The Galapagos has to be on any nature photographer’s short list of most wanted places to go…it is on the bucket list for those who simply appreciate nature, and many a pure tourist longs to tick it off the list. I know it is a cliche but there is truely no place like it in the world. The Galápagos Islands sit right on the equator, in the middle of the Humbolt Current, just far enough off-shore from Ecuador to maintain a totally unique habitat. There are certainly birds and animals there that you can see no-where else…but the real magic is in how close you can approach all of the island residents. Combine that with some of the most stunning seascapes and landscapes imaginable…sunrise to sunset…and why wouldn’t anyone want to travel there?
Since I was already in South America for the Wildside Nature Tours Amazon Riverboat Adventure, I was also invited to participate in a special, small-boat, 7 day trip to the Galapagos. Kevin Loughlin, the major partner in Wildside Nature Tours, does the islands at least twice a year. Our trip was his 24th. He knows the best boats, the best guides, and the islands themselves as well as anyone in the business…better than most. His tours, generally limited to 12 people, spend more time ashore on the islands than any others. Land time on any island is limited to 4 hours per boat, and no more than 20 people. We got to spend the whole 4 hours on each trip ashore, while most boats had to fit several groups in that same time frame. We got to sit with good subjects for the perfect shot, and take all the time we wanted to appreciate the scenery.
On this trip again, I used only the Sony Rx10iii. It’s 24-600mm zoom covers the ideal range for the islands. Much of the time I had to zoom back from 600mm. The birds and animals were just that close. And the Sony in-camera HDR was perfect for the sunrise and sunsets, and the amazing island and seascapes. Then too, most of the other folks on the trip were carrying 20-40 pounds of camera equipment ashore each day. My Sony, with the same kind of capability as their whole outfits, was much easier to carry, and fit in a small wet-bag for the wet landings. I really appreciated it by the end of 4 hours in the equatorial heat of the islands.
We spent our first night in Ecuador at the Garden Hotel near the airport in Quito. Wonderful grounds and a great atmosphere. And the first of my Ecuadorian Hummingbirds.
The next morning we were off early again to catch a two-hop flight to the Galapagos…though you stay on the same plane there is a short layover in Guayaquil. Having realized the shortcomings of my packing while on the Amazon, I spent the time at the airport in Quito searching, successfully, for a small day-pack to carry my camera on the wet landings (I already had a dry bag to go inside).
When we landed in San Cristobal, Kevin advised us not to try to photograph the birds at the airport. Tempting as it was, he assured us we would have better opportunities on the other islands we were to visit. Still, when you get to the dock to board the pangas (rubber zodiac like boats) that take you out to your yacht, it is impossible to resist the sea lions who greet you, or would greet you if they were awake.
After room assignments and lunch on the yacht, we returned to San Cristobal to take a bus up over the top of the island for a visit to a Tortoise Reserve and Breeding Station, for our first looks at unique Galapagos wildlife. We saw the giant Tortoises of course, but while there we also had our first encounters with one of the 4 species of endemic Mockingbirds of the islands, one of the Lava Lizards, and one of Darwin’s Finches.
We returned to San Cristobal town in time for sunset, a little shopping, and back to our yacht for the first of many excellent dinners.
To make the most of your time in the islands, the yacht moves at night, while you are sleeping. It takes some getting used to, as the waters around the islands, stirred by the Humboldt Current, can be quite choppy…but it is a small price to pay for paradise. We woke on our first full day in the Galapagos to a stunning sunrise…the first of many…and, after a hearty breakfast, boarded the pangas for a short ride to Espanola Island. Every trip to the Galapagos is a mixture of dry and wet landings. Some islands have landing jetties, and on some you run the pangas up to the beach and climb out knee deep in water to wade ashore. Kevin insists on good wading sandals for the wet landings. I also invested in two pairs of sand socks…lycra crew-style socks with neoprene soles and heels. The sand socks keep the sand out from between my toes and my feet and the sandals. Before the end of the trip could have gotten several times their cost if I had been willing to sell them. Highly recommended.
The Galapagos are all volcanic islands, but they are mixture of what I think of as short islands and tall islands. Espanola is one of short islands…essentially a slab of lava raised maybe 70 feet above the sea at its highest point. The trails are pretty rough, with loose lava underfoot and no soft landings if you fall…but both the scenery and the wildlife are totally worth the hike.
Each day there were several activities, with snorkeling generally in the late morning after time on one of the islands. I had never snorkeled before this trip, but I came equipped with an underwater camera. Unfortunately after one disastrous attempt I did not get in the water again, so I missed part of the Galapagos experience. Maybe next time…after a few lessons.
This is as good a place as any to highlight the sealions of the Galapagos. They are everywhere, from tiny pups to great beach-master bulls. They have absolutely no fear of human beings, and on several occasions we had pups come up and get very familiar with both our gear and our persons.
Our next day was spent on Floreana Island, one of the high islands of the Galapagos, and one with gorgeous beaches were Green Sea Turtles nest and rays swim in the surf. We did not see the turtles, but we certainly saw their excavations and tracks on the beach.
In the two panels above you can appreciate the real versatility of the Sony RX10iii (and soon to be iv). Flamingos at 600mm, in flight, and landscapes worth bringing home and showing off.
Overnight the boat moves us across the Humboldt Current once more to South Plaza, another short island…and indeed very plaza like. Here we had our fist encounters with the Giant Prickly Pears and Land Iguanas.
The afternoon was spent on Santa Fe Island, with more Land Iguanas, chances to photograph Tropic Birds from the cliffs, wonderful views of Swallow-tail Gulls, and a close encounter with a Lava Heron…as well as stunning landscapes.
North Seymour Island was our next to last stop…saving the best for last. North Seymour has nesting colonies of Blue-footed Boobies and a mixed colony of both Magnificent and Great Frigatebirds. The Boobies are everywhere, underfoot, nesting in the trail, beside the trail…so close you sometimes have to walk around them. And they are displaying…doing their booby dance in pairs. The Frigatebirds are almost as close, nesting in taller brush wherever they can find space…and the males are in full display (or were when we visited). It is a totally amazing experience.
On our last full day in the islands we visited Santa Cruz, and traveled by bus up into the highlands to visit the largest of the Giant Land Tortoises that inhabit the Galapagos. We stopped along the way for some birding and sightseeing around a huge sink-hole, a common feature of volcanic islands.
It is hard to imagine just how big the Giant Land Tortoise is. When they move through the brush they are like a bulldozer…nothing stops them…and yet this giant grass eater is among the gentlest creatures on earth. Too gentle perhaps as hundreds of thousands of them were collected each year, before they were protected, by passing ships and consigned to life in the hold until the crew was hungry for fresh meat. Since protection their numbers are slowly growing on the islands and most of the high islands have reserves.
We flew back to Quito for another night at the Garden Hotel, but since most of us had night flights out, we spent our last day in Ecuador traveling to the high Andes above the city and over the other side for Andean hummingbirds. We visited a lodge that specializes in hummers and spent a slightly rainy day photographing them, and sharing a traditional Ecuadorian meal.
The Sony RX10iii really came through on the hummingbirds in low light.
We were back in Quito in time for evening flights. The end of a remarkable adventure in the Galápagos…thanks to Wildside Nature Tours.
For many the Amazon River is a thing of legend. It runs through the jungle heart of South America, from the Atlantic delta in the east to the slopes of the Andes in the west, and its basin dominates almost half the continent in 5 different countries. I was privileged to be invited to co-lead the Wildside Nature Tours Amazon Riverboat Adventure last March, to experience the Amazon for myself.
On this trip I carried my Sony RX10iii, an advanced-point-and-shoot superzoom, with a tack sharp 24-600mm f2.4-f4 zoom lens, and Sony’s excellent 1 inch sensor. Much of the trip I was shooting from moving boats, and the Sony handled the various challenges very well. I never felt the need for another camera.
Some of us flew into Lima a day early, and spent the first day, while others were still arriving, visiting the high coastal desert and mountains north of the capital city in the De Lachay reserve. This is a unique landscape, as strange and wonderful as the Amazon itself, but about as different as different can be. These arid uplands, within sight of the Pacific, are home to many species of birds, lizards, dragonflies, and butterflies that you just do not see elsewhere in Peru.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the Ventinilla wetlands just at the edge of Lima…home to major wintering colonies of Franklin’s Gulls and Black Skimmers. It is wonderful that the Lima has preserved its wetlands, though they are surrounded on all sides by haphazard development. There were birds in the air continuously so I had a good chance to hone my birds-in-flight skills. BIF is not as easy with a P&S as with a full fledged DSLR, but the Sony brought back some satisfying images. I can not wait to try out the new Sony RX10iv with its improved focus in a similar situation when it arrives.
The following day we were at the airport at 5 AM to board a small commercial flight for Iquitos. Iquitos the major port of call on the Peruvian Amazon. There are about 60 miles of roadway in and around Iquitos, but there is no highway connecting the city to anywhere else in Peru. You can only get there by air or by boat…and by boat would take you almost 2/3s of the lenght of the Amazon through all of Brazil. We landed in the pouring rain. We were to experience rain several times on our journey but, considering we were in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest, we stayed remarkably dry. On our way from the airport to our river boat, we stopped at the White Sands Forest to explore another unique habitat. Shooting in the rain is always a challenge. I had some confidence in the weather sealing of the Sony RX10iii, but still, I tried to keep the camera under my umbrella and covered it with a gallon sized zip lock bag with a hole punched for the strap. I kept the bag on the strap the whole trip, and had several more occasions to use it.
One of the things I appreciate about the Wildside Nature Tours Amazon Riverboat Adventure is the cultural aspect. Wildside recommends that each participant purchase a small cache of school and art supplies, soccer balls and frisbees, to distribute in villages were we stop, and to throw to children who come down to the river as we pass. We made a stop at a department store in Iquitos to stock up…then bused down to the docks for our first sight of the Amazon and our riverboat home for the coming week.
One of the great advantages of a riverboat trip on the Amazon is that you bring your hotel with you, deeper and deeper into the rainforest. Though we went off every day in motor launches to explore tributaries or to land and hike in the terra firms forest, we returned each noon and evening to comfortable rooms (each with a large picture window on the river), hot showers, and great meals. And we did not have to repack until we got back to Iquitos. There is no better way to experience the Amazon.
There is also no way to convey the size of the Amazon river…or to capture it with a camera. We were on the river near high water for the year, and the volume of water flowing down and past, the width of the river, the endless water stretching way east and west…even as far up river as Iquitos…is astounding. I can only image what it is nearer the mouth in Brazil. We woke every morning to the river and were always amazed. It is in vistas like the one below that the Sony’s 24mm equivalent comes into play…that and the built in HDR. I would not have been able to capture the clouds and detail in the water in the same exposure without the HDR mode…and Sony’s HDR implantation is among the best…giving you the choice of 1 to 6 stop exposure differences and allowing you to fine tune the center exposure using EV compensation.
We spent our days in flat bottomed 14 foot motor launches pushing our way up tributaries to get deeper into the rainforest to find birds and mammals, and returned each day to a new towel animal on our beds. Dawn to dusk and even one night boat trip.
We did go ashore for several hikes in the terra firma forest…in search Pygmy Marmoset and Night Monkeys, birds, and reptiles of the rainforest.
Besides our visit to a native healer, we shared a noon meal with a village beside the river. The women of the village prepared a traditional Amazon high water meal (lots of fish), and after the meal the local teacher assembled her students to give us an impromptu concert.
Shooting in the rainforest is a challenge for any camera. Light levels are often low, but with contrasting areas of bright sun that finds its way through the canopy high above. Good high-ISO performance helps, and the Sony RX10iii does not disappoint. The Anti-motion Blur mode is also very useful for really low light. The Marmosets were taken with AMB and produced effective exposures where I would have needed flash. The Emerald Boa was taken in total darkness by the light of a flashlight (a good flashlight but a flashlight none the less). Considering the conditions I am very pleased with the results.
Another thing I appreciated about the Wildside Nature Tours Amazon Riverboat Adventure was the local guides. We had two professional guides with us, one for each boat, both raised on the river, and both college educated in the ecology of the river. In addition, at each landing, we hired villagers to provide specific guidance on the local trails. Most of our hikes were in the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve but each section of the reserve is managed by a local village…villagers maintain the trails, guard the wildlife, and guide the tourists who land on their landing. These local guides found us birds, mammals, reptiles and insects that we just would not have seen otherwise. And each one overflowed with pleasure at showing us their jungle home. At most landings there were also local villagers selling crafts and art from the Amazon basin.
When you wake up on a riverboat tied up to the bank on the Amazon River, you know the day will hold something special, and the folks at Wildside Nature Tours know how to make the most of every day.
Our boat eventually returned to Nauta, the westernmost end of the road out of Iquitos, and we bused back to the airport for our flight back to Lima.
Most of us had night flights out of Lima, so we spent the day south along the coast in the fishing and tourist village of Pucusana. We took a tourist boat (clearly a converted fishing boat) out around Pucusana Island to see the cormorants, terns and penguins. It is a whole different kind of shooting from a boat in the rough waters around the island. I was able to set the Sony RX10iii to wide area focus, and the ISO to minimum shutter speed 1/1000th for good results even in this challenging situation.
The Wildside Natures Tour Amazon Riverboat Adventure is adventure indeed. For anyone who has ever dreamed of the Amazon, there is no better way to see it! And, all things considered, there is no better camera to capture it than an advanced Point and Shoot like the Sony RX10iii.
If you have your camera set up to produce consistent, correctly exposed, jpegs…using all the available auto, program, and special modes for a wide variety of situations, then post-processing does not need to be either a mystery or a chore. In fact, once your camera is set up, you will find that most of your photos of any particular kind (wildlife, birds, macros…landscapes or people) will require exactly the same processing…so much so that if your chosen post-processing program or app allows you to create presets or save a set of edits, you will be able to process most images by choosing the right “one-touch” preset.
Why do you need to post-process at all? The reality of digital photography is that any good image can be made better with a few tweaks. I am going to cover the basic edits here, as they are done in the more modern apps and programs, both on the mobile and desk and lap-top platforms: Snapseed, Lightroom, PhotoShop Express, and Polarr on phones and tablets, and Lightroom or PhotoShop Elements on desk and lap-tops. You can make these edits in PhotoShop itself as well, but it might take a combination of settings to duplicate the effects of a simple slider in one of the more modern programs.
Lighting: Even a correctly exposed digital image, the shadows will often be too dark, and the highlights too bright, when compared to what the human eye sees in the same situation. The eye sees further into the shadows than the camera does, and we can see detail in bright areas that the camera will render as blocks of solid white or bright color. Cameras today have some kind of compensation for this built in, generally called Dynamic Range Control, or DR Enhansement, or iContrast, or Active D Lighting, etc. Even when taking advantage of these in-camera adjustments (and you should be taking advantage of them), there is no way the sensor can see or record the full range of light that the human eye does. By adjusting the shadows and highlights in post-processing we can produce an image that has the appearance of being closer to what our eye sees in any given situation. To improve the image we need to “open” the shadows (brighten them) and “pull back” the highlights. Not a lot, or the image will look flat and uninteresting, but some. That is the first change to make. In a traditional program like PhotoShop these changes are made with the “curves” tool. In the other apps and programs it is made with the Shadows and Highlights sliders. Slide shadows to the plus side until the shadows open to suit you. Pull the highlights slider to the negative side until you see the detail you want in the bright areas of the image. Do not expect miracles. The shadows slider will not reclaim shadows that are totally black, and the highlight slider will not restore detail in totally overexposed whites or brights…but generally these adjustments will produce a more pleasing, more life-like image. And don’t overdo either. You want the image to still have enough contrast between the darks and lights to be three-dimensional and interesting.
Detail: Because of the structure of digital image sensors, all digital images need some sharpening. Most cameras, when you shoot in jpeg, apply sharpening in camera. I set my cameras to apply the least possible sharpening in-camera, since it is better done in post-processing. In-camera sharpening can produce extra noise in the background of the image, and unnaturally sharp edges. The sharpening tool in most modern apps and programs applies a combination of traditional edge sharpening and unsharp masking to produce a natural looking result, with a simple slide of the sharpness slider until it looks right. PhotoShop is the exception again, where you still have separate sharpen and unsharp mask tools. Do not oversharpen! It will produce the same negative effects on image quality as in-camera sharpening often does. If an image, or parts of an image are out of focus or motion blurred, they will not be improved by oversharpening. Quite the opposite. Apply just enough sharpening to render the details in the image as they would look to the human eye, if you were at approximately the right distance to make the subject the same size as it is in the image.
The second aspect of sharpening is most often called clarity (it is called structure in Snapseed). Clarity increases the local-area-contrast of the image to bring out fine detail in hair, fur, feathers, or the fine textures of flower petals (or human skin). Think of it as controlling the “inner detail” of the image. In PhotoShop we produce this effect by using unconventional settings of the unsharp mask tool. Most modern apps and programs will have a clairity (or “structure“) slider. Again, just slide the clarity slider to the positive side until it produces the effect you want. (If you slide it to the negative side it will become really obvious what the tool is doing.) Hint: you do not want to overdo the clarity, especially in images with people’s faces in them. In fact one of the legitimate uses of negative clarity is in portraits, where you might not want to see the “inner detail” of every skin blemish 🙂 Hint 2: Increaseing the clarity will sometimes have the effect of making the whole image look a little darker. You can offset this with the Exposure or Brightness sliders.
Color: The auto color temperature controls in today’s cameras are very good. They can adjust the jpeg processing to produce natural looking colors in almost any light. They are almost as good at this as the human eye. Amost. What can be improved in most digital images is the “pop” or “impact” of the colors…especially if you have already adjusted the shadows and highlights. Modern apps and programs have a control called vibrance (sometimes grouped with clarity and sometimes grouped with color temperature and saturation…and, as always, called something else in Snapseed: “ambiance“). Vibrance looks at the image and determines which colors might be undersaturated (not rich or vivid enough). Generally these are the blues and greens, and sometimes reds. Sliding the vibrance slider will increase the saturation and brightness of only those colors that the program or app thinks need it. It will generally make the sky a darker blue, and the green trees brighter green. Or it might pick up the similar hues in a bird’s plumage or a flower’s petals. Slide the vibrance (or ambiance) slider to the positive side until you produce a pleasing effect. (And again, sliding it to the negative side will give you a better idea of what you are actually changing.) Once more, do no overdue it. If the control is adjusting reds, or purples, especially, it is easy to get the reds and purples so saturated that you no longer see fine detail in those areas of the image. And it is also easy to get the sky unnaturally blue. Exercise restraint. Again, PhotoShop (the last time I looked) did not have a vibrance slider or control. You would have to adjust the individual color channels using the curves control. Not easy to do. It is worth mentioning that Snapseed’s ambiance control has more effect on the brightness and color temperature of the image (by color temperature we mean the balance between warm tones and cold ones, red and yellow and orange being warm…just think the color of fire, and blues and blue-greens being cold), than the vibrance control in the other apps and programs. It produces almost a warm glow…which is pleasing in some images, but not in others.
To summarize, these are the adjustments all most all digital images will need, or benefit from. The amounts will depend on your camera and your taste.
open the shadows
pull back the highlights
sharpen the image
increase the clarity of the image
increase the vibrance of the image
exercise restraint…work for the natural look not the spectacular. 🙂
Wildlife, birds, and macro images will benefit from more sharpening and clarity than landscapes, and will not need as much shadow, highlight, and vibrance control. Landscapes will generally need more shadow, highlight, and vibrance control, and less clarity and sharpness. People shots will not like much sharpening or clarity at all (at all), and can stand only a touch of vibrance. Shadow and highlights can be effective but you need to be careful not to produce a cartoony look.
In programs that allow me too, I will set up three presets, or saved looks, or custom filter (all names for the same thing…a set of edits that are saved and can be applied with a single touch or click to the nickname). I love the way Snapseed works, and it is the one app that will run on any mobile platform (not matter how underpowered), but it does not yet have the ability to save a set of edits and apply them to a different image. Lightroom on the desk and lap-top has this ability and is excellent…but Lightroom for mobile platforms does not. PhotoShop Elements and Polarr both save sets of edits (My Looks in PSE, and Custom Fliters in Polarr). For exactly that reason, my go-to post-processing program on the desk and lap-top is Lightroom, and my go-to apps on my tablet are PSE and Polarr. (PSE for landscapes, because the shadow tool is more effective, and Polarr for everything else, since it is faster, and has a deeper feature set than PSE.)
Honestly, if you have your camera set up right for quality jpegs, you will rarely have to go beyond these basic edits…and most often will be able to apply one of your saved presets or custom filters. If you need to to more, they you really need to ask yourself if the image is worth saving. Most of the time, even with more powerful tools and more sophisticated techniques, you will not be able to produce the image you had in mind when you pressed the shutter. Sorry. That is just the way it is with digital.
One exception is the dehaze or defog control that is available in Lightroom (both mobile and -top) and in PhotoShop Elements and Polarr on mobile. The dehaze tool, like the others covered, takes care not to overdo it, but it can be effective in restoring contrast to an image that is washed out due to an over abundance of blue refracted light…as in fog or haze, or the effects of shooting into the sun. It selectively removes diffuse blue spectrum light from the image. It will also darken the image overall, so some compensation with the exposure or brightness control is generally needed, but it can improve some shots dramatically. It is never part of my basic presets, looks, or custom filters, as I only use it rarely, but it is really useful on occasion.
Another exception is what we call local adjustments. In PhotoShop to make local adjustments you have to use the selective brushes and masking. In Lightroom, Snapseed, and Polarr, you can apply them quickly and easily using specialized controls. Lightroom on the desktop has the best implementation. You can apply gradient or radial filters, or you can brush on adjustments to just a specific portion of the image. In Lightroom on the mobile platform you only have the gradient and radial options. Snapseed has radial filters and a brush, but the brush is not very fine. Polarr, on the mobile platform has the set that is closest to Lightroom desk and lap-top: gradient, radial, and and finely controllable brush. I have not found much use for a radial filter (basically round and graduated from the center) in any app or program, but I use the gradient filters on occasion to darken the sky and lighten the foreground in a particularly difficult landscape shot. You just drag a gradient over the image, top to bottom or bottom to top, and then adjust things like exposure, brightness, clarity, vibrance, etc. The effects are applied as a gradient…most intense at one edge of the image and then gradually fading to nothing at the other edge. You can actually apply two gradients (I call them dueling gradients), one from the top and one from the bottom to, as I mentioned, darken the sky at the same time you lighten the foreground.
The other local control that I do use is the brush, especially in Lightroom (-top) and Polarr (mobile). The brush allows me to decrease the brightness of, say the white patch on the chin of a otherwise correctly exposed Great Blue Heron, to retrieve detail in the feathers there. I simply select the brush control and paint over the area to be changed, then apply negative exposure. I can do the same thing with the clarity control to make the eye in an image pop. Just paint over the eye, and increase clarity. Again, I do this kind of extra editing to maybe one in 300 images.
Finally, there is one app available on iPads and Window’s tablets which does what no other will do…on those very rare occasions when the there is something in the image that just has to go…whether is an out of focus branch in an otherwise perfect composition of a bird, or beer can on an otherwise pristine beach. TouchRetouch does a better job of removing and filling than any other app I have used. You simply paint out, or lasso, the offending object, press go, and the app removes the object and seamlessly fills in the hole by very intelligently extrapolating from the surround. When it works it is magic. It does not always work. Sometimes the background is just to complex or the objectionable thing is too close to your subject, etc. But is is always worth a try when you have an image that requires, or could benefit from its magic TouchRetouch.
In my opinion, for general editing and post-processing there is no match for Lightroom on the desk or lap-top, though it does require you to import every image you want to process into its catalog. On the mobile platform there is no reason not to use PhotoShop Express (especially as it is free…though to unlock all its features you have to have a Adobe subscription). It works very much like Lightroom on the desk or lap-top, and allows you to save your editing settings as a custom My Look. Polarr is becoming my go-to image processor on my iPad Pro, because of its speed and deep feature set, and the ease with which you can save and apply our editing settings as custom filers. To unlock all features it cost $20, but that also gives you access to Polarr on any platform you might use…desk or -laptop, Andriod phone or tablet, iPad or iPhone, and even Chromebooks. It is available for them all.
So again, get your camera set up for consistently well exposed jpeg images, and apply a few basic edits in the program or app of your choice, and you will have consistently satisfying images.
I had the opportunity to visit Cuba for 14 days in October of 2016. What a trip! The birds were greatl, especially the endemics, of which we saw over 20 out a possible 26. Then too, the landscape was often unique and beautiful, the food was great, and the people were open and friendly. It is a great place to visit, and a great place for photography.
We visited the mountains west of Havana on our first night (I was there for 2 trips, so we stayed in two different hotels). I don’t recommend hotels in Cuba. You are much better off staying in Casa Paticulars, private homes licsenced by the government to host visitors. They are common in most of the touristy areas, and are less expensive, cleaner, and often more modern than the hotels. Private tiled baths with shower, air conditioners in each room, generally a refrigerator (sometimes shared between rooms), filtered water used for cooking, bottled water and beverages available, etc. are standard (and, it was my impression, required by law.) Plus you can arrange to have your meals at the Casa Paticular and if the ones we stayed at are a good sample, the food is abundant and excellent!
Near our first hotel there was a small botanical garden…or Orchid Garden. Besides beautiful plants and stunning landscaping…in a series of terraces up the side of a steep limestone hill…the birding was excellent. Here we saw our first endemic: the Cuban Trogon. We also had good views of one of the most common, and most spectacular birds of the Cuban forest, the Red-legged Thrush. The Great Lizard Cuckoo lived up to its name. Cuban Emeralds worked the flowers on the terraces. We also saw Cuban Green and West Indian Woodpeckers, and the rare and unexpected Giant Kingbird.
In Vinales (a must-visit city in one of the most unique landscapes in the world, and the center of the cigar industry in Cuba) there are whole neighborhoods that are pretty much exclusively Casa Paticulars. They have catered for a decade to German and French tourists, and are eager to host Americans. The hosts have limited English. I don’t recommend going to Cuba without hiring a local guide to set up your trip for you, but once at your Casa Paticular, even the most basic Spanish (and I am limited to a very few words), combined with the host’s basic English, will generally get you what you need. In one case, where the host needed to communicate a maintenance issue, he was able to flag down a passing neighbor with more English and we got the job done. As I said before, the people I met in Cuba were among the most friendly and accomodating I have met anywhere in my travels.
From Vinales we traveled back toward Havana and then south to the Zapata Swamp area. Our accommodations were again in Casa Paticulars, this time in the resort town of Ponto Larga at the head of The Bay of Pigs. This is another unique landscape, somewhat reminiscent of the Everglades in south Florida. A porous limestone base mixes fresh and salt water well inland, creating extensive marshes and wet plains. There is a fault running up the middle of the Bay, so the east side is low, with sandy beaches, and the west side is some 20-30 feet higher, with a rim of low limestone cliffs, and many sinkholes back from the shore. This is the only place in Cuba for three of the most sought after endemics…the Zapata Sparrow, the Zapata Wren, and the Zapata Rail. The existence of the rail is currently in some doubt, as there have been no reliable records for several years now. This spring, when the marsh is dryer, local ornithologists and biologists are mounting a last-ditch effort to find the rail and document its status.
The Zapata area is also a good place to find a two of the other Cuban endemics: the Cuban Bee Hummingbird (the worlds smallest bird), and the Blue-headed Quail Dove.
The Blue-headed Quail Dove used to be very hard to find. Recently a small flock has taken up residence around restaurant at a sink-hole park just across the road from the Bay. They come in to corn spread by the staff at the restaurant, and draw the tourists with them. 🙂 The Wren and the Sparrow, however, required a 5 mile round trip hike into the swamp on raised dike roads, in the heat of a hot October. Fortunately there were other birds along the way to keep our spirits up. On the first of the two trips I hosted, the Bee Hummingbird was easy as well. There is a backyard in a small village just north of the Bay where they are regular visitors, so much so that the owners have a small business showing them off. On the second trip the Cuban Emeralds (not endemic despite its name) were so numerous and so aggressive that the Bees were scarce. We did find them elsewhere, but did not get close views.
The most elusive of the endemics of the Zapata region (not counting the rail), turned out to be the Fernandino’s Flicker, which should have been a lot easier in the wet plains back from the Bay. On our first trip we had only a questionable sighting. On the second trip we tried an unlikely spot in the mountains west of Havana where our guide had seen them once before, and had great views. Of course, on that trip, we also found them on the Zapata Plains.
Our Fernandino search did turn up other interesting birds. We had our first sighting of the Cuban Pygmy Owl here, and great looks at yet another Cuban Tody.
Meals in Playa Larga tended to center around seafood. Excellent shrimp, lobster fixed several different ways, and Deviled Crab with peppers and green olives. And of course fish, like this giant Dog-fish that capped a seafood meal at one of our Casa Paticulars.
South of Playa Larga are the extensive salt-water marshes of the La Salina Refuge. This area is very like a cross between the Everglades and Merritt Island in Florida. The winter birds were just coming in, but La Salina is home to part of the Caribbean flock of American Flamingos, as well as the Cuban variety of the Osprey and many of the other wading birds you would expect to see in South Florida.
Though the Zapata area lacks the mountains, it has the marshes and the Bay of Pigs, both spectacular in their own way.
We finished our trip, both times, with an afternoon in Havana. We stayed in Old Havana, an area which is rapidly being gentrified…with lots of trendy restaurants, brick streets, art galleries, mucic venues…surrounding the museums, historical sites, and famous Squares already in the area. Casa Particulars in Old Havana can be a bit basic…but comfortable. And the sights of the Old City are not to be missed…from the monuments and squares and the classic architecture, to the abundance of well maintained 50’s convertible taxis (from Fords to Cadillacs), the host of pedicabs, and the occasional horse-drawn carriage or cart. Street life is vibrant.
And I will finish with out hosts/guides on this amazing adventure. Ernesto and Tanya are two of the most wonderful people I have ever met…committed to the birds of Cuba and the future of Cuba. If you are interested in touring Cuba and birding with them, the easiest way is probably to contact Joni at Optics for the Tropics.
Cuba is an experience. It is getting easier. It is only an hour from Miami. You really have no excuse. Grab your camera and go!
I think every nature/wildlife photographer dreams of a photo safari to Africa, and that certainly includes Point and Shoot Nature Photographers. Lions, elephants, giraffes, rhino, hippopotamus, cheetah…and a host of bright African birds: sunbirds, rollers, and bee-eaters…not to mention the big birds, Ostriches and Bustards, Vultures, and Eagles. And just being there, in the presence of so much great wildlife…the Africa of all our dreams.
However, if you have priced an African photo safari lately, you know that it can be a very expensive destination. The safaris themselves are pricey compared to other eco or adventure travel, or even photo tours, and the cost of getting there is high. Airfare is expensive, and it can take as much as 38 hours with layovers on the least expensive flights.
Of course that does not keep me from dreaming or taking a look on-line at the safari booking sites. Recently I found a company, Viva Safaris, in the Greater Kruger National Park area of South Africa (perhaps the most accessible of the African nations), offering what appeared to be real bargains in Kruger Wildlife Safaris. I also found a direct flight from JFK to Johannesburg (South African Air), that got me from Portland Maine to Africa in less than 24 hours for just over $1000. The trip total was around $2500 for 11 days (two back to back safari packages at different lodges owned by Viva). That included 2 bushwalks with an armed Ranger, one night Game Drive and several sunrise and sunset Game Drives on Private Reserves in the Greater Kruger Area, and 4 full day Game Drives in Kruger itself.
I did have some doubts. The Lodges and Camps I stayed at are not in Kruger. They are in Private Game Reserves adjacent to Kruger. Balule Game Reserve very large and is unfenced on the Kruger side, so it is, for all practical purposes, part of Kruger National Park. Motlala Game Reserve is smaller, but is also open to the surrounding reserves. However, Balule is about an hour from the nearest Kruger gate and Motlala is only a bit closer, so you do not get early mornings in Kruger itself. Early bushwalks and drives are on the Private Reserves.
Then too, the safari packages they offer are not Photo Safaris per say…they are general wildlife safaris. If you have ever been out with a group of non-photographers when you are trying to photograph, you know there can be some strain there…and the potential for cross purposes is high. Most dedicated Photo Safaris to Africa guarantee you a window or outside seat in the high Game Viewers used in the African Bush (converted transport buses or Land Cruiser type vehicles with high seats and large sliding windows, or no windows at all), which automatically means a small number of people per vehicle. No such guarantee here. Viva offers its low prices based on the simple premise of keeping their rooms and their Game Viewers (the Land Cruiser, open sided type) full at all times. Also the pace of a photo safari can be quite different than the pace of a general wildlife safari. On Wildlife Safari, the goal is to show the customer as many animals as possible. That can mean the quantity of views will generally trump the quality. On a Photo Safari, the goal is to get you good shots of as many animals as possible..but that may mean you see less animals total, and miss some altogether…and that is perfectly fine with most photographers. Quality over quantity.
