You can’t be suspicious of a tree, or accuse a bird or a squirrel of subversion, or challenge the ideology of a violet.Hal Borland
As we’re not able to get away for a holiday this June, we decided to take the time off in short bursts instead, having a couple of long weekends where we vowed to try and get proper holiday-style days out – with picnics and everything.
Thankfully, for our first such long weekend, there was gorgeous warm weather. It had been fabulously sunny over the weekend, but by the Monday and Tuesday, it had gone a bit more cloudy and humid and oppressive instead. But we managed two proper full days out and without resorting to coats or waterproofs, which is always a bonus.
We went first to a new place for us; Mere Sands Wood Nature Reserve in West Lancashire, a Lancashire Wildlife Trust wetland nature reserve and it only cost £2 for parking all day. It was a lovely place that we’ll certainly visit again. You walk in a loop around the mere, mostly in woodland and there were bird feeding stations and hides at suitable positions, where you can sit and look at the various wildlife using the mere. There had been kingfishers in residence a couple of days earlier and we sat waiting for a while at their favourite perch but didn’t see any evidence of them. Regular visitors who came into the hide said they hadn’t been seen for the last 3 days and must have moved on. Shame, I would have been enthralled to see them that close, I’ve only had two fleeting glances of a kingfisher before.
As we were already near the Merseyside coast, we headed off to Formby Point where there is a reserve for red squirrels and we haven’t been for a while. It had been a hot day and the National Trust wardens in attendance said it was too hot for the squirrels, so they hole up in their dreys during the day and come out when it cools. As it was now around 5pm and there was a nice sea breeze, we were hopeful for a siting. Thankfully, they did decide it was time to emerge and find some food, so we did see many of them scampering around in the trees. They make it a little easier to spot them as their claws do make a scratching sound in the trees, so if you stand still and quiet, you can locate them by sound. They move very fast though and many of the photos I got were of disappearing tails or a blur of movement.
The little chap I did get decent photos of (below in the gallery), albeit it a distance up a tree, seemed quite curious about me and kept coming back for a look, so that made it easier for me as at least he stood still for a few moments.
The time came when I could put it off no longer. My on-line shop was using a shopping cart system that was now three whole generations behind the times. Google tell me when I advertise, that I’m missing business because I don’t have a mobile phone compatible site and well over 40% of my advert-clickers do so on a smart phone (which means that they probably don’t actually ‘click’ anything at all). Add to that the impending PayPal increased security requirements, I decided it was time to look that elephant in the room right in the eye. I might even go right over there and give his damn trunk a tweak!
So after much hair pulling and gnashing of teeth, my new, smartphone responsive and now fully secure site has been officially launched. There’s a great deal to it and it takes a huge amount of work to get it how you want it, hence not much new jewellery to report. Fine tuning pages for the new design will be a work in progress for a little while yet, but all the major stuff has been addressed – and I believe it’s working well.
If you’d like to try it out, I’d welcome any comments as there’s limited value in my own testing as I know how it works and what to expect and if you would like to make a purchase, there’s a launch coupon for 10% off across the shop (gift certificates are excluded, minimum spend £10), valid until the end of June 2016 – just enter LAUNCH10 in the appropriate box in the basket.
You’ll need to view the gallery to see the daft bunnies.
It’s that time again, I have flowers in the garden, so you’ll get bored of insect close-ups.
I’m always astonished by the complexity and yet delicacy of their wings.
It was hard to catch these lambs boinging, as they tend to randomly launch upwards without warning.
Another favourite spot we park in when it’s warm, as we have shade under the trees, a nice outlook and it’s very quiet.
We walked around a nature reserve and spotted a few Speckled Wood butterflies under the trees.
There were masses of dragonflies – and large ones too – flitting about, but rather too far away to get a decent photograph.
This robin followed us for a while – I think he knew I keep sunflower seeds in my camera bag.
It had been a hot day and they’d only just emerged from their dreys and this one still had bedding in his hair.
This gorgeous little chap kept a close eye on what I was up to.
