An Update on Brazil’s Pantanal

Young female jaguar in Pantanal.

I’ve traveled to the Brazil’s Pantanal region several times to photograph jaguars, Toco toucans, giant anteaters, and other amazing wildlife. This part of the world reminds me to Tanzania. There’s wildlife at every turn and the photo opportunities are amazing.

During the summer of 2020 we started seeing news reports in the US about the horrible fires in the Pantanal. One especially heartbreaking photo showed a jaguar rescued from the flames in a rehab facility with bandaged paws.

Fellow photographers were sending me links to news reports. So I thought I’d send an email to Charles Munn, founder and owner of SouthWild. SouthWild is the tour company Strabo Photo Tour Collections uses to coordinate all my trips to Pantanal.

Here’s the update Charles Munn sent about the Pantanal:

The pantanal is half the size of California.
It is and always has been a fire-adapted ecosystem, designed to have periodic dry season fires, originally set by lightning prior to humans arriving 12,000 years ago, and then set every year or two or five by humans.
The plants and animals evolved with periodic, widespread fires, for perhaps 100,000 years.
The Pantanal had a longer, drier dry season this year than any time in the last 47 years.  The extra dry year and the fires set by some ranchers here and there have caused about 25% of the Pantanal to burn.  By early October, the fires were done and the first rains have started, thankfully.
“A report from 3 weeks ago from two naturalist guides at different times in different boats ..(the guides who have guided for SouthWild) said that they racked up 18 good Jaguar sightings in a week. That is a high or extra high number of sightings.   Yet another colleague had 11 Jaguar sightings in 2 days.  All of these Jaguar results involved NO assistance from radio calls from other boats, because the pandemic has reduced boats in Jaguarland to the point where there is no radio system this season.
There was a lot of fire in the heart of Jaguarland in August and September, but it is done now, and all of these Jaguar reports have come from AFTER the fires were over.
None of our lodges in the Pantanal has had its birding trails or lodges affected by the fires. There were some fires near SWP lodge, but the fire was kept out of the forests that we use for birding.
As tragic as the fires have been, they now are done, and it would appear that things will look pretty normal normal next year, that is assuming that rains that have started in Oct will intensify in Nov and continue for the normal rainy months of Dec, Jan, Feb, March.

Charles Munn

“One more detail I should make clear:
Most of Pantanal is …seasonally flooded (and then seasonally dried out) grasses..
not forest
for decades, perhaps millennia, the Three Brothers River in the heart of Jaguarland has a thin ribbon of forest along 80% of the riverbank, and just grasses along the remaining 20%.
where there is forest along the riverbank, it averages only 20 meters wide….almost nothing…..
and in many places it is only 10 meters wide
and then all the rest of the habitat behind this narrow gallery forest…for km and km…. is …grass…..
Therefore, the fires were worse this year than in decades, but the Pantanal is designed to survive and bounce back from fire.

Charles Munn

I hope Charles’s information adds to what you’ve read or seen in the US news. My hope is to one day return to the Pantanal and enjoy the fabulous photography and people in that area of the world.

My Photos From Pantanal if you’d like to take a look.

Canon R5 Mirrorless — Focus Stacking

Here’s another test of the Canon R5’s focus stacking. My more detailed post on Focus Stacking for Focus Bracketing can be found here.

Blend of 10 images merged together in Photoshop to get the entire set of blooms in focus.

Here’s a view of my menu setting for this series of photos.

Canon, Olympus, and other mirrorless systems have focus stacking. Here’s my review of focus stacking using Olympus.

So far, the Canon R5 has impressed me with its focus bracketing. I can’t wait to get out and work with it on different subjects.

Have you worked with Focus Stacking or Focus Bracketing on your camera? Results? I’d love to hear from you.

Canon R5 Mirrorless — Focus Stacking or Bracketing

Photographers have fought against depth-of-field since the beginning. To get more depth of field, we have to use a smaller aperture and that means a slower shutter speed. It’s just the way photography works.

For years, we’ve been able to take photos of a subject, focus in different places, and then blend those photos later to increase our depth-of-field. Then about 10 years ago camera manufacturers started putting focus stacking in the camera. Today, Canon calls it focus bracketing in the Canon R5.

To activate focus bracketing on the R5, go to Shooting Menu 5. The menu then offers options such as how many photos to take and how far to focus into the scene.

A little icon shows on the shooting screen while Focus Bracketing is active. Push the shutter button and the camera rapidly fires a series of photos. It doesn’t blend the photos in camera but provides the RAW files for blending later. I use Photoshop to do my blending. (Instructions are below.)

Notice the tiny imperfections in the photo on the left. Look closely at the tails. See the little blue highlights? That’s where the birds moved their tails. Focus bracketing doesn’t work well on moving subjects.

My instructions for blending a focus bracket (1) Open all the photos in Photoshop in a Layer. In Bridge, highlight the photos then select Tools>Photoshop>Load Files into Photoshop Layers. In Lightroom, highlight the photos then select Photo>Edit In>Open in Layers in Photoshop; (2) Select all the photos once they are in the Layers Pallette; (3) Select Edit>Auto Align; (4) Select Edit>Auto Blend, (5) Select Layer>Flatten.

I suggest you focus a bit closer than needed for your first photo of the series. That way you get some foreground in focus.

Have you tried focus stacking or focus bracketing? Success?

Canon R5 — First Impression

Canon R5 photo taken at 1/40 of a second shutter speed, f/4, ISO 1600, hand held. See below for 100% enlargement.

A RAW file that is a whooping 51MB to 54MB! That’s huge.

Let Me Concentrate on the Body:

On/Off switch is on the top left. Perfect placement for left thumb activation.

View finder is incredibly bright.

With meter balanced, I love that the viewfinder lightens and darkens as the camera is pointed at lighter and darker areas.

If you are too close to focus on your subject, there are tiny, thin orange lines along each corner of the viewfinder. Those lines turn white when the subject is close enough to focus on.

Focus indicator boxes are blue in Servo and green when the camera is set to One Shot. I don’t often shoot in One Shot but this is a nice visual reminder for those who move between the two auto focus modes.

The icons for front dial or back dial are visible through the viewfinder. These are visible as well on the back of the camera if using live view.

M-Fn button on the top right front just like in the 5D Mark IV. Push the M-Fn button, and you can quickly change ISO, white balance, drive, focus, or exposure compensation. Click the M-Fn button with the tip of your finger, lean the finger over, and rotate the quick dial on the front. Simple to change often used items. All this can be seen through the viewfinder without taking your eye off the subject.

M-Fn button and other controls on the top of the Canon R5.

ISO is also adjustable with the back Quick Control Dial 2. I loved the ISO button on the 5D Mark IV and the 1DX. It was so easy to access. The adjustment via the Quick Control Dial 2 looks just as easy. Remember, we can also change ISO with M-Fn button.

Menu layout is exactly the same as we’ve seen on Canon cameras from the Rