P&SNP in the Galapagos and Andes

Blue Booby’s feet. A must do image from the Galapagos

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. 

Walking through a nesting colony of Nazca (formerly “masked”) Boobies

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.

Black-tailed Trainbearer, Garden Hotel, Quito

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. 

Turtle Reserve, Lava Lizard, San Cristobal Mockingbird, Darwin’s Finch, Land Tortoise, young Land Tortoise

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. 

Dawn on the first day. A yacht similar to ours that was on the same schedule as we were.
Nazca Boobies in the nesting colony on Espanola
Another view of our group in the nesting colony, the view out over the sea from Espanola
Marine Iguanas. They dive deep in the cold sea to feed on plants and spend much time on land warming themselves. The colors are salt deposits.

Our first and best views of the Galapagos Hawk were on Espanola

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. 

the sealions of the Galapagos
are very friendly 🙂

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.

the stunningly beautiful landscape and the bright Flamingos of Floreana Island
Turtle tracks on the beach at Floreana, and the surf.

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. 

Giant Prickly Pear trees, and Land Iguanas. Galapagos Racer Snake.

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.

Lava Heron. Totally fearless…
Land Iguanas
Swallow-tail Gull, in my opinion, one of the most attractive gulls
Red-billed Tropic Birds, Santa Fe Island
Santa Fe Island, Land Iguana, Prickly Pears, sunset!

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. 

Blue-footed Boobies, North Seymour Island
The booby dance!
Nesting Great or Magnificent Frigatebirds. The Great have more green sheen on the neck but they are hard to tell apart.


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. 

Giant Land Tortoise
Gentle giant.
The meal on our last night on the yacht was a thanksgiving spread, complete will all the fixing, and a edible puffer fish sculpture.

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.

Top of the Andes, Buff-tailed Coronet, Chestnut-breasted Coronet, White-bellied Woodstar, Tourmaline Sunangel

Collared Inca, Masked Trogon, Buff-tailed Coronet, lunch Andes style, White-bellied Woodstar, Tourmaline Sunangel

We were back in Quito in time for evening flights. The end of a remarkable adventure in the Galápagos…thanks to Wildside Nature Tours.

P&SNP on the Amazon River

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. 

The lowlands of the De Lachay Reserve, a Fritillary, Amazilia Hummingbird, Spiny Whorltail Lizard?, Bandtailed Seedeater, the view out toward the Pacific

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 Lima suburbs, Black Skimmer, Franklin’s Gulls, the wetlands

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.

In the rain in the White Sands Forest, Cracker butterfly, Saddle-backed Tamarin, White-eared Jacamar

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.

views of the Amazon in Iquitos, and our riverboat

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. 

the Amazon is big, big, big

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.

Anaconda captured by fishermen, Slough, Oxbow lake, storm coming!
Brown Wooly Monkeys putting on a show beside a tributary.
Black-collared Hawk diving on a fish (we provided the fish)
Oriole Blackbird, Canary-winged Parakeet, Bluish-fronted Jacamar, Sand-colored Nighthawk, White-lined Sac-winged Bat, towel rabbit
Sunrise over the Amazon, our riverboat home, fishing for Black-collared Hawk bait, Hoatzin, little girl in the terra firma, sunset over the Amazon
 

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. 

Pygmy Marmoset, the world’s smallest primate, 2.5 ounces, 4 inches long.
Slate-colored Hawk, Ginger flower, Butterfly, craft seller
Noon meal in a riverside village, native healer, Emerald Boa by flashlight on our night adventure, leaving at dawn
 

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. 

Children are the same all over the world. Native Amazon fish dish.

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.

native guide bring us a present, Trantula, Poison Dart Frog, Rosy Boa, Night Monkeys, Poison Dart Frog
Rainforest giant, The group, two more presents from our guide: White-lined Bat and Stripped Sharp-nosed Snake

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 harbor at Pucusana in the early morning mist, Humboldt Penguin, Sea Lions, Red-legged Cormorant, Inca Terns, fishing and tourist boats

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. 

Basic jpeg workflow. Post-processing.

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. 

If, that is, if you have your cameras set up correctly. See Basic camera settings for Wildlife, birds, and macro.

Basic controls: Lightroom, PhotoShop Express, Snapseed, Polarr. Touch or click to enlarge. For more control shots see below.

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.

Before and after. Original and basic edits applied. I also used the brush in Polarr to bring up detail in the chin patch 🙂

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.

  1. open the shadows
  2. pull back the highlights
  3. sharpen the image
  4. increase the clarity of the image
  5. increase the vibrance of the image
  6. exercise restraint…work for the natural look not the spectacular. 🙂

Lightroom controls, lots of presets, but none of them user custom, local controls limited to gradient and radial
Snapseed. Main controls. Tune Image where most of what we want is. Details. Local Controls: brush and radial.
Polarr. General controls. Light opened and you can see the others, Local controls, Custom filters
 

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.) 

An in-camera HDR (high dynamic range, three shots blended for exposure) image processed in PhotoShop Express. More shadow and highlight control to really open shadows, retrieve detail in clouds, and bring up the green in the foliage.

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. 

TouchRetouch used to remove distracting out of focus branch.

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. 

BIF. Sports Mode, Sony RX10iii

Least Tern in a dive. Sony RX10iii. Sports Mode.

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.

Sports Mode / Continuous Focus / Wide Area Focus / Continuous Shooting.

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!

Very satisfying. Cropped to about 5mp.

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.)

Going away!

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.

Head on. One of the more difficult shots.

 

 

Basic settings for Wildlife, Birds, and Macro

Baltimore Oriole with the Nikon P900

When teaching my Point and Shoot Nature Photography workshops I spend a few hours on the basic set-up of a camera for wildlife, bird, and macro shots, running through the menus on several different cameras, depending on what the participants have. I have had many requests to condense this information into an article here. The problem is, of course, that different cameras have different settings, and even if they have the same feature, it might well be called something different…and it will certainly be found in some other section of the menu, functions, or controls. The best I can do is to run down through the Nikon P series menu, with hints on where to find the feature or function on other makes where and when I know. 🙂

