"Morning Glow"
"Morning Glow" is a photograph from my "Waterfalls of North Carolina" collection.  What a beautiful morning it was that day, as a cool rain fell across the fallen red and golden leaves flanking High Falls.  As I paused and took in the amazing detail before me, I began to think about how I can convey what I am seeing to the viewer of my image.

This falls was named properly as it truly is a high falls.  To show this, I knew I had to include the man made architecture at the top of the falls.  The wooden structure gives the falls a sense of scale and really shows the viewer the height and power that is before them.

The final piece of my vision for this image was to show the color and glow of the rain covered autumn leaves.  This is where photography meets art.  This is what separates a snap shot from creative inspiration.  I hope you are inspired by what you have seen, and I thank you for sharing this experience with me.

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Another great year at Matt Cuda Nature Photography!  This year was certainly the year of firsts as far as species photographed.  I was able to photograph several species which I had never even seen in the wild before.  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 - Fluffy Eurasian Eagle Owl, CRC, NC
March 30, 2019,  Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF 300mm f4 L, 300mm, f4.5, 1/500, ISO 1000

During an event at the CRC, I was able to capture this image of a Eurasian eagle owl, who was fluffed out to the max.  This is one of the serendipitous moments where God is smiling on your day.  This guy was so fluffed out, in fact, that I had a hard time keeping the fluff in the frame!

#2 - Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Forsyth County, NC 
June 6, 2019,  Canon EOS 1DX Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C, 252mm, f13, 1/1250, ISO 8000

Hummingbirds will almost always make my top ten, as I love to photograph them.  This guy posed perfectly against the pink flower background for this shot.  I love the wing position and relationship of the subject to the flowers.

#3 - Blue Morpho Butterfly, Butterfly Garden
July 27, 2019,  Sony A7 III, Canon 100mm Macro, 100mm, f5.6, 1/640, ISO 4000

Although macro is not my forte, I do love to photograph insects when I can.  This image, with its slight tilt and extreme sharpness always pulls me in for a closer look.  It is for that reason that it made the list.

#4 - Mountain Lion, NC
Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 300mm f4

I didn't have all the meta-data handy for this one, so I apologize on that, but I fell in love with this image of a mountain lion in black and white.  I love the engagement of the subject with the viewer.  I always look for eye contact from my subject.

#5 - Florida Alligator, Merritt Island, FL
November 16, 2019,  Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF 600mm, f7.1, 1/500, ISO 320

Gators are a common presence in Florida, so it is important to find an uncommon or engaging way to present them to the viewer.  This alligator, again is engaging the viewer with an eye to eye contact.

#6 - Elk in Fog - Cataloochee, NC
September 15th, 2019,  Sony A7 III, Sigma 150-600 C, 238mm, f5.6, 1/400, ISO 2500

Wild elk make a great subject and I particularly like them in partial fog.  This beautiful specimen has the perfect turn and his front leg up.  This makes the image more interesting and engaging to viewers.

#7 - Cattle Egret Eating Lizard, Merritt Island, FL
November 17 2019,  Sony A7 III, Sigma 150-600 C, 421mm, f6.3, 1/640, ISO 3200

The perfectionist in me didn't want to put this in the top 10 because of the head turn and the junk in the lower portion of the background particularly.  However, when I have a situation where there is high action and good technical quality, I know it can be a real winner.  The bottom line is that I love the subject here and I just couldn't leave it out.

#8 - Snarling Red Wolf, NC Zoo
December 21, 2019,  Sony A7 III, Sigma 150-600 C, 600mm, f6.3, 1/800, ISO 2000

There are days when captive animals are just on fire as photographic subjects.  You can't depend on it, but it will happen.  This pair of red wolves were fighting over some meat and the alpha (pictured below) was winning.  Here you see him in full snarl while looking back toward the beta male.

