Canon 5DSR For Bird Photography?

An anna's hummingbird perches on a thin branch, Belmont, CA

After fussing between either upgrading my next landscape camera to either a Sony A7RII or a Canon 5DSR (I’ll cover that saga in a future post), I finally pulled the trigger and received my new Canon this weekend. While I’ll primary use this 50 mega pixel monster for large resolution landscape images (wall sized prints, anyone?), I wanted to see if/how it would handle (albeit simple) bird photography. After spending a half hour with it in my front yard, chimping on the rear LCD, I was blown away.

An anna's hummingbird perches on a thin branch, Belmont, CA
An anna’s hummingbird perches on a thin branch, Belmont, CA

First of all, the auto-focus is fast and accurate – exactly what you’d expect from such an expensive camera. Maximum frame rate is low due to the huge image size, but that is not a concern with its intended use (my typical landscape frame rate is about 1 shot per minute!) The noise level looks better than my 7D Mk II, which is great given the pixel density of the sensor. All images in this post were shot at ISO 500 with no noise reduction – buttery smooth backgrounds.

But where this camera really shines is its gigantic 50 MP sensor – this largest ever released for a 35mm DSLR. Even better than just packing in so many pixels however, is the fact that at 1:1 zoom, the details are tack sharp. Below is a 1:1 crop of the above image.

Headshot portrait of an anna's hummingbird, Belmont, CA
Headshot portrait of an anna’s hummingbird, Belmont, CA

As you can see, the details are extremely sharp. I’ve seen other sensors that look sharp right out of the camera, but once you zoom in to 1:1, the details are a bit mushy.

Head and shoulders portrait of a house finch, Belmont, CA
Head and shoulders portrait of a house finch, Belmont, CA

If I’m not concerned about printing wall size, the vast amount of resolution I have at my disposal opens up new cropping opportunities. Here I’ve included a few more yard birds I shot during my morning test. I’ve given each a massive crop to see what kinds of portraits I could create with these tiny birds, without having to shoot them with a macro lens (which would be nearly impossible with these fast movers).

A chestnut-backed chickadee finishes eating seed, Belmont, CA
A chestnut-backed chickadee finishes eating seed, Belmont, CA

The main areas that will limit this camera as a great bird photography setup is a low frame rate and full frame sensor. But with patience and careful technique, it could produce some amazing results. I’ll see what it can pull off for birds in flight in the future.

A lesser goldfinch perches on a narrow branch, Belmont, CA
A lesser goldfinch perches on a narrow branch, Belmont, CA

Previously I’ve only been able to get head-and-shoulder portraits with much larger birds. But these tests tell me that I’ll likely be bringing this camera along on my next bird shoot. It won’t replace my primary body for now, but if I come across a docile bird that lets me get relatively close, I’m definitely going to pull out my 5DSR and capture some of those insane details this camera is able to resolve.

How To Win a Photo Contest (including a sneaky bonus tip)

The sun just lights the top of the Tetons as it rises behind a grove of aspen in their fall colors, Grand Teton National Park

Recently I was asked to judge a photo contest for a small camera club. The skill levels of the participants ranged from beginner to advanced, and after viewing the wide variety of entries, I began to think about simple ways to increase anyone’s chance of winning. Follow some or all of the tips below to maximize your chances of your photos rising to the top of the heap. I’ve sprinkled in some photos that I’ve entered in previous photo contests.

Barrel cactus is just starting to bloom in the Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, CA
Barrel cactus is just starting to bloom in the Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, CA

Follow the theme

Got an absolutely amazing photo of the setting sun over the ocean? If the contest theme is fall colors, then its probably best to save that great shot for a more appropriate contest. Good judges will disqualify even stunning photographs if they don’t suit the theme of the contest. Along the same lines, make sure you pay attention to all the criteria. You don’t want to waste your time or the judge’s by submitting photos that will be technically disqualified.

The Mesquite Dunes stretch across the valley just north of Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park
The Mesquite Dunes stretch across the valley just north of Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park

Tell a story

Some contests provide an opportunity to fill in information about the photograph. If there is a description field, use it! But don’t just describe what the photo already shows visually. Rather, tell the story of how you captured the photo and what you were thinking when you clicked the shutter. This is your opportunity to “sell” the photograph to the judge, so use the space wisely. Any details you can provide about motivation, technique, or even processing can help cement the image in the judge’s mind so that it is remembered later.

A male ring-necked pheasant cranes his neck in between bits of grass
A male ring-necked pheasant cranes his neck in between bits of grass

Get independent opinions

It is always a good idea to ask your peers what they think about the photos you are considering for a contest. Gather a selection and ask your photo friends to act as judge. You might be surprised by their choices. In the past, I’ve gravitated toward photographs that I’ve spent a lot of effort taking and processing, and that has influenced too much what I thought of it, regardless of whether it was actually a good photograph or not. Asking for others’ opinions can help prevent your personal skewing of a photograph’s merit based on the effort it took to produce it.