  1. Set the control dial to P (Programmed Auto)
    Program works exactly the same way as Auto, selecting the balance of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO for correct exposure. It does, however, allow you a bit more control over things like where the scene is metered for exposure, where the camera is going to focus, and light values when the scene is not well balanced in itself. (To be fair, modern Auto Programs do an excellent job with a wide range of scenes, but almost all of them use “wide area” or “multi-spot” focus…the camera decides what you might be thinking of focusing on…and that is death for wildlife photography. Reason enough to use Program.)
  2. Open the menu system (generally with a Menu button. On Canon cameras, some of these features are in the Function Menu, not the main menu, and on Nikon and Sony cameras they may be more easily accessed through the Function button than in the main menu.)
    1. Set Image Quality to Fine (or whatever the highest setting is). This will improve your image quality, but at the cost of writing larger files to the SD card. It is still a good trade. (For Canon cameras, this is in the Function menu, not the main menu. Press the center button of the control wheel on the back, and scroll down to Image Quality. )
    2. Set Image size to “full size” or “large” (also in the Function Menu on Canons)
    3. Nikon has several Picture Control programs which determine how your jpeg is processed in the camera. Set Picture Control to “Standard”. Sony calls this feature “Creative Style” (Again, a similar setting in the Function menu on Canons).
    4. Leave White balance on Auto (Function menu on Canons)
    5. Exposure area/mode (might be called Metering). On Nikons it is in center by default in Program, and you can not change it. On Canons, it is in function menu, and you want “center”. This biases the exposure for you subject, which for wildlife is generally near the center of the frame. Even when it is not, shift your aim and half press the shutter release to lock both focus and exposure on your subject, then while still holding the shutter release half way down, move the subject to where you want it in the frame.
    6. Continuous (or Continuous Shooting). I find that for birds and other active wildlife you do not need more than 2-6 frames per second. Set it to Low Speed Continuous. (again in the Function Menu on Canons).
    7. ISO. Leave it on auto. That will ensure that you get the highest shutter speed and the widest aperture at the lowest ISO possible for each shot.
    8. Auto-focus Area (or something similar). This is where you set the area on which the camera will focus. Choose the smallest, or next to smallest area in the center of the frame. Smallest will give you the most control, but next to smallest will focus faster in most situations. (Main menu on Canons. It is set to Flexispot by default, which is a small movable square in the center of the frame. Once selected, you can make the square smaller by hitting the Focus button (upper right corner of the back of the camera with 4 arrows pointing to the four corners of the button on it) This will wake up the movable spot. While it is showing, press the Display button to change the square to its smaller size).
    9. Autofocus mode. You can generally choose either single shot, or full time. Full time uses more battery, but ensures that the camera will begin to focus as it comes up to your eye and will find focus faster. For wildlife it is well worth the extra battery drain (buy spares and keep them charged in your day bag).
    10. Noise Reduction Filter. Nikon gives you three choices. You will get the most detail if you set it to Low.  Canon and Sony only allow you to control High ISO Noise Reduction, but again, to preserve detail, set it to Low.
    11. Active Dynamic Lighting (or Dynamic Range Optimization on the Sonys). This is function that analyzes the image before you take it to determine if the shadows are going to go black or if you are going to lose detail in the whites and brights. It automatically tones down the brights, and pumps up the shadows as the image in is processed in the camera, and removes almost all need for you to worry about exposure. Set to at least the Normal setting (or mid, or Auto, depending on the brand). On some Canon cameras this is called iContrast or Contrast Control, and it is found, again, in the function menu. On the newest Canon P&Ss it is split into Highlight Control and Shadow Control. Set both to Auto.
    12. If I have not mentioned a setting that you see in your menu, leave it on the default setting, as it came from the factory.
  3. Set your EV Exposure Compensation (generally accessed by one of the wheel sides on the Multi-function control wheel on the back of the camera…it has a +/- in a square box, black on white and white on black) to -.3 or negative 1/3. This will tone down the highlights in every image, saving detail in bright areas.
  4. On some cameras there is a separate setting for macro shots or macro focus. It might be in the scene modes, or it might be accessed through a button on the camera, or by pressing one edge of the multi-function control wheel on the back. The button or control will generally have a flower on it. Once pressed you should have to option of Auto Focus, Infinity Focus (a mountain symbol) or Macro (the flower). The Sonys feature continuous macro focus. Do not leave your focus set to macro. On some cameras this will limit the distance you can be from your subject, and on others it will just make the focus motor work harder. Again, on the Sonys it does not matter as there is on separate macro setting. 

Muskrat, Nikon P900

Your camera will remember these Program settings, even if you turn the camera off, or switch the control dial to some other setting than Program. As soon as you come back to Program, these settings will be in effect until you change them in the Menu or Function Menu.

Many cameras, however, have a User Memory, or Custom Setting. It is the U on the Nikon Control Dial, or C1 or C2 on Canon, or MR on Sony. For wildlife shooting, I set all the settings above, then zoom my zoom to full zoom (telephoto), open the Menu once more and find Save User Settings (or something similar…Sony calls it Memory, Canon Custom Settings). On Nikons you have only one user memory. Choosing Save User Settings will store all your current settings, plus zoom position, so that when you are in another mode and want to quickly reset for camera for wildlife, all you have to do is rotate the Control Dial to U. When saving settings in Canon or Sony, you have 2 memories in Canon, and 3 in Sony. You get to choose where you save the settings above, and then you can access them…on Canons, by choosing C1 or C2 on the Control Dial, in Sonys, by choosing MR on the Control Dial, and then selecting the correct memory in the screen that comes up. On Sonys you can also get to the Memory settings, when the Control Dial is in MR, through the Function button.

So that’s it. Quick settings for wildlife, birds, and macro.

Enjoy.

DIY Lightroom Presets

I have been a faithful (mostly) Lightroom user since the program was in public beta. It was the first image processing, or post-processing, software that I really liked…not the first I used…but definitely the first I can honestly say I enjoyed. I had used PhotoShop (since it was a Mac only program), GIMP, PhotoShop Elements, Corel, PaintShop, Freestone…to mention a few, but once I discovered Lightroom, I never really looked back. (There was one year in there when I only carried a high end Android tablet and did all my processing in Snapseed and Photo Editor, but eventually the allure of Lightroom was just too powerful and I had to return to the fold and buy a Windows Surface Pro tablet so I could have the best of both worlds.)

To me, Lightroom is simply intuitive…it works in a way that matches the way I think about images…so post processing is about as natural as it can get. I like the cataloging features, which help me keep track of where my images are, and easily keep my home files in sync with my social media and cloud-based archival sites. And I especially like the ability to develop and easily apply presets…saved processing settings across the whole spectrum of possible edits…to a single image, or to a whole set. Then too, Lightroom has at least semi-embraced the world of tablet computing. The Edit module has a tablet interface that makes excellent use of the Surface Pro touch-screen to further ease the processing chores. Finally, the edits in Lightroom are the smoothest and least destructive of any program I have used…and that is saying a lot, since I shoot only jpeg, and do all my processing on jpegs.

All in all I can’t see myself giving up Lightroom any time soon. I even bought into the Adobe subscription model, much as it pained me, so that I can continue to use the latest features of the program.

In this piece, I am going to walk you through the creation of a preset. The first thing I do when I get a new camera is create a small set of presets for different processing needs. Generally I do one for 1) “standard images”…images that just require a bit of sharpening and enhancement to realize the full potential of the file. 2) HDR images…images which are produced by the camera’s built in HDR mode, or in some cases by the camera’s Landscape mode. I use the camera’s HDR or Landscape modes for…well, as you might expect…landscapes…especially dramatic landscapes with lots of light and shadow and interesting cloud effects. These images generally require a bit more lift to reach full potential. And then maybe 3) an HDR preset with a bit of added umph, and some extra brightness, for those cases were the scene was really beyond the ability of the camera to catch it. I might also develop a preset specifically for macro shots for some cameras, if one of the others does not already cover those images.

So, lets look at a “standard image” and its preset.

original unedited jpeg from the Nikon P900

This image, like most well exposed digital images, only requires some added pop and sharpening to go from a good image to a really satisfying one. I begin my opening the image in the Develop module in Lightroom. Near the top of the editing controls are some basic settings.

basic

I intentionally underexpose my digital images by 1/3 EV by setting the exposure compensation to -1/3 on the camera. This maintains more of the highlight information in the original file. Therefore most of my images need a little boost in the brightness of the shadows. If you are doing this at home, just grab the Shadows slider and slide it to the right until you get the effect you want. Watch the image. Note what the slider does as you move it. Move it just enough to the right to achieve the degree of shadow lightening that you like.

Images from the Nikon Point and Shoot superzooms that I use are just a bit flat out of the camera. They lack pop. I could add pop by adjusting the contrast, but that would also whiten the whites and lights in the image and burn out whatever detail is there. Instead, I use the Blacks slider to make the blacks (and very dark colors) blacker. Slide the Blacks slider to the left until you get the effect you want.

Clarity is something like “local contrast”…it effects the way colors grade into one another when they are next to each other. Move the Clarity slider to the right to add Clarity until you get the effect you want. This also adds pop to the image.

Vibrance controls the saturation of the weakest colors in your image…and only the weakest. Moving it to the right adds vividness to the image. Be careful. Too much added Vibrance will make the bright colors “block up”…or lose detail and produce an unnatural, poster-like effect. Add just a bit of Vibrance.

Generally you do not want to, or need to, touch the other controls in this section. Remember you are creating a preset that will be applied to many images as you process. You can go back to the develop module after applying the preset and tweak other settings as needed…but you just want this preset of do the basic work.

sharp

Next, for most images I use the existing Sharpen Scenic preset built into Lightroom. You can find it in the develop module in the left hand panel. When I apply it, it sets the sharpening controls as you see them here. You can achieve the same thing by sliding the controls to these positions yourself. All digital images require some sharpening. I actually turn down in-camera sharpening when I can, because generally sharpening in post does less damage to other parts of the image than the camera does. I do not recommend much more aggressive sharpening settings than you see here. You will not like the effects on overall image quality.

chroma

Just as all digital images can benefit from some sharpening, most digital images will benefit from Lightroom’s “Chromatic Aberration” filter. Chromatic Aberration is the little (or not so little) lines of green or pink (or blue and yellow) light that appear at the edges of things in your image, especially near the outer edges of the image, especially when the edge is against a white, light, or black background. It is a lens fault. Many cameras will already process it out when they create the jpeg…but turning on Lightroom’s filter can only help.

dehaze

Finally, the latest version of Lightroom has a new filter called Dehaze. It works something like the Clarity filter above, but with the emphasis on the blue end of the spectrum. Blue light is the most likely to get scattered over the surface of the image, both from atmospheric haze, and from light scatter inside the lens of the camera. Therefore a filter that looks for the scattered blue light and removes it from the image improves both the clarity and the vividness of the image. Be careful here, as too much Dehaze will darken your whole image, and turn the blues toward black.

Here is a comparison of the edited (right) and unedited images.

Unedited on left, edited on right
Unedited on left, edited on right

The difference is not dramatic, but it is enough to turn an okay image into one that is more satisfying.

Here is the edited image at a larger size. Compare to the unedited image above.

DSCN9619.jpg

Edit several images from your camera in this way…if your camera exposure system is working right, and you are using it right, you should notice that you are making just about the same edits on each photo. (A word about using the camera’s exposure system correctly. Use it! Do not mess with manual controls. Let the camera do the exposure. Today’s camera exposure systems are so accurate and so flexible that they will get the exposure correct about 95% of the time if you let them. That is one reason you can create presets in Lightroom. The files you will be working with will be consistently exposed.)

To create your first preset, open the best of the files you just edited in the Develop module. Look for the Presets section on the left hand develop panel. Click the little plus sign next to the Presets title. This will open a window displaying all your current settings, and providing a field at the top to name the preset. Name it “Standard” or give it the name of the camera or whatever.

preset

The settings you have changed, and the settings that are necessary for every image, will already be checked in the list of settings. Just name your preset and click “Create”. It will be saved to your “user presets” folder, where Lightroom can find it when needed.

presetdiaNow that you have a preset created, you can apply it easily to either single files or multiple files.

You don’t even have to open the Develop Module. In the Library Module, in the right hand panel, you will find a section near the top called “Quick Develop” and within that section a drop-down menu called “Saved Preset”. When you click the menu you should see your newly created preset in the list, under User Presets, in a sub-menu at the bottom. Select the image (or images) you want to apply the preset to, and then just select the preset from the menu. In seconds you will see your thumbnails update to the edited form of the image…or, if you only have one image open in Library, that image will update to show the finished edits. One click…that is all most of your images will need for processing, once you have your presets created. 🙂

apply

The following illustrations show the difference in settings between my “standard” Nikon preset, and my Sony HDR preset. The Sony in-camera HDR files can handle some extra pop and some extra sharpening. I have applied a sharpening mask to keep the HDR artifacts from showing up in open sky.

hdrbasic

hdrsharpChromatic Aberration and Dehaze settings are the same as for my basic Nikon preset.

Here is a comparison shot of the unedited HDR file and the file with the Sony HDR preset applied.

hdrcomp

Note that the difference here is not so subtle. The Camera produced a file using the HDR technique that has enough information in it so that it can be processed into a very satisfying extended range image.

DSC05739.jpg

And the image was processed with a single click in Lightroom!

Again, you don’t need a lot of presets. 2-3 per camera you use. Once a preset is applied, if you still think you can improve the image using other editing controls in Lightroom, you can always open the Develop Module and make whatever changes you like. The great thing about Lightroom is that any changes you make will be added to the changes, or override the changes, you originally made with the preset…and any changes you make with either can undone instantly. The program does not actually make the changes you see on the monitor until you save or share the image. Your file is always preserved as the digital negative and you can start over with your edits any time you want.

The major complaint I hear about Lightroom is that it is too hard. It is actually the easiest program for image editing I have every used. I hope this article gives you the courage to dig out your copy, and to give it another try…or at least encourages you to create your first presets to release the power of Lightroom.

 

Point and Shoot for Warblers

No matter what camera and lens you use, it simply does not get any better than this Chestnut-sided Warbler with the Nikon P900 Point and Shoot Superzoom!

At the recent Biggest Week in Birding on the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio, I had the opportunity to teach two sessions of Point and Shoot for Warblers. Most photographers would agree that there are no more difficult birds to shoot than our wood warblers. They are fast. They are active. And they feed, during migration, deep in the spring foliage, from eye-level to canopy top. If they were not so bright and beautiful they might no be worth the effort. But they are…bright and beautiful, and though they might present a challenge…definitely worth the effort.

On the other hand, there is no better place to practice warbler photography than the boardwalk at Magee Marsh, in the Crane Creek Recreation Area along the Erie shore. The boardwalk provides easy access to many acres of wet forest and marsh, ideal habitat for migrating warblers as they feed up before crossing Lake Erie on the way north. The warblers so busy feeding that they are relatively oblivious to the humans on the boardwalk, even humans with tripods and long lenses. Then too, since there are literally thousands of pairs of birder’s eyes on the boardwalk each day, it seems unlikely that any warbler gets through Magee without being seen, and pointed out to others. That makes the photographer’s job easier. You just have to point your camera where everyone else is looking. 🙂

Lots of eyes on the boardwalk at Magee Marsh in OH

For those of us who have chosen Point and Shoot superzooms, the challenge might seem greater due to the supposed “limitations” of our cameras. However, I suspect, based on my own and others’ experiences, that a proficient Point and Shooter, using a light weight, portable, flexible superzoom, can bring back as many satisfying images of warblers as anyone, if not more. And the best Point and Shoot warbler shots are every bit as good as the best shots from a full-sized DSLR and long lens. Every bit!

I had two sessions to refine the set of points, based on my own experience at Magee Marsh over the past 6 years, that might help the Point and Shooter to catch warblers. This is the distillation:

1) Finding the Bird. Use your eye-level electronic viewfinder, not the LCD on the back of the camera. This gives you a better chance of finding and keeping the bird in view as it moves thorough the foliage, and, since the camera is braced on your face, and a natural extension of your head, it gives you a steadier shot when you do shoot. While EVFs on Superzooms still are not great, the most recent Superzooms (Nikon P series and Canon SX60HS) have the best EVFs, and getting pretty good…I was generally able to easily find and track a warbler with the EVF on the Nikon P900, even in dense foliage…something that was not true a superzoom generation ago.

2) Holding the camera.  Hold the camera with your left hand under, and loosely cradling, the barrel around the zoom. Your left elbow should be directly under the camera. Raise your right arm high enough to reach the grip on the right side of the camera. Wrap your fingers loosely around the grip…do not pinch it between fingers…really wrap it with four fingers of your right hand…with your shutter finger extended up over the shutter button and resting lightly on it. Now turn one third, left shoulder forward, toward the bird, with your left elbow tucked in to your body. You are not facing the bird head on, you are turned so your left shoulder is pointed almost at the bird, and that elbow is supported by your body. (It is the same stance a rifle shooter users.) Your eye is at the EVF, ideally with the camera contacting both your brow and your nose. Your left arm supports the camera. Your right arm and hand simply steady the camera, and operate controls. Everything should be relaxed. Note how the hat brim shades the EVF in the photos above. I highly recommend a broad-brimmed hat for warbler or any other kind of shooting that involves the EVD (Do not rest your hand or fingers on the part of the zoom that moves. Eventually the zoom will retract unexpectedly when the “power down” limit is reached, and you will get the flesh of your fingers caught between the zoom barrel and its housing. Not good for fingers or the motor that powers your zoom!)