Finally the Lodges themselves were an unknown. They got generally excellent reviews on Tripadvisor, but, as there always are, there were a few outstanding negative reviews too.
I will reassure you on that point first. The Lodges were fine. Tremisana Lodge on the Balule Game Reserve is comfortable, with nice rooms and a family style atmosphere…including family style meals. Marc’s Treehouse Lodge is more rustic, with a more genuine “bush” feel and reed cabins perched in trees or on stilts high above a flowing river, and is much more like a “camp”…including camp style meals. Perhaps because of that, Marc’s attracts a lot more young people than Tremisana, and that just adds to the camp atmosphere. I enjoyed the experience of both, and the contrast between the two. I have no hesitation in recommending Tremisana to any potential traveler. I would recommend Marc’s Treehouse to those with a desire for a more authentic bush experience, and a good sense of adventure 🙂
As far as my other doubts went, the quality of the night, early and late walks and drives in Balule Game Reserve and the neighboring Tshakudu Reserve, both in the numbers of animals seen, and in the skill of the driver/rangers Viva and Tshakudu employ, more than made up for any lack of mornings in Kruger. At Balule we were able to spotlight elephants, giraffe, and honeybadgers on the night drive, and at Tshakudu we were able to drive up, just after sunset, within 40 feet of a pride of lions at a kill. (Other groups at Balule also saw a lion kill, but I missed it.) The rangers at Tremisana went out of their way (literally) on several occasions to show me birds I might not otherwise have seen or been able to photograph.
And the Viva driver/rangers who take the Game Viewers into Kruger daily did a wonderful job of finding and getting us views of as many animals as possible each trip. Every ranger I road with, and I road with four different ones, was knowledgeable and keen eyed, and I was especially impressed that, even though they are in Kruger every day, driving the same roads, chasing the same animals, they all still obviously enjoyed showing the African Wildlife to their customers. That makes a huge difference in the quality of the experience.
So, no it was not a dedicated photo safari…but I am not sure it made a difference, especially for a first experience of Africa. Perhaps because I was one of the few people each day in the Game Viewer with serious looking camera gear, I generally was voted into an outside seat. On the occasions when I did have a middle seat, it turned out not to be much of a problem. The vehicles are very high, with seats raised considerably above even the normal bed of the Land Cruiser, and I could generally shoot over or around my fellow passengers…and again, since I was obviously serious about my photography, the others generally made a special effort to make sure I got my picture. Several asked if I would send them copies of things that were just beyond the cameras in the cell phones and tablets that most of them were carrying. (I was totally amazed at how many of my fellow safariers came out with only a cell phone for a camera.)
Again, though it was not a photo safari, the driver/rangers are very experienced in positioning their vehicles so that everyone can see the animals…and on the few occasions where my view was blocked or where I saw the potential for a better shot, the driver made every effort to reposition the vehicle so I could get the shot I wanted. I would love to be able to afford a dedicated photo safari, but I am not convinced I would come back with any more keepers than I did from my Viva Wildlife Safari.
I took three cameras with me. The Sony RX10iii, with its 1 inch sensor and 24-600mm zoom, which I intended to use most of the time, the Nikon P900 for when I needed more reach (out to 2000mm equivalent, especially for birds), and the Sony HX90V (a tiny P&S with a 24-720mm equivalent zoom) as a fail-safe backup in case both other cameras broke 🙁 As it turned out, it was just too much trouble to handle more than one camera in the field in Africa, especially in the Game Viewers, so the Nikon and HX90V stayed in my pack most of the time. Except for distant birds, I did not miss the reach of the P900, and even for distant birds, with the shimmer in the heated African air, I am not sure I would have gotten better shots with the 2000mm zoom. I did use the Clear Image Zoom out to 2x on the Sony more than I thought I would. Distant prides of lions, or a Cheetah in the shade of a distant tree just demanded more reach than 600mm, though I could have cropped and gotten the same image scale. Overall I was pleased with the results even for those stretched shots. I also found the Sony’s Anti-motion Blur Mode useful on several occasions when the light levels were low. I got better shots of hyena and the pride of lions at the kill after sunset because that mode was available…and impossible shots of Honeybadger after full dark in the light of only the Game Viewer’s spotlight. Finally, for the landscapes I took, the in-camera HDR on the Sony is just the best!
Today’s modern Point and Shoot superzooms are ideal cameras for Africa, offering you the wide open vistas at 24mm, frame filling shots of larger wildlife at mid-telephoto range (250mm), and the reach to shoot a close-up of an elephants eye or a distant lion or small bird. And you well not find yourself overburdened with gear, or changing lenses in the field.
I took 5000 exposures over 11 days. I have 851 keepers. Lots of lions, more elephants that I really need, a hundred giraffes, most of the antelope species, zebra, wildebeest, rhino, hippo, leopard, cheetah, honeybadger, mongoose, etc.
And though it was not a birding trip, I got to photograph my “most wanted”: two sunbird species, both African rollers, and two bee-eaters…as well as many of the larger birds of the African bush…including a total surprise in a pair of Kori Bustards (the largest flighted bird) that we found walking one morning just after we got to Kruger.
This is a slideshow of 132 of the best or most interesting shots from my keeper set. You can also view the full take, organized by day, (and subject as time allows) on WideEyedInWonder.
I am considering, if there is enough interest, negotiating a bit more photo-centric trip with Viva or one of the other Kruger Safari companies next September. I think, if we could fill a Game Viewer (9 or 10 participants), we might get some special treatment (though not a cost savings as Viva is already about as inexpensive as anyone can be). Let me know via email, if you would be interested.
In August of 2016 I had the privilege of being the official ZEISS host for a ZEISS/Eagle Optics trip to Tranquilo Bay Lodge in Bocas del Toro, Panama. While it was a birding trip, not a photography trip (and there is a difference), I took along my Sony RX10iii (and two back-up cameras) for those inevitable (at least for me) photo opportunities.
I have said here before that in my opinion, Tranquilo Bay Lodge and the surrounding area in the islands of Bocas del Toro, and the lowlands, foothills, and mountains of the ajoining mainland, are one of the best spots in Central American for bird and wildlife photography, especially during migration season. Our August trip proved that it is also excellent even at slower times of the year.
I am posting several slide shows of images. All were taken with the Sony RX10iii in Program Mode, In-camera HDR, or my customized Birds-in-flight mode (based on the built in Sports Mode, see here) and processed in Lightroom.
This firsts set is from Day One. You have to overnight in Panama City to get to Bocas del Toro at any reasonable time on your first day. The Lodge books the dawn flight from the domestic airport in Panama City, so you are in Bocas early enough for a full day of exploring or birding. The Lodge picks you up at the airport and transports you to their boats at a dock in Bocas Town, and you motor out to Bastimento Island were Tranquilo Bay Lodge is located. We were met, half way up the boardwalk between the dock and the foot of the stairs leading up to the Lodge by what appeared to be the official Tranquilo Bay greeter for the day…a Three-toed Sloth in the canopy above us. That set the tone for the whole trip. After check in and island breakfast with your hosts at the Lodge, you head out to explore the trails around the island before lunch. After a siesta, which gives you a chance to unpack and even shower, you are off again on new trails, ending your exploration on the Canopy Tower on the hill above the cabins, watching flights of parrots returning to their roosts for the night.
On day two, we were up early to travel to the mainland for a day in the lowlands, foothills, and mountains. You can drive from the dock, right up to and over the continental divide, on good paved roads. The first section is lowland grass and swamp, then the foothills with rainforest, and eventually the mountains right up to the edge of cloudforest. Spectacular birding and photography all the way. We got rained out on our first approach to the divide, and went back down to the Ranger Station where we had lunch under their thatched shelter. By the end of lunch it has stopped raining and we went back to the divide to bird, then retuned to the foothills to end the day. There were many interesting dragonflies along the road were we birded on the way back.
Day three took us the Green Acres Chocolate Farm for morning birding, adn then back to Tranquilo Bay for the afternoon. The Chocolate Farm is near the mainland and has different species than Bastimento…including a totally different species of Poison Dart Frog.
On day four we traveled to the mainland again to explore the lowlands and ridges of the Changuinola region on the north edge of Bocas del Toro. Besides interesting birds, we encountered a number of butterflies, most of which I can not identify yet.
Day five was our day to visit Isle de Popo, a close neighbor of Bastimento and Tranquilo Bay. There are two major attractions at Popo. One is a population of Snowy Contingas, and the other is the unique phenomenon of a mix of color variations of Poison Dart Frog in a single location. Generally Poison Dart Frog variations are restricted to small ranges on individual islands or individual drainages. On Popo, in an area the size of a heavily forested football field you can find at least 5 different color variations of Poison Dart Frogs, plus two separate species. Though I was with some hard-core birders, I persuaded them to visit the frog spot, and most seemed to really enjoy chasing the elusive critters around the forest floor, trying to find new color variations. We had just about given up on finding the rarer second species and were actually headed back before Ramone, our guide, found one. One of the birders jokingly asked for a Tourquoise frog. We found her one of those too. We did not, however, find the Snowy Cotinga, though we came back to Popo after our afternoon rest period, and again on our last morning at Tranquilo Bay. Not for want of trying.
Between trips to Popo on Day five, we had some free time. Some went on another hike around the lodge in search of the Three-wattled Bell Bird. I elected to hike back to the Golden-collared Manakin lecks to see if I could photograph these elusive but brilliant birds. Tranquilo Bay Lodge has to be one of the best places for Golden-collared Manakin. After a long hot wait in the humidity and mosquitoes, I was rewarded with two male Manakins coming into the lecks. August is late for any lecking activity so I felt particularly privileged. They did not actually get down and display, probably because there were no females in the area, but I got some keepers of the males.
Day 6 was our day for the Snyder Canal and Swan Island. The Snyder Canal was built at the turn of the century by the United Fruit Company to transport bananas from the plantations to the ships in a deep channel in northern Bocas del Toro, near the mouth of the Changuinola River. It was only in active service for about five years before the railway put it out of business, but it is still there, winding its way parallel to the coast through some prime swamp and lowlands. It provides easy access to some of the best birding in Bocas del Toro.
Swan Island is a volcanic plug about 40 minutes off-shore out in the Caribbean. It is home to a nesting colonies of Red-billed Tropicbirds, Brown Boobies, and Frigatebirds…and is one of unique attractions of Tranquilo Bay and Bocas del Toro.
After finishing in the Snyder Canal and Chinguinola River, we headed to Swan Island. All images here are taken in my custom birds-in-flight mode.
On our last day, the day we traveled back to Panama City to spend another night before our flights home, we made, as I mentioned, one last try for the Snowy Cotinga, without success. Just before we left for Panama City, I took some time to shoot fish off the dock, and then we were back in the boats and on our way to Bocas Town and the airport.
So, my conclusion. Tranquilo Bay is still one of the best places in Central America for bird and wildlife photography…no matter the season. I can’t wait to go back again. (And maybe you will join me. Keep an eye on the Workshops and Tours page.)
Well it actually happened! The first Point and Shoot Nature Photography adventure in the tropics…at the Lodge at Pico Bonito, Honduras, was, imho, a solid success. My wife, Carol, came along, as well as my oldest daughter Sally (as my assistant), and we had three participating adventurers: Ev, Barbara, and Greg.
It was a Point and Shoot trip, and between us we had a Nikon P610, a Nikon P900, a Canon SX60HS, and a Canon SX50HS. I brought both the Nikon P900 and my new(er) Sony RX10iii, but I shot most of the time with the Sony.
The goal was to provide as many photo ops as possible over 5 full days. The Lodge at Pico Bonito is somewhat unique in providing first class accommodations and gourmet food, excellent guides, and a totally new adventure each day.
We only got to spend one full morning in and around the actual grounds of the Lodge, which is beautifully landscaped with native plants and surrounded on one side by an overgrown coco plantation, and on the other by untouched rainforest. We also had a few afternoon hours (when some of us processed pics and others explored) and we did a night hike in the coco plantation and the edge of the rainforest for nocturnal birds, reptiles, and frogs,
We could easily have never left the grounds and trails of the Lodge and still have had plenty to photograph. You can sit and watch and photograph several species of hummingbirds coming to the feeders all along the edge of the roof over the open porch, or veranda, of the Lodge and restaurant, and perching in the trees and bushes within a few feet. We saw mostly White-necked Jacobins, but there were also Crowned Wood Nymph, Brown Violet-ear, Violet Saberwing, and a few Long-billed Hermits and White-breasted Emeralds. There was a family of Black-cheeked Woodpeckers raising
young in a dead palm only a dozed feet from the deck between the Lodge and Conference Center, and under bushes near the base of the palm an Agouti was raising young. On the trails around the lodge we had good views of Blue-crowned Motmot and Black-headed Trogon, and glimpses and quick photo ops of Red-legged Honeycreeper and Masked Tytira. Some of us had good photo ops with Collared Aracari. (Between our seeing it and writing this, the AOU has split Blue-crowned Motmot into several species. I am not sure which of the new splits the ones we saw fall under.)
Elmer (Elmer Escoto our expert guide) lead us off the trail to find a mother Great Pooto with a well grown chick sitting out in plain view. Perhaps the highlight of our day on the grounds was when Elmer tempted a Little Tinamou out into the open where we could all see it, and at least a few of us got shots. The Lodge maintains a butterfly garden and butterfly house, and between them we saw a dozen species of tropical butterflies: including the amazing Red Cracker (a blue butterfly despite its name…with a wing pattern that reminds me of a dutch dinner plate). There were at least 5 different Heliconians (Long-wings), and, in the butterfly house, several of the giant Blue Morphos that are pretty much the butterfly emblem of the tropics.
I asked Elmer to find us a waterfall we could photograph and he suggested a run out to the Cangrejal river where they take adventuresome guests for white-water rafting. Though it was not on our schedule, we made time for it, and the lodge provided a van, on the afternoon of our day around the grounds. The waterfall turned out to be somewhat distant and shrouded in mist from intermittent rain, but the scenery going up the river and then across a
suspension foot bridge high over rushing water and house-sized boulders, was spectacular. Along the way we had great views of Amazon Kingfisher…though at the limits for photography, and on the other side of the river we encountered the Helicopter Damselfly…the largest damselfly in the world, with a wingspan larger than even the largest dragonfly. We tracked it into the deep shade of the rainforest where we were able to get some decent flash shots. We got to see some unscheduled landscape, and a part of Pico Bonito National Park that most who go to the Lodge for birding and photography do not see.
The next morning was our first real day in the field. We visited the mangrove channels of the Cuero y Salado estuary, riding a century old banana train into the refuge at the mouth of the rivers, and then taking a small motor boat up the channels into the mangroves as far as we could go.
My hopes for the boat adventure are always Pygmy Kingfisher (since I really like Kingfishers), Bare-throated Tiger-heron, Boat-billed Heron, and monkeys…both Howler and White-faced Capuchin. There is always a remote hope for Agami Heron and Sungrebe. On our day on the rivers, we had good looks at all but the last two, plus Long-nosed Bats, many Northern Jacana, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Black-headed Trogon, and more Green Herons than I could count. And I mean really good looks at everything but the Boat-billed Heron, which flew off before everyone could get pics, and the monkeys, which played hard to get in the dense foliage.
This is a gallery of images from the group of the same very cooperative Pygmy Kingfisher. We had some trouble finding it in the first place and had actually given up and were headed back out of the channel where it is known to nest, when Elmer’s sharp eye caught it. We were able to drift close in with the boat, but these are still shots are taken from a moving boat of a very small bird. Great results for everyone.
Steve, Sony RX10iii
Ev. Nikon P900
Greg, Canon SX50HS
Sally, Nikon P610
Barbara, Canon SX60HS
We had a similar opportunity with the Bare-throated Tiger-heron. Sally spotted it as we motored down the open river toward another channel (earning her supper that day), and we were able to drift in within a dozen feet of it before it flew up to perch practically right over our heads.
As I mentioned, the monkeys were elusive, and especially hard to photograph from a moving boat. I managed a quick shot of the Howler we spotted, and even more distant shots of the White-faced Capuchins. The Capuchins came just close enough to keep an eye on what we were doing…but not really close enough for photography.
Howler Monkey, Steve. Sony RX10iii
White-faced Capuchin, Steve. Sony RX10iii
Once back at the boat dock near the Visitor Center for Cuero y Salado, we enjoyed some chilled fruit and cookies, courtesy of the Lodge, and then hiked about 300 yards out to the beach at the mouth of the rivers. It was typical June Honduran day on the Caribbean coast…sunny with towering clouds over the mountains and a storm coming in off the sea.
When we got back to the lodge, after lunch on the veranda, some went exploring around the grounds, while others rested until we met again at 3 pm to go to the first Tower in search of the signature bird of the Lodge at Pico Bonito…the Lovely Cotinga (and whatever else we could find). The Cotingas put in an appearance, though beyond the range of practical photography, but we had good views of a White Hawk out across the valley, some Keel-billed Toucans feeding on fruit, and our third primate of the day: Spider Monkeys (way over on the far side of the valley).
On our night hike, we went in search of Vermiculated Screech Owl in the Coco plantation. Though we were within a few feet of and heard it calling right above us, we never could find it in the dense overstory foliage. As compensation Elmer found us a Kinkajou within flash range, and the Great Pooto (which was hand-raised at the Lodge a few years ago before release) put in an appearance on its favorite corner of the first tower. The Red-eyed Tree Frogs were calling around the Frog Ponds beyond the tower, and Elmer found us two to photograph. Along the way we picked up both Rainforest and Marine Toads (Marine Toads have to be seen to be believed…they are huge!) and various Anoles and bugs. It was such a rewarding hike that a few of us headed out for an encore the next night.
We were up early the next morning for breakfast again, and on the bus for Rio Santiago Nature Resort, a justly famous destination for Honduran Hummingbirds. As a close neighbor to the Lodge at Pico Bonito, Rio Santiago is a favorite day trip. The lodge and brand new cabins are, it
seems, half way up the slopes of the mountains surrounding Pico Bonito, at the end of a rough and sometimes steep, but passable, dirt track. (The elevation is actually only about 600 feet above sea-level.)
Along the road on the way up we got out and walked, exploring the fields on either side. We found Boat-billed Kingbirds, Blue-black Grassquits, Rose-breasted Bicards, Passerini’s and Blue-grey Tanager, Scrub Euphonia, Starry Cracker Butterfly, and a nesting Green-breasted Mango Hummingbird.
Blue-black Grassquit. Greg. Canon SX50HS
Scrub Euphonia, Greg, Canon SX50HS
Green-breasted Mango, Ev, Nikon P900
Starry Cracker Butterfly, Steve. Sony RX10iii
Rio Santiago Nature Resort maintains about 200 hand-crafted tube hummingbird feeders year round, which, along with the richly landscaped grounds, regularly attract over a dozen species of hummingbirds. And the hummers are close. You can sit on either of two covered verandas and have hummingbirds literally buzzing around your head. You can stand on the lawn and watch constant activity as the various species compete for space at the feeders less than 8 feet away. It is an experience not to be missed.
On the day we visited the Brown Violet-ear Hummingbirds were dominating the feeders in such numbers that it kept many of the regular visitors away, but it was still a great experience.
Greg worked hard to get this shot of the White-necked Jacobiin with its tail spread. Canon SX50HS
Brown Violet-ear. Ev. Nikon P900
Brown Violet-ear. Ev. Nikon P900
Standing less then 3 feet away. Steve. Sony RX10iii
Brown Violet-ear Hummingbird, Steve. Sony RX10iii
White-necked Jacobin, Steve. Sony RX10iii Sports Mode.
Hummingbirds are not the only attraction at Rio Santiago. It is also one of the most reliable places to see the Keel-billed Motmot. Gartered Trogons are regular there. They have snakes and lizards, dragonflies along the streams, interesting butterflies, a resident pair of Specticaled Owls, and, this year, an abandoned Margey kitten that they are attempting to raise for release. And if you enjoy scenery they have one of the most attractive small waterfalls in the foothills of Pico Bonito National Park, right there on the grounds.
Elmer worked hard to find us a Keel-billed Motmot, and it was there, calling above the waterfall, but it stayed high in the canopy. We got the shots we could under very difficult conditions.
Steve. Sony RX10iii
Ev. Nikon P900
Sally. Nikon P610
Greg. Canon SX50HS
Margay cub, Steve. Sony RX10iii
Elmer with a small brown racer that bit three of us. Not venomous! 🙂
Gartered Trogon, Steve. Sony RX10iii
Stop-light Butterfly. Greg. Canon SX50HS
The Specticaled Owls were also playing hard to get during our visit, but several of us managed decent shots.
Sally. Nikon P610
Greg. Canon SX50HS
Ev. Nikon P900
Day four found us headed for a totally different experience. We took the van early to Sambo Creek east of La Ceiba on the coast, where we donned life preservers and boarded a twin engined, 14 foot powerboat to visit Cayo Cochino, islands 17 miles off-shore. Cayo Cochino encompasses 2 volcanic and coral islands and 13 small sand cays clustered in the clear waters of the Caribbean. White sand beaches, palm trees, water ranging in color from transparent aqua to translucent
turquoise: The Caribbean at its best. Parts of Cayo Cochino are protected habitat, and our first stop was the Visitor Center on Cayo Cochino Minor, operated by the Smithsonian Institute. Around the Visitor Center we found Yucatan Vireos, Allison’s Anole, and lots of Spiny-tailed Iguanas (the native Iguana of Honduras). The Yucatan Vireos on the islands of Cayo Cochino are the only ones you will find in Honduras.
