Sunday, 10 October 2010

Photographing Kingfishers - where the sun don't shine!

One of the big problems working in Britain is that the sun is rather shy. As I'm obsessed with light it causes me real problems and I am more often than not forced to use strobes to mimic good sunlight. This is quite possible small scale but not big scale. For the shot above I had no choice however - the kingfishers were nesting under a dark overhang that never saw the sun. I was very keen to use the sun in the background though - to cast some light and give it some depth. It was a grey old week though and I was forced to light the entire shot artificially. Here's how I did it.

Firstly I got myself a Schedule One license for Natural England - this allows me to photograph kingfishers at the nest - It is illegal to do work on kingfishers at the nest without one.

Then I worked out my angles - At first I started shooting wide shots, getting the birds very close to the camera but keeping the lens very wide. Working remotely meant I was sitting in my hide on the other side of the river and my camera was on a 50ft cable on a tripod next to the nest. To make this cable I simple bought a role of thin 3 core black wire from Maplin or B&Q, snipped it, snipped my standard Canon cable release and wired the two together - twisting each wire round its corresponding wire and then sealing with insulating tape. The three wires in the cable release do two things - two of them when touched form a short to instantly take a picture - the third sends a pulse to wake the camera up. I tend to use all three when putting patch cables into cable releases as it means that the camera can be set to shut down and by half depressing the button on the release I can wake the camera up again (or trigger the autofocus). I use just two for other applications such as camera traps when I want the camera to just take pictures and not worry about auto focussing or turning on and off.

I get the camera on the tripod very close to the nest hole - 1 to 2 ft normally. The birds don't mind it, I do however let them fly in and out a few times without triggering so they get use to it but I have never had a problem with them being concerned by it - this is also true with strobes attached. As I wanted wide close-up shots with depth for the first pictures I really needed some sunshine - for the first few days I got a bit in the mornings but despite shooting a few frames never got one that really worked, there would always be a problem with the lighting or the composition or some annoying stick in frame or the bird not being in a good position.  I also really struggled balancing the light with the background - I needed more than my strobes would give me and made the foolish mistake on compromising on flash duration - The strobes were set to manual and I pushed them to one quarter power which gave me the light I needed but the duration wasn't fast enough to freeze the wings of the bird and as a result it was not sharp.

The light was nice but the bird wasn't frozen by the flash.
 I was really frustrated by the wide shot  as it was so nearly right - the bird looked nicely lit and so did the river. The bird had three strobes on it. The key light was up high to the right of cam.  I put a warm up gel on it, an Ominbounce diffuser. I then taped some leaves to it which diffused the light more and made it all shafty. The second light was a very faint fill off to left of the camera and the third was further off to left of the camera on the other side of the river, this also had a gel and was only just out of frame which meant it flared slightly into the left hand side of frame, making the shot look more sunny. In order to get the whole shot sharp I shot it at F13 for 1/30th of a second. I also used an app on my iPhone to help me work out the depth of focus, which I could then maximise. 1/30th is obviously slow, however I often shoot like this. I make sure the bird flies into an area of darkness so that nothing is lighting it or its immediate background, this means that I can get away with very slow shutter speeds, relying on the flash to blast it with light and expose it - if the bird flies into the wrong part of the frame it won't work as the background will burn through the bird and look, well, shite.   So 1/30th allows me to get a small aperture and thus a lot more in focus.

I purservered with this shot for a couple of days but eventually was forced to give up by the sun not shinning. Instead I went for close-ups. They didn't require sunlight but they did require lots of strobes. They also required much faster reactions from me - the wides are slightly more forgiving when trying to get a very fast bird nicely framed.