3) Focus and shooting. When you find the bird, you will half press the shutter to establish focus and exposure. Yes you will! You will not jam the shutter button down and hope for the best…you will half press the shutter. And then, if the bird allows, you will wait for the moment of stillness between breaths to shoot. Yes I know, we are talking about warblers, and wait is not a word warblers understand…but believe me, your keeper rate will improve if you can learn to only press the shutter when the camera is already focused and the bird is in sight. You can jam the shutter down 1000 times and get 1000 blurry images of departing warbler butts, or you can develop your skill and patience, wait for the camera to focus, and only take an image when everything is right…and you will still take 400 images…and 50-100 of them will be sharp and satisfying.

4) Steadying the shot. Remember you are not a tripod! You will never keep the camera perfectly still. You are an extension of the cameras image stabilization system. The best you can do is to develop a sense for the still spot, when everything is lined up, and it is time to shoot.

5) Focus your EVF. Even after sharing that with both groups at the beginning of our field sessions, I caught many folks in the workshops still using the LCD…holding the cameras out away from their face and body. When I quizzed them, they admitted that they found the EVF difficult to impossible to use. It soon became apparent that most of them had never adjusted the diopter setting on the EVF. Somewhere, on or near the housing for the EVF, there will be a little wheel or slider that allows you to focus the EVF for your eyes. This is critical for those who wear glasses, and important for those who do not. With your eye to the EVF, turn the wheel or slide the slider until the letters and numbers and lines in the EVF are as sharp as you can get them. Pay no attention to the scene itself. Just to the display features. Once the display is in sharp focus, half press the shutter so the camera auto-focuses, and now your scene should be sharp. You should only have to see the focus wheel once, then just let the camera do the focusing. And you should now find the EVF much more fun to use. 🙂

6) Focus Area. When Superzooms come from the maker they are preset to use “wide area” or “multi-spot” focus. Some are set for “target finding focus.” That means that the camera tries to determine what is important in the scene and focus on that. Most superzooms are programmed to look for, in order of preference, a) a face, b) the closest high contrast object or subject, and c) the closest bright/colorful high contrast object or subject. In all superzooms this is the default focus setting in Auto Mode. And it works pretty well, getting focus right about 70% of the time.

However, we are shooting birds and wildlife…or warblers in this case…and, without resorting to manual focus, we want more control over what the camera chooses to focus on.

If we set the camera to Program Mode instead of Auto, we can change the setting for the “focus area”, and force the camera to focus where we want it to. (By the way, Program Mode does all the auto settings that Auto does, but gives you the option of setting some of them yourself, while the camera still takes care of the rest…it is the mode you should be using for birds and wildlife.) Go to your menu and find “focus area” (or something similar). Generally there are several choices for focus area. It might be as simple as “face priority” vs. “standard” or there might be additional choices like Manual (spot), Manual (normal), Manual (wide), Subject Tracking, Target Finding, etc. In general, for warblers, you are looking for the smallest area setting. When the camera is not in multi or face priority, it is generally possible to move the focus area you set around the screen with the “up, down, right, left” push areas on the control wheel on the back of the camera. You will be keeping it in the center of the field, but making it small enough to put it on the bird and no where else. On Canon and Sony cameras there is a second setting to change the size of the focus area, once you choose the movable area option. Consult your manual. On Nikon cameras you make the size choice right in the “focus area” menu. (Note: you may find that the next to smallest focus area works better than “spot” focus for birds. Sometimes the smallest area does not contain enough information at high zoom settings to establish reliable focus.)

The following shots demonstrate the all but miraculous ability of today’s superzooms to auto focus in super difficult situations.

7) Focus technique. Once you focus area setting is set to small, you will attempt to put the little square on the bird, not on some element of the foreground or background. It does not matter much which part of the bird, as long as you include some portion of the body. In my experience, there is still a lot of intelligence built into the auto focus of a superzoom, even when you have it set to a small area. The camera will focus through low contrast foreground foliage and even twigs, if the bird is bright or high contrast enough, and takes up enough of the frame. This is especially true if an eye is showing. The auto focus of Point and Shoot cameras is keyed very tightly to the presence of an eye in the frame. The hardest thing to focus on is a low contrast, or totally backlit bird…like a Grey Catbird sitting against the sky, for instance.

Never give up on your focus after a single half-press. If it does not catch focus, or focuses on something other than the bird, release the shutter button and half press again. And again. And again. Eventually it might catch. Then too, with low contrast birds, it might be necessary to give the camera a hint as to the distance, so it does not have to hunt through its whole focus range. Swing the camera and find a high contrast object at about the same distance as the bird. Half press to establish focus. Release and swing back to the bird. The next half press should lock focus. 🙂

8) Exposure. Just as you can change the focus area in Program Mode, you can also change the area the camera uses to establish the exposure. The default is Multi-Area Metering, where the camera takes exposure readings from many areas of the scene and then computes the best exposure it can. With birds and wildlife, we often do not care about the background or foreground as long as the critter is correctly exposed. Therefore, open your menu and find the setting for Exposure Mode. For feeding warblers in foliage, either “center” or “spot” generally works best. Spot will be more accurate on the bird itself, but center may give you the best overall exposure.

Let the camera determine exposure. As I have often pointed out, the exposure systems in these modern Point and Shoot Superzooms are amazingly accurate, and generally keep exposures within the bounds set by the camera’s abilities. Use Auto ISO, Auto White Balance, etc, and let the camera set both shutter speed and aperture. The only exception is if your camera consistently gives you lower shutter speeds than the image stabilization can handle…resulting in a lot of blurry images due to camera motion. In that case you may have to switch to shutter preferred and set the minimum shutter speed you are comfortable hand holding. You will still let the camera set everything else 🙂

9) Finding the bird, part 2. The problem with warblers, as mentioned above, is that they move and they bury themselves in foliage. That makes it very difficult to find them at the high magnifications available with today’s superzooms. There are two solutions.

a) especially on your first attempts, you may have more success if you do not use the long end of the zoom. 🙂 Keep to 600-1000mm or so, and the warblers will be much easier to find and keep in view. You may have to crop the images after to get the scale you want, but that is better than not getting the images at all. With feeding warbles, especially in places like Magee Marsh, 1000mm is often plenty anyway, as the birds are feeding within 20 feet of your face.

b) if you camera has it, use the “framing assist” button or function. This is generally a button on the zoom barrel that, when pressed, auto zooms to zoom out to a wider view, while indicating in the finder what area your zoomed in view will cover. Releasing the button automatically returns your zoom to the longer setting. “Frame assist”, find the bird, get it in the indicated smaller area, release button, shoot.

Framing Assist button on the Canon SX50HS
Framing Assist button on the Canon SX50HS

Even if your camera does not have a framing assist function (sometimes called the “zoom back” button), you can accomplish much the same thing by manually zooming back to find the bird, centering it, and then zooming in for the shot.

Finally, when the bird moves out of the frame…do not try to find it by swinging the camera around at high zoom. Take the camera away from your eye. Locate the bird. Then reframe, using framing assist again if necessary.

10) Continuous Shooting. You will have much more success with warblers, or any other active subject, if you take bursts of 3-5 images rather than single shots. Bursts simply improve the odds of getting a sharp image…and they give the bird a chance to rearrange itself into a more attractive pose. You would be surprised how often that happens as you shoot your burst. Most Superzooms have at least two continuous shooting modes: high speed burst, and standard or low speed continuous. High Speed burst is the one they advertise, as it takes 7 to 10 images at 10 frames per second or more with a single press of the shutter button. Impressive! And practically useless for the bird or wildlife photographer. What you end up with is too often 7 to 10 identical images. There is not enough time for the subject to do anything between shots. Then too, the camera takes all the shots and stores them to a “buffer” (special memory location). It then stops everything else and processes and writers those images to the card before you can continue to shoot. Awkward. It can take from 30 seconds to 7 seconds to write to card…and that is 7 to 30 seconds when your camera is essentially a brick.

