Posts from the ‘night photography’ Category

Yellow Rail—Midnight Madness in the McGregor Marsh (VIDEO calling, preening, sleeping)

YELLOW RAIL in McGregor Marsh, Aitkin County, Minnesota. June 13, 2019

Okay, so I was home and in my own bed by midnight, but “10:44 pm in the McGregor Marsh” isn’t quite as catchy as the title, “Midnight Madness.”

It has been about 30 years since I’ve actually SEEN a Yellow Rail (one of Kim Eckert’s multi-birder late-night Yellow Rail “round up” in the 80s). 

Yellow Rails are one of the most secretive birds in North America, and only nest in localized sedge marshes in MN, ND, Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan (and a few other isolated spots). Seven were calling last night (June 13). The rails are only the size of a softball, and they walk around under the cattails…usually. A tape of another male, or clicking two rocks together to imitate their call can elicit a vocal response. But they are used to semi-close neighbors so you have to be in the heart of their territory for them to come out from beneath the sedges/cattails.

Access to the McGregor Marsh is difficult, but an old railroad grade (now an ATV trail) runs through it off MN65. It is a vast sedge marsh, which is the vegetation Yellow Rails prefer.
First glimpses of the elusive YELLOW RAIL. They are only the size of a softball and usually scurry around like mice UNDER the downed layer of sedges and old cattails.

Thanks to my friend Kim Risen who suggested a place in the Marsh to start listening. He has heard and seen many more in the area this spring/summer. Good year for Yellow Rails! They are dependent on proper water levels.

I waded into the marsh at sunset (about 9:15pm) wearing knee-high rubber boots with rain bibs over the top. One bird was calling just off the trail but quit. The McGregor Marsh is a floating mat of sedges and cattails in ankle- to calf-deep water. Good thing I’d laced myself with Deep Woods Off (25%DEET) since the mosquitos were thick.
This rail was calling on and off (sometimes as close as 6 feet away!) but it took 1.5 hours to actually see him in the sedge marsh (in the full company of mosquito hordes, and stumbling around in waders). A powerful flashlight aided in the search. I would sit in the marsh, click my rocks and wait. If he called, I’d sweep the area briefly with my flashlight. 
It was very dark by 10:30 pm when I started photographing him. This Yellow Rail was so calm that he called, preened, and even tucked his head into his back feathers and slept all within 15 feet of me. I only stayed with him for about 15 minutes.


But it took me 15 minutes more to find my backpack (including my car keys!), which I had left laying in the marsh when I started tracking this Yellow Rail. Home by midnight!

Sony A6500 and Canon 70-200mm f4 lens; f5.6 at 1/60; ISO 1600; pop-up flash and flashlight for illumination.

Yellow Rail male in northern Minnesota’s McGregor Marsh; June 13, 2019; 10:15-10:45pm
This little guy got so comfortable with me only 10 feet away that he actually would preen and even tuck his head in his back feathers and fall asleep!

Backlit Bison Breath and Starry Skyscapes: Teddy Roosevelt Day 2

Day 2 in North Dakota’s Teddy Roosevelt National Park started early…REALLY EARLY! Ryan and I crawled out of our cozy cocoons at 2:27am. Time to try for some Milky Way landscapes! It is always good to plan night shoots with a buddy, because if you are like me, it takes a lot of gumption to go out late at night by yourself. Unfortunately, we hadn’t scouted too well the day before, so it took some driving to find a good spot with foreground interest in the dark.
Night Sky Hoodoos Teddy Roosevelt National Park ND IMG_5950Hoodoos (eroded pinnacle-like landforms) and the Milky Way
Normally you’d like to keep your star exposures to under 30 seconds…That way star motion is minimized. Over 30 seconds, you start to get “star trails,” short streaks of light showing the movement of the stars in the sky.
[Canon 7D with Sigma 10-20mm lens at 10mm; f4 at 54 seconds; ISO 1600; tripod; headlamp to light hoodoos]

Night Sky Hoodoos Teddy Roosevelt National Park ND IMG_5957Hoodoos and the Milky Way
We had to get up in the wee hours of the morning since the moon did not set until after midnight….and any moon can wash out the stars and make the Milky Way much harder to see. I lit the hoodoos with my headlamp. Experiment with how much light painting you need to do to get pleasing results.
[Canon 7D with Sigma 10-20mm lens at 10mm; f4 at 69 seconds; ISO 1600; tripod; headlamp to light hoodoos]

Bison backlit sunrise Teddy Roosevelt National Park ND IMG_5999Bison backlit by morning sun.
There is one easy thing that can really help your wildlife photography (that doesn’t involve expensive equipment!) and that is to GET IN THE FIELD EARLY! Dawn is the time when crepuscular critters may still be active and diurnal animals are also moving around. In summer, the mornings are cool and wildlife is more energized, much more so than during the heat of midday.