#9 - Springtime Dark-eyed Junco, Forsyth County, NC
Spring 2019, Canon EOS R, Sigma 150-600 C, 531mm, f6.3, 1/800, ISO 1000

I made this image while testing the Canon EOS R.  This junco was perched so perfectly on this blooming plum tree.  The blooms really accentuate the bland nature of  her feathers.  

#10 - Anhinga with Speared Fish, Merritt Island, NC
July 17, 2018, Canon EOS 7D Mark II,  Sigma 150-600mm 516mm, f6.3, 1/500, ISO 800

Again, the perfectionist in me did not like the head turn, but I decided this image had enough action to make the top 10.

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 2020.

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Almost every year, I take a trip to Florida to photograph the amazing birds and local wildlife.  Florida is abundant with birds at most any time of the year.  Winter and spring seem to offer the best opportunity, but you simply can't go wrong there at any time.

There were several differences on this years trip that are worth noting.  First, I tested the Canon EF 600mm F4 L II lens.  Secondly, I tested my new Sony A7 III body, and finally, my brother accompanied me to take advantage of all the wildlife and help build his portfolio.

Day 1 - Blackpoint Wildlife Drive (Late Afternoon Scouting)

For those who follow my photography, they will know that I like Blackpoint Wildlife Drive.  It is a easy 7 mile drive that winds its way through a portion of Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge.  The cost is $10 per day, but I opt to pay for the $29 yearly pass.

The afternoon on day one was cloudy with a fair amount of birds.  The water levels were high this year, causing less birds due to the flats being flooded.  That is just part of the game. You never know how the conditions will be, and even with poor conditions, good photography is possible.  Below are several images taken on our first scouting trip.

A little blue heron perched in the grasses along the marsh edge.
(Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF 600 F4)

Wild boar are starting to become commonplace in much of Florida. They are often thought of as pests because they are not native to Florida. However, they are still wildlife.
(Sony A7 III, Sigma 150-600 @ 313mm, MC-11 Converter)

Day 2 - Merritt Island/Blackpoint Wildlife Drive (Morning)
My brother and I departed our hotel early, grabbed some DD coffee and arrived at Merritt Island to be met with more cloudy conditions.
The good thing about cloudy conditions is you can shoot all day. The bad thing is you have low light, so that means higher ISOs and white backgrounds in flight shots.  Below are several images from day two.
A white ibis flying over the marshes
(Sony A7 III, Sigma 150-600 @ 468mm)

A Florida alligator mostly submerged
(Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 600mm F4 L II)

A stunningly beautiful example of a little blue heron.  I don't think I have seen one with quite this coloration. My only wish is that I didn't cut off his foot.
(Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF 600 F4 L II)

Day 2 - Helen and Allan Cruickshank Sanctuary (Afternoon)
We decided to head down to Vierra Wetland for the afternoon, but upon arrival, we discovered the roads were closed due to damage from storms.  I was determined not to be defeated by weather, so I made a decision go to the Helen and Allen Cruickshank Sanctuary and check on the scrub jay population.

We walked to the usual location to find the birds, made a couple calls and several came in close and landed on nearby branches.  It is not uncommon for folks to feed the jays, even though it is against the rules in the sanctuary.  Because of that, the jays are very friendly!  They were so friendly on this visit that they landed directly on our heads!  Of course they were waiting for us to feed them, but I always respect the rules at the sanctuary.

My brother, Rick with a jay on his head and on his lens

Florida Scrub Jay
(Sony A7 III, Sigma 150-600)

Day 3 - Back to Merritt Island
With all the closings, it was becoming difficult to find birding opportunities, but we pressed on and made the best of a difficult situation.  The good thing about Florida is that even when areas are closed, birds can still be located.

Cattle Egret Eating a Lizard
(Sony A7 III, Sigma 150-600)

We worked the morning hours of blackpoint and worked through some dark overcast conditions.  Even with these issues, we were able to take some fairly good images.  Probably the most fun we had, on this day, was following a flock of cattle egrets down Blackpoint Wildlife Drive.  We followed them as they hopped from bush to bush consuming lizards.  For those that don't know, cattle egrets will often follow cars as they stir up dirt.  This causes their prey to run and they can snag them.  We laughed and laughed at these little buggers.

White Ibis Coming in for a Landing
(Sony A7 III, Sigma 150-600)

On this day, we were also able to get into some birds in flight action.  The severely overcast conditions made it difficult to get the best shutter speeds, and so I had to really crank the ISO up to get some shots. 
Day 4 - Back to Merritt Island
Day 4 had us scratching our heads on where to go next.  Since the previous day had led to some interesting shots, we decided to go back to Blackpoint.  We arrived and began to immediately shoot.  However, soon, they closed down Blackpoint on us for maintenance, and I was fit to be tied!  I have never seen so many roads and refuges closed at one time.  There seemed to be almost no good reason for it.  I knew exactly what they were trying to do.  They were trying to squeeze money out of the gov't by saying roads were closed due to hurricane damage.  However, in talking to locals, I found out that the roads were actually in good condition.  That is sad!  Before they closed the roads, we did get a couple great images.

Green Heron Perched in the top of a Bush
Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 600mm F4)

Eastern Phoebe
(Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 600mm F4 L II)

With another road closed, we decided to make a quick run to Port Canaveral on the off chance we could photograph shorebirds and pelicans.  We arrived there about 1/2 hour later and had to pay stupid money to get in.  Nice park, not many birds in range to photograph.  There was an interesting juvenile reddish egret, ruddy turnstones and a ton of pelicans way out on part of the jetty that no one can get to.  Below are a couple images from Port Canaveral.  I think that next time I will pass on Port Canaveral.

Juvenile Reddish Egret at Port Canaveral
(Sony A7 III, Sigma 150-600)

Ruddy Turnstone at Port Canaveral
(Sony A7 III, Sigma 150-600)

After that somewhat disappointing side tour, we headed back to Merritt Island and worked some of the other back roads. I have had little luck with some of the hunting and fishing roads on Merritt Island, but we did manage to find a red-shouldered hawk donning the lighter Florida coloration.
Probably the most interesting find at the end of day 4, was a female raccoon we discovered and were able to photograph.

Mother Raccoon Searching for Food
(Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 600 F4 L II)

Although we did a little more scouting during the week, that was really the last day of shooting.  This year's trip was difficult and frustrating in many ways, but was still astounding!  I don't think I have ever seen as many behavior opportunities and unique species as I did on this trip.  I look forward to what next year will bring us!  I didn't get bit by any fire ants this time, and we even got eyes on a bobcat!

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As many of you know, I go a few times a year to Cataloochee, NC to visit the elk population and photograph them.  It is normally a great experience, but what I am about to tell you totally blew my mind.  It was the most unprofessional, panicked overreach of power I have witnessed to date from a park volunteer.

The bull who was so mischievous 

Setting the Scene
First, let me just say that Cataloochee has become a hot spot for viewing elk in North Carolina.  It is part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and when I first started going there, it did not have near the volume of people I saw yesterday. There were hundreds of vehicles going through that day on a narrow road that is not meant to handle that kind of capacity. Let me just say that owning a Ford F-150 was not an advantage at all in this situation.  If you are going to travel these parks, do not buy a large vehicle.  Get a small 4x4!

There were two volunteers and a park ranger working the crowd and controlling traffic.  They were spread out across the the herd.  So far, so good.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this and in fact I encourage the use of volunteers for this type of work.  Someone has to be there to manage the masses.  A handful of humans is easily managed.  Hundreds of humans can become a real handful.

In front of a line of intermittent spectators was the main herd being herded by a fairly large bull.  The bull was doing what bulls do. He was following the females and checking to see if they were in estrus.  During this time (the rut), the male can get very agitated (mostly with other bulls) and can charge.  There is always a possibility of this and the workers have to be careful to watch the spectators.  OK, so all is well with what I have said so far.  This is completely normal and to be expected.