From Cayo Cochino Minor (or Turtle Island as the locals call it), we crossed the straight to Cayo Cochino Major, where we landed on a private beach to explore inland for the Rosey (or Island Hog-nosed) Boa. These snakes are sometimes abundant, draped in trees, back a few hundred yards from the beach. Though it was a hot day and the snakes were mostly higher in the canopy, Elmer located one for us, curled up on a branch just above eye-level. We eventually found our way back to the beach for morning snacks, water, and wading (this beach is near the spot were we would have gone snorkeling if any of us had wanted to.) The beach sloped gently out into Turtle Bay, and it was a real treat to wade out into the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean.
Ev. Nikon P900
Greg. Canon SX50HS
Steve. Sony RX10iii
We were back in the boat again then, for a short run to Cayo Chachahaute #2 (or Twin Island #2 if you translate from the native dialect). The two Chachahaute Islands are only separated by a shallow straight and sand bar…often exposed in the winter months. Both islands are home to a population of Caribbean fishermen, and Cayo Chacahhaute #2 specializes in serving a daily lunch and dinner of fresh caught, wood grilled Yellow-
tailed Snapper, rice and beans, and fried plantains. That is the whole menu, and all meals are served on paper plates right on the beach under a thatched shelter at rough picnic style tables, but it just might be the best fish you will ever eat. While you eat you can watch the Frigatebirds and Pelicans soaring in the updraft at the head of the island. Except for the open beach on one side, the whole island, which is maybe the size of half a football field, is covered with the shanty homes of the fishermen. Their meals are so famous that boats come daily at noon and in late afternoon and early evening from the mainland and from the bay islands 25 miles away. (And of course fire-wood, rice, beans, plantains, and ice…lots of ice…have to be brought out to the island in dugout canoes daily.) After lunch, we spent about 45 minutes, mostly trying flight shots of the soaring Frigatebirds and Pelicans. There are only a few places I can think of that are this good for practicing flight shots.
Ev. Nikon P900
Steve. Sony RX10iii Sports Mode
Steve. Sony RX10iii Sports Mode
Steve. Sony RX10iii Sports Mode
On the way back through La Ceiba on our way to the Lodge, we stopped at a small park where Black and White Owls are known to nest and roost. Again, Elmer managed the impossible and located one of the young B&W Owls on branch high in the canopy of one of the huge Mangostein trees. While we were photographing the young owl, Elmer’s friend, who used to work at the park, located one of the adults, and we moved the group over. Both owls were in the deep shade of the foliage, high in the trees, and, though they were in plain sight, they were not easy photographic targets. We were looking almost straight up at the them in the shadows. The situation was really at the limits of what any camera can do…the light was not good, and focus was difficult…and we were at the limits of what our bodies could do as well, as we tried for awkward vertical shots at slower than optimum shutter speeds. The situation called for a tripod, but for the kind of 8 foot tall tripod no one would ever carry into the field anyway. Still, everyone in the group came away with at least one satisfying shot of the Black and White Owls.
Barbara. Canon SX60HS
Greg. Canon SX50HS
Sally. Nikon P610
Ev. Nikon P900
Steve. Sony RX10iii
Our last full day in Honduras found us on the bus early again for the drive to Lancetilla Botanical Gardens, the turn of the century Botanical Research Station founded by the United Fruit Company to experiment with tropical hardwoods and fruit trees for growing in their Honduran holdings. Lancetilla has the longest bird list of any single location in Honduras. It is also a great place for butterflies and dragonflies, and the occasional mammal.
A day at Lancetilla begins with a walk along the entrance road and one side road in search of mostly understory birds. We had not progressed far long the road when Greg spotted a Mexican Hairy Dwarf Porcupine on the branch of a tree just at the edge of the rainforest. (Also, apparently, known as a Prehensile-tailed Porcupine or Tree Porcupine.) Like most Porcupines its body is covered in spines, but in the Hairy Dwarf, its fur is long enough to completely cover the spines on much of its body, leaving spines exposed mostly on the face, lower legs, and spine. We had as much time with it as we wanted…since it was not at all disturbed by our presence on the road. Our pictures are remarkably similar as it did not move much beyond an occasional scratch for fleas.
Greg. Canon SX50HS
Barbara. Canon SX60HS
Sally. Nikon P610
Ev. Nikon P900
Steve. Sony RX10iii
Early on we also encountered Groove-billed Ani, Blue-black Grassquit, Thick-billed Seed-finch, Olivacious Piculet (the smallest woodpecker of the tropics), Passerini’s Tanager, many dragonflies and few butterflies.
The second stop on the way in is a giant hardwood tree that hosts upwards of 100 active Montazuma’s Oropendola nests. The Oropendolas are the largest of the oriole family, and construct huge hanging woven basket nests.
Just beyond the Oropendola tree there is a trail down to the river, which is always worth checking for Jacamars and Ruddy Crake. Neither turned up, but I photographed some interesting butterflies, the first of many that day, while we were waiting. Several of these are from later in the day, around the Visitor Center, which was our next stop.
Looks like a Crecent.
Green Malacite Butterfly
Giant and ? Swallowtails
Though Elmer set up and played his recording for the Ruddy Crake we heard calling in the tall reeds along the trail, it did not make an appearance. Ruddy Crake is not uncommon, especially at Lancetilla, but it is very difficult to see.
At the Visitor Center we spent some time with the natural history displays on the second floor, and then retired to the deep shade of the bamboo grove. Many different varieties of bamboo from around the tropics grow along a little stream that runs through a hollow. There is an amphitheater with a small stage there for presentations, but the main attraction is still the massive clusters of the largest grass in the world. I generally get the group together in the grove for a photo.
While in the bamboo grove we came across a toad, and the whole group gathered to try toad shots.
Before getting on the bus to head to Tela, a beach resort town near the gardens, for lunch, we made one last try of the Ruddy Crake. There are a series of small lily ponds along one side of the Visitor Center, and a Crake responded to Elmer’s recording almost at once. The rest of the group went around to the far side of the ponds where the Crakes were calling (there were at least two) but I got distracted by some shade and butterflies along the other side and headed that way. Consequently I was in exactly the right spot to see both Crakes cross a small open patch in the dense growth covering the pond. Most of the group got glimpses of the Crakes, but I got photos!
Of course I could not resist the dragonflies around the ponds either. I do not know enough about Central American Odonata to id these.
dragonfly, Lancetilla Botanical Gardens, Tela Honduras
dragonfly, Lancetilla Botanical Gardens, Tela Honduras
Mexican Amberwing, Lancetilla Botanical Gardens, Tela Honduras
dragonfly, Lancetilla Botanical Gardens, Tela Honduras
Damselfly, Lancetilla Botanical Gardens, Tela Honduras
Roseate Skimmer, The Lodge at Pico Bonito, Honduras
After the Crakes and Odonata we were back in the van for the short drive to Tela, where had a delicious lunch at a sea-side hotel. Tela was the resort town back in the days of the United Fruit Company, and still maintains its charm for Honduras today.
That left only the morning of our departure at the Lodge. Just as we finished eating breakfast a Keel-billed Toucan flew in over the Conference Center. Greg had the persistence to wait it out until it posed on an open branch.
It was an amazing satisfying trip. We had time (mostly in the van on the way to shooting sites) for some discussion and photographic instruction. We had abundant opportunities for tropical photography. We had great times around the tables at the restaurant on the veranda at the Lodge (not to mention great food). And we had great weather. Though it rained every day, it never rained on us in the field. For the most part we had sunny skies and good photographic light when it mattered. The tropics are always a challenge for any photographer, but our group proved that today’s advanced superzoom Point and Shoot cameras are up to the task.
I am already planning another trip to the Lodge at Pico Bonito for next June (the 16th to the 22nd) …and I have a trip to Tranquilo Bay, Panama (another great destination) in the works for 2017. I am thinking of South Africa for 2018. Watch the tours and workshops page on this site for details.
When considering the Sony RX10iii, and trying to justify the price to myself, I wondered how it would work for Birds in Flight. The Sony HX400V I used to own had an excellent Sports Mode, that made Birds in Flight relatively painless…or as painless as BIFs can be (with is not very…BIFs are among the most frustrating of targets). I had been disappointed in the Sports Mode on the Nikon P series cameras…since the engineers at Nikon forgot to bias it toward the higher shutter speeds necessary for action. 🙁 I ended up creating my own fairly effective BIF mode, detailed here, and got some excellent results with both the P900 and the P610.
Still, I was looking forward to testing Sports Mode on the RX10iii. 600mm is a good “starting point” for bird photography, and, with big birds, will produce satisfying images.
The key to BIFs is finding the right location to practice. My best shots come from Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico (Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese) and the wild bird rookery at St. Augustine Alligator Farm in Florida (Wood Storks and Egrets)…both places where there are constantly birds in the air, and where you can learn to predict flight paths well enough to be ready for action. And that is the key to successful BIFs. Lots of birds flying, and lots of practice.
I will not be in New Mexico until November, and not in St. Augustine until next April, so two days this week I decided to hike 2 miles in and 2 miles out to the only place around home that offers lots of birds in the air…a Least Tern nesting site up the far end of one of our local beaches, on both sides of the Little River where it reaches the sea.
Not ideal for a first practice. Least Terns are tiny, fast, and unpredictable compared to Wood Storks, egrets, cranes, and geese…but needs must.
The first day was mostly practice and I had not completely figured out Sports Mode yet. By default, the RX10iii’s Sports Mode uses Wide Area Focus and Continuous Shooting, and locks the focus on the first half press of the shutter. If you shift to Speed Priority Continuous, the locking on the first frame behavior continues (though the frames per second goes way up!). Therefore I got a lot of shots that were focused where the bird was when I half pressed…but not where the bird was in subsequent shots.
A bit of study of the Function Menu options and the manual turned up other options. If you switch to Continuous Focus using the focus mode switch on the front of the camera, and keep it in regular speed Continuous Shooting, then the camera will focus between frames. You also have the option, when in Continuous Focus, to switch the Focus Mode to Wide Area Lock on Auto-focus, which, in theory, might, track your target between frames??? (I have yet to determine if that is really the way it works.)
The second day, the birds were much less active, but I got a chance to try Continuous Focus and Wide Area Lock on Auto Focus.
You must remember I was shooting Least Turns…among the most difficult BIF subjects you could possibly find. I will be happy to revise this when I have been to Bosque or St. Augustine and had bigger and slower birds to work with 🙂
With terns I had the most success with the Wide-Area Focus and Continuous Focus combination. If I could see the bird in the viewfinder, even if fuzzy, the camera would lock on focus and I could shoot a burst of at least 3 or 4 shots while the camera kept focus between frames. After 3 or 4 shots, generally the camera needed to hunt for focus and shooting paused, but then picked up again when focus was reestablished. The whole burst of shots would be sharply focused. Very good!
With Wide Area Lock on Focus, the camera had more trouble picking up the tiny terns against the background of sky and clouds.
