Crow Photo Tips

Marvin 2018

I’ve been meaning to write this post for months … possibly years.

I’m often asked about my photography — what kind of equipment I use, lighting and so on — so I naturally I thought I’d blog about it.

Starting a new post is a bit like deciding the angle from which you will dive into a pool. The first few attempts often end as belly flops.

I began composing an epic, encompassing my personal photographic journey, plus every thought that’s ever crossed my mind about the possible significance of photography.

You will be relieved to hear that it has, after days of literary struggle, been edited down to a more modest offering. Hopefully a cleaner dive.

If you’re in a BIG rush, here’s the Cole’s Notes version:

  • Keep everything portable. The best camera is the world is no good to you if you didn’t bring it along because it’s too heavy and/or precious.
  • Don’t get bogged down in the technology.
  • Flat light is your best friend. There are exceptions to this (and most) rules.
  • Photograph subjects that mean something to you, and aim to communicate why it’s special in each image.

 

EQUIPMENT/TECHNOLOGY

I am utterly hopeless at retaining any kind of technical information. Each and every time I go to reply to someone about what kind of camera and lens I use, I have to go and actually find the camera to have a look at the the numbers on it.

olympus OMD EM1 blog

So — this is the camera I use currently. It’s an Olympus micro-four thirds model, the OM-1D EM-1 model, about four or five years old. As you can see, it’s a bit battered, because I just pick it up a take it with me almost every time I head out of the door. It’s been soaked more that once. Last fall it suffered the camera version of a stroke — I took a picture and it made a terrible sound and everything went white. The shutter was stuck open and I had to take it for repair. It’s back in business now, but has never really been the same.

I almost always have my camera on the same setting for my crow photos — fast ISO, big aperture (so the background will be out of focus) and speed as fast as the available light will allow. Since my camera’s brush with death these are the only settings at which it will work properly — so I guess woman and machine have become one.

OMD w lens blog

The lens I use almost exclusively is an Olympus zoom, 75-300mm. It’s not the “best” quality lens by any means. It’s plastic, rather slow, has eccentric focusing habits. It too has also had to be repaired a couple of times. On the plus side, it’s not too heavy and relatively inexpensive, so if it does get terminally injured on a raven-seeking mountain trip in the snow, it’s not the end of the world. I do own an Olympus “pro” lens (40-150mm) and it is unquestionably a superior lens. I use it when photographing close to home, or when I go to the Still Creek roost, because it’s better in low light. But the weight of the thing! And the cost!!

camera strap blog

One technical tip — if you have a larger than pocket-sized camera, replace the strap with one like this that allows you to wear it over your shoulder and tuck it behind you when it’s not needed and swing to the front when you do. This one’s a Joby (there are lots of other brands) and the only reason I made this awesome discovery is because I won the strap, and some other gear, in a photography contest a few years back.

LIGHT

Coat of Many Colours

A bright sunny day would show this young crow as a black bird. The myriad subtle shades of sepia, indigo and mauve in those lovely immature feathers would be quite lost.

Flat light is what I love the most — those days when there is some high cloud and a weak sun filtering through it. Yes, I am one of those obnoxious people who complain about a long run of hot sunny days.  They’re terrible for taking photographs of dark feathered birds — too much deep shadow and burning highlight, and almost impossible to get the subtle detail. In the middle of summer I tend to get up really early to try and get  some photographs before the sun is fully up. I always aim for a photograph that looks as if it could have been painted, and diffuse light really is the only way I’ve found to achieve that effect.

Junior crow portrait

Exceptions to the Rule

Bright sunny days are often good for taking interesting corvid silhouette pictures.

Ruffled Crow Silhouette

SUBJECTS/REASONS

Obviously, crows and ravens are MY subjects, with occasional other birds, and a bit of rust and foliage on the side.

Whatever “your” subject is — fashion, flowers, architecture, slugs, barbed wire fences, kittens, soup tins — just follow it. Set yourself little assignments every day, if you can. Look at the results and see what you like and what you don’t like.

Does the image tell the viewer something specific about the subject, something that conveys the emotion you feel in its presence?

If yes — do more of that.

If no — try something slightly different next time.

The side effect of this process is that you set up a bit of a feedback loop. The more you look at your chosen subject, the more you think about the reasons why you take photos.