We found a heard of Bison backlit by the sun which was giving us gorgeous rim lighting on the coats of the Bison. Underexposing by several stops highlighted their breath on this chilly morning.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f8 at 1/6400 second; ISO 100; 0 ev; hand held]

Bison backlit sunrise Teddy Roosevelt National Park ND IMG_5996Bison backlit by morning sun
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f5.6 at 1/8000 second; ISO 100; -3 ev; hand held]

Landscape Roosevelt National Park ND IMG_6127
October is a great time to visit Teddy Roosevelt; Empty campgrounds, mild weather (25-60 degrees during our stay), golden grasses and abundant wildlife.
[Canon 7D with Canon 50mm f1.8 STM lens; f10 at 1/250 second; ISO 250; -2/3 ev; hand held]

Ryan Marshik Teddy Roosevelt National Park ND IMG_6488Ryan Marshik shooting Bison at dusk
[Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens; f4 at 1/125 second; ISO 1250; tripod]

Wild Horses Teddy Roosevelt National Park ND IMG_6200Band of Wild Horses (feral horses) in the rugged Teddy Roosevelt landscape
The wild horses of Teddy Roosevelt belong to many well-defined bands which do not mix socially.
[Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens; f6.3 at 1/320 second; ISO 100; -2/3 ev; tripod]

Wild Horses Teddy Roosevelt National Park ND IMG_6172Wild Horse (feral horse)
Details are sometimes more interesting than the entire subject.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f6.3 at 1/1250 second; ISO 400; tripod]

Prairie Sky Teddy Roosevelt National Park ND IMG_6390
The North Unit Scenic Drive is an out-and-back road that travels from the bottom of the eroded landscape and climbs up through the badlands to the prairie grasslands at the top of the plateau.
[Canon 7D with Sigma 10-20mm lens; f8 at 1/80 second; ISO 320; tripod]

Badlands landscape North Unit Teddy Roosevelt National Park ND IMG_6354North Unit of Teddy Roosevelt
[Canon 7D with Sigma 10-20mm lens; f9 at 1/400 second; ISO 320; -2/3 ev; hand held]

Cottonwoods Little Missouri River Roosevelt National Park ND IMG_6299Big Cottonwood forests thrive in the bottomlands of the Little Missouri River (North Unit)
[Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens zoomed to 78mm; f14 at 1/200 second; ISO 320; hand held]

Cottonwoods Little Missouri River Roosevelt National Park ND IMG_6297Big Cottonwood forests thrive in the bottomlands of the Little Missouri River (North Unit)
Mid day can be a slow time for wildlife photography, so search out scenics or macros where you can use this higher-angle sunlight to your advantage. I like how the tree trunks went black and the shaded hillside turned blue…not to mention the golden side lit grass.
[Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens zoomed to 126mm; f10 at 1/250 second; ISO 320; hand held]

Prairie Dog Roosevelt National Park ND IMG_6065
A pair of Prairie Dogs greeting each other with Bison “blobs” in background.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f8 at 1/1600 second; ISO 320; -2 ev; tripod]

Prairie Dog Roosevelt National Park ND IMG_6053A Black-tailed Prairie Dog goes head first down its burrow at sunrise.
You have to have a good reason to shoot into the sun. It works best when the sun is low on the horizon. I had to under expose the image by nearly 3 stops to get the pleasing rim light on the fur of this chunky Prairie Dog.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f8 at 1/4000 second; ISO 320; -2 2/3 ev; tripod]

NEXT TIME: Day 3 in our late October Teddy Roosevelt Adventure


Wild West Landscapes October 2012

[**Just a reminder, landscapes look pathetically puny at 470 pixels wide, but by clicking on an image you can view it at a bit larger scale in a new window.]

Yellowstone is known for its wildlife, but it is also a fantastic place for landscape photography. Especially good because you can include the wildlife in your scenics for added interest and scale. Here are a few of my favorites from our recent mid October trip.

Ryan brought along a 9-stop neutral density (ND) filter, a high-quality screw in filter from B+W that allows long exposures even on sunny days. I threw it on my Sigma 10-20mm lens to create this 20 second exposure. When on the lens, it is impossible to autofocus, so you need to focus BEFORE putting on the filter. I love the smooth buttery flow of the water and the glow of the shaded rock wall. 10mm lens at f22 for 20 seconds (!) ISO 200.