How it Unfolded
As the alpha bull started getting more restless, so did one of the volunteers.  She was in fact so concerned that she was starting to panic.  At one point the bull had wandered close to us while sniffing a female.  I calmly walked behind a vehicle just to be safe.  My movement behind the car apparently sent the park official into overdrive as she began barking orders.  "Get inside a vehicle!  Everyone here get in a vehicle! I don't care if it is not your vehicle get in it!"  I seriously thought she was going to lose her mind and this of course cause the people to get a little panicky.  I was worried all this commotion and panic would cause the bull to get into a rage. If you also want to cause a people stampede, this is how you do it. Sadly, this woman reinforced the false stereotype that all women are a panicky and hormonal type and can't keep a cool head.

How the Situation Should have Been Handled
I may not be the brightest bulb in the box, but unless you are actually being charged, causing that amount of panic is not a wise thing to do.  Calmly back up, speaking clearly and carefully to everyone else.  Let them know that there is potential danger, but don't get panicked!  Acting or speaking in a panicked voice may get you or others hurt!

The way the park ranger handled the situation was completely different from the volunteer and much more effective.  He calmly walked up to the group a people and said, "Have you ever played football?"  Then he pointed to the bull.  He said, "That bull is right about 50 yards from us.  Just keep that distance at all times and you will be fine. You guys are doing good.  Just keep that distance." 

I suspect that this is really a matter of training.  We had a volunteer who probably took her job way too seriously and probably was not being kept in check by park rangers.  It is hard to find help and good volunteer help is next to impossible.  I know, because I have worked in volunteer organizations my whole life.

It should also be noted that the second volunteer, an older lady, did a great job of helping and keeping the situation under control without panic.  She drove the cows back when needed and let people know about the 50 yard rule with grace.  How the first woman was able to keep her job while acting in this manner was beyond my comprehension.  I was so embarrassed by her.  I also felt bad for the rest of the staff.

The final concern that needs to be addressed at Cataloochee is the size of the road.  They need to make this two lanes with as many parking and pull offs as they can reasonably accommodate..  The volume of people has reached a point where it is almost an expand or die proposition.

Having said all this, they didn't stop me from enjoying the elk and all their tomfoolery.  All in all, despite the above, I enjoyed myself.  Just being out there among God's creation is enough for me.

This blog entry is the third and final review on the Sony a7 III with the MC-11 adapter.  Read to the conclusion for a surprise ending.

The testing continued on the a7 III by taking the camera to the Greensboro Science Center in Greensboro, NC.  The local chapter of the CNPA (Carolina Nature Photographers Association) had an outing at this location, so why not end the testing at this location and later shooting songbirds.

Without a doubt this series, with the exception of the Canon 7D Mark II, has been the largest review on gear I have ever undertaken.  Thousands of images, hours of post processing, and wading through all my logical as well as illogical conclusions were all part of the process.  

Arriving at the Greensboro Science Center, we had a brief time of socializing in front of the building and then we were whisked off by our guides to photograph the animals.  The Science Center is not a huge facility, but they do have some interesting animals that you might not find in other locations.  One animal they have is the maned wolf.  This wolf is a solitary wolf found in South America.  He eats small rodents and even vegetation as part of his diet.  They are also in a large enclosure which means I can test different modes and techniques without my subject running off.

I started out photographing this animal using the single point expand autofocus option with lock-on, just as I had before.  However, I noticed that with the maned wolf, the autofocus wanted to grab focus on the nose of the wolf.  It is important that you use a single point when photographing animals with long noses.  This is how I would have photographed them when using my Canon 7D II, but I wanted to see just how smart the camera was.  Note that according to Sigma customer service, animal eye detect is not fully supported with the MC-11.  Just with any camera, it really comes down to knowing which autofocus mode to use for a given situation.  Below is an image I took of the maned wolf.

Maned Wolf - Sony a7 II, Sigma 150-600C, MC-11, 600 mm, ISO 2000, 1/200th
Here, lock-on mode worked.  I think mainly this was due to the eye being more prominent and easy for the lock on to follow. The nose being off to the left slightly also helped.

