Sigma 150-600mm C (Part 2)

Normally my newsletter has completely different content than on my blog, but I so enjoyed my trip to Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina that I felt it was worth sending out via a newsletter.  Essentially, it is a diary of the morning shoot, which I think will appeal to both the wildlife enthusiast and the photographer.  So without further adieu...
Huntington Beach State Park 
(Sigma 150-600mm C Part 2)
A cold, dark morning awaited us as Rick (my brother) and I left the comfort of our hotel rooms, loaded up our gear and began our 50 minute drive to Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina. Our conversations were typical and ranged from Myrtle Beach questions to talk about the latest gear. It's always an exciting time for me to be off to a new shooting location and probably the only relief Rick got from my excessive talking was when I occasionally took a sip of hot coffee.  Did I mention it was cold?
The trip seemed to take forever, but we finally arrived at the park and paid the $5.00 per person entrance fee. The sun was up now and probably a little higher than I would normally like, but it was still low enough to illuminate our subjects with the warm glow I so like in early morning.  
Directly past the gate, the forest area opened up to a lovely view of a vast salt marsh, and a bridge to cross it.  It was here that we saw our first bird.  Off to the left, I could make out a tall white bird wading through the salt marsh. From this distance it looked like some kind of egret.  As we began  to cross the bridge other wading birds came into view.  My excitement grew and I wanted to jump out of the van right there, but since no one else was parked here, I continued on across the bridge to the parking area. I don't think Rick was nearly as excited as I was, but I could tell the birds had peaked his interest as well.
Since we were past the peak season for tourists, the parking not was empty, but I could see a few photographers and birders milling around. After parking, I jumped out and started breaking out the gear.  The Sigma 150-600 was mounted on my Canon 7D and the 7D was mounted on my Manfratto 3221 tripod.  I let Rick borrow my Tamron 70-300 VC since he didn't have a telephoto with this reach.  With tripods on our shoulders we headed back toward the bridge and settled down for the shoot.  
I left my camera mounted on a tripod and lined up the great egret in my viewfinder.  The light was beautiful and coming in from the east over the ocean.  The egret was lit perfectly, and I began to fire away in 3 shot bursts. The shot below was one of the first of the morning.  It was shot at ISO 250, f6.3 and 1/2500th of a second.

The auto-focus speed was fast and accurate just I had seen in my initial testing of the lens.  I should also note that I did very little to correct contrast since the lighting was so great. It is worth noting that shooting a white bird on a dark background is a bit of a trick.
After shooting the great egret for a while I got down low on my belly and started working the snowy egrets. The one I photographed mostly was a young egret as seen in the photograph below.  The camera was no longer tripod mounted and I was particular interested in how it performed hand held.  Of course, right off the bat the tripod collar was in my way so I spun it around so the foot was on top.  The tripod collar can be removed, but since I was shooting both handheld and tripod mounted, I elected to leave it in position.
Tech Tip:  How to Expose for White Birds on a Dark Background
Having a white bird on a dark background is one of the most challenging exposure scenarios a wildlife photographer will encounter. If the bird is completely white, as is the case with the snowy egret, then he can expose for the highlights by spot metering the bird on the side illuminated by the sun.  Generally speaking this will give you a good exposure, but may darken the background considerably as it does above. Actually I really like this look for the most part, but you can also bracket your shot to give you a bit more detail in the water.  The important part to remember is to not overexpose the highlights too much.  If the information is lost in the highlights then you will not be able to recover them in post processing.
Rick and I continued to work this area as there were several different species of wading bird congregating here.  One of the birds making its way in toward my position was a tricolored heron.  I had never seen a tricolored heron in the field before, so this was a treat for me. This tricolored heron was also shot handheld at ISO 160, f5.6, 1/1250th of a second.

We finished up this area by shooting another bird I had never seen before.  At first I thought it was some kind of ibis, but a local birder informed me it was a wood stork.  Here you have kind of an exposure nightmare as you have very bright wings and a dark head.  In order to capture this image, I metered for the highlights and opened up a bit to bring out more detail in the head and feet. Because of the need to add more detail in the head, this dropped the shutter down to 1/400th of a second. At this point I was back to being tripod mounted.
Moving on from the bridge area, we drove north, to a long pier which extends out across a large section of the marsh.  Here we saw more of the same wading birds.  Rick got bogged down talking to a local birder so while he was running interference, I began to photograph another snowy egret who was hunting off to the north of the pier.  I really liked the shot below as it gives us a nice clean background and a nice reflection from the egret.
Rick continued to talk to the birder so I continued down to the end of the pier.  Off to the southwest there was a large wooden structure and perched on top was another great egret.  The egret was in a fairly interesting position here so I thought I would post the final image.  I like the simple background here as well.
After photographing the great egret, I waited patiently at the end of the pier just taking in the beauty of God's creation and the salty smell of the marsh.  It was such an utterly calming experience that words cannot do it justice.  My patience was rewarded by a small flock of black-crested cormorants flying over. I singled this one out for my only bird in flight keeper.  I used the center point for focus and the focus speed was decent.  I honestly think the new Canon 100-400L would have locked on faster, but I was pleased with the performance.  Shot at ISO 200, 1/2000th of a second, f6.3, 600mm.
It was about 9:30 now and the sun was moving higher in the sky and would start giving us unfavorable shadows and contrast so we decided to move on.  The next stop was "the jetty."  This man made structure extends out into the ocean and is often a place where birds congregate so Rick and I thought we should make the trek.  We drove up to the far northern parking lot, disembarked and began our 1 mile walk out to the jetty.  This beach walk was amazing and beautiful.  A beach untouched by the mega hotels and resorts.  It was like we were on our own private island.
We arrived at the jetty and it was quite disappointing. There were no birds to speak of except for gulls, terns and a few ruddy turnstones.  As anyone who is into wildlife viewing will tell you, this is just part of the game. Sometimes you will see a ton of birds and sometimes you will not. I did manage to make this shot of a ruddy turnstone. 
Well that was all she wrote for this trip.  The sun reached 10:00 am and with it the harsh lighting.  Had this been on the west coast we could have continued to shoot shorebirds on the beach, but they were too back-lit this early.  Note that once the sun crosses over into the 1:00pm angle you can shoot shorebirds the rest of the day on the east because the beach acts like a giant reflector.  Similar to shooting in snow.
By the time we made it back to the car we were pretty tired and ready to head back to the hotel.  Whatever you do, don't push yourself so hard that you begin to hate photography.  I hope to make this scouting trip into a week long trip sometime in the future and overall I was pleased with the amount of birds.
The Sigma 150-600 C is definitely a keeper in my book and frankly I believe it would compete with the "L" quality lenses.  What I really liked in this shoot was the ability to zoom.  There were times it came in really handy and I would have missed the shot with a fixed focal length lens. I also really enjoyed the contrast and colors produced by this lens.  Don't be fooled into thinking this lens is second rate just because it is a third party lens.  This lens is sharp and in the 300 to 400mm range it is very sharp.  Don't forget to check in next month when I head down to Florida for some winter birding photography.  Whatever you do, get our there and have fun shooting!

Well, I hope you enjoyed the story on Huntington Beach as much as I enjoyed being there.  If you enjoy my blogs and newsletters consider supporting my effort by buying one of my fine art images from my Etsy Store   If nothing else I hope I inspire you get outside and experience the true wonders that God's creation brings us!

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