Promise you’re not going to take a photo of my bum as I scamper away!
Oops, I’ve been sprung eating nettles. Just stand dead still and she might not see me.
Maybe if I hide she’ll go away. If I can’t see her, I’m obviously invisible to her too.
I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance that I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn. Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)
I think this time of year may well be my favourite – long days, warm sunshine without humidity and excess heat and with pristine new foliage and plants emerging with all the summer ahead of us. I love that point, usually in mid-May, when the natural world just explodes into life. There’s often a period of warm sunshine and spring showers and that combination of light and water seems to conjure up some magic in the things that grow and we go from the hint of things about to develop to being surrounded by lush bright green foliage and an increase in bird song and insects buzzing.
I have several bird feeders in the garden and when I fill them and the clean the bird bath (just what do birds do to get the bottom of it full of grit every time I top it up?!) I make a point of standing still nearby until the birds return to them, so that they’re used to me being there and associate me with the supply of food. I decided to put this to the test by taking my camera outside one day when the area was in sunshine and hoping that they’d tolerate me taking some photos and many of the frames below are as a result.
One particular supposed ‘squirrel proof’ feeder has been in use for many years and the lid long since became dis-attached – a combination of rust and persistent efforts by the squirrels to remove it. I’d had it wired on and this necessitated unraveling the wire and replacing it tightly each time I filled it. On a couple of recent occasions, the lid was either loose or had been completely removed and I wasn’t sure how a squirrel could get it unwrapped so easily. Until I saw him in action – his technique comprised getting his nose under one edge of the lid and using brute force to lever the lid back, away from the opening.
I walked past the kitchen window the other morning and something moving outside caught my eye, but took several seconds before my brain could compute what I was seeing. This supposed ‘squirrel proof’ feeder was swinging violently and there was a mass of grey fur protruding from the top. The silly squirrel had only entered it nose first to get at the seed, which was quite low in the feeder and had seemingly got stuck. He extracted himself after a struggle and as he stayed put on the adjacent branch, I grabbed the camera, hoping that he’d find the proximity of the seeds too tempting, which he did.
He just shimmied into it until his mouth met seeds and proceeded to eat until I took pity on him and took him some seed of his own out. He again had a heck of a job backing out of it and then sat on the branch above, not three feet from me, looking at me as though everyone tackled their breakfast in the same way, so what was I laughing at. I love how squished his ears are and I wonder where his front legs are, as he’s only seemingly hanging on by his back legs. I’ll need to wire the lid on especially tight, as I don’t want to be responsible for him getting stuck in there.
You can click on any of the photographs to see a larger version and then run through them in sequence. There are captions to accompany each photograph.
It’s quite a miracle that there’s no camera shake in this image as I was laughing very hard.
We have a pair of nuthatches who are seen regularly on both feeders and the bird tables.
One of my female bullfinches, we currently have two pairs who visit us daily.
We have a constant stream of visiting goldfinches, which noisily squabble over the feeders, even though there’s plenty to go around.
All of my wren photos are ‘making the best of a bad job’ as they’re small, move fast and are an almost impossible target.
House sparrows are not as prolific as you might think, being in decline over recent years.
We have a pair of nuthatches in the garden and we see them many times a day and are less timid than other species.
One of my pair of resident nuthatches. I just caught this series of photographs as we returned home in the car and it was on the wall adjacent to where we park.
A great tit working on a sunflower seed just picked up from the feeders.
It looks like this wren was stood still all day, where in reality it flashed through the scene in about 2 seconds.
The nuthatch was intently watching something, then hopped down and snagged some creepy crawlies in the wall below.
The young sparrows often settle in the honeysuckle adjacent to our outside table, seemingly unconcerned by our proximity.
One of several young sparrows that flit about the garden, even when we’re sitting out there for a meal.
I’ve learnt to identify particular sparrows as each has their favourite perches and route through the garden.
This entire blossom head is about 12mm in diameter, so I was astonished to see how hairy it was when seen much larger than life in a photograph.
What could be lovelier on an early summer evening than listening to a babbling brook and bird song.
“A lot of photographers think that if they buy a better camera they’ll be able to take better photographs. A better camera won’t do a thing for you if you don’t have anything in your head or in your heart.” Arnold Newman
I’ve been taking photographs for a very long time now, but I still have a perpetual and on-going battle with some aspects of image production. The word battle is perhaps rather negative and might give the wrong impression – perhaps tussle would be better.
My current (and I’m prepared to bet that I’ve blogged about it before too) opponent is image file formats and software and how to get the best possible image from the files you download from the camera. I suspect this is a matter that will never be put to rest, due to the persistent and alarmingly fast march of technology.
Dropping some pounds:
I decided a while ago that I’d enjoy my photography more if I ditched some weight. Whilst my own personal battle with the pounds is truly perpetual, thankfully the camera poundage was rather more easily fixed. Upon delivery of my latest acquisition at the weekend, I reached a stage where I felt very happy with my current gear. That doesn’t preclude the rather obvious caveat that if I had the pennies I could make myself even happier, but for now, I’m very content. I think it’s perhaps the greater simplicity I’ve brought to bear on my gear selection that removes the dilemma of which lenses to take on any one given day.
I sold a couple of heavier lenses that overlapped considerably in their focal range and replaced them with one much lighter and smaller lens that covered a good percentage of their range – a net difference of around 600g lost from my bag. So my lightweight Canon 100D body is paired with the ‘kit’ lens at 18-55mm, supplemented by its companion 55-250mm. Both have Image Stabilisation and a ‘stepping’ motor which makes focus fast and almost silent – and the IS helps with my habit of preferring to hand hold, even though I’m already pretty steady.
The kit lens I have is an especially sweet copy and I’m very fond of it and the longer one, albeit only used a little yet, looks pretty good too. I can do landscapes, stitching multiple shots, as required, for the panoramas I like to create (in place of the ultra wide lens I already sold to fund the camera body) and decently long shots at 250mm for wildlife etc. I also have various combinations of extension tubes and close up filters to allow me to get close to little things, something else I enjoy doing. The bluebell shot above was taken with the 250mm at full zoom, as it allows me decent magnification, but from far enough away to prevent me casting a shadow over the subject in bright sunshine.
The weight and volume of gear I’d choose to take on holiday or on a day out has been more than halved, yet the flexibility remains. The additional pixel density and image quality I have with the 100D means that I can easily crop tighter on a 250mm shot to make up the loss of focal length at 300mm I had on an earlier 8MP camera, so I don’t feel that I’ve actually lost anything.
Getting to grips with my Nikon:
I also supplement my DSLR kit with a supposedly ‘pocket’ camera for the times I don’t want to carry much – although the Nikon P7000 I’m currently using is a tad larger than is truly pocket-able. But having reviewed lots of models that I might be able to afford second hand (after its predecessor just rolled over and died one weekend), I was swayed by the image quality and features and size seemed less important. Having been a long term Canon and Fuji user (I still have several Fujis in regular use too), the Nikon ‘thinks’ differently, so it has taken longer to get to know and I’m only just getting to grips with it. But I’m happy that it has a considerable amount of the image capability that I enjoy from my DSLR in a much smaller package (I miss a proper viewfinder though) – and I paid less than 15% of its original new RRP on eBay and it had only taken about 500 frames. I also managed to sell the broken one for spares and accessories for about a quarter of that, so I feel I have a bargain.
I’m finding the Nikon image quality very good from RAW files especially. It doesn’t seem very competent at retrieving highlights if you over-expose, but makes up for it by being very good in shadow areas. I’ve got some outstanding results from areas that were totally black in the original JPEG. This can often come at the expense of additional noise or other artifacts, but I’m not finding that to be the case – but highlights recovered can give rise to some very funky effects. So I have at least learned one lesson this week – don’t over-expose the Nikon.