Picket Fence Crow

Some Reasons to Take Photographs

  • to create a periscope up from the choppy (or becalmed) sea of daily life
  • to try to stop time from moving on
  • to make yourself think more about a subject
  • to see that a single subject can look very different from another angle
  • to simply record things (many photos I take are just to keep a note of which crow is where and when)
  • to try (perhaps over years) to find the truth in something

 

Junior Crow on Blue Fence

I consider my work to be a combination of wildlife and portrait, with an emphasis on the latter. My daily struggle is to create images that don’t just tell the viewer what the bird looks like, but also to hint at what is going on behind those glinting, intelligent eyes.

Ultimately, I’d love to create the corvid version of Karsh’s portrait of Winston Churchill.

Moody Crow

Failing that, maybe just a few more like this …

Interpretive Dance

Corvid Interpretive Dance, Vol: 1

 

 

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Night Owl

Just a short follow-up to yesterday’s post, Owl Dreams.

At 8pm last night, the barred owl was still in the tree in front of our house, sleeping peacefully. We took Geordie for his evening walk and he was still there when we got back, but his behaviour was changing.

There was much more head movement and he was clearly shifting into night hunting mode. I took a little video to try and capture it. The quality isn’t great, but you can see what I mean.

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Can’t see the video?

If you’re looking at this in an email, the video won’t show. You will need to click on the blog title at the top of the email and that will take you to the actual blog, where the video and all the photos will be found, and the blog layout will be much better.

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Just after I took the video, the owl flew off the tree, landed briefly on our car and then on to a plum tree across the street.

Goodnight, Owl

And then he was off and away like a ghost in the night.

He had been in front of our house for a full twelve hours.

I can still hardly believe that yesterday happened!

www.junehunter.com

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Ghost Raven

Whenever I go up into the mountains I’m hoping to see ravens.

They are actually part of my fitness program. If I ever feel like just sitting all day at the computer, I remind myself that if I don’t keep my knees in working order, I won’t be able to get up those mountains and therefore will not see those ravens.

So, ravens = fitness incentive.

On Saturday it was raining in Vancouver and you’d swear that the North Shore Mountains were non-existent.

But, as my father-in-law used to say, “If you don’t do things in the rain in Vancouver, you won’t do anything at all”.

So, we put the snowshoes in the car and headed up to Mount Seymour.

About halfway up the mountain a thick mist descended. By the time we reached the parking lot it was impossible to see more than a few feet ahead.

The chances of a raven sighting seemed pretty remote, given that I could hardly see my feet to put my snowshoes on.

But, just as we got kitted up and ready to head to the trail, I spotted an ethereal silhouette ahead of us.

A ghostly figure in the fog and snow.

A ghostly figure in the fog and snow.

I was pretty sure that this would be our only raven sighting for the day.

We headed off through the woods, stopping for a snack and break at First Lake. Just as we headed off again, I saw our ethereal raven land on the top of a tree by the lake and give a few mist-muffled calls.

Phillip at First Lake

Phillip at First Lake

We carried on to Dog Mountain. Normally this spot affords the most awe-inspiring panoramic views of Vancouver. On this day it offered a blank whitescape and a biting wind. After a couple of quick photos of the non-view, we prepared to retreat into the trees away from the gale.

The non-existent view from Dog Mountain on Saturday. You can just faintly see the raven flying just above the small tree in the centre left.

The non-existent view from Dog Mountain on Saturday. You can just faintly see the raven flying above the small tree in the centre left.

And suddenly, there he was. Like magic, our ghost raven became corporeal for a few moments. He landed on the snow beside us.

It was really gusty out there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The upswept punk look

The upswept punk look

I whipped off my mitts, dragged out the camera and was able to take a few shots of him before he turned around and wandered offstage again, back into the realm of mist and mystery.

Taking Leave

 

Magic.

More than enough motivation to keep my knees fit enough for further mountain expeditions.

For new raven portraits, visit my website.

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George’s Tough Year

I would describe George’s 2015 as “catastrophic”. Still, there are lessons to be learned from his persistence.

His year has been so awful, it’s taken me a while to prepare myself to tell the story, and look again at some of the images.

George Waiting

George appeared in my garden about midway through the long, hot, dry summer last year. He was waiting for me one day when I came out of the studio, resting on a branch and looking at me as if we were already well acquainted. It turned out that George had a family — a mate (Mabel) and one fledgling.