A few days later, I was back to photographing songbirds and that is where I will end the testing.  By now in the testing, I was really getting the hang of all the button locations and quirks of using the Sony.  Below is an image of a mourning dove using single point expand without lock-on.

Mourning Dove Before a Storm - Sony a7 III, Sigma 150-600C, 600 mm, ISO 1600, 1/400th

So, I hope this testing was helpful to you in some way.  I can tell you, that for me, it was fun and interesting to test out this fairly new beast, but I still have one question to answer.  Would I keep it? Wow, that is is a big question isn't it, and the answer for me was not an obvious one.  I wish I had a clear answer on it based on the testing, but one day I would say I was keeping it and the next day I wanted to return it.  

In the end, I had to look at my findings from a completely logical perspective. I couldn't base a decision on emotion or some reviewer online. So, in the end I decided to keep it and here is why:

  1. Canon offers no full frame camera at this price point with so many features, period!
  2. I can adequately use my Sigma 150-600mm lens via the MC-11.  It isn't perfect, but it will work good enough
  3. Focus peaking is a feature I will use all the time
  4. Great image quality, but not amazing
  5. 4K Video - I find myself dabbling in this more every day
  6. In body image stabilization
  7. Lock-on mode is awesome for moving subjects
  8. Animal eye detect with Sony lenses
  9. Silent shutter (do I need to say why I like this)
  10. Great low light performance

Is it as great as people say it is online?  No, it isn't.  Is it better than anything else at this price point?  Yes, it is and that is the bottom line isn't it?  If money was no object, I would have an a9 or a Canon 1DX Mark II.  It comes down to a personal decision based on what your needs are.  I have my own needs, just as you do.  I needed a full frame camera that can fill in the gaps in the Canon 7D Mark II.  It needed to have great low light performance at the least, since my Canon does not.

It is also important to note that I have no plans to abandon my Canon gear.  I have a great deal of time and money tied up in Canon products and I still think the Canon 7D Mark II has great image quality and the fact it is APS-C gives me the extra reach I need in many situations.  For the situations that my 7D II can't handle, I get out the Sony.  It is really that simple!  Even if I were to switch completely to Sony it would be at least two years until that happens.  My experiences with this camera will help mold that decision.

Again, I hope you enjoyed this series on the Sony a7 III.  Now, get out there and enjoy nature.

If you haven't already done so, please check out Part I of this series as it will help you understand this blog entry better.

Gear Used for Testing

For the second series of tests, I decided to head to the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee.  Here, I was better able to test the Sony against mammals and shoot some water features.  Since, I live close to the Smokies, I can make it to the location on a day trip.

After about a 3.5 hour drive, I was on location at Cataloochee, NC.  This is an area of the Smokies I often go to, to photograph Rocky Mountain Elk.  On this day, however, there were no elk to be found.   Not only were there no elk to be found, but no turkeys either.  Both, are usually common here.  After some head scratching moments, I found myself photographing Cataloochee Creek. That is the great thing about the smokies. There are always opportunities and sometimes you just have to switch to Plan B when you are at a location.

As the testing continued, I noticed I was becoming fairly familiar with the Sony, so finding the right settings was not difficult at all.  I have to say though, I missed having the top LCD that I have gotten so used to using on the Canon DSLR cameras.  It is nice to just glance down on it and make quick changes.  However, you can pop out the back viewfinder on the Sony and kind of accomplish the same task by using the various display options.

I put my Sony A7 III on my tripod, changed to uncompressed RAW and made several images from 20 to 30 seconds of the water.  Some images were made using a polarizing filter and some were not.  For a lens, I chose the Canon EF 24mm f2.8 set at f22. My ISO was set to 100.  Really there was too much diffraction at f22. I would have been better off using f11 and focus stacking.  

I thought that overall, the image quality was amazing.  It is easy to see why Sony cameras are used so heavily by landscape photographers.  I particularly thought the greens were well represented, but I thought the dynamic range could have been a little better.  Below is an example of the shots at Cataloochee Creek.