In both modes, the major frustration was that the camera wanted to pop out to infinity focus between bursts, largely I think, because the terns took up such a small portion of the frame that the system just could not find the target. When this happened the camera was so far out of focus that I could not even see the birds in the finder. If I swung down and focused momentarily on the middle distance, then swung back up, I could again see the birds, though not in focus…but then half pressing the shutter would lock focus on the bird and all was good for a burst. I think with larger birds this would have been much less of an issue. (When a Cormorant flew over, the camera easily “found” it against the sky and clouds without any intervention on my part.)
600mm is not a lot of reach for small birds like terns. All my shots needed cropping for a decent image scale. While you can not use Clear Image Zoom in Sports Mode to extend the reach of the RX10iii, you can use the Smart Digital Tel-converter. For larger, easier to find and keep in the finder, birds than terns, I think the 10mp, 840mm option will be excellent. I got a few shots with that setting that showed real promise.
My conclusion: Even with difficult subjects, I got enough keepers to be really happy with the performance of the RX10iii for BIFs. I am very eager to give it a try where the birds are big and slow, relatively speaking.
Those of you who follow my daily photo posts on Pic for Today, Facebook, or Google+ will have noticed that I have a new camera. Sony recently announced and released the RX10iii (or RX10M3, or RX10 Mk 3…it has been called all three. Even Sony is confused about the name. It is the RX10iii on the front plate of the camera itself and on the box, but it is the RX10M3 in the exif data recorded with jpegs??)
The big features on this new offering in the RX line are the sensor: the newest 20mp, 1 inch sensor with the digital signal processor right on the back of the chip…and the zoom: a 24-600mm, f2.4-f4, ZEISS VarioSonnar design.
The sensor gives the camera better image quality (by far) than any P&S sensor camera to date, fast and sophisticated jpeg processing, and exceptional video features, including well implemented 4K and ultra slow-motion recording. The increased IQ is not surprising considering that the sensor area is 4 times that of the Nikon P900 and its like, and the individual light receptors (all 20mp of them) are also 4 times bigger. And it is absolutely the latest technology from the undisputed leader in sensor design (many DSLRs (not to mention P&S and phones) have Sony sensors inside, no matter what the brand name on the outside), which means that Sony is able to nurse near APS-C image quality out a sensor 1/3 the size.
(Any of the images here can be viewed at any size up to original by clicking the image, which will take you to my WideEyedInWonder site. Size controls are at the bottom right.)
The lens, in theory, provides the reach to put this camera in the super-zoom category…though it is pitifully short by today’s Point and Shoot super-zoom standards where 1200mm is the norm, 1440mm is becoming common, and the Nikon P900 reaches 2000mm. Still 600mm on a DSLR is considered a super-long lens, and it is the most common lens used in bird and wildlife photography. And the ZEISS lens is an f2.4 to f4: a fast lens by any standard, and super fast for a super-telephoto zoom.
The only other camera with a 1 inch sensor and a zoom that reaches 600mm equivalent is the Canon G3X, which requires an add-on Eye Level Viewfinder (EVF) for practical bird and wildlife use. Performance of the Canon lens is generally rated somewhat mediocre, and its jpeg processing features (in-camera HDR, sweep panorama, etc.) are very weak when compared with the Sony.
The third 1 inch sensor “super-zoom” offering is the Panasonic Lumix FZ1000 (or Leica Typ 114 which is practically identical). The FZ1000 has a Leica designed 25-400mm zoom, which is generally rated above the Canon zoom for performance, but is considered somewhat soft at both ends of its zoom range…and it lacks, imho, the reach to really be in the super-zoom class.
(Nikon has announced, but not delivered, a DL 24-500 1 inch sensor camera. Originally intended for June of this year, it is now delayed until at least November…and may, honestly, never see the light of day.)
I like Sony cameras. I carry the Sony HX90V as my landscape, occasional macro, and people shots camera along-side the Nikon P900, since it does both in-camera HDR, and tel-macro, better, and is less obtrusive at parties. And it is small enough to fit in a pocket. Prior to my Nikon P900 my superzoom was the Sony HX400V. Landscapes, especially HDR landscapes, have become a large part of my work over the past two years, and, while I like the HX90V for its images and size, I know that that the P&S sensor is limiting the detail that can be rendered in those big expansive views. And, while the HX90V is better at tel-macro than the P900 (close focus 7.5 feet vs. 16.5 feet) it is still not the ideal butterfly and dragonfly shooter. So, when the RX10iii was announced, and when I read that it also has excellent macro focus at 600mm (28 inches), I was very interested.
In the time between announcement and delivery of the Sony RX10iii I had an opportunity to play with, and shoot with, both the Canon and Leica 1 inch zoom offerings for long enough to know that the Canon was out of the running, and that I could certainly learn to love the Leica/Lumix, despite its short zoom.
As it happened I also had a chance to field test the Sony RX10iii before making the decision. I called in a favor from the excellent folks at Hunts Camera and they brought me one to try at Magee Marsh two days after the camera’s release, during the Biggest Week in American Birding where they have a booth in the Optics Alley tent (TBWIAB is also colloquially known as warblersock, and there is no place better to put a new camera through it paces…though I had to keep reminding myself that I would not be buying camera for birds…landscape and macro…remember!) After a day of using the RX10iii I got out my credit card, took a deep breath, and bought it. 🙂
The deep breath was necessary because the camera is expensive: at $1500 almost twice as expensive as the Lumix or Canon, and three times the cost of even an expensive P&S super-zoom. And it is big: considerably bigger than the Canon 3GX, the same size but heavier than the Lumix FZ1000, and both slightly bigger and quite a bit heaver than my Nikon P900…the biggest P&S super-zoom to date.
Still…once I had handled the RX10iii, run through the menus and explored the features, and especially once I had processed a few of the images, my fate was sealed!
Handling, controls, etc.
As I mentioned, I like Sony cameras, mainly because of the range of control provided over features like Dynamic Range Optimization, in-camera HDR, Creative Styles (jpeg processing profiles that can be fine tuned for saturation, contrast, and sharpness), and special features like Anti-motion blur for party shooting. Sony provides enough control over the jpeg processing so that I feel no need of RAW. (The RX10iii does record RAW and RAW plus jpeg, but I prefer to use the features built into the jpeg process…DRO, HDR, Anti-motion blur, etc….I am a Point and Shoot photographer at heart, and it fits my workflow in post processing better.) The RX10iii has all the Sony features, and since they are essentially in the same place in the main menu and function menu as they are in the HX line, I quickly felt right at home.
One of the benefits of the big body on the RX10iii is the range of physical controls provided. You have 3 Custom Buttons, a big button on the lens, two control rings on the lens, a control thumb-wheel upper right on the back, a dedicated Exposure Compensation wheel far right top, and a four position switch for focus modes. This is in addition to the normal Auto/PSAM etc. control dial on the top left, and the 4 way rocker switch surrounding the multi-function button on the back. And it is all totally customizable. Do you prefer the wider lens ring for focus (as I do)? Or you prefer right to left for close and far focus? Just set it so. Do you want easy access to the metering or focus area settings? Assign them to Custom Buttons. Are you used to having ISO on the right rocker switch (it is there on a lot of cameras). Assign it! You find yourself using the built in Smart Digital Tel-converter a lot? Put it on the lens button. Don’t like the arrangement of the functions in the function menu? Change it. It takes some time, and some experience with the camera, but you can set the Sony RX10iii up to match exactly your shooting style and needs.
And the camera, in your hands, just feels solid and serious. Heavy, yes, but well balanced (and light compared to any other rig with a 600mm f4 attached). Sony says the body is dust and moisture resistant, and I can believe it. This feels like a finely crafted machine. Picking up my P900 or P610 after…well, I love them, but they feel like toys. It is just that the RX10iii is so clearly a cut above them in build quality. It would have to be, of course, at least in part, to justify the price!
And that brings us to image quality. Again, there are two contributing factors: the sensor/image processing engine (since I shoot jpeg), and the lens.
The image quality is simply outstanding. Compared to my Nikon P900, the images feature smooth, artifact free, backgrounds at almost any ISO; vivid, but not oversaturated colors; great dynamic range; and very fine detail. P900 images, while they render amazing feather detail at 2000mm and capture accurate (for the most part) color, look flat and 2 dimensional, with much less subtly in the color rendition, when compared to the images from the RX10iii. The images from the Nikon P900 are wonderful, technically amazing. The images from the RX10iii are beautiful. They have an eye appeal that is just not there in the images from any P&S super-zoom I have used to date. (The Sony HX400V comes closest…but the almost total lack of artifacts…and the finer detail of the RX10iii put its images in another class from even its close sibling.)
The follow two pics show both the P900 and RX10iii at their best…at least for wildlife. The P900 fills the frame with a warbler at 20 feet, and shows exceptional feather detail. The RX10iii captures the beauty of the bird and its surroundings in a natural, attractive image.
The P900 at its best, 2000mm
The RX10iii simple beauty
Then the lens…and the RX10iii is really all about the lens. This is, quite simply, as good a wide angle lens as I have ever used (and that includes the ZEISS Touit 12mm for the Sony Alpha APS-C series) and a totally amazing lens at 600mm and f4. Totally amazing! The resolution and sharpness are wonderful. The brightness and contrast are totally realistic. In in-camera processed jpegs, there is NO color fringing. The image stabilization (like that of the Nikon P series) is totally up to the task. You can hand-hold at 600mm…even 1200mm with digital enhancement or in-camera cropping (more on that later). ZEISS and Sony have really stepped it up on this design, and, imho, set a new standard for lens quality, certainly in the super-zoom class, and, I think, quite possibly in zoom lenses in general. Well done ZEISS and Sony!
Combine this lens with this sensor and image processing engine, and, as DP Review perhaps somewhat over enthusiastically said, it simply destroys the competition. 🙂
But I come back to the beauty of the images…that indefinable something that makes them a pleasure to look at. It is addictive, and the more I shoot with the camera, the better I like it.
Of course, being me, I have run some actual side by side tests with the HX90V for landscapes, and with the P610 and P900 for birds and wildlife (though finding a bird that would sit for me while I switched cameras proved to be a bit tricky…and I have not found one in and ideal situation yet.) I also tested the RX10iii using both Clear Image Zoom (digitally enhanced to reach 1200mm), and the Smart Digital Tel-converter function (in-camera cropping to achieve the same 1200mm field of view and image scale but in a 5mp image) to see if it could come close to…or even, maybe, equal…the resolution of the P610 at 1440mm and the P900 at 2000mm. Well I had to try, didn’t I?
I have been missing a great macro camera since I moved on from the Canon SX50HS a few years ago. I like to shoot flowers, plant detail, and bugs…mostly dragonflies and butterflies, and the Canon, which focused to 4 feet at 1200mm equivalent, was the ideal tool. Then too the Canon had a digital tel-converter that you could kick in at any focal length…which made wide angle macro practical, since you could get the macro focus of the 24mm position, and the image scale and working distance of a 48mm equivalent. The RX10iii focuses to 28 inches at 600mm, and therefor offers almost the same image scale as the Canon at its closest. The Smart Digital Tel-converter will give you 5mp close-ups at twice that scale. Or, especially for macros where most of the image is taken up by the subject, you can use Clear Image Zoom for 20mp images, though with some added artifacts, at that same scale. (If you need 20mp, you can also use a program or plug-in in post-processing, like On1’s Resize 10, to enlarge the 5mp image back to 20mp, with very good results.) By the way, macro is a good place to use Direct Manual Focus (see below for more). If you look back at the shot of the Aurora Damselfly above, you will see that the focus is precise on the head of the bug…sharp because I used DMF to focus exactly there.