The montage left features some detail crops from test images I took to test exactly this. I deliberately exposed the shots to preserve the highlights in a very high contrast scenes. In the kitchen shot top, I was concentrating on preserving some detail in the view out of the window, which included some sky and in the garden shot below, I wanted to keep the white fluffy clouds in the sky with nice detail.
Both images consequently ended with areas of deep shadow, completely black in some instances, even with low in-camera contrast, but which I was able to get really good detail back into when developing the RAW file. With the kitchen image, it is actually a blend of two exposures, one for the outside scene and one for the deep shadow areas – from memory there were over 3 stops of difference between them. If you really needed a shot like that to work, you’d use fill flash or some other technique to get a better original, but these were deliberately shot badly to find the limits of the camera. In the garden shot, you can see that the grey lamp post at the top is tonally almost the same between the two shots, I’ve only lifted shadow, not just lightened the image.
To JPEG or to RAW?
So the hardware is sorted, the software is the element I’m still at odds with. I’m pretty sure that I’ll never come to a truly satisfactory conclusion and will never find a one size fits all solution. I have my preferred way of working – I like to take pictures with the images manipulated in camera as little as possible, preferring to do my own post processing to taste later. Consequently, I like to take RAW images and develop these in software, supplemented by the best possible quality of JPEG I can get out of the camera. To achieve this, I lower all the processing parameters and the images I get off the camera tend to be rather flat and dull. But this tends to preserve as much detail as possible and gives me a good basis to work with.
There’s a good argument that if I’m taking a RAW image anyway, I don’t need the additional JPEG, as one is always embedded with the RAW file. But having fallen foul of software no longer supporting early RAW files and preferring to use old image retouching software that doesn’t support RAW files, for me, taking both formats covers my options a little better and I feel happier knowing that I have both versions for the future. I have tried extracting the JPEG from the RAW file, as taken, but this sometimes gives variable results.
It is my practice that if the JPEG is good out of camera, I’ll work with that, but if it needs something more, I’ll be happy to develop the RAW version. Of all the images I publish here, I think they’re probably about half and half from each format. Generally speaking, landscapes need to be worked from RAW, macros and close ups are often fine from the JPEG. There have been a couple of images recently where no matter what I tried, I couldn’t get a better image from the RAW than the camera had managed with the JPEG, so why fix it if it ain’t broke. The bumble bee in the yellow tulip above is one such example.
RAW development software:
It’s the developing RAW files that is the core of my issue – I have several programs to do this and not one satisfies my needs. Cameras that can take RAW files do provide you with software, which is, as you’d image, perfectly set up to get the best from their own equipment. But they can also be limiting in terms of features and are often very specific to one model of camera. As this development software can be heavy on computer resources, having several open together might not be practical either.
What frustrates me is that if I were to develop the same image in three pieces of software, in addition to my usual JPEG workflow, I could end up with 4 different versions – each of which has good and bad bits. One application is very good with sky colour, another has better colour tweaking options, one leaves skies noisy but is good with grass texture, another is good with shadow detail etc. etc. Couple this with the fact that the resulting image sizes will differ slightly and corrected lens issues and perspective manipulation will result in slightly different shapes, I can’t just layer the resulting image files and blend the best from each, more’s the pity.
I do love working with RAW images and the option to get the resulting image better than the camera could manage at the time – it’s very satisfying to get a workable image from a file that initially looked totally lost, as the river scene above, which had a blown sky, flat green foliage (it was the end of August and the subtlety of trees just starting to turn was lost) and deep detail-less shadows. As I like to take landscapes and scenics, these often need more help than the camera can manage, due to the wide dynamic range you’re likely to encounter, from white fluffy clouds to deep shadow under trees.
So the only way forward is to start with my preferred program and if I don’t get the results I want, try it in another and see if I like that better. You only need to look at my work bench and see that I regularly use about 20 different pliers – clearly one pair isn’t suitable for everything, so software is just the same – as always, the best practice must be ‘the best tool for the job’.
