About Me

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Spofford, New Hampshire, United States
Jeff Newcomer has been a physician practicing in New Hampshire and Vermont for over 30 years. Over that time, as a member of the Conservation Commission in his home of Chesterfield New Hampshire, he has used his photography to promote the protection and appreciation of the town's wild lands. In recent years he has been transitioning his focus from medicine to photography, writing and teaching. Jeff enjoys photographing throughout New England, but has concentrated on the Monadnock Region and southern Vermont and has had a long term artistic relationship with Mount Monadnock. He is a featured artist in a number of local galleries and his work is often seen in regional print, web publications and in business installations throughout the country. For years Jeff has published a calendar celebrating the beauty of The New England country-side in all seasons. All of the proceeds from his New England Reflections Calendar have gone to support the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at the Cheshire Medical Center. Jeff has a strong commitment to sharing his excitement about the special beauty of our region and publishes a weekly blog about photography in New England.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Accidental Bird Photography



Staying Off the Cold Ground!

Red Tail Hawk

Bird Torment
 This week I have the pleasure of talking about something that I have repeatedly insisted that I know nothing about, bird photography.  Some of my reluctance for shooting birds may come from early experiences of being tortured by the family Parquet, but a recent experience  got me thinking about my mostly, accidental bird photography.



A few days ago, I was doing errands around Keene, NH and I happened to see a regal appearing Hawk enthroned on a road-side sign.  Not wanting to be rear-ended, I continued down the road until
Road-Side Red Tail Hawk
I could safely turn around.  Fortunately I am almost never in the car without a camera.  Often my "carry around" camera is a Canon G11, but on this day the good news was that I had my Canon 5D Mark II.  The bad news was that I only had my workhorse 24-105 lens.  I would have loved to have been lugging my 100-400 lens with the new 2x tele converter.  800mm would have been incredible, but the important thing was to have a camera, any camera, in the car.  There was no cover, so I slowly approached the bird along the road.  I kept shooting knowing that at any moment the hawk might be startled by me or, more likely, the thundering traffic. Although the bird was stationary, I kept the camera set with high ISO and fast shutter anticipating the take-off.  When the Hawk eventually decided it was time to move on, I was able to grab a few sharp in-flight shots.  it was a treat and the whole experience got me thinking about the importance of having a camera always on hand and making do with what you have.  It was a perfect example of how I shoot birds.  I am a dedicated accidental birder.

 




I have immense respect for serious bird photographers. To be good
Barred Owl, Sugar Hill, NH
they must often spend hours stalking and waiting upon their prey.  This frequently involves long vigils.  When lucky, they are enclosed in a cold blind, but when less lucky their spot may be the frigid damp ground.  Birds are skittish, moving targets and may only offer quick glimpses of their beauty, requiring long, fast glass to catch the moment.  Perhaps most importantly birders  must be careful students of the habits of their targets.  Understanding bird behavior is a key to successful bird photography.  These guys have to possess levels of  knowledge, dedication and persistence that I find truly remarkable.
Barn Swallows Targeting My Car
I, on the other hand, am a landscape photographer, and no small part of the reason for that is that trees, mountains and lakes do not require stalking, and they don't skitter away when approached too quickly.  Of course there are many challenges to landscape photography.  Early mornings, cold weather, and missed diners, but seriously, I rarely have to spend hours laying in the dirt waiting for a rock to favor me with an appearance.



The Accidental Birder

All this said, I do occasionally grab an image of a bird.  Usually this happens when an annoying winged beast flies across my view when I am trying to capture a majestic landscape.  I have no choice but to wait until the little creep flies out of frame or try to grab a few images, hope that I might be able to  incorporate the guy into the scene in some poetic way.  Seriously, I love images of these glorious winged creatures, but my bird photography tends to be more accidental and opportunistic.  I rarely stalk, but I do try to be prepared to grab the chances when they arise, and that is what accidental bird photography is all  about.


You Can't Shoot it if You Don't Have a Camera

 We can talk about the best equipment for bird photography, but the first step of accidental birding is just to have a camera with you, and although they are getting much better, I'm not talking about a cell phone.  On the rare occasion that I go out purposefully to shoot birds, I pack my full kit; my DSLR, 100-400mm Canon glass, my 2x tele-extender and tripod, but more often I find my best subjects when looking for other opportunities.  Then it is a matter of getting the most out of whatever equipment I have within reach.

Using What you Have
Most importantly, when I can't use my fully phallic glass to close in on my subject, I have to zoom with my feet.  I try to avoid crawling

Sea Gull off the Isles of Shoals
but slow patient movement can narrow the distance.  In the end, to get a dramatic shot, I usually still have to crop in quite a bit and having the most pixels to start with is crucial.  Cropping out half of a 24 megapixel image still leaves 12 megs to deal with, but, if I start with 8 megapixels the quality is bound to suffer.  A camera with good high ISO capability is also important. Birds in motion require fast shutter speeds and  have learned to adjust the ISO to whatever is required to keep the shutter fast enough to catch the action. My Red Tail Hawk in flight was frozen with the shutter at 1/800th, requiring  an ISO of 800 at f 9.  Of course you can shoot birds with your point and shoot or even with a camera phone, but this is a situation where better gear does make a difference.  The first rule is to always carry a camera, but the second, and nearly as important, rule is to carry to best camera you can practically manage.

Seeing the Birds (The Power of Selective Vision)
In the early autumn of 2012 I joined a group of New England

Peacham, Vermont
Photography Guild members for quick day trip exploring the color in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom.  On the way home I drove with John Vose who is a great bird photographer.  As we ambled through the beautiful rural Vermont country-side, it became obvious that while I was watching the flow of the landscape looking for magic combinations of  foreground and background, John was scanning the trees for wildlife.  We each had entirely different ways of seeing and I found it very difficult to redirect my focus to catch the opportunities that he seemed to discover so
Cloud Forest Tucan
easily. The most impressive example of this capability for selective vision came during a trip to Maquipucuna, an immense wildlife preserve in the Ecuadorian cloud forest.   Our guide had the remarkable ability to spot exotic birds hidden in the canopy 100's of yards away. How he saw birds that I could barely make-out with binoculars remained a total mystery.



 

Shooting Birds, On Purpose!
Since I don't have the magic vision, I occasionally depend on

Blue Heron Nest, Westmoreland, NH
specific  locations that are suggested by my birder friends.  These may take the form of accessible nests or wet lands, any place that I can set up my tripod and settle into a lawn chair with my coffee and Ipod.  I have to be especially inspired to sit for hours waiting for the action.  Inspiration has come with the activities around a Blue Heron Nest on Harvey Pond in Westmoreland, NH or watching for Bald Eagles to return to a nest on the Connecticut River.   Closer to home I can catch the visitors to our bird feeder or check the activity in our barn as the swallows nest and enthusiastically poop on my car.

 



Bird Feeder Junco




Baby Albatross, Galapagos Islands
The experience that almost turned me into a birder was our trip to the unique Galapagos Islands in Ecuador.  The place is a birder paradise. With the wildlife so close that you have to step over them.  Even I could get intimate studies of the remarkably varied fauna.  It was an amazing experience, but it also spoiled me for the effort required to chase down New England birds. 



Blue Footed Booby, Galapagos Islands







As I get older it becomes increasingly unlikely that I will ever be attracted to hours of lying on the cold ground hoping for a feathered glimpse, but I will continue to keep the camera close,  ready for  the occasional happy accident to fly by.  Now can someone please hook me up with a Snowy Owl?



Landing Pattern, Harvey Pond


Jeffrey Newcomer
Partridgebrookreflections.com

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