Female Purple Finch

As already mentioned in my last blog post, Sunday was a gray day but I spent some time in the “front yard studio” and practiced long lens shooting technique. We have lots of birds visiting our feeders with all the snow on the ground at the moment and I tried a few new things. Shooting directly from the front porch is not a valid approach right now. Sure, some “regulars” will still come close but the majority of our feathered friends stays away. I have the camera on tripod inside the bedroom (like in a blind) and since it was not as cold as earlier in January, the window was open. Because the window is 8-9 feet away from the edge of the porch I loose that much distance to my subjects, the little birds on one of the perch branches. To make up for that I attached the 1.4 teleconverter to the Sigma 150-600 S, which gives me an effective focal length of 850 mm. The best f-stop I can get is f/9 and that bares quite a challenge. The good thing is that the Sigma 1.4 and 150-600 S combination still works with autofocus, as long some contrast is provided to focus on. Both birds, the female Purple Finch and the Dark-eyed Junco have lines with contrast on their chest to lock on the focus. No, it doesn’t always work, autofocus is slow and the birds never stay long in the same spot.

Dark-eyed Junco

The rest is easy. I use the MAGMOD MagBeam flash extender to throw a hint of light at the birds in order to overcome the gray overcast and bring out their colors. The Nikon D750 is capable of separating the exposure compensation for the ambient light and for the flash and after a few tests I found the right combinations.

Junco: camera +0.33EV, flash -3EV

Finch: camera -0.33 EV, flash -3EV

Having the roof of the porch for most of the distance between camera and the birds has the advantage that the flash will not hit a lot of snow flakes if used during snow fall. I like to have falling snow in the picture but too much reflection can ruin the shot.

Both images: Nikon D750, Sigma 150-600mm / f5-6.3 DG OS HSM S, Sigma APO Teleconverter 1.4x EX DG, Induro GIT 404XL tripod, Induro GHB2 gimbal head, Nikon SB 800 speed light, MAGMOD MagBeam flash extender,    @ 850 mm, 1/200s, f/9, ISO200


Nikon D750, Carl Zeiss Distagon T*, 35mm / f2 ZF

I’m glad Joan, dog Cooper, and I went out on a drive along the Mississippi River yesterday. It was soooo nice to have the sun out again for a few hours. Today the sky is covered with a uniform gray overcast again, it snows a little bit, and just makes the “cabin fever” raising again…

During part of the trip we went on the Illinois side of the big river and after the kiss of the polar vortex and now temperatures still below freezing the river is covered with ice for the most part. We explored some new wetlands and discussed the possibilities we would have there during the upcoming warmer seasons. I had all my lenses in the car and decided for the one I had recently most neglected. The Zeiss Distagon T* 2/35 is the only lens I own with nothing but manual focus. Most of the time I rely on autofocus for my photography. Eye sight isn’t getting better with age and I think there is nothing wrong with employing AF and the high tech we pay for if we buy a new lens or camera. However, the sharpness of the Zeiss 2/35 is fantastic but the main reason I love this lens so much is how it reproduces the colors. The snow is hard and crusty right now and I wanted to bring this out in the shot, taken at some backwaters of the Mississippi. The subtle changes of tones on the old melted and re-frozen snow in combination with the long shadows of grass in the mid afternoon sun tell hopefully the story of a gorgeous February day. Still love this lens…


Winter holds us in its claws but every day is a little different than the one before. Yesterday we had some icy rain and most of the oaks around here were still covered with a glass-like ice layer today. This afternoon I stepped outside for a couple minutes and exposed myself to the cold wind. The low sun made the branches shining like silver and this was of course my subject for this artsy-fartsy picture.

Nikon D750, Nikon Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm, f/4G ED VR, @70mm, 1/100s, f/29, ISO100


This shot wasn’t exactly intended when it was made during the very cold days we had last week. Two Downy Woodpeckers (out of actually ten!) had an argument about who can eat first at one of our suet feeders. It was made during the late afternoon, it was snowing, and light was fading away quickly. I shot at 1/50 s, nothing unusual for me even with the long lens, but that was definitely too slow for this outburst of energy between the two birds. Stories can be told in different ways and motion blur is one tool I like to explore more. I think I I like the outcome…


Male Hairy Woodpecker

Four of the seven woodpecker species we find here in the woods above the Little Maquoketa River Valley are regular visitors to our bird feeders. At times with lots of snow and very cold temperatures, as we have right now, the competition over the food and feeding times is always on.

Female Northern Flicker

Size matters and if a Northern Flicker with its long bill wants to eat, everybody else has to wait in line. We count at least four different flickers.

The Hairy Woodpeckers do not visit as often as the other species and they are the most difficult ones to photograph. They are high in the ranks with their long bill and they can be very vocal. We see at least one pair and an immature bird.

Female Red-bellied Woodpecker

Since we live here up on the bluffs the Red-bellied Woodpeckers have been a pleasure to watch every year. They may argue with a Hairy Woodpecker about the best spots, because they are similar in size, but if a flicker wants to feed, they go back to a waiting position. We see two adults and a couple immature red-bellies, who were born last year.

Male Downy Woodpecker

The smallest one of the bunch is the Downy Woodpecker. They look very similar to a Hairy Woodpecker but they are much smaller in size. As you can imagine the downys always have to leave a suet feeder if one of the bigger birds decides to eat. They are the first ones in the morning and still feed when all the other woodpeckers are gone at dusk. Usually we see 5-6 birds at the same time around the house but a week ago, when we received the first big snow of the season, we counted 10 different Downy Woodpeckers, which is a new record this year.


European Barn Owl

Yesterday I promised you to show some pictures from the 31st annual Bald Eagle Watch at the Grand River Center in Dubuque, Iowa. This family event celebrates the American Bald Eagle with bird programs, children’s activities, and a lot of information. I attended the event at the information table of the Dubuque Camera Club but also tried to educate myself and network with members of other conservation and nature organizations.

This year the World Bird Sanctuary from Valley Park, Missouri showed their program ‘Live birds of prey!’. Their mission is to preserve, protect, and inspire to safeguard bird species as part of the global community for future generations. They had a variety of owls, hawks, and eagles from Europe, Africa, and America. Most of them are unable to live on their own in the wild, mostly due to human interference in their earlier part of life. We heard stories about illegal animal trading and a mortality rate of 90% as a result. Much needs to be done to educate people about the fatal consequences of wild animal trading.

Bald Eagle

You can take as many pictures as you want during the program but using a flashlight is not permitted. I used the Nikon D750 with Nikon Nikkor 70-200, f/4 lens attached, wide open at f4 and camera set to ISO1600 the whole time. My shutter speed was between 1/15s and 1/80s for the most part. The young presenters of the bird sanctuary moved slowly around with the birds and of course the birds don’t sit still either. With other words, a great challenge and opportunity to practice handholding technique for photographers. I was at Bald Eagle Watch for the third time and it was again an interesting and joyful event. If you missed it, take your whole family next year…


Black-tailed Prairie Dogs, Badlands National Park, South Dakota

A year ago I joined the Dubuque Camera Club. The exchange of thoughts, ideas, and photography knowledge between members is priceless, and beside the educational aspect, it is a great group of people to socialize with and share the fun photography has to offer. We meet twice a month (first and third Monday each month between September and June) and for the 2018 /19 season we offer some member presentations about different aspects of photography. The meetings of the camera club are open to the public anyway, but these special events are advertised in local and social media.

Mobile phones made almost everybody a photographer these days and photography is as popular as never before, so we like to share our presentations with a broader audience. Maybe you guessed it, I volunteered to be the first presenter…

It’s a wrong assumption that good wildlife photos can only be made with expensive equipment. Sharing the story of your wildlife encounter, even through a technically not so perfect image, is more important for the future of our natural heritage than seeing the last detail in a critter’s eye. I will give you my thoughts on this and other aspects of wildlife photography.

If you live in or around the Tri-state area of Dubuque, Iowa, please join us for our first presentation this season next Monday. Here are the facts about this event:

Monday, November 19, 2018, at 6:30 PM


E.B. Lyons Interpretive Center, 

Mines of Spain Recreation Area

8991 Bellevue Heights 

Dubuque, IA

My presentation will touch the questions below, and hey, we can discuss your ideas and thoughts as well after what I try to cramp into 60 minutes.

  • How to start with wildlife photography, even with a small camera and lens?

  • What are good locations for wildlife shooting in and around the Mississippi Valley?

  • How to become better storytellers with our photos?

  • How about safety and ethics?

