A MORNING WITH THE SMALLEST


Immature male Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee and behind the camera after a busy week on a Sunday morning is hard to beat. We still have a number of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds around and as far I have seen it, they are all juvenile males. These young rowdies have the endless battle about the best feeders and bully each other whenever they can. Their ruby throat is not fully developed yet but the first feathers that look almost like scales start to peek out.

This summer the tiny hummingbirds have nested relatively early here and have probably already left towards the tropics some time ago. What we see are immature birds that have only recently hatched further north and that are now on their first journey to the south.

It had rained overnight again and an overcast still covered the sky this morning. I like this kind of soft light for my hummingbird photography. The MAGMOD MagBeam flash extender was used to throw some extra light at the birds and use the reflection of the feathers to bring out some colors.

There were many keepers on the memory card today but I always look for the special pose or gesture that makes the difference between a good picture and a photo that tells a story.

All images: Nikon D750, Sigma 150-600mm / f5-6.3 DG OS HSM S, Induro GIT 404XL tripod, Induro GHB2 gimbal head, Nikon SB 800 speed light, MAGMOD MagBeam flash extender

FROM THE ARCHIVE WITH A NEW APPROACH


John Hancock Center, Chicago, 2012

We are in the middle of a rainy and gray Sunday. Time to read, watch some photography lessons, or work on images. I pulled this photo from my photo library this morning. This shot of the John Hancock Center in Chicago was made already during summer 2012. The Nikon D300S and the still well trusted Zeiss Distagon T* 2/35 ZF with manual focus was the equipment of choice at that time. The intend with the original photo was always a black & white version but at the end it looked kinda flat. Probably one reason I never showed this image here in the blog. Today I tried a new approach and gave the photo some kind of fine art look. I just learned this technique over at kelbyone.com in their latest course. I always liked architectural photography and have a deep admiration for the masters of this genre. Maybe it’s time to do more of it myself…

MISSISSIPPI RIVER STORIES 2019 #12 - GREEN HERON


Green Heron with prey, Mississippi River, Mud Lake, iowa

Sometimes it is not possible to shoot with a low ISO setting if you want to capture what is in front of your eyes for just a brief moment. The moment can be as great as it gets, if you don’t have enough light, increasing the ISO setting in camera might be the only choice. I’m a big advocate for using the lowest possible ISO in order to have as much detail as possible. For my wildlife photography ISO100-200 is the standard, sometimes up to 400, very seldom beyond that.

Yesterday evening I took the Nikon D750 with the 70-200, f/4 with me while going for a walk down to the Mississippi River with our dog Cooper. When I saw this little Green Heron, who had just caught something and posed nicely on a piece of drift wood, I knew that 200 mm was really not enough focal length and light was critical. I still gave it a try, cranked up to ISO1600, and made the click. I shot in DX mode (with just part of the sensor), which already limits the amount of pixels to play with and still had to crop the image a little bit in Adobe Lightroom to make it work. The image needed of course more noise reduction than what is usually applied. With every little bit the noise reduction slider was moved to the right, more details in the bird’s feathers went away. I think the photo still tells the story of that moment down at the river and it works somehow here on the website, but making a nice print for the wall…? I guess not.

COLLECTING FOSSILS (YEP, LEGALLY!)


If you look at the second photo first, I don’t blame you if you ask me, have you been back in Badlands National Park, South Dakota again? No, not at all. Joan and I stopped on our way home from Pilot Knob State Park last Monday at the incredible Fossil & Prairie Park Preserve in Floyd County, Iowa, located just a few miles west of Rockford, Iowa. The park includes an abandoned shale pit, preserved kilns, and a large area of native prairie. Our time was limited and so we just explored the former shale pit.

Shale pit at Fossil & Prairie Park Preserve, Rockford, Iowa

The rocks in the park are Devonian formations and about 375 million years old. At that time Iowa was still located near the equator and seas covered most of the land. As a result we can find many small fossils between the relatively soft limestones and shales. And here is the cool thing, fossil collecting is encouraged within the park. And that’s what we did and enjoyed (beside making a few clicks with the camera). I found mostly Brachiopods as you can see in the first photo, but Joan had also some Gastropods, little snails that scavenged the ancient sea floor.