Slow speed continuous, on the other hand, on most cameras, takes between 2 and 3 frames per second, and stores many more images in the buffer before it has to dump to card. The slower speed gives the bird (or bear) time to rearrange itself, so you get unique shots, and you can generally shoot off several bursts of 3-5 images before the camera takes a processing and writing break. Most of the time you will not be aware of the pause since it happens when you are not shooting anyway.

The Canon SX60HS is an exception. It shoots 6 fps, continuously, without pausing for writing to the the card…though it does slow down significantly if you overwork the shutter button.

You can generally find the Continuous shooting settings in the regular camera menu…though High Speed Burst is sometimes hidden in the Scene Modes.

A panel of continuous shots of a Yellow Warbler bathing.
A panel of continuous shots of a Yellow Warbler bathing.

11) Keep trying. (And yes, it does go to 11 🙂 It always takes me several days at Magee Marsh to get my warbler eye in, and retrain my body for the challenge. Do not give up the first day you attempt warblers. Keep at it. Shoot a lot. If you keep 300 out of 3000 warbler shots, you will be doing very well indeed. Do not worry about the shots you missed…even of the best birds. The missed shots are gone. Just keep shooting and be really, really happy with the shots you do get. The more you shoot, the better you will get at it and the more keepers you will take home. Remember, having worked with all kinds of photographers, and having seen the work of many others, I can honestly tell you that your best Point and Shoot Superzoom warblers and their best long-lens warblers will be very similar…in most cases, not distinguishable at all…and you are likely, due to the compact size, portability, and flexibility of the the superzoom, to come back with way more satisfying images than the long lens crowd.

Be happy! Be a happy Point and Shooter. Be warbler happy!

Bay-brested Warbler, Magee Marsh, Nikon P900
Magnolia Warbler, Magee Marsh OH, Nikon P900

The P&S Tropical Challenge: Tranquilo Bay Panama

The Nikon P900 at Tranquilo Bay Lodge, Panama

Masked Tityra, from the deck at Tranquilo Bay Lodge. Nikon P900

Honestly, I have never been anywhere as photographically engaging as Tranquilo Bay Lodge on Bastimentos Island in the Bocas del Toro archipelago on the Caribbean side of northern Panama. The lodge itself, situated 35 minutes by boat from the the Bocas Town airport on Colon Island, is surrounded by Caribbean rain-forest with all the usual suspects: Boat-billed Flycatchers, bright Blue Dacnis, Manakins, Tityras, Honeycreepers, Sloths, Bird-eating Tree Snakes and White-faced Capuchin Monkeys to name a few…and there are a host of unique habitats, from rocky islands with colonies of nesting sea-birds (Frigate Birds, Boobies, and Red-billed Tropicbirds), to tiny red and blue and yellow and black Poison Dart frog infested lowland jungle, to Coco plantations with Trogons and Toucans and Howler Monkeys, bigger green and black Poison Dart Frogs and Yellow-headed Geckos (and Purple-throated Fruit Crows!), to the mainland with abandoned banana canals threading though forest where Blue Morpho butterflies float, and high mountain passes with cloud forest: orchids, Motmots, White Hawks, a host of Plumbeous Kites, Squirrel Cuckoos, Lineated Woodpeckers, and more Toucans and sloths. There can not be many places in the world to equal the easy accessible tropical variety of Tranquilo Bay Lodge.

I was there for an atypically rainy week in April, and, despite the rain, it was one of the best weeks of photography I have ever experienced.

As noted before (P&S in the Tropics) the tropics might just be the ultimate test for any P&S camera and many P&S photographers. I had a new camera for Tranquilo Bay, the Nikon P900 I reviewed here, and I am happy to say that it was more than up to the challenge. I packed my Canon SX50HS for back-up, but it never left my suitcase. Based on my previous experience in the tropics of Honduras, I also packed my super-light-weight MeFoto Roadmate carbon fiber travel tripod…and that too never made it out of the suitcase. I shot, and got satisfying images of everything from flash aided macros of Poison Dart frogs, to Canopy Tower panoramas, to dark under-canopy lecking Manakins, to frame filling Blue Dacnis and Shiny Honeycreepers from the Lodge deck, to distant Toucans and Snowy Cotingas from moving boats…all of it hand held with the P900. As far as I am concerned, no camera could have done a better job in the tropics than the P900 did, and few could even have come close. Impressive.

I used Sports Mode a lot in Panama. In the low light under the canopy and on rainy days it seemed to lock on focus more quickly and more accurately than standard modes. The downside is that it is fixed to High Speed Continuous shooting and I sometimes did not want to shoot 7 frames and wait for the buffer to clear before I could take another burst. For those situations I used my custom bird and wildlife mode: manual focus square set to normal (it seems faster than small at higher magnifications where there might not be much in the smaller square), Low Speed Continuous, Low Noise Reduction, Standard Picture Control, -1/3 EV exposure compensation, Auto ISO and Color Balance.

Neither mode gave me shutter speeds in the dim light that I was comfortable with…but…and this is huge!…the 5 Stop Vibration Reduction image stabilization in the Nikon enabled me to shoot satisfying images down to 1/125 on a regular basis…and I even got some excellent results at 1/30 of a second when the ISO went up to 1600. Once I saw those on my Surface Pro screen in my daily review of images, I gave up worrying about shutter speed and just let the camera do its thing! The alternative would have been going to Shutter Preferred, but that would have driven the ISO up even higher, or resulted in underexposed images like the ones I brought back from Honduras. All in all I am more than pleased with the P900’s performance in auto modes. I am convinced I could not have gotten the images I did with any other camera (especially without one of those projection fill flashes the pros use).

I will post a few galleries of images from various locations, or you can see the whole set at my WideEyedInWonder site. Here.

These shots are all from the deck surrounding the community/dining room at the Lodge.

We hiked out, one afternoon, to see a Bird-eating Tree Snake the workers had found on the edge of the cleared ground at the Lodge. While we were out, and already wet, we hiked on into the rain-forest to see Golden-collared Manakins on the leck under deep canopy (in the rain). The Manakins are miraculous shots, considering the conditions. Hand held. And great birds. The males clear a lecking pad about 2.5 feet square, removing all vegetation. There they put on their wing-popping display to try to attract females.

Frogs and lizards (spiders too) from Popo Island. Also some Keel-billed and Black-mandibled Toucans and a Snowy Cotinga photographed from the boat on the way.

We got to the Green Acres Chocolate Farm late, due to rain in the morning, so many of the birds had already moved in deeper and up higher for the day. Still it was a great location. I am certain it is spectacular on a nice clear morning.

One of the best things about Tranquilo Bay is that the islands are off-shore from the highest point in the mountains that make up the backbone of Central America…and there is a good road right up and over a 4000 foot pass, which takes you well into the Cloud Forest, and then on down the Pacific Slope. It is a 40 minute boat ride to the mainland dock, and then you can be in Cloud Forest via van in less than an hour…or you could be if you could resist stopping to bird along the way 🙂 But then you would miss the spot where the Boat-billed Herons nest behind the gas station, or the nesting Plumbeous Kites, the Sloths and Toucans. We got rained out on the Caribbean side of the pass, but on a normal day, we could have birded both slopes of the mountains for a wide variety of species. As it was we found a number of high altitude species, as well as some North American Warbler passing through.

Our final trip out from the Lodge was to the old Synder Canal…a banana canal built by the United Fruit Company to open a new area to banana cultivation in late 1800/early 1900s. It only operated for 4 or 5 years, before an expanding rail system made it obsolete and it was abandoned. Today, it is kept open (mostly open) by the local people who use it to reach dwellings along its shore, and by a few tour operators who take folks through for the unique views of wildlife and forest. It runs though a Biological Reserve for much of its length. This will always be a memorable trip for me, since I saw, and photographed, my first perched Blue Morpho Butterfly with its wings open. They are common enough in the tropics, starting in Mexico and running south into South America. They float down forest trails and water courses at eye-level, their intense blue color and lazy flight making them unmistakable. They never perch with open wings! But one did along the Snyder Canal the day we visited.

