….. and later that same morning……….

The tern posts, Ynyslas

Having exhausted most of the wood warbler possibilities (see previous post) and with over 400 images to examine and process, my mind turned to other things. It was still early in the morning and just a few miles away it would be high tide at Ynyslas, at the mouth of the Dyfi estuary. I decided to head over there to have a look at the wader roost.

The low cloud that I could see filtering through the trees above Tre’r ddol was even lower than I thought. Cloud base at Ynyslas was between zero and a hundred feet. Nevertheless it was a gorgeous morning, warm and still and there was no moisture in the fog at all.  To acclimatise myself with the conditions I began a short walk without my camera gear. Swallows perched on bramble stems set against a white background would have made a wonderful graphic composition; why on earth had I left my gear in the van? At that moment I half-noticed two black and white birds flying through the fog together. My instinctive reaction was “shelduck”, and then “those shelduck sound like ringed plovers”. Something wasn’t quite right here. I quickly got the binoculars on to them and immediately identified a pair of avocets! I watched them fly past through the mistiness and never saw them again. Avocets are rarely seen in Ceredigion so I phoned the news through to a couple of local birders before doing anything else.

The tern posts #2

Moving onward it was difficult to know whether I should be looking for birds to photograph or concentrating on the watery, monochromatic landscape. I know Ynyslas like the back of my hand but I had never seen conditions like these before. Another photographer was setting up his gear near some vehicle barriers (which migratory terns sometimes roost upon) and I could see why. It was bang on high tide and the water was barely rippling around them. I used a fast shutter speed to stop the ripples, while he was using a neutral density filter, tripod and a long exposure to blur what slight movement there was.  I wonder what his pictures were like?

Personally I love the broken reflections of the tern posts, and the herring gull which landed on one of them during my picture taking sequence. ND filters can be over-used and – call me old-fashioned – the old ways are sometimes the best.

 

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A snapshot from the weather war zone.

It has been an interesting few days down on the sea-front at Aberystwyth recently, as unusually high spring tides and gale force winds coincided to create some extreme conditions. Last Friday morning a huge swell rolling in from the Atlantic, coupled with a gale from the south-west, produced the first spectacular but damaging high tide.

Mountainous seas at Aberystwyth
Mountainous seas at Aberystwyth

Saturday morning was quite surreal – still a massive swell but the wind had dropped out to virtually nothing. During the afternoon people strolled along the prom amongst the debris as if it were a summer’s day. But by Monday, despite a slightly lower tide, the wind was back to gale or severe gale, and boy – did it rain. Aberystwyth has never looked so grim. The local police were out in force by then and access to the promenade was severely restricted. I was told I would be arrested if I walked one stretch of South Parade – on a falling tide – despite the fact that I had already walked it in the opposite direction, quite safely, about half an hour earlier! I eventually realised that the best overall view of the prom would be from an elevated position on Constitution Hill at the northern end, and I was lucky that a brief sunny interval coincided with a rain stoppage while I was there. It’s amazing what a little back-lighting can do!

Aberystwyth Promenade
Aberystwyth Promenade

Of course what is spectacular in a visual sense can mean misery for those directly affected. As far as I’m aware no-one suffered serious damage at Aberystwyth but the prom itself looked like a war zone. Railings, benches, paving slabs and the like uprooted and flung around, and the “beach” moved about ten yards inland as far as the front of the hotels…..! The most obvious casualty was a seaside shelter which slowly subsided after the brick and concrete structure supporting it was washed away over a period of four days and nights.

A Saturday afternoon stroll at Aberystwyth
A Saturday afternoon stroll at Aberystwyth

On a broader scale the gravel pits and RSPB visitor facilities at Snettisham (Norfolk) which I enthused about in earlier posts were very seriously “re-arranged” in the North Sea storm surge earlier in December, and other coastal reserves have, unfortunately, also been badly damaged. Inevitably there’s now much talk about “rebuilding coastal defences” and/or “managed retreat” in this era of global warming. We know that sea levels have fluctuated naturally and widely over the past few thousand years but even this hard-won knowledge is just a snapshot in geological terms. Looked at with this perspective our civilisation really is built on shifting sands.

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Knots landing (Part 2) -or why we need a 7D mark 2 as soon as possible!

Oystercatchers, Snettisham (Canon 7D, 100-400L zoom
Oystercatchers, Snettisham (Canon 7D, 100-400L zoom
In the first part of this post I described in a general sense my recent visit to Snettisham to photograph its big wader flocks. This time, without getting into too much detail, I’m going to discuss some of the technique and equipment issues I experienced.

The big difference was that I had changed camera bodies between visits. About eighteen months ago I had purchased a Canon 7D to use as my bird photography body, and I thought it would be the answer to all my prayers. How wrong I was. At first I was surprised at how difficult the 7D’s autofocus system found it to distinguish between subject and background – a bird on a branch, for example. It often seemed specifically to focus on something outside the AF point that was placed so carefully on the bird. I’m still not sure if it was a malfunction, user error, or if I was just expecting too much of it.

Probably more seriously, I was taken aback at how poor the ISO performance was. Even at ISO 400, the results I was getting were markedly inferior to those I was accustomed to from my 5D2. That is perhaps to be expected from a camera with a crop sensor, and I have managed some absolute belters. But more often than not the resulting images have been what a fellow photographer described as “mush”. Underwhelming to say the least! Again it could be down to user error: at 400mm on a 1.6x crop camera any minor inadequacy will be magnified by almost thirteen times. Most wildlife photographers will be pushing a 7D to the limits of its abilities – long, heavy lenses, high ISO’s, narrow depth of field. What could possibly go wrong?

Just about everything. Image not quite sharp for some reason? Easy – turn to your software. Underexposed? Ditto. But in both cases the noise levels quickly become almost intolerable. It may be – and probably is – a good camera in the fairly undemanding situations where a DSLR is typically used. Many people swear by them. But as far as I can see, for its intended purpose – fast-moving action at long distances – the 7D just can’t quite cut the mustard. In my opinion it boils down to this: for good results the 7D demands absolutely immaculate technique.

So following the advice of other bird photographers, it looked like it might be possible to replace both my camera bodies (a 7D and a rather elderly 5D mark2) with a 5D mark3. This became viable once the camera’s firmware was upgraded to allow the use of autofocus on an f5.6 lens with a 1.4x extender. The 5d3 could do the job of both.

My second trip to Snettisham was its first outing as a bird photography lens. There are disadvantages. To reach the same level of magnification (roughly) as the 7D (with its crop sensor) I would also need the 1.4x extender, and this adds bulk and weight to my outfit. I cannot leave the 5D3 attached to my long zoom as I did with the 7D – I also need it for other things. The burst rate is slightly slower on the 5D3 – 6fps compared to 8fps – and this may be to be a slight disadvantage. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say, and I’ve been very pleased with the quality of the images so far. It is early days yet, and I’ve only just begun to dip in to the 402 page manual. But the latest images sharpen well, noise is negligible, really, compared to the 7D, and cropping down into the images gives very acceptable results.

On the first visit, dawn was bright and clear but thick fog very soon arrived. Very few of the waders on the pools were actually visible. It really was that thick! But over time the fog lifted to low cloud, leaving lighting conditions that were subdued but very even. Ideal, in fact, for photographing birds with high levels of contrast in their plumage, like oystercatchers (see above). It is difficult to expose correctly for any black and white bird in bright sunlight, so that was an unexpected bonus. Second time around, a gorgeous pink dawn was quickly replaced by powerful low sunlight, which cause some contrast problems for a while.

Photographing birds is a very different discpline to landscape. In some ways it takes me back to my early days when I tended to point, click and hope! But one refines one’s techniques over the years and I expect my hit rate will improve. As it is I’m spending a lot of time deleting images. But I’m sure even the most experienced pro’s will be looking for that one image from a motor-driven burst that catches the action perfectly. A far cry from parsimonious picture-taking of the landscape specialist.

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