate spoonbill.  First, I like the reflection in this shot.  The sharpness of the reflection is paramount with shots like this and this is best achieved by shooting the subject on perfectly still water.  Next, this bird is giving us gesture by opening his mouth. FInally, the morning light really ads texture and color to the image.  If it had just been the reflection, it may have not made the list at all.



#6 - Barred Owl in Forest, PhotoWild
April 15th, 2018,  Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C, 200mm, f5.6, 1/125, ISO 2000

First, I love the framing in this shot produced by the light green early spring leaves.  Next, the owl appears as if he is posing for a portrait as she looks off into the distance.  There is just something about early spring that makes everything come alive in an image.  Despite this being a captive owl, I firmly believe it needs to be in the top 10.  Remember, a good image is a good image despite where it was photographed.  Don't let others take that away from you!




#7 - Reddish Egret with Fish, Merritt Island, FL
December 10, 2018,  Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C, 600mm, f6.3, 1/1250, ISO 800

Reddish egrets are one of my favorite birds, so maybe I am a little biased here.  Watching them dance about in order to scare their prey into making a horrible choice is very interesting to watch.  This is a fairly common shot for many, but a first for me. I do have other images of birds with fish, but here I like the position of the fish in relation to the bill.



#8 - Scratching Grackle, Forsyth, NC
November 17, 2018,  Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C, 283mm, f5.6, 1/800, ISO 400

Let's face it, grackles are common, aggressive and frankly a general pain in the behind.  I like this shot because it takes such a common subject, puts it in good lighting, a good set and performing an activity that makes the viewer interested in this bird.  That is really an accomplishment for wildlife photographers.  It isn't always what you can do with a fascinating subject, but rather what you can do with a boring one.



#9 - Bellowing Alligator, NC Zoo, Asheboro, NC
July 7, 2018,  Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C, 388mm, f6.3, 1/125, ISO 1250

Alligators bellow during the mating season to attract mates, and to fend off intruders.  While at the zoo, this massive alligator decided he was not happy with my camera rattling off shots.  He turned, quickly letting off several massive grunts of anger.  The vibration of the water can be seen in this shot as it was only 1/125th of a second shutter speed.



#10 - Goose Feather, Forsyth County, NC
July 17, 2018, Canon EOS 7D Mark II,  Canon EF 100mm Macro, f8.3, 1/60 (focus stacked)

There were 4 photos I was considering for the tenth image.  This slot is always the toughest to decide on because of this. In the end, I ended up going with this macro shot of a Canada goose feather.  I like the extreme, greater than life size magnification, and the water droplets.



I hope you enjoyed this years top 10 list.  I encourage you to do the same with your images as it is a great practice to help you decide what you did right and what you need to improve on for 2019.

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Individual training, and honest and useful portfolio critiques available. Email me at matt.cuda@mattcuda.com

______________________________________________________________________

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Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/mattcuda

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Saturday, December 15, 2018

Review: The PGD Tracker (Birds in Flight Help)

One of the biggest areas that I see new wildlife photographers struggling in is that of taking shots of birds in flight (BIF).  Birds move so quickly and, in many cases erratically, that it often leaves even the most seasoned pro feeling physically and mentally drained at the end of a day.  He may go back to the hotel with only a few sharp shots and in some cases, none.  Photographers spend thousands of dollars to buy the perfect camera for birds in flight and yet still have trouble making it work.  Photo Gear Designs believe they have the product that will give you a fighting chance at making great BIF images.  I should also note that I do not work for nor am I affiliated with  Photo Gear Designs.

Firearms have had a sighting concept known as a red dot sight for many years.  This sight is used to paint a battery powered, illuminated retical inside the scope so the shooter can better, see where he is aiming the rifle. You can think of a retical as just a fancy, illuminated cross hair sight.  Wouldn't it be nice if we photographers had that same technology applied to what we were trying to do?  Well, we in fact do!  It is called the PGD Tracker by Photo Gear Designs.


PGD Tracker
PGD Tracker Image from PhotoGearDesigns.com



The PGD Tracker as it arrived

About 6 months ago, I received one of these devices from Photo Gear Designs for testing and writing a review.  So I finally got around to testing it at a fairly demanding Florida location.  Specifically, I tested this in the Merritt Island area of the space coast on a couple different subjects.  I will break down the review into a similar manner to my other reviews.  First, I will look at build quality, next,  ease of use and finally the results of the test.

Build, Fit, and Finish
The PGD tracker has a very sturdy build and appears to be fashioned from an alloy of some type.  Perhaps it is aluminum alloy.  It comes with a hex wrench for easily calibrating it to the camera, a small nylon pouch to carry it in, batteries, lens cover, and a cleaning cloth.  

Ease of Use and Setup
Attaching the PGD Tracker to the hot-shoe of the camera was simple.  It just slides into place and is locked down by an easy to use and locate knob on the right side of the rig. Actually it locks down easier than a flash. There is a switch on the back of the device for changing which type of retical you would like to use and another rotary switch on top for selecting the intensity of the retical light in the view finder.  This switch also acts as the on/off switch.


The aiming retical can be seen clearly in this view.  Simpy put your subject in the middle, depress the shutter button halfway and fire away. 