Blue Morpho, Snyder Canal, Changuinola Panama
Blue Morpho, Snyder Canal, Changuinola Panama

Off-shore from either end of the canal there are two islands, collectively know as Bird Island, where Magnificent Frigate Birds, Brown Bobbies, and Red-billed Tropicbirds roost and nest. Though the sea was much rougher than normal the day we visited, it is a place I would love to try again. When I got back from this trip, I realized that though I had been shooting from a moving boat all day, I had never switched to Active VR on the camera. Another reason to return. 🙂

On my final morning at Tranquilo Bay I decided, rather than getting muddy on the trails, I would spend some time on the Canopy Observation Tower up by the cabins. This tower was fashioned from obsolete cell phone towers, purchased in the US and shipped to the Bocas del Toro. It reaches well above the canopy, topping the tallest trees by many feet. The view is unique. I was hoping to be up there early enough for roosting parrots and White-faced Capuchin Monkeys. I got both.

This is a 180 dregree panorama from the top of the tower. There is 360 degree pano in the gallery.

Tranquilo Bay Lodge, Panama 180 on the tower
Tranquilo Bay Lodge, Panama 180 on the tower

All in all, the performance of the Nikon P900 under tropical conditions was pretty near awesome!

If you are not convinced by now, I can only say again that Tranquilo Bay and the surrounding area in Bocas del Toro Panama is one of the best places for bird and wildlife photography that I can imagine…and I was not there on a good week. I am planning, if I can round up a group of six eager Point and Shoot Nature Photographers who want to join me, to return to Tranquilo Bay in mid-October (Columbus Day week). The weather is promised to be more cooperative, the North American migrants are moving through on their way south keeping things stirred up. Seas should be calm. And Tranquilo Bay should be at its best. Want to come. Contact me at lightshedder@gmail.com.

Even if you don’t join me…Tranquilo Bay should be on any photographer’s bucket list!

Shoot Out: Canon SX60HS vs. SX50HS and Sony HX400V

When the Canon SX50HS came out, two years ago next month, it was a significant upgrade from the SX40HS, which was already a great Point and Shoot superzoom for wildlife, macro, and landscape photography. The SX40HS had impressive image quality, a long zoom with enough reach for even small birds and bugs, great optical image stabilization, and a wonderful macro ability both at wide angle and at full telephoto.

The SX50HS added a 50x zoom reaching 1200mm equivalent (2400mm with a very usable 2x digital tel-converter), fast precise focus, faster continuous shooting, a great Sports Mode for birds in flight, and, for those who wanted it, RAW. It quickly became, if you measure such things by the number of users and the chatter on the forums, the de facto standard for P&Ss for nature photography.

However, in the two years since its introduction a whole new group of features began to appear in competing models and in P&Ss in general. Wifi connectivity, GPS tagging, sweep panorama (see the post), in-camera HDR that does not require a tripod (post)…not to mention ever increasing pixel counts. Unfortunately none of the newer models seemed able to match the image quality of the SX50HS, and, honestly, for the P&S nature photographer, it is all about image quality…or at least it is about image quality first.

When last October rolled around, a lot of P&S nature photographers were disappointed that Canon did not update the SX50HS. Rumors came and went, and the fate of the SX60HS became a hot topic on the forums. It came up every time there was any kind of opportunity for an introduction from Canon all through 2014.

A few months ago I decided not to wait any longer, and purchased the Sony HX400V. It has all the modern features, a 20mp sensor, and, to my eye, image quality as good as the SX50HS…better in some situations…different certainly, but still very satisfying.

This month, of course, Canon finally introduced the SX60HS. It is not supposed to ship until October 20th, but I was able to get one direct from Canon this past week.

In many ways, it is everything a P&S nature photographer could have hoped for in an upgrade.

  • The Eye-level Electronic View Finder has been improved dramatically! It is bright, and detailed…the best I have seen in a P&S camera. The LCD panel is also high resolution and very easy to use.
  • The zoom is slightly longer (65x or 21mm – 1365mm, and still with usable 1.6x and 2x digital tel-converters to get you out to 2730mm when needed).
  • The pixel count has been increased to 16mp, considerably less than the Sony’s 20, but considerably more than the SX50HS’ 12mp.
  • Continuous shooting mode has been revised to 6.4 frames per second with viewfinder refresh between frames (the blacked-out view during high speed shooting was a major criticism of the SX50HS), 4.5 frames per second with auto-focus between frames. Contrast this with the Sony HX400V which only manages 2 frames per second with focus (or without focus…though it does have a 10 fps fast mode, see below), buffers all the images, and takes a much longer time to process and write the images to the card.
  • Macro mode has been extended so that you can still focus to 0 inches (touching the front lens element) at wide angle, but now focus to 1.1 inches all the way out to 200mm equivalent! Wonderful!
  • There is built in, no tripod needed, HDR.
  • Wi-fi connectivity is built in and apps are available for Apple and Windows laptops, tablets, and phones.
  • They also claim faster focus, but, personally, I don’t see a lot of difference between this and the SX50HS.

All thumbnails here are linked to much larger files for close viewing. Click and the original will load. You will need to use the back button on your browser to return here. (if you close the window with the large scale image, you will have to navigate back to this page manually 🙂

Unfortunately, at least in my early sample, Canon has not managed to maintain quite the same level of image quality from this 16mp sensor as they got from the 12mp sensor in the SX50HS. In fact, in every test I have tried, straight out of the camera, the SX50HS shows more detail and slightly better color than the SX60HS, and when looking for fine detail, the SX60HS comes no where near the Sony HX400V. The Canon images from the SX series have always been very clean at the pixel level…showing very few digital artifacts (pixelization and blocking), noticeably fewer than the the Sony, but at sizes up to 2:1 magnification, both the SX50HS and the HX400V clearly show finer detail and less digital “smudging” than the SX60HS. Digital smudging used to be a huge issue in Sony P&S superzooms. The fine details in browns, tans, flesh color, and all shades of green would just turn to mush, as though someone had dragged a wet brush across a water color painting. In fact, it was often called the water color effect. The Sony HX400V shows very little smudging and the SX50HS shows practically none. The SX60HS, again, straight out of the camera, shows a lot…as much as or more than earlier Sony H series cameras. Even without the smudging, the detail is just somewhat soft overall in the SX60HS when compared to the SX50HS or HX400V.

To compound the matter the SX60HS images at full wide angle and full telephoto zoom appear the most soft…and this time I think it is a lens or focus issue. Interestingly the images at full zoom look fine in the wonderful high resolution EVF, but as soon as you press the shutter release all the way down, you can see the image go soft even in the EVF. ??? And once up on the computer at home, the softness is evident, especially when compared directly to SX50HS and HX400V images taken in the same spot of the same subjects.

It is, of course possible to process the SX60HS images after the fact to improve apparent sharpness and detail at screen resolution. One of the differences between Canon and Sony is that Sony always applies more aggressive in-camera processing to their jpegs. Some people feel this gives Sony images a painterly look, lacking subtly, but there is no doubt in my mind that the images have eye-appeal at normal viewing sizes. I have experimented with more aggressive processing for the SX60HS images in Lightroom, but honestly, there is only so much you can do without introducing so much noise that it becomes noticeable even at screen resolution. And I have also been experimenting with turning down the in-camera sharpening on the Sony.

SX60HS, Unprocessed left, processed in Lightroom on right.
SX60HS, Unprocessed left, processed in Lightroom on right.

Even with much lighter processing in Lightroom, the Sony has better apparent detail, and this is with the in-camera sharpening turned down one notch. 🙁

HX400V. Sharpening turned down one. Processed in Lightroom.
HX400V. Sharpening turned down one. Processed in Lightroom.

Post-processing to the rescue is not a motto I believe in. I want a camera that has excellent, or at lease acceptable, Image Quality straight out of the camera, so that I can make it even better in post-processing. The SX50HS and the Sony HX400V give me that. The SX60HS, at least in my early sample, does not! It is not a camera I could trust in the field on a day to day basis.