The first thing I did was stick my all time favourite lens on - Canon 100 mm Macro - it's not the expensive L Series one but it is stunningly sharp with great contrast. I will use this lens above all others if  I can. I moved the tripod back to about 5 ft from the nest and framed up on where I hoped the bird would be as it arrived at the nest entrance - I also prefocused the lens to where I thought its eye would be. To light the shot I used five flashguns. The first was the key light. This was a Canon 580 ex. I taped a single layer of warm-up gel onto it and set it to 1/8th power (fast enough to freeze the action). I magic armed this strobe up and to the right of the bird and camera. I then put a second flash off to the left of camera. This was a Vivitar 283 with Varipower unit set to 1/16th power. I put a Stoffen diffuser on this flash to really soften it. I also attached a slave unit to trigger it from the Canon flash (you need to set you Canon flashguns to 2nd curtain sync to make them work with other brand guns on slaves). A third flash was placed about 12ft from the bird off to left of cam (about 80 to 90 degrees). This just had a single warm up filter on it. I spent a lot of time fiddling with flash outputs to get the balance right - I wanted the key light to do the work but I didn't want it to look like a nasty great flashgun.

The balance of flashguns here is wrong - the bird doesn't stand out and the background is flat
Once I was happy with the lighting on the bird - I had a dirty great background to deal with. As the sun was not offering to help I had to get a couple more flashgun to do the work for me. The ivy hanging off the trees was the obvious thing to light but I had two problems to deal with. Firstly the slave units wouldn't work at 30 ft from the other flashguns. I cured this with an old Metz slave I have that takes a PC cord. I taped the slave to a tree near the key light and then wired it back to the distant flash unit. This I did in the usual way by simply snipping the sync cord and putting a long patch of cable into it. Once I got this distant flash working I could put another next to it on a slave. I whacked the power right up and aimed them both right at the ivy - this was the only way to get it lit up enough. It took me a few mornings to get this all working and obviously most importantly snap the picture when the bird was in exactly the right position. In the end I got two I was happy with.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Is there anything you don't take apart?

A couple of weeks ago Canon's man in the UK (well one of them) David Fidler came over to take some pictures of kingfishers. As I was running around getting all the stuff together for the hide - taking things apart to make other things, he asked me 'is there anything you don't take apart?' I explained that I hadn't taken apart the EOS 1D Mk4 that Canon had leant me, but it was simply a matter of time before I did. It got me thinking though; I am constantly taking kit apart to make new bits of kit and fix other bits, always in the pursuit of a shot of some animal that someone hasn't built the kit for photographing yet - and maybe, just maybe there are people out there who might be some how interested how I do it. So this is blog is for you - you the intrepid who aren't afraid to blow up the odd strobe, rewire the odd infra-red system or create a camera kit made predominantly of insulating tape.
me in infrared with flash
I have two current still shots that I'm working on. One is a shot of a wild otter in its holt (den) the other is an underwater camera trap shot of an otter underwater. As I haven't actually got either shot yet you may think that reading a blog about how to get the shot is a little premature. However this isn't about the shot it's about the kit I make and break. As my underwater camera trap is still a very sneaky and new invention I'm not going to reveal it for the moment. However I will explain the otter holt system.

Otters are incredibly shy and to get shots in the holt you need not only have a system that is silent but also invisible. I have two otter holts in my garden and one of them is very accessible - it's an old willow tree with a big crack in it, big enough to get and arm and camera in. I've filmed otters in this holt using infrared cameras for years but never managed to photograph them - hopefully this is about to change.

First thing to do was find a silent camera. SLRs are useless as they have a mirror that needs to flip up and down and a fairly hefty shutter - both of which make too much noise. I had to find a compact - a camera with no mirror and a very quiet shutter. There are plenty around but I also needed full manual control. I opted for a Canon G11. I am a massive fan of the G10 and G11, they are stunning little cameras that anyone can shoot high quality pics on. I spoke to Advanced Camera Services in Norfolk, who'd just converted a Canon 5D MK2 to infrared for me. They though that it would be possible to convert a G10/11 too. A few months later however I found that Canon had got one converted and they were happy to lend it to me.