We were following a bull elk across the landscape when we topped a rise and found this dramatic scene. I excitedly set up the tripod and then realized I’d left my 70-200mm lens in the car. So off I ran, hopping dozens of downed trees from the fires of 1988 still laying on the ground. When I returned the scene had changed…and not for the better. Still, I like this shot…It has a prehistoric Ice Age feel. Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 200mm.

We thought this cloudless morning would mean a drama-less dawn, but steam from the Firehole Geyser basin created this sunrise scene. Canon 70-200mm lens handheld braced on car door.

The shaded canyon of the Firehole River at dawn. The water, heated by geothermal features upriver, steams on cold mornings. The pre-dawn blue was emphasized in Aperture. Canon 70-200mm lens handheld.

Our trip coincided with clear night skies and a very late moonrise which enabled us to get great shots of the Milky Way. This one was taken straight up through the Ponderosa Pines, which were lit by just the glow of a campfire. Sigma 10-20mm lens at 10mm f4 for 30 seconds. ISO 800. On a tripod. Tungsten white balance.

Is this a landscape image OR a wildlife shot? Not sure really, but I like the peaceful feel of the grazing Bison along the Firehole River (Fountain Flat Drive). Canon 70-200mm lens at 122mm. f7.1 at 1/400 second on tripod.

These “skeleton trees” near the Firehole Lake Drive never seem to disappoint. We have shot here many times and the conditions always seem to be different. Blue cast emphasized in Aperture. Sigma 10-20mm lens at 14mm, f9 1/1000 second. Tungsten white balance.

Jupiter & Venus: Traveling Partners

Jupiter and Venus have been traveling partners in the night sky recently. The bright duo have been visible low in the western sky from dusk to early in the morning.

Here’s an excerpt from
“Venus-Jupiter conjunctions are fairly special events, occurring roughly every 13 months. This year’s was especially stunning, experts say, because the two planets were visible for so long in the sky and appeared so bright.
Though Jupiter is about 11 times wider than the roughly Earth-size Venus, Venus appears about eight times more luminous these days. That’s because Venus is so much closer to us than Jupiter is.
So while the two planets appear close together in the night sky, in reality they’re nowhere near each other. The orbits of Venus and Jupiter are separated by Earth, Mars and the main asteroid belt.”

So while doing a late night owl survey up in the Sax-Zim Bog tonight (March 13), I decided to try to capture the pair of planets. The moon was not yet up and so the stars were brilliant. I put the camera on the tripod with my 10-20mm Sigma, set the self timer to 2-seconds (to prevent any camera shake from tripping the shutter) and let it go for 25 seconds at ISO 6400. I left the Tamarack low in the frame to highlight the stars and planets. You can see Jupiter and Venus low on the horizon just to the right of the big Tamarack.

TIP FOR NIGHT SKY STAR SHOTS: I like a blue-purple night sky (versus black-orange) so I set my camera to Tungsten white balance. You can also shoot at Auto White Balance and change the color in Aperture/Lightroom if shooting Raw. It is strictly personal preference.

Canon 7D with Sigma 10-20mm lens at 11mm, f5.0 at 25 seconds, ISO 6400, Tungsten white balance, tripod, two-second self timer to minimize camera shake.

Subaru to the Moon!

I’d once heard that the moon was about 225,000 miles away from little old me (and you). So ever since I’ve used this as the “moon milestone” for my cars. “The Box,” my first car, a 1975 brown Plymouth Valiant, probably made it…but the odometer quit working at about 190k. My 1984 Subaru GL 4×4 wagon made it (then was towed away by the Carlton County Sheriff). My candy apple red 1992 Jeep Cherokee almost made it but the door fell off and mice became permanent residents before it went to car heaven (the crusher). My Plymouth Grand Caravan survived to about 190k before the transmission went out (Ask me about my drive across Minnesota in 3rd gear!).

In reality, since the moon’s orbit is elliptical, the distance from Earth varies from about 221,463 miles at perigee (closest approach to Earth) to 251,968 miles at apogee (farthest point). The average distance from the moon to the Earth is 238,857 miles.

Anyway, I’m sticking with my 225k benchmark, and just last week, on my way up the North Shore, my current vehicle reached this moon milestone. The 1999 Subaru Forester I bought from my DNR boss (Thanks Steve!) after my van died, turned the big 225 near the mouth of Crystal Creek on Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior. I took a photo to commemorate the moment.

But I thought I would take the opportunity to post some of my favorite moon images. Enjoy!…and may all your vehicles make to the moon!

Moonrise at Split Rock Lighthouse, North Shore of Lake Superior, Minnesota.
Canon Rebel XTi with Canon 70-200mm f4 at 84mm; ISO 400; f9 at 5 seconds (Long exposure so the moon is blurred due to its/our movement, but this works when the moon is relatively small in the frame.

The full moon setting behind a grove of Red and White Pines. St. Louis County, Minnesota

Moonrise over Lake Superior..Horizon and sky merge. Taken from Billy Lovaas’s 25-foot wood-canvas canoe on an outing out of Grand Marais. The moon is “squashed” due to optical illusions as the moon rises over water.
Canon 40D with Canon 400mm f5.6; ISO 1600; f5.6 at 1/100 Handheld (!).

I really like this image of a flock of Sandhill Cranes flying below the moon. Birds don’t always need to fill the frame to make compelling images. Crex Meadows Refuge, Wisconsin.
Canon Rebel 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6; ISO 400; f8 at 1/1000 (This type of shot is only possible for a short time when the sky is still bright enough to get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the flying birds but dark enough to actually see the moon.)

Crescent moons can be as compelling as full moons. Moonset at Twin Lakes, Superior National Forest Minnesota
Canon Rebel XTi with Canon 70-200mm f4 at 200mm; ISO 400; f5 at 1/10; tripod

Full moon and White Pine, Carlton County, Minnesota.
Canon Rebel XTi with Canon 400mm f5.6; ISO 400; f18 at 1/25; tripod (This is a difficult shot as you need great depth of field to keep both the moon and White Pine in focus…BUT you also need a fast enough shutter speed so that the moon doesn’t blur.)

Exposure Tip: Photographing the moon can be tricky…We are moving relatively fast in relation to the moon, so exposures need to be quite short to render the moon sharp. Also don’t rely on auto exposure or Program mode as the camera will try and make the dark sky medium-toned thereby blowing out the moon. Instead expose for the moon itself by either a) spot-metering the moon, b) underexposing by a couple stops and checking your histogram and adjusting till you get a proper exposure or c) using the “sunny 16 rule” (for full moons)…f16 at the reciprocal shutter speed of the ISO of the film/digital setting used. So the proper exposure of a full moon when camera is set to ISO 400 would be f16 at 1/400 second.

Top image is a “photo-illustration” combining two photos—one of the full moon and one of the Bighorn. Both were taken in Yellowstone. The Bighorn was shot as a silhouette and I immediately thought it would be a cool illustration if I could “Photoshop” in a full moon. Of course, I would always divulge the fact that this image is actually two images combined, and hope that whoever publishes it would also label it as a “photo-illustration.” It’s just my ethics.

Teddy Roosevelt N.P.—Hoodoos AFTER Sunset

Part 5 of 6 from a mid October trip to North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The fun doesn’t stop after the sun goes down! In reality, often the last thing you want to do on an exhausting photo trip is go back into the field after dark. You’re tired, and you know the alarm will go off WAY before sunrise but you do it. And it is always a blast!…The kind of fun that was hard to imagine in the film days.

Today’s digital SLRs are capable of amazing low-light images. In the “film days” we were limited to ISO 400 film…and that was often unacceptably grainy. Now I can shoot at ISO 12,800! (that’s not a typo) and there are other cameras that can go beyond that. The image above was taken at night with only a flashlight illuminating the hoodoos. I was able to make a relatively short exposure (30seconds) due to the High ISO capability of the Canon 7D (though not nearly as good as the Nikon D3 series). Of course, you always want to shoot the lowest ISO for the least amount of noise. In this case I used ISO 1600. A short exposure also limits the movement of the stars in the final image. Click on the image to get a better look at the stars.

How big do you think the hoodoos are in the image below? It is really a miniature landscape as each hoodoo is only 12-24 inches tall. Did you think they were many feet tall? The image was taken with the Sigma 10-20mm lens from a very low angle as I wanted the hoodoos to appear large and silhouetted against the sunset. I kept the camera moving in a circular motion while clicking the shutter and popping the flash. The flash froze the hoodoos but the slow shutter speed and motion blurred the sky colors.

The bottom image is an HDR created in Photomatix Pro. I like these surreal artsy images known as High Dynamic Range. Some people hate them. The program takes several of your images of a scene with a great range of contrast and combines them into one image with a medium exposure. In this case I combined only two exposures—one for the foreground and one for the sky. You can then tweak the look from natural to bizarre. Fun stuff. Note that it is the same hoodoos as the previous image and taken only minutes apart!

Stars & Hoodoos: Canon 7D, Sigma 10-20mm at 10mm, f4 at 30seconds, ISO 1600, flashlight, tripod
Hoodoos Sunset: Canon 7D, Sigma 10-20mm at 10mm, f16 at 1/20 second, ISO 200, flash at -2EV, handheld
HDR Hoodoos: Canon 7D, Sigma 10-20mm at 10mm, f16 at 2 exposures, ISO 200, tripod