HX400V left, SX60HS right. In-camera HDR processed in Lightroom.
HX400V left, SX60HS right. In-camera HDR processed in Lightroom.

One mode where the HX400V clearly outperforms the SX60HS is in-camera HDR (High Dynamic Range. The camera combines three exposures taken automatically at different exposures to produce a single image with better highlights and shadows than any normal exposure). The Sony allows much more control over the process, and produces consistently better results, especially when shooting without a tripod. I find the SX60HS HDR images to be mushy and messy compared to the highly detailed HX400V images. If HDR is important to you, you might not be happy with the SX60HS.

And then too, for whatever mysterious reason, the SX60HS totally lacks a Panorama mode???? What’s up with that?

tall/wide sweep panorama HX400V
tall/wide sweep panorama HX400V

And I am sorry, the Wi-fi connectivity to a computer in the SX60HS is simply too difficult to set up. It to me three days to work it out, and I am considerably computer handy. Good luck to anyone who is not. The process is unnecessarily complex, involving several trips to the Control Panel, adding devices, installing drivers, etc. Once connected the Canon Camera Window software works well. Connection to an Android tablet is somewhat easier and again, the Camera Window software works. Still, the Sony was much easier to set up.

And, for another omission that is hard to understand…the SX60HS has no GPS for tagging images.

So, you would probably not upgrade to the Canon SX60HS because of the modern features, or for image quality, as such. Though the modern features are all there (except sweep panorama and GPS), they simply are not particularly well implemented. And the SX50HS still has marginally better image quality…though the SX60HS might show slightly finer detail (as others have reported from their own samples). You still might what to upgrade to the SX60HS for the very fine EVF and LCD, longer zoom, the amazing macro mode, and the continuous shooting ability, if those are more important to you than image quality.

If you are choosing your first P&S superzoom for nature photography, the SX50HS is still available and is an excellent P&S for nature photography…especially if you do not need or want the modern features. The Nikon P600 gets very good reviews and I have seen some excellent images from it. I would love to be able to test the Fuji S1, which looks like it might be worthy camera.  If post-processing is already part of your work-flow and style, you are not adverse to a little extra work, you shoot much macro or active wildlife, and want the best EVF in a P&S, then the SX60HS has a lot to recommend it…but only if you can live with its lower image quality. The Sony HX400V, of the three cameras compared here, gives you the highest level of control over how your image is processed in the camera, delivers great images straight out of the camera, and has all the modern features (and well implemented at that). Despite its somewhat awkward continuous mode, I can highly recommend it.

As I have said, my SX60HS is an early production sample. Things may change for the better when they get production ramped up. Mine is going back to Canon, and I will be shooting with the HX400V, with some additional tweaks I have developed during this test. I may reorder the SX60HS after a few months and give it another try. If I do, and it performs better, I will certainly let you know.

What follows is a somewhat detailed comparison of the features and characteristics of the three cameras…at least the features and characteristics that I think are important for Point and Shoot nature photography. That I think! For instance, you will not find mention of RAW capability, since I don’t use it. You will not find mention of “face mode” or “creative filters”, since again, I have not found a use for them in nature photography.

Image Quality:
SX50HS: excellent, very clean overall, with good detail and color.
SX60HS: perhaps acceptable, but requires considerable post-processing. Perhaps more subtle than the Sony.
HX400V: excellent. More digital artifacts than the SX50HS or SX60HS, but very little to no detail smudging, great fine detail rendition, and vibrant colors. Not as subtle as the Canons.

At the pixel level, the SX50HS looks best…for general viewing sizes I would give a slight edge to the HX400V. Some find the SX50HS images more natural looking. I tend to  prefer the look of the more vibrant and apparently more detailed Sony images. At this point, unless Canon has a major firmware update that addresses the IQ issues, it is simply not in the IQ race at all.

Zoom range:
SX50HS: 50x, 24mm-1200mm equivalent field of view. The built in Digital Tel-converters at 1.5 and 2x provide acceptable results (especially for tel-macro where detail floods the sensor) out to 1800 and 2400mm equivalent. DTC can be applied anywhere in the zoom range, and is actually useful in macros to give large scale at reasonable working distances.
SX60HS: 65x, 21-1365mm equivalent. The Digital Tel-Converters here are 1.6x and 2x, but, since base IQ is less, they do not produce as satisfying results.
HX400V: 50x, 24mm-1200mm equivalent. Clear Image Zoom extends the range at the long end of the zoom out to 2400mm and provides very good results.

Lens speed (wide, telephoto):
SX50HS: f3.2-f6.5
SX60HS: f3.4-f6.5
HX400V: f2.8-f6.3

Though the Sony is the fastest (brightest) lens, it is not by much. None of these cameras are low-light specialists. Still they are adequate for most outdoor work, and all have special digital trickery built in to handle low light and indoor settings. And honestly, where are you going to find a faster 1200-1365mm lens for any camera? f6.3-f6.5 at those focal lengths is actually pretty fast, especially considering the light efficiency of the small P&S sensors.

Focus Speed and accuracy:
SX50HS: quite fast, and quite positive. Seeks in low light and sometimes does not find focus. Seeks in macro, and sometimes focuses on background.
SX60HS: as fast as the SX50HS, but not, perhaps, as accurate. Lots of shots are just a little off. More testing is needed.
HX400V: fast and accurate. Some seeking in low light and macro, but the hybrid focus (auto with manual assist using the excellent fly by wire collar on the lens) makes it easy to acquire correct focus in even the most difficult situations.

Both Canons also have a manual focus mode, but it is so difficult to use that it is pretty much useless.

Image Stabilization:
SX50HS: great! Allows for sharp shots, handheld, at full telephoto and even using the digital tel-converter…as well as in low light.
SX60HS: much the same.
HX400V: excellent, even better than the SX50HS, especially while framing the shot at full telephoto.

I have total confidence in the IS on the Sony HX400V. There is no situation where I feel a tripod is needed.

Macro:
Both the Canon’s have a dedicated Macro Mode. The Sony has macro focusing as part of its normal focus range. (In Auto and Program, the Canons will behave just as the Sony does and focus at macro distances without turning on Macro Mode. Macro mode is intentionally biased for close subjects…so focus may be quicker.)
SX50HS: focus to 0 in. at 24mm equivalent. Goes immediately to 1.1 in. as soon as you touch the zoom lever, and stays there until about 35mm equivalent. Goes to 1.9 in. until you reach 100mm, then jumps to 11.8 inches. You can only focus to 19.6 inches below 200mm where it jumps to 27 inches to Infinity. It quickly goes to 3.2 ft., 4.5 ft., 6.5ft. It drops back to 4.9 ft. at about 1000mm, and reaches 4.2 ft. again at 1200mm.
SX60HS: focus to 0 in. at 21mm equivalent. Jump immediately to 1.1 to 19.6 in. but stays there until you reach 200mm equivalent, where it goes to 3.9 in. At just beyond 300mm equivalent it jumps to 27 in. to infinity. From there it increases steadily to 6.2 feet just short of 1200mm and then drops back to 5.9 ft. at full zoom.
HX400V: focus to .4 in at 24mm equivalent. 1.2 in. at 50mm, 2 in. at 85mm, 6 in. at 135mm, 11.4 in. at 200mm, 27.6 in. at 400mm, 5.2 ft. at 600mm and 7.9 ft. at full zoom.

As you can clearly see, if you are into macro, the SX60HS is a great camera. Macros flood the sensor with detail, and you will get amazing results from 1.1 inches at 200mm equivalent field of view. The tel-macros on the SX50HS from 4.2 feet at 1200mm (or even 1800mm using the DTC) are totally amazing. The Sony makes up somewhat for lacking a true tel-macro with its higher pixel count and good IQ, both of which allow for pretty heavy cropping when you need it. On the other hand, the macros from 2 inches at 85mm are simply stunning!