The camera is stunning and the results very interesting - all pink and purple but lovely. The first thing I needed to do was shut down all automatic features. I was planning to leave the camera out for a long period of time and didn't want it retracting the lens or doing anything else. What I wanted was for the camera to stay in a standby mode and have a PIR (passive infrared sensor) wake it up when the otter entered the holt. After fiddling with the camera I discovered this wasn't possible - the pulse from the PIR would only get it to take a photo and if it shut down the PIR wouldn't wake it back up again. The only thing to do was stop it shutting down. To achieve this I bought a mains power supply for it. This would mean the camera was permanently on but ready for action.

Next step was to make it weatherproof. To do this I bought a small Pelicase. It was just the right size for the camera. Me and my mate Dave Evans (an ex-BBC film engineer) cut a hole in the front for the lens and another in the side for the wires. I took it home and bodged it all together - The camera lens wasn't wide enough so I put on a cheapo wide angle adapter that I found on Amazon. It sort of fitted through the hole Dave had drilled but needed a little help from my Leatherman. In the side I fitted a cable gland and managed to get three wires through it - USB, power and trigger.

Canon G11 housing with slave in front
When the main unit was finished I needed to get it working with the flash. I wanted a system that I could leave on for days. Most flash units on AA batteries will only last 12-24 hours. Which wasn't long enough so I had to make a system that was. I am a massive fan of Vivitar 283 flashguns - they're old school and cheap. I looked for a way of powering them from a larger battery and asked around people in the know. Almost everyone said don't - you'll blow them up. Undetered however I thought I'd give it a go. I bought  a cable from Robert White Photographic, designed to power a 283 from a Quantum battery pack. It was perfect as it fitted the battery compartment. The other end of the cable had a male phono on it. I figured out that the flash needed 6v and around 3amps to work fast and effectively. I found some 6V 3 Amp batteries from RS Online and wired them up with a female phono head - plugged it into the Quantum lead and flash and hey presto - it worked! It's bloody great. The battery lasts for about four to five days!
my home made 6v power supply

The flash then needed to be infrareded. I have a box of old infrared filming lights that don't work. Some have infrared LEDs others have dark IR filters. I found one like this and managed to rip the filter out with a pair of pliers. I then put it on the vice and cut it in half with a stanley knife - which was a bit like cutting a sheet of glass in half. It worked though and when I taped it onto the front of the flash it made the perfect IR flash. To diffuse I stuck and Omnibounce on the front.

Obviously I needed to fire the flash and was having trouble trying to wire the G11 to the Vivitar - the flash just wouldn't fire. The only thing to do was use the small flash on the G11 to fire the Vivitar via a slave unit. This was pretty simply. I stuck a slither of red gel across the G11 flash (otters cant see red well) and velcroed my slave onto the housing next to the small flash - then wired to slave to the flash on a 1 m PC cord.
All the kit that was going into the holt.

It took me hours to get the system into the holt - these things always do. I rewired several bits several times and bits stopped working and all the usual shite.
me sticking the camera in the holt

The PIR system I used is a new brand new system called Traxwatch which is by far the simplest and best camera trap system I have ever used (I have helped develop it a little). Luckily the Traxwatch is wireless so not much went wrong with it. I had trouble with camera mains supply so I scrapped it and found a battery charger that put out 7.5 volts and plugged into a cigarette lighter - after a bit of snipping and wiring I managed to get it powering the camera via the mains and another adapter. Having the USB plugged in meant that I could check the shots on the camera from my laptop - it's a shame that I couldn't 'live view' to the laptop but I guess you can't have it all.

The system has been in place now for nearly two weeks and has shot nothing but a squirrel. It is still working well though - so fingers crossed.

For the record - although I take kit apart and make other bits I am not suggesting you do. I am not qualified to do anything electrical. If people wish to replicate any of the projects they see on this blog they do so entirely at their own risk.

9th October - here's the latest results. The otters have knocked over my beam transmitter! Grrrrr

Still it shows we have two otters on the river - Probably mum and large cub.

Here's the latest Nov 2010 and it's starting to look good!

Second visit on 19th November

And another visitor! 24th November 6:08 a.m.