Cataloochee Creek - Sony A7 III, 30 Seconds, 24mm, f22, ISO 100
My day was certainly not over at this point, so I loaded everything back in the car and headed over a couple mountains to Cherokee, NC to see if there were any elk near there.  I arrived maybe 40 minutes later at this location, but again, found no elk.  Such is the life of a wildlife photographer.

So, at this point, I had a choice.  I could wait here and see if the elk would make an appearance, or I could make a  two hour run over to Cades Cove in Tennessee.  Being in a fairly adventurous mood, I headed for Cades Cove.  At the same time, the clouds began to move in.  This was actually a blessing and would allow me to shoot all day long.

Two hours later, I arrived at Cades Cove and entered the car touring loop.  The first pass was quiet, but on the second pass, I found a few whitetail does to try my hand at.  I was using the expand flexible spot with lock-on mode for all of the doe shots and my ISO was 1600 plus.  Below are two images from that fairly short shoot.

Cades Cove, TN - Whitetail Deer (ISO 1600, 1/800, Sigma 150-600, 347mm)

I spent another couple hours here and also photographed some turkeys.  I didn't think they were really good enough to put in this blog, I left them out.  At this point in the game, it was getting to be later in the afternoon.  Knowing that I was now close to five hours from home, I decided it was best to head back up over the mountains.

As I came back into the Cherokee, NC area, I was met with a good surprise.  The herd of elk were making their way toward the main road to cross.  I quickly made a u-turn and pulled off the side of the road.  I knew I wouldn't have much time, so I quickly got my gear together and headed over to the open fields they were crossing.

Almost as soon as I started shooting I noticed an elk calf running to catch up with the herd.  I switched on the camera and started shooting.  This would be a good test for the camera's tracking.  Later, I determined the burst only got about 1 frame sharp out of the series.  This was a bit of a disappointment for me.  I should also note that I had a good lock on the elk's head, so there was no user error here.  Below is the best image and even it is not super tack sharp.  It is acceptable sharpness.

Cherokee, NC - Elk Calf Catching up with the Herd, Sigma 150-600, f6.3, 600 mm, ISO 500, 1/2000

I continued to monitor the herd, but it was getting harder as they tried to make the crossing across the road.  I managed to get this shot below of one of the bull elk heading for the road.

Cherokee, NC - Bull Elk in Velvet, Sigma 150-600, f6.3, 421 mm, ISO 1250, 1/2000

At this point it was quickly getting late and I really needed to head home.  That is, if I wanted to get home before midnight.  So, I reluctantly gathered my gear and off I went.

On this second outing with the camera, I certainly became much more acquainted with how it works and felt like I was becoming much more proficient.  However, there are still several more tests to come, before I am ready to put my seal of approval on it.  Here are the pros and cons from photographing mammals in the Smokies.


  • The buffer is really great when using compressed raw.  I never ran out of buffer when shooting these animals.
  • Being able to see the camera lock and follow the animal, even when using the expansion modes was awesome.  I call it the dancing green AF points.
  • Great image quality when photographing at higher ISOs.  By higher, I mean anything between 1600 and 6400.
  • Flip up screen was very useful when photographing low level flowers and fungi.
  • MC-11 loved my Canon 100mm Macro.  It drove the autofocus without issue.
  • Great looking greens in the landscape shots.


  • Unable to switch to silent mode because of the potential for distortion from running Elk.  That is a big bummer!
  • Autofocus seemed to struggle a bit on the running elk, even though it showed locked on.  Two of the best poses were missed. This is most likely and MC-11/150-600 issue.
  • Single point shooting not as effective as expansion modes with lock-on.  This causes focus to grab the noses and not the eyes.
  • Animal eye detect is not available at the time of this writing for the MC-11. I put a request in for Sigma to introduce it, but who knows.  That would have prevented the issue above.
  • It would be nice to be able to shoot uncompressed RAW with a deep buffer.