High Speed Continuous Shooting:
SX50HS: 13 fps in dedicated High Speed mode for 10 shots. 3+ frames per second in regular continuous mode, with focus locked on the first frame, up to 24 shots. Less than 1 fps with focus between frames. Sports mode seems to break the rules and gives something over 3 fps with focus between frames, bot only in Standard resolution (not Fine).
SX60HS: as above, 6.4 fps continuous until the buffer fills, then progressively slower. Focus locked on first shot. Slower in low light. Moving the camera (as in panning to follow a moving subject) seems to fill the buffer faster. The finders is refreshed after each shot, beginning with about the 3rd shot, so you can see what you are following. 3.4 fps is set to focus between frames. There is evidently a third mode at 4.3 fps (LV: but I have not found what LV means in the manual yet).
HX400V: High speed: 10 fps for 10 frames. One press of the shutter shoots all 10 frames. Low: 2 fps. It is difficult to shoot less than 3 frames. The camera focuses between frames and the viewfinder is refreshed. However all shots are held in a buffer, then displayed to the LCD or finder as a group, then written to the card. It takes a few seconds between bursts for the buffer to clear. Sports mode on the Sony does not break any rules, and you are limited to the Low setting for continuous shooting.

In practice, I find that 13 fps, or 10, is simply too fast. You end up with 10 essentially identical images, and since focus locks on the first frame, if the first one is out of focus, they all are. 🙁 2-3 fps is fine for most bird and wildlife action, and focus between frames is essential. Of course. your needs may differ. All in all, the SX60HS is pretty clearly the winner here.

Electronic View Finder:
SX50HS: adequate (but just)
SX60HS: quite good. Higher resolution and contrast than either of the others. Colors a bit off, well on the warm side, but a real pleasure to use.
HX400V: adequate (but just). I have slightly more difficulty with this EVF in critical situations (like finding a bird in a bush or tree) than I do with the SX50HS.

For wildlife photography, a good EVF is essential. None of these match the EVF on the Olympus Mirrorless Compact DSLRs, but they get the job done. And the EVF on the SX60HS comes very close to the Mirrorless standard.

LCD:
All three are sharp and bright enough for daylight use. The SX60HS is the brightest and sharpest.
SX50 and 60HS: fully articulated, swings out and around to the side and rotates 180 degrees.
HX400V: semi-articulated. Pulls out and rotates about 90 degrees, 45 up and 45 down.

For me an articulated LCD is essential for macro and low angle landscape work. Both designs work here, but the Canon design is superior.

Controls and layout:
SX50HS: I have used this camera for two years so I am well used to where things are. There is a button for almost everything you might want quick access to, and one programmable custom button that you can reach with your left thumb. The controls are large enough for average hands. The thumb wheel surrounding the 5 way rocker control on the back of the camera can be awkward but is usable.
SX60HS: The 5 way rocker control on the back is very difficult to use without looking and the rockers are very small and too flush with the surface for my fingers. I may get used to it, but it is awkward. There is no ISO control button and the exposure compensation button has been moved off the rockers to a separate button above and to the left. The programmable shortcut button has been moved to the top where it is reached by your shutter finger. The thumb wheel has been moved from surrounding the 5 way rocker to an actual wheel immediately behind the shutter release. This means that you can NOT operate it with your finger on the shutter release as it requires that finger to turn it. Awkward! On the other hand, it is very handy for changing the primary settings in each Mode. For instance in Shutter Preferred Mode it controls shutter speed. Canon missed, in my opinion two good options for this wheel in standard Program mode. It ought to either control manual focus (ideally a manual focus assist for Auto), or Program Shift.
HX400V: Controls are well placed and large enough for most fingers. The rocker buttons on the 5 way control have a raised edge and are very easy to use. There is one programmable custom button immediately behind the shutter release and a function button to the left of it. The function button pulls up a programmable on-screen menu of the most used settings for the mode you are in. Selections are made using the center button on the 5 way rocker and adjustments are made using the excellent thumb wheel, which is ideally placed under your right thumb. (It is possible to turn this wheel unintentionally while handling the camera, but a little care solves the problem). All in all,  excellent controls and layout.

The one thing all these cameras lack is touch screen control. This is surprising in cameras at this price level. An intelligent touch screen would improve usability.

In-camera HDR:
SX50HS: three exposures, adjustable for exposure spread and center, with “creative filters” (oops, I made a lair of myself…but I don’t use them). The three exposures take significant time, so a tripod is absolutely necessary. Results are good if you set it up right. Any movement at all results in ghosting or misaligned images.
SX60HS: three exposures, not adjustable, with creative filters. Results: not so great. The range is extended, but all fine detail is lost, and detail over all is smudged. Useless.
HX400V: excellent three exposures, adjustable for spread and center. Creative filters (Picture effects) available, as well as the full range of Sony Creative Styles (Vivid, Portrait, Landscape, Sunset, etc. (By the way, each of these Creative Styles has separate settings to adjust the Contrast, Saturation, and Sharpness of the image, giving you a lot of control over how the jpeg is rendered in the camera, not only in HDR mode, but in standard Program as well 🙂 I plan to “tune” my settings on the HX400V to see if I can achieve a more subtle rendering of color tones. )

I find in-camera HDR to be a big help with dramatic landscapes…big skies, etc. Of these three, only the Sony has a really effective in-camera HDR mode, and it produces files that can be easily tweaked in Lightroom for natural look I prefer. Post.

Panorama
SX50HS: Stitch assist panorama in any direction. Display allows you to overlap three or more separate exposures or stitching later in software.
SX60HS: NONE!
HX400V: two different (wide and standard) sweep panorama modes. Images are created seamlessly as you sweep the camera across the scene in any direction, in either portrait or landscape orientation. Such fun! And don’t forget to try vertical panoramas with the camera sweeping down. Post.

Considering that Sweep Panorama is built into $200 Point & Shoots these days (phones even), it is, in my opinion, inexcusable that Canon did not implement it in the SX60HS. Sony was the first to implement sweep panorama in a P&S, and their mode is still the best!

Sports Mode:
If you shoot birds or bugs in flight, you are going to be interested in the Sports Mode on these cameras. Sports Mode is optimized for rapidly moving subjects.

SX50HS: excellent. Locks on to moving subjects and tracks them, even after the shutter is pressed. Follow focus as long as the subject is near the center of the finder. Only focuses to 49 feet at the long end of the zoom, closer in at below 600mm.  About 4 fps.
SX60HS: the same.
HX400V: large center focus rectangle picks up whatever is moving closest to center and tracks focus. 2 fps or 10 fps.

I have shot dragonflies in the air with the Sports Mode on the Sony, and many many birds in flight with the SX50HS. It is amazing that you can do either with a P&S! I plan a post of birds in flight in November when I next visit Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and have lots of cooperative subjects. 🙂

Processing Customization:
Both the SX50HS and SX60HS shoot in both RAW and jpeg, or RAW and jpeg. That gives you a lot of control over how the image is processed after the fact. The Sony only shoots in jpeg, but gives you a lot of control over how the image is processed in camera. The Sony Creative Styles, as noted above under HDR, provide 7 different processing programs, each of which can be individually adjusted for Contrast, Saturation, and Sharpness. Your adjustment are remembered so in Program, you can have 7 individually tailored processing options. Changing Creative Style on the fly is easy, using the function button for quick access. You can also set a customized Creative Style in both of the Memory Modes. I am just beginning to play with customizing my Creative Styles, but I believe that this kind of control in-camera makes not having RAW much less of an issue.

To finish, I will give you my likes and dislikes for the Canon SX60HS and the Sony HX400V.

Canon SX60HS:

Like

  • excellent EVF
  • great macro
  • usable continuous shot
  • sports mode for birds in flight

Dislike

  • Image Quality overall
  • Poor HDR
  • No panorama
  • Difficult wifi setup

Sony HX400V

Like:

  • good to excellent image quality
  • great HDR mode
  • great sweep panorama
  • auto focus with manual assist using focusing collar on lens!
  • sports mode for birds in flight
  • easy wifi setup
  • ability to tune jpeg processing in camera

Dislike

  • awkward, annoying continuous shot mode