I want to be clear that you cannot simply take this out of the box, drop it into your hot-shoe, and start firing away.  It must be calibrated to your specific camera and lens combo by using the windage and elevation screws on the back of the device.  There is an easy to follow PDF on how to do this on the company's web site.  It only took me about 15 minutes, and I was up and running.  You can view the instructions here.  I would also take it a step further and say that you should check to make sure it is in calibration before going out each time.  I noticed it was no longer sighted in on my second trip out.  I had to make some minor adjustments.  In talking with the folks at PGD, I was told that it shouldn't fall out of alignment very often.  My guess is I was banging it around pretty good in the car and as I walked.  Again, not a big deal, but something you have to think about.

Results/Performance in the Field
If you want to practice your flight skills, there is arguably no better place to go than Florida.  There are no shortage of birds that will line up to have their photographs made.  From challenging fast flying terns to plummeting ospreys, your patience and photography skills will be put to the test.  That is where I decided to test this device as I thought it would be the most fair and balanced testing.

Before shooting for the day, I made sure it was calibrated by focusing on a small stationary object.  The target was a 7 inch icon on a sign at about 15 feet away. After making some minor adjustments, I was off to shoot.  Before shooting, I selected the center autofocus point on my 7D Mark II, Case 1 in my autofocus setting and AI servo mode for constant focusing.

I primarily used the three point hold and extended hands free mode in my testing as outlined on the product website.  The beauty of shooting with this setup is you are free to pickup and track the subject in a more relaxed and natural manor.  You are not looking through a 600mm lens where you can easily loose the subject.  Instead, it is like aiming a rifle or pistol.

The first subject I tested heavily with the tracker, was a "flock" of three ospreys circling one of the lakes on the famed Blackpoint Wildlife Drive.  Here I got to spend about 20 minutes tracking with the device and shooting.  At first, I used just the center point autofocus, but found that it was not locking on quite enough for my taste, so I switched to center point expand using 8 surrounding points.  This seemed to offer the best compromise.  Below is a shot of one of the ospreys using this technique.

Osprey

Osprey, Canon 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600mm lens, PGD Tracker Mounted



Later that day, after shooting the ospreys, I moved on to the beach and began to photograph shorebirds and terns in flight.  Terns are a good bird for practicing BIF.   They are faster and more maneuverable than many birds and are generally in abundance at certain locations.  Again, during this test, I used the center point expand and also tried using the center zone approach.  Both approaches yielded good results.  Below is a tern I photographed.

Royal Tern - Canon 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 at 481mm using the PGD tracker

OK, so it worked, but not everything is perfect, right?  Well, yes, there are a couple issues with this type of setup.  One of the biggest issues you will run into is not knowing that you are actually locked onto the bird.  You may be focusing, but you are assuming you have a good lock.  I had probably a dozen images where my camera grabbed the background, but there was no way for me to know.  

Another question you might ask is: did you have a greater amount of keepers?  Well, honestly, I did not notice any more keepers than normal, but realize I have been shooting for some time and have really honed my skills over the years.  It certainly was more convenient to shoot.

The other issue, which is petty at best, is that it does not have an auto-shut off to keep the battery from running down.  I would like to see it shut off after 8 hours.  After speaking with PGD, I was told this feature would increase the cost of the product.  This is not a deal breaker, but rather, just a nice to have feature.


The Pros and Cons Summary

Pros
  • Easy to find and track your subject
  • Easy to mount on the camera via the hot shoe
  • A good selection of red and green colored reticals 
  • Photographer can hold the camera away from his body making it quicker for initial acquisition

Cons
  • Need to check calibration before each shoot (just makes good sense really)
  • The tracker does not integrate with the computer on the camera so there is no way to know for sure if you are in focus on AI servo
  • Easy to leave the unit on and run the battery down.  There is no auto-shut off.

Conclusion
This is certainly a unique and innovative product, but can it really help, will I use it, and is it worth $175?  In short, yes, yes and yes, but let me explain a bit more.

The reality is that there is no silver bullet.  If you are buying this thinking you are going to be the next Art Morris, then think again.  This product is a tool or aid to help us realize our vision.  It is a clever piece of machinery, and when used properly could indeed help you.  Now, in my case, I would keep this mounted and ready to shoot at a moment's notice.  I see this is as a tool to get quick, unexpected shots that I could not get looking through my lens.  It most likely would not replace the view finder, but be used as an aid.

For those that no longer have the reflexes or perhaps have weaker vision, I can see this being the only BIF tool they use. It does work, and if you have to, you can use the entire center zone selected on your camera to aid in focusing.  I would encourage folks in this category to really think about purchasing the PGD Tracker.

Now, the price. Is it worth $175?  For a tool that is this specialized and is not produced on a massive scale, I think the price is very reasonable.

In short, if you can swing the price, you should pick it up.  Even if it helps get you two or three shots you wouldn't have been able to get before, then it is worth the price.

________________________________________________

Announcements:
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I need your help to keep producing content! Consider becoming a patron to my work. Funds received from your help, will go toward keeping the infrastructure in place to keep providing free content. As you know, web site hosting, microphones and recording gear are very costly. To find out more about being a patron and how this can benefit you, head out to my Patreon site : https://www.patreon.com/mattcuda
Individual training, and honest and useful portfolio critiques available. Email me at matt.cuda@mattcuda.com
________________________________________________
My Website: http://www.mattcuda.com


Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/mattcuda
Stock Images: https://www.artvisions.com/cuda/

Newsletter
http://www.mattcuda.com/Home/Newsletter

To purchase any of my prints please use the following link:
https://www.artvisions.com/cuda/

You may also contact me directly to purchase prints: matt.cuda@mattcuda.com