If fossils and rocks are not “your thing”, well, the native prairie area with some wetlands and a pond looked very promising. Unfortunately time was too short to explore all of it, but we definitely “bookmarked” this area in our brains for another visit sometime.

(source used for some details provided in this blog post: Park brochure by Iowa Geological Survey)

FROGS IN THE WOODS


Northern Leopard Frog, Pilot Knob State Park, Iowa

Pilot Knob State Park near Forest City, Iowa has without any doubt a lot to offer for nature lovers. Two lakes are within the park and one of them, Dead Man’s Lake, is a floating sphagnum bog, the only one of it’s kind in Iowa. It is surrounded by flowering plants, native trees, and shrubs. The natural features of the park are significant and most of the park is dedicated as a nature preserve.

We were delighted to see a large number of small Leopard Frogs jumping all over the place while we walked on a trail. If you are close enough the frogs sometimes change their survival behavior and just sit still, using their camouflage skin pattern in hope not to be seen and preyed on. The challenge for the photographer is to find a “window” between the grasses and plants that allows an unobstructed view of the frog. When you were in the park last weekend and saw a man in the middle of the trail, lying on his stomach or on his knees with the butt in the air, well, that was me… All photos were made with just natural light and ISO settings between 320 and 1000.

All images: Nikon D750, Sigma 150mm / f2.8 APO EX DG HSM

PILOT KNOB


Tower on Pilot Knob, Iowa

I hope my friends here in the US had a great Labour Day weekend and those of you who enjoy using a camera had a chance to make some extra clicks on your Monday off. We pitched our tent for a couple days at Pilot Knob State Park, located near Forest City in the north-central part of Iowa. Other than where we live, in the drift-less area, this landscape was formed by glaciers. They deposited the rocks and earth that formed the hills and valleys that are now Pilot Knob. Dedicated in 1923, it is one of the oldest parks in Iowa. The tower on top was built by the Civil Conservation Corps in the 1930’s (source: Iowa Department of Natural Resources website).

A little bit before sunset we hiked up to the tower. While I was still trying to make the best possible click of the warm sunlight on this old structure Joan lifted our little dog Cooper up on the wall that surrounds the observation deck. 

From the top you have a gorgeous view over some of the most fertile land in the world. Wooded little hills, small lakes and potholes, some wetlands and patches of restored prairie make this part of the state very charming.

All images: Nikon D750, Nikkor 70-200mm / f4

RESTORED PRAIRIE


Three photos from our hike through Proving Grounds Recreation Area near Dubuque yesterday evening. I don’t know how this all looked when it was still a testing ground for excavators, bulldozers, and other heavy duty machinery built by John Deere Works, but the open areas have been nicely restored as a prairie and the variety of wildflowers, grasses, and other plants is really great. John Deere Works donated this land to the Dubuque County Conservation Board in 2018.

It was a little windy, which was good for keeping the mosquitos down in the grass, but less helpful for closeup photography of insects or wildflowers. Nevertheless, a few sharp pictures emerged.

All images: Nikon D750, Sigma 150mm / f2.8 APO EX DG HSM

WHEN THE LIGHT IS RIGHT…


Last light, Proving Grounds Recreation Area, north of Dubuque, Iowa

Joan, our dog Cooper, and I went out for a mini hike this evening again. I only took the SIGMA 150, f/2.8 macro lens with me because our destination was the restored prairie areas in the new Proving Grounds Recreation Area north of Dubuque, Iowa. We have been there lately a few times and wanted to look again at the great variety of wildflowers before they are all gone.

We made some clicks and Joan tried to identify flowers and different kinds of prairie grass. The macro lens was the right choice today. However, my favorite photo of the day was made when we just started our return to the car and the last light of the sun over the ridge put some magic out. When the light is right it’s good to be ready for the click. The macro lens worked just fine for this unexpected nice moment.

