Monday, January 19, 2009

Are Pentax DSLRs for the birds?

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Hi Pentaxian friends.

Today, I'm introducing Alain Dumas. He does a lot of bird photography and thought some of you would find this article interesting. Welcome him with comments and emails.

I am a Pentaxian! A Birding one! I just love birds, they are lively and fun to observe. For over 15 years I was birding, then I decided that maybe I could try taking pictures as a reminder of those fragile friends. After 30 years of film I jumped to Digital. I got a K100D Super because of its features, anti-shake and dust protection. I got great results but, I guess like many, I jumped in the megapixel war and I finally got the K20D. I am not looking back, now it’s time to take pictures. Do I have a dream Lens? You bet; Pentax smc P-FA 250-600mm F5.6 ED [IF] Since I live in Montréal, Canada, there are a lot of parks, wooden areas and shores to visit, it is quite normal that I take a the time to get information from different local birding sites ,other birders and photographers. I do find that most urban parks are easily accessible and offers a great variety of animals including different types of squirrels and even the local fox and sometimes the raccoon and deers.

Birding is one thing but any wildlife is interesting to shoot. Like the birds you have to be opportunistic, you take what you can without disturbing their surroundings. Itis fun to interact, but do not scare them to the point where they won’t come back. Each season brings different opportunities to get great shots, even in the rain...after all Pentax cameras are tropicalized!

I like to get prepared in advance for the day of shooting. I like to know what I am going to shoot, small or large birds or a combination of both. If I am going in small wooden area I do not not carry my tripod, it’s too cumbersome. The incoming weather is very important so I can dress accordingly. You need to be free flowing in your clothes otherwise it might cause you to lose a great shot, especially in winter time. I like to start shooting at around 8:00 am, when there are not to many people and when birds are hungry and active. If possible I try to visit a couple of places in one day, so planning the route is important and if one shoot is taking too much of my time at one place I can stay longer and wait for the action. I enjoy fresh air and the company of other people doing the same. If the park is large, I bring a substantial lunch and lots of water. Sometimes the birds gets interested in your lunch, so watch out, you never know who is going to steal a piece food from your hand!

I do like to shoot using a tripod, most of the time. It gives more chances to get sharper pictures even with the Pentax stabilization system. I shoot mainly with the Bigma 90% of the time, the remaining time I use the Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 DG MACRO. My other lenses are not for wildlife and I am aware of it.

When composing for birds, it is important to get one of the eye looking at you and it has to be in perfect focus. If not it diminishes the impact of the picture, sometimes to the point you wonder why you pressed the shutter. Sometimes you need to go low on the ground, water birds that are close to you implies that you need to get flat bellied. I know we go through a lot detergent in my house and my wife says that I am like a five years old kid. If I can’t get the bird to look at me at will go for the posture, his interaction with his environment like fishing, feeding, hunting, taking care of his young’s, cleaning himself or just resting with his mate. Again composition is important. I want tofill the frame and not waste pixels on empty space or unwanted artifacts. It's not always possible, but the times you can you have better chances of getting a great pictures.

When photographing waterfowls at their level, it seems that they are as curious about you as you are of them. I also like to go where it is permitted to feed birds. You can be an observer for a while and then get a nice position and be rewarded with nice shots. Sudden moves and gestures makes them fly away, so do not raise your arms suddenly. I try to take my time to frame properly, no branches in front or behind the bird but sometimes you just can’t avoid it. I also try to avoid various shadows caused by the branches and trees that would make the bird look like it has stripes on his plumage. Even if a bird is in the shadow, my K20D can deal with it, I always overexpose, 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop. Why? It is the best way to avoid noise.

I know the limitation of my brain. I prefer to let my DSLRs make decisions for me, so no manual mode for me. Most of my shots are taken while using the Program Mode. If the light is varying I use Sv (Sensitivity Mode) and choose the Aperture or Speed. Sometimes I shoot at ISO 100 only, sometimes at ISO 100-200 ans sometimes 200-1600 with D-Range activated. It all depends of the available light. I am not afraid of letting the camera make decisions for me, that’s why I use advanced Pentax DSLRs. I do not use noise reduction and it works good for me.

In my opinion, underexposing to keep colors and contrast produces more noise in the dark and shadow areas. It is very easy and fast to correct a photo in Lightroom or other software when it is overexposed, the reverse is not that easy. I always shoot RAW/PEF. That’s a personal preference, I just feel that my pictures have a more natural look to it. I am a trigger happy shooter, and sometimes I think that my index finger is glued to the shutter button. You know that it is cheap to take pictures in digital format, only the ones that you print cost something. In the first 6 months with my K100D Super, I took 15,000 pictures. In two months with the K20D I took 10,000 pictures. Not all are useable but yes I have the choice. I still see people taking one shot at the time, why? Ansell Adams said that he only took 1 good shot out of every 36 or so. So I am very happy when I get 10 or more great photos in a day. A few days ago I was shooting a Saw-whet Owl, I took a little over 900 shots, I got over 100 great keepers, I am still in heaven.

I piece of equipment that people rarely use and talk about is the flash. Pentax makes great ones. The more I use it the better the pictures are coming out. I try to avoid shadowy areas but nature decides where to go, not me. So I make the most of it and practice more and more, I re-read manuals, read on the Net and try again. Remember no flash bulb to replace like the old 124 or Polaroid! I use the AF-360-FGZ and AF-540FGZ. The 540 is my Better Beamer. For birds that are far and away or in a very shadowy corner, the Beamer is great. Be careful as in some cases it can increase the output from 2 to 5 times, so you need to test it out and not on birds, you might temporarily blind them.

I also like to develop my pictures so they look the most natural possible, not oversaturated, not oversharpened. Often I take a look at various sites and magazines and it just baffles me the way some photos look. It as to please the eye, not strain it. I’ve never seen a neon red Cardinal! A Mallard Duck does not carry radiation molecules in his plumage so his head shouldn’t glow!

Other issues to consider is that you have to know your equipment. Read the instruction manuals. I do, many times over. Read magazines and subscribe to them if you like them a lot. I must say that I rarely read general photography magazines, they don’t provide enough know how and I feel that they are more like a manufacturer’s giant showcase. I subscribe and or purchase: Nature Photographer, Mastering Digital Photo Processing, Photo Techniques and Outdoor Photography Canada. I read excellent Blogs like this one. Yvon’s blog is so informative that anyone, Pentaxians or not, are missing fine and useful tips and information if not visiting his page on a regular basis. I like instruction manuals, so I bought Yvon’s K20D book. Tell me where you can find, PDF or not, such a great deal of knowledge, well written, useable information for $5? Anyone reading this and using a Pentax must have one of his books, I enjoyed it and found very useful information that I put to use immediately the very same day I got the book! So l go out there and start enjoying photography, don’t be shy, learn and practice.

I would like to thank Yvon for inviting me to transmit my love and passion for photography, the Pentax way.

Now I know how a true Pentaxian feels, IT’S GREAT!

Thank you and have a great day!
Merci et Bonne Journée!

Alain Dumas
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