Silken water reflects the gold colors of fall, South Fork Bishop Creek, Inyo National Forest, CA
Silken water reflects the gold colors of fall, South Fork Bishop Creek, Inyo National Forest, CA

Point your subject into your frame (not out of it)

Whether your photograph is of a person, animal, or even mountain, it is always more aesthetically pleasing to have the subject face into the frame. That means there is more space in front of the head than behind it. The same is true for direction of motion – if an animal is walking or running, put more space in front of it than behind. So what about the mountain? Most mountains (or trees, or clouds, or …) seem to point in one direction or another. Put more space in front of the direction it is pointing than behind it. Of course, many rules are made to be broken, and sometime going counter to the rule can add a lot of tension to the photograph. But make sure that the judge will recognize and receive that tension well.

The sun just lights the top of the Tetons as it rises behind a grove of aspen in their fall colors, Grand Teton National Park
The sun just lights the top of the Tetons as it rises behind a grove of aspen in their fall colors, Grand Teton National Park

Avoid converging lines

Find plenty of separation between your photograph’s main elements and avoid converging lines. Space between major subjects helps the photo breath, and convergence can create unintended tension points and generally looks sloppy. Usually converging lines can be solved in the field by moving your camera forward, backward, side to side, or up or down. Try to find the right perspective that when flattened into a two dimensional photograph, leads the viewer easily through the frame.

Sunlight moves down the mountains to the west of Salt Creek, now a dried salt flat, Death Valley National Park
Sunlight moves down the mountains to the west of Salt Creek, now a dried salt flat, Death Valley National Park

And now for the sneaky bonus tip….

Get to know your judges

If possible, try to find out who is judging the contest. Some contests will publish this information outright; others you might have to dig around a bit. Spend a little bit of internet time finding out more about the judges and what style of photography they gravitate toward. Have they judged a contest before? Which images did they choose previously? Chances are they will judge the current contest based on similar criteria. If the contest is judged by a panel, try to contribute at least one photo that matches each judge’s personal style and tastes. This may seem like cheating, but any leg you can get up on the competition is a worthy pursuit.

Dawn begins to light Lone Pine Peak and the wild rock formations of the Alabama Hills
Dawn begins to light Lone Pine Peak and the wild rock formations of the Alabama Hills

Hopefully these tips get you thinking about photo selection and photo taking for the next contest that you consider entering. This can help you maximize you time, effort, and money!

2014 Round-up – Top 40 Photos Of The Year

After a bit of thought, I have compiled my top 40 picks from the last 12 months. I selected from a variety of outings and types of photography, ranging from landscape, to wildlife, to pet photography. Unfortunately, 2014 was not the year I caught up on my backlog of photos waiting to be processed, so this list was not selected from all of my 2014 photographs (you’ll have to wait till next year’s round-up for those!)

This year included a fantastic fall color photo trip to the San Juan mountains in Colorado, as well as visits to the Sierra Nevada and of course many bird photographs, including some previously unpublished.

Please enjoy the gallery below. For best viewing (especially if viewing on a mobile device), please click on the following photo:

Gem lies on the floor, fast asleep
Gem lies on the floor, fast asleep

Or, just enjoy the gallery here on the page. To view larger photos in the embedded gallery below, click here to enter full screen mode.


If you are interested in compilations from previous years, please see the 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 lists.

Processing For Moods

Recently I uncovered a couple of unprocessed photographs in my collection that I took in Death Valley National Park several years ago. These were sitting in my “reject” pile, but upon a second look, I thought each photo had its own merit. When I looked at these two images a little more closely, I began to feel a very different mood with each.

Blue shadows of twilight dance over the dunes of Death Valley National Park
Blue shadows of twilight dance over the dunes of Death Valley National Park

What struck me with the first photo were the vibrant blue hues that emerged after sunset. Shot in deep twilight, the evening sky was reflected off the light tan sand, creating an amazing blue glow throughout the dune field. In order to accentuate this glow, I increased the contrast of the image overall, and increased the clarity. High contrast helped show off the intricate texture of the foreground dune, showing sharpness in each ripple of sand. Contrast was increased two ways: the first was to set the white and black point of the image. While I didn’t use the extreme ends of the histogram, I got pretty close.

The second was to add a contrast s-curve to the image. All adjustments were done in Adobe Lightroom. I kept the white balance pretty close to what the camera chose, increasing it slightly. This gave me a white balance of just over 6000 Kelvins – I was amazed at how blue it still was even after using such a warm color temperature.

In the blue shades of twilight, smooth dunes stretch to distant mountains, Death Valley National Park
In the blue shades of twilight, smooth dunes stretch to distant mountains, Death Valley National Park

The second image I selected gave me a sense of calm and quietness. In order to accentuate this mood, I kept the contrast very low. I left the white and black points where they were originally, and actually decreased the clarity, giving the dunes a soft, buttery appearance. Because this was more of a graphic image, the low clarity and contrast helped to de-focus attention on the sand texture, and instead allow the dune pattern to abstract, driving the eye up toward the distant mountains.

When making processing decisions, I find it vital to fully understand the message I am trying to convey with each photograph. These moods convey two extremes, even though the images were captured within 20 minutes of each other.