Sony has the best implementation of in-camera HDR in the business. You can use Auto HDR, or you can choose 1 to 6 EV differences between the 3 images used to create the final HDR file. You can also set Creative Styles to suit you, and use Exposure Compensation to shift the mid-point of your three exposures. Look back at the waterfall shot above and note the caption. Then too, the in-camera program that aligns images is nothing short of amazing. In most cases it will be able to sort out some movement in the image…like reeds blowing in the wind, or water moving along the shoreline…without any “ghosting”. (Ghosting is what happens when the same object appears in the finished image twice, but slightly out of alignment, because it moved between exposures.) The three exposures have been taken fast enough for several Sony camera generations so that you do not need a tripod…but with the new sensor with the digital signal processor built in…the RX10iii is super fast. The HDR files from the RX10iii look good right out of the camera…and, with a bit of adjustment of levels in Lightroom (or similar) can be made to look completely natural…as close to the naked eye view as you are going to get with a digital camera.
I tested the HDR capability of the RX10iii against the HX90V. In every shot, the RX10iii shows finer detail and detail better rendered. (Previous tests showed that the HX90V did way better at HDR than the Nikon P610 and P900…which have only one level (auto) of HDR. Previous testing also showed that the HX90V was very close in image quality for HDRs to the Sony Nex 5t, with its APS-C sensor and its 16-50mm kit zoom. Too close to call. The combination of the new sensor in the RX10iii and the exceptional ZEISS VarioSonnar zoom yield HDR landscapes that are noticeably better than the Nex 5t. I don’t have a more recent Sony APS-C body to test against, but my feeling is that the RX10iii is producing in-camera HDRs that are about as good as you are going to get from any camera.)
Here is a comparison crop from the HX90V and the RX10iii. Two in-camera HDRs taken seconds apart.
Telephoto: Wildlife and Birds
My original thinking was that the RX10iii would not have to compete with the Nikon P610 and P900 for birds and wildlife. It was replacing my HX90V…and perhaps my P610 for butterflies and dragonflies…but not my P900 for birds and wildlife.
That, of course, was before I discovered how much fun the RX10iii is to shoot with…and how good the images look.
Fun: The EVF on the RX10iii makes the EVF on the Nikon Ps look, well, dingy…and the EVF on the Ps is among the best of any P&S superzoom currently on the market. The Sony EVF is not like using and EVF at all. It is very close, in my opinion, to using an optical view finder. The image is so crisp and detailed, so bright and contrasty, that it is easy to find birds, even in a confusing background…way easier that in either Nikon P model. That means you are on birds faster and enjoy looking at them more. Fun.
The RX10iii is also fast…13 frames per second…and the buffer clears within a second. High speed on the Nikons is 10 fps, and it takes 7 to 8 seconds for the buffer to clear. That is so annoying that I only use Low Speed Continuous on the Nikons, 2 fps. I had learned to live with it…but the Sony is just more fun.
Sony’s implementation of Direct Manual Focus and the placement of the focus ring on the lens barrel is simply brilliant. (Not perfect, focus by wire using the electronic focus ring is not the same as mechanical focus, but brilliant all the same.) Setting the camera to DMF means that you still have auto focus, but you can override it at any time by just turning the focus ring. This means that, if the camera can’t find focus quickly, you can get it in the right ball-park using DMF, and then let Auto finish (in which case Auto will lock on almost instantly), or you can let Auto get you close, and then fine tune focus with the ring. In that case, when you have the shutter button half-pressed for focus, turning the focus ring also magnifies the image by an amount which you specify so you can really see what you are doing. (See the caption up above under Macro for how much help this is in shooting Macros.) Again, DMF adds to the fun factor.
Images: I have enthused before already about the beauty of the RX10iii images when compared to the Nikon P series. Maybe it is just my eye…but I really, really like the why this Sony renders an image.
That said, I have been experimenting with the RX10iii for birds and wildlife. DMF is great, and the focus on the Sony is faster than the Nikon P900, but the P900 has a kind of magic built in that allows it to focus on the bird, even when the bird is mostly hidden by foreground foliage and twigs. In a similar case with the Sony, you have to resort of DMF. The time difference is not significant, since it often takes the Nikon P several tries, several shutter button half presses, to do its magic and you can get there with a twist of the focus ring and a single press on the Sony…but it is different. It is not magic!
And of course there is a significant difference in the reach between any current P&S superzoom and the RX10iii’s paltry 600mm. There is nothing like reaching out with the P900 at 2000mm equivalent and absolutely filling the frame with a warbler at 20 feet! And the feather detail that the Nikon captures is simply amazing. (Or fur detail if not shooting birds.) The background of the photo might not look very appealing…it might be full of noise and sharpening artifacts, but who is going to notice that when the bird takes up most of the frame?
To come even close to the P900’s reach, you have to resort to either Clear Image Zoom or to the Smart Digital Tel-converter on the Sony. Clear Image Zoom is similar to Perfect Image Zoom on the Nikons. It applies special processing to a crop from the center of the senor to provide the appearance of a longer focal length, and a full size image. On the Nikons it can push the zoom out to 2880mm on the P610, and 4000mm on the P900, with decent results. On the Sony CIZ pushes the zoom out to 1200mm, again, with quite good results. The Sony, however, will also just save that cropped portion of the sensor as a file…that is what Smart Digital Tel-converter does. You get a 5mp image, with no added digital artifacts, at 1200mm equivalent.
I have experimented with both on the RX10iii to determine how close I can come to the detail offered by the P610 or P900. And the answer is, pretty close. 🙂 Due to the bigger sensor, and perhaps the better jpeg processing engine, CIZ at 1200mm comes very close to the level of detail that you get with the P610 at and optical zoom of 1440mm, and pretty much matches it a 1200mm, when you use the P610 (or P900 for that matter) at that optical focal lengh. At 600mm equivalent, full zoom on the Sony, or set to 600mm on the Nikons, the Sony wins hands down.
At 2000mm the Nikon P900 offers considerably more image scale than the Sony, even stretched to 1200mm (fills more of the frame with your subject), and pretty amazing feather and fur detail. However, using the Smart Digital Tel-converter for a cropped 5mp image on the Sony, while it does not equal the scale, yields very similar feather and fur detail. It also produces a much cleaner image…with far fewer digital artifacts, especially in the background of the image. And there is the beauty factor.
Finally I experimented with upscaling the 5mp image back to 20mp using On1’s Resize 10 plug-in for Lightroom, which I downloaded as a trial. Upscaling is essentially what the camera does when using CIZ, but the scaling in Resize 10 uses “true fractal technology” and is just more sophisticated than in-camera scaling, and the results are very impressive. (see the image immediately above)
The following gallery shows the results of comparison shots of the only really cooperative bird I could find…at ISO 100. Clicking the image will open the attachment page where there is a link to the full sized image at the bottom of the page (next to the magnifying glass). Left click the link to choose Open in a new tab, to compare two images by flipping back and forth between them.
The next gallery shows the results of comparison shots of the same species…in subdued light…at ISOs of 400 and 500. The RX10iii 1200mm, 20mp shot is the 5mp shot upscaled in On1 Resize 10. The final shot is the RX10iii at 1200mm, but I moved closer to the bird by 4 feet, to achieve the same image scale as the P900 from it’s minimum focus distance of 16.5 feet.
My conclusion is that the P900, overall, still does the best job for wildlife and birds, but considering everything I shoot, and everything else the RX10iii does so well, I could easily get away with just carrying the RX10iii. I can live with the 5mp cropped 1200mm equivalent, given the beauty of the images, and the fact that most of my images are posted to the web at 3mp anyway. And the On1 Resize 10 plug-in (which is so good that I actually purchased it) will, in fact, produce a full-sized, 20mp image, if and when I need it.
I have been carrying two cameras for a while now…both the Nikon P900 and the Sony HX90V…to cover the range of my nature photography interests…from macros, to HDR lanscapes, to sweep panoramas, to tight shots of wildlife and birds. The RX10iii comes as close as any camera can to a one-camera-does-it-all solution for my needs. For macro and landscape it is simply wonderful…providing as much detail in beautiful, appealing images as I will ever need, and stretching out to 1200mm equivalent with excellent detail, and that same beauty of image, for wildlife and birds.
All well and good, the Sony RX10iii may be a great camera, but, harkening back to the title of this review, is it really a Point and Shoot Superzoom?
I always say Point and Shoot is an attitude not a class of equipment…and the way I will use the RX10iii is the same way I use any Point and Shoot superzoom. I will let the camera do as much as it reasonably can, using all the automation and all the jpeg processing features that Sony engineers have built in, and I will concentrate on finding the images worth capturing, and capturing them. Let the camera do all it can do, see, point, shoot, share. That is the Point and Shoot nature photographer’s mantra.
And that leaves us with the question of whether a $1500 camera can be classed as a Point and Shoot? I could buy 3 Nikon P610s for that and have money left over for extra batteries, a charger, and as many SD cards as I might want. Part of my attraction to Point and Shoot is that it makes quality nature photography available to almost anyone who wants to give it a serious try. The $1500 price tag on the RX10iii puts it out of consideration for many beginning nature photographers, and many who are well beyond beginner.
At the same time, $1500 is still only about 1/10 the price of a pro DSLR body and a 600mm f4 image stabilized lens…and that does not count the cost of all the other lenses you would need to fill the gap down to 24mm at the wide end. Even an entry-level DSLR and the least expensive 150-600mm zoom would set you back about the same as the RX10iii…and again, you would need at least 2 more lenses to cover the 24-150mm range and macro. So, while the RX10iii is not as affordable as a standard Point and Shoot superzoom, it is still what we might call a bargain in a full service outfit for serious nature photography. (And that is not to mention the differences is size and weight!)
If your primary interest is bird photography, and occasional wildlife, you might still be better served by something like the Nikon P900. My P900 will be coming with me on any future nature photography trips. And if your budget, or your sense of thrift, will not stretch beyond $600, you can still be a successful and happy Point and Shoot nature photographer with any of several current superzoom offerings, in the $400-$600 range. Just let the camera do all it can, see, point, shoot, share, and enjoy.
If your interests are wider, with a serious interest in everything from macro, through dramatic landscapes, to wildlife and birds: if you value a kind of ineffable beauty in the images you take; and if $1500 does not seem unreasonable to you, then I can safely predict that you are going to be just as over-the-top delighted with the RX10iii as I am.
In fact, if I did not know better, I would think the engineers at ZEISS and Sony had me in mind when they designed the RX10iii. This is, in so many ways, my ideal camera.
But, honestly, is it a Point and Shoot superzoom? It is if you want it to be. 🙂