The program is free and I would be happy to see you next Monday at 6:30 PM in the E.B. Lyons Interpretive Center at the Mines of Spain 😉


The vegetation here on the bluff tops and down in the valley has passed its prime and finding a patch of ferns, flowers, or herbs that isn’t fading becomes difficult. It was a rainy Sunday and during a walk with our dog Cooper in the valley I kept my eyes on the ground, always looking for a little light that may make a difference. Using black & white as the medium to tell the story about what’s left from the beauty of these ferns seemed right to me.


Heritage Pond, Dubuque, Iowa

This shot with soft light and reflections on the water suggest a quiet, romantic location, just a few minutes before sunset, right? But nothing of the above was true. Behind the belt of reeds is a busy highway where people headed home from work or shopping. The noise level was not bad but definitely not quiet and the sunset was still 45 minutes away.

The steep bluffs of the Mississippi Valley make the sun disappear a little earlier, hence the blue reflections from the sky on the water. The light is nevertheless very warm and by watching the white balance settings in camera and underexpose by one f-stop we can romance the photo to the final result. Shooting from across the pond and keeping any distracting element from the highway out of the frame was possible by using the Nikon Nikkor 70-200, f/4 at 200 mm. No magic, just using what the camera has to offer…


North American River Otter, (not a wildlife image)

Almost two weeks ago we had the grandkids here and visiting the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa was fun and educating for everybody. The North American River Otter is my favorite critter in the museum. The otter sleeps most of the time but we were lucky to see the animal swimming and climbing over the rocks in its enclosure. There used to be two river otters but we learned that one of them had passed away. A few years ago we have seen an otter family in the Little Maquoketa River, down in the valley and a few miles upstream, but I never had a chance yet to make a picture of this beautiful critter in the wild. Well, I still keep my eyes open…


Hummingbird Moth

We have lots of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds here at the moment but seeing a Hummingbird Moth is still a rare treat. It is almost the same size as the birds and they hover from flower to flower not much slower than a hummingbird. The phlox has spread in our yard and the Hummingbird Moth is obviously attracted to its nectar.

Not the first time I have chased this moth and trying to get a new perspective was my goal, while running around the flower bed with the Sigma 150, f/2.8 macro lens on camera this time…


Tiger Swallowtail

Hi friends, I was hoping to publish this blog post already a few days earlier, but the “pilot” made an error and the files didn’t make it onto his laptop. Hence, I was traveling for business, but discovered far away from home, that the portable drive with the copies of all my photos I made last weekend was accidentally left at home…


OK, nothing is in a hurry, here are some pictures, …. Every year , about at the same time, I make a statement here in the blog that I’m not a macro photographer and creating pictures of insects or spiders is just a side project. Well, I tested a new light modifier and as soon I have a real opinion about it I may give you my ten cents of wisdom about the experience…

Giant Swallowtail

One of the easiest pictures... We have three of them here in our flower beds  this year. They are in constant motion , but persistance pays back....

The Monarch, like many other species, is under the thread of extinction. Much has been done here in Iowa to prevent this, but the question is, if down in Mexico, where the Monarch is during the cold season, habitats can be secured in order to make it a story of success.


Blue Dasher, Green Island Wetlands, Iowa

My German photography friend Maren had recently posted some excellent photos of damselflies and dragonflies in her blog ( Her pictures always inspire me, and while visiting the Green Island Wetlands last weekend I realized that we have plenty of dragonflies this year. When they perch on a stem of grass or any other plant, you have usually a few seconds to make the shot, and quite often they return to the same spot and may give you another chance if you missed the first shot. The only problem last Sunday was the hot wind that blew over the wetlands and what made getting a sharp image a little bit of a challenge. I thought the key for making a decent photo of the beautiful Blue Dasher was incorporating the background, at least its colors, and without having any clutter in the frame.

Nikon D750, Sigma 150-600mm / f5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports Lens


Two photos of mushrooms today? Well, not every day we are able to enjoy a great vista or have an interesting critter in front of the lens. Sometimes it just helps to open the yes and have a look on the ground for the details nature provides. A week ago Joan and I went on a little hike in the Swiss Valley Nature Preserve south of Dubuque, Iowa. These clusters of mushrooms drew my attention. Nothing spectacular, but an important part of the food chain in our deciduous forests here in eastern Iowa. Their untouched beauty and shape made me push the button.

Nikon D750, Nikon Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm, f/4G ED VR