With some of the lovely weather we’ve had recently, I’ve been out in the garden and a little further afield and these are some of the photographs I’ve taken. They’re a mix of Canon DSLR photos (file name will show a ‘d’ suffix) and also from my more compact Nikon P7000 (‘n’ suffix). Some were processed from the JPEGs and some from the RAW file. As an experiment, I’ve taken some of the closer shots using close up filters in front of the lens (on both cameras) – I usually use extension tubes between the camera body and lens.
If you’re interested in how shots were taken, I usually leave the EXIF image in gallery images, so you should be able to access it with a browser plug-in.
A baby robin seemed to be taking his first bath. He’d stop and look at me as if to ask if he was doing it right.
A fern frond just uncurling. It’s staggering to me that the complex structure generates within the tiny tight bud.
A large bumble rested for a while in this intense yellow tulip, allowing me to get some photographs.
I’d meant to pull up this dandelion seed head the day before, but when I saw it catching the sun I was glad that I hadn’t.
I was taking photographs in the early evening sunshine when I realised I had an audience.
I love photographing landscapes where the sky forms an important part of the scene.
This tulip was rather small and certainly past its best, but I loved the abstract of the colours and textures.
I have a lot of self-propagated ferns in the garden and I love this time of year where they unfurl, fully formed.
The tight bud of a fern frond about to unfurl itself, already fully formed.
A dandelion seed head catching the early morning sun, against an area of deep shadow.
I think an insect has laid some eggs in the bluebell at the bottom left and then glued the petals around them to keep them safe.
Another of my spring time favourites; wild garlic or ramsens.
The intense and fabulous colour of native British bluebells in the early evening sunshine.
The fabulous abstract shapes and colours of a tulip just past its best. The petals look like satin.
All the buds are emerging and this oak leaf cluster opens with the male flowers already in place.
It’s possible to get a much better dynamic range in images like this when processing them from the RAW file.
Oh! roses and lilies are fair to see; But the wild bluebell is the flower for me. Louisa A. Meredith. The Bluebell. (1922)
On visiting a place that is set in fabulous grounds, I saw that in the week since I was last there, the bluebells have all burst forth in flower. We’d commented last week that they were just emerging and would soon be at their peak, so were thankful that the sun was out this time and I walked the last few hundred yards so that I could both enjoy them and take some photographs.
Over the last couple of visits we have enjoyed very good patches of primroses at the edge of the woodland and whilst many exposed patches are now passing their peak, with faded flowers, some in shady spots are just at their best, now snuggled up in the fast growing grass with bright blue forget-me-nots and a few pink primulas.
Whilst summer tends to offer up blousy, vibrant and colourful blooms, designed to make the most of the insects that are most active in warm sunny weather, I am personally very fond of the more subtle, diminutive blooms of spring. Those little delicate things that have to time their peak in that niche of time between improving weather, longer days and warming sunshine and the time when the trees gain their foliage, blocking out the light to the woodland floor below.
Bluebells are perhaps some of the more obvious woodland flowers at this time of year, because their spreading carpet tends to look at its most intense when glanced from a distance, where perspective foreshortens the distance between the blooms, deceiving the eye into thinking that there are more than there probably are. You can see that illustrated in my photographs, especially on the left, where there seem to be many more in the distance than the foreground, but in reality they’re evenly spread. When you get close to bluebells growing, they’re often quite thinly spread out, but en mass at a distance, they’re much more impressive.
There are few sights that would gladden my heart as much as a carpet of bluebells amongst deciduous trees, illuminated by the glow of warm spring sunshine, it feels like such a treat – and one that is often hidden and you have to seek out to enjoy. They seem to be early too – it was over a month later last year when I made a similar post about bluebells – those photographs being taken on the 23rd May.
You can view the images in sequence by clicking on any photograph and using the next and back arrows.
What a dense and fabulous collection of spring blooms at the base of this tree.
The bluebells take advantage of the warming spring sunshine before the leaves emerge. There are also yellow Celandines just flowering through the leaf litter.
A gorgeous carpet of bluebells spread through deciduous woodland.
It’s such a heart-warming sight to see bluebells emerge in woodland, especially when lit by glorious spring sunshine.