MISSISSIPPI RIVER STORIES 2019 #11 - LANSING, IOWA


Here is a little location tip, not just for photography. Coming back from a short business trip to LaCrosse, Wisconsin today, I stopped at one of my favorite photo locations along the Great River Road. Just south of the little river town Lansing, Iowa is the Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center. From there you have a great view upstream with Lansing and the Black Hawk Bridge in the background. The scene reflects really the character of the driftless area and the Mississippi Valley. As a bonus a small local thunderstorm developed quickly and provided drama and some great clouds and colors.

I used the wide angle lens to catch as much of the clouds as possible and walked down and across the street to keep the road out of the foreground. If you don’t have any clouds or if they are not important, you can shoot with a longer lens and still keep the road out of the frame. What about the railroad bridge? This old beam bridge has character and becomes part of the storytelling.

If photography is not the only thing you have in mind, the Mississippi river town of Lansing has a lot to offer. Founded in 1851, downtown still has some authentic period architecture and little antique shops, boutiques, and restaurants are behind the storefronts. If you like to learn more about this scenic town and the area around it, check this link out: https://www.lansingiowa.com

AT PLATTE MOUND “M”


On top of Platte Mound, above the big “M”

Four miles east of Platteville, Wisconsin is Platte Mound. On its slope is the largest hillside letter “M” in the world. It is the symbol of the College of Engineering and was created in 1937. The M was constructed from limestone found on the mound. It is whitewashed every year by students. Here is a link where you can find more details: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Platte_Mound_M

Many times we drove on the highway to or from Madison, Wisconsin we have seen Platte Mound and the big “M” during the last fourteen years. However, we have never been at this landmark until yesterday.

Platte Mound M

Joan counted 290 steps to the top and from there you have a great view to the southwest. Several patches of prairie flowers made for a nice foreground in the first photo. A mile long hiking trail leads to the other end of the mound through a deciduous forest and along some interesting rock formations. 

I love to photograph clouds and I consider coming back for a more dramatic sky to Platte Mound and its unobstructed view.

All images: Nikon D750, Nikkor 16-35mm / f4, Breakthrough GND filter 0.6

MISSISSIPPI RIVER STORIES 2019 #10 - “CLOUD FINGERS”


Nikon D750, Nikkor 16-35mm / f4, Breakthrough GND filter 0.6

Heading back home from a business trip in Wisconsin a couple days ago I saw some nice clouds formations developing on the horizon over the Mississippi Valley. Just before crossing the river into Iowa I was finally able to pull off the highway to a rest stop, located on top of the bluffs that border the valley. It was too late, the magic I saw while driving, with sun beams breaking through the “clouds fingers”, was already gone. Still not bad, but too much of the sun in the west was covered. Color didn’t really play an important role in the scene for the story and doing this in B&W brings back a little bit of the drama in the sky.

NATURE CLICKS #435 - BROWN SNAKE


It has been 10 years and one month ago since a Brown Snake was in front of my lens. I have lamented numerous times about the fact that we hardly see any snakes anymore around here, probably due to snake fungal disease (SFD). This photo is a few days old, because I was out of town for business, but my excitement hasn’t really settled yet. This is not a photo for winning an award, but for me it is a very important documentary shot.

While filling a hummingbird feeder in the front yard I discovered this snake between our Brown-eyed Susan sunflowers. Brown Snakes are primarily woodland snakes and eat earthworms, insect larvae, and slugs. They are docile and harmless.

The problem with making this photo was finding a “window” between all the flowers where nothing obstructed at least the head of the snake. This looks easy but a little wind made things moving around the snake and I have several shots where this was just not the case.

AGAIN: 10 OF SOUL (PART 1)


People know me maybe as a nature photographer, and I guess my love for music and performance has been in the second row, at least here in the blog. Last Friday I couldn’t resist. Dubuque hosted again “Dubuque and… All That Jazz!”, a concert series that takes place downtown once a month during the summer. Great bands , well organized, and a good way to finish the week. The act last week was 10 OF SOUL from Minneapolis, MN, a band I had photographed already in 2014 and 2015. Eleven musicians played soul, funk, and blues. The crowd enjoyed their performance very much, many people danced and it was a great party atmosphere again.

I waited until it almost got dark before I took the camera out of the bag. No dealing with buildings, antennas, or wires in the background this way. Other years in the past the SIGMA 150, f/2.8 was used but last Friday I had the Nikkor 70-200, f/4 on camera. Yes, this costs a full stop of light, but I really like the versatility, and looking at the metadata at home revealed that almost every focal length between 70 and 200 mm was used this evening. I shot the lens wide open at f/4 the whole time and just changed my exposure compensation according to what scene I had in the viewfinder. The light intensity and color changes constantly during a concert, depending how crazy the guys behind the mixer work. I prefer to process the images in black & white for my concert photography. It appeals to me more than a crazy color mix due to ever-changing spot lights.

Special thank you to the members of the band for letting me shoot from every direction, including the backstage area!

Six photos today and maybe a few more later this week of this great music event…

ON THE PERCH


Male juvenile Ruby-throated Hummingbird

It is just relaxing to sit at the edge of the porch in the evening and aim the lens at one of our numerous hummingbirds. Today we had a slight overcast with occasional appearance of the sun. To me ideal for hummingbird photography. This time the Micro softboxes were not used as a light modifier and instead the MAGMOD Magbeam flash extender on a flash bracket above the lens was employed. Click on the link “WHAT’S IN THE CAMERA BAG?” if you like to see how this setup works. A hint of flash is concentrated on the bird and the reflected light boosts the colors, even with a gray overcast. The tricky part is to dose the amount of flash and balance it with the ambient light, so it is not apparent that a flash light was used and the bird looks like a “Christmas tree”.

Some of the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds show more character in their behavior than others. This juvenile male doesn’t even have the ruby throat yet but acted like the “neighborhood bully” at one of our feeders. Hummingbirds are very territorial and obviously that starts at an early age. As photographers we can use that behavior to our advantage. The bird returns frequently to the same perch, in this case the stem of a maple leaf. From the perch they can observe what they believe is “their feeder” and start attacks against intruders, most likely their siblings and in-laws.

1/60 s, f/6.3, ISO 320, @600 mm, -1/3 EV, flash -3.3 EV,  with Nikon D750, Sigma 150-600mm / f5-6.3 DG OS HSM S, Induro GIT 404XL tripod, Induro GHB2 gimbal head, Nikon SB 800 speed light, MAGMOD MagBeam flash extender.

MISSISSIPPI RIVER STORIES 2019 #09 - ARRIVAL OF CELEBRATION BELLE


Ice Harbor, Mississippi River, Dubuque, Iowa

Great clouds, combined with a short rain shower, made for good shooting conditions this evening at the Ice Harbor in Dubuque, Iowa. I took our dog Cooper for a walk on the dyke, a little further north of this place. Well, I call it a “dog walk” but sometimes he just sits patiently next to me while I’m fiddling with the camera on tripod. I tell you what, he probably understands how photography works… 😊

While taking a few shots of the old railroad bridge that crosses the Mississippi over to Wisconsin, I suddenly saw the CELEBRATION BELLE coming up the river from LeClaire, Iowa and taking a turn towards the harbor. We jumped into the car and drove down the short distance. It takes time to maneuver this big boat through the small entry and flood gates of Ice Harbor, giving me enough time to find a good position. The TWILIGHT was also docked in the port and I rushed to find a shooting position where both Mississippi River boats and the clouds would line up perfectly. The spot was found while the first passengers exited the CELEBRATION BELLE. The image was made with the Nikkor 16-35, f/4 at 16 mm focal length and the BREAKTHROUGH 2-stop GND filter attached. The rain shower earlier made the wood of the pier wet and darker. It takes out the glare and makes the pier a good part of the composition that doesn’t compete with the bright subjects in this photo.