Mabel and Baby

The baby crow at first seemed like the average disheveled juvenile, doted upon my both of his parents. But as the summer continued, it became clear that all was not well with Junior. Lumps appeared on his face and then on his feet. He had avian pox, which is often fatal and very contagious to other birds of many species.

George preening baby

I had a crisis of conscience. Fearing for the health of all the other birds that come to my garden, I considered ignoring George’s pleading looks so that the family might start to seek food elsewhere and leave the area. Easier said than done.

Waiting for me outside the studio. Hard to resist.

Waiting for me outside the studio. Hard to resist.

After a couple of miserable days of looking at George’s expectant face through the studio window, I moved to plan B. This consisted of a rather rigorous schedule of feeding George and family at only one spot on the deck and then, after their visit, immediately cleaning the area with bleach and rinsing thoroughly. I also bleached the birdbath daily, and emptied and cleaned all the other bird feeders every few days. I went from crazy crow lady, to crazy bleach lady!

Of course, when I noticed the sick baby and family perched on the hydro wires all over the neighbourhood, I realized that there was a limit to what I could do in the sterilization department.

By the end of the summer, George and Mabel looked completely worn out. All Vancouver wildlife had a tough time dealing with the drought, and many birds started molting early in the summer. George looked thoroughly bedraggled by the time new feathers started to come in for the fall.

Bedraggled

Finally, in early fall, his new feathers came in and he looked much more handsome. More importantly, he and Mabel showed no sign of having developed avian pox symptoms.

George in new winter feather finery.

George in new winter feather finery.

 

A little more on Mabel: she’s a lot more reluctant to get close to me than George. A problem with her right eye probably causes some vision impairment,  naturally making her more cautious. At times the eye is completely closed and, at other times, it looks quite normal. Mostly it doesn’t seem to cause her great problems.

In this photo you can see Mabel's eye problem.

In this photo you can see Mabel’s eye problem.

Moments later, Mabel's right eye looks just fine, as she deftly juggles some peanuts.

Moments later, Mabel’s right eye looks just fine, as she deftly juggles some peanuts.

Sadly, the baby crow grew sicker, although both parents continued to feed and preen him with single-minded dedication. He could still fly, but his damaged feet made it hard for him to land and rest. We could hear his plaintive cries for food from one end of our alleyway to the other.  Then the weather turned suddenly cold and he fell silent.

George’s bad luck did not end there.

Shortly after the sick baby crow died, I saw George waiting for me as usual in the garden and went out to say hello.

I gasped in horror. My brain couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. George the magnificent, was missing half of his top beak.

George - still magnificent.

First of all, I couldn’t for the life of me imagine how this happened.

I still can’t. If anyone has ideas, I’d love to hear them.

Then, I was grief stricken. After all that George had been through, this new catastrophe seemed so unfair.

I was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to survive this new challenge. I didn’t post anything about it on Facebook because I was still mentally processing both the event, and my reaction to it.

I struggled with whether it’s wrong to be so very upset about the difficulties facing a crow — given all the terrible things going on in the world.

There’s a whole other, more thoughtful, blog post being pondered to answer that question. Until then, in brief, I’ve decided it’s OK. And even if it isn’t, I can’t help it.

Jaunty George

George's injury doesn't seem to have made less confident. Here he calls a warning to Hank and Vera to stay away from his food source.

George’s injury doesn’t seem to have affected his confidence. Here he calls a warning to Hank and Vera to stay away from his food source.

It’s been several weeks now and I’ve become accustomed to George’s new look. I’m cheered by the adaptability he’s demonstrating with his food collection methods. When he comes for peanuts he turns his head almost upside down for better “shoveling” action. I try to help out by putting the nuts in contained space so he can trap them. It’s rather amazing how efficient he’s become.

Modified Technique 2

Modified technique 1

And, happily, Mabel seems to be standing by her crow. George’s injury doesn’t seem to have affected her loyalty – the two of them remain a fierce team when it comes to protecting their territorial rights.

George and Mabel share a quiet domestic moment.

George and Mabel share a quiet domestic moment.

Clearly Mabel still thinks that George is the top crow, so I’m hoping the two of them together can survive and thrive. I’m full of admiration for George Halfbeak and his resilience. I’m even starting to see a certain dashing charm in his new look.

George this morning, braving the think frost for a few peanuts on the deck.

George this morning, braving the cold and frost for a few peanuts on the deck.

He had a pretty devastating 2015, but looks set to take on 2016 with typical crow determination. Good luck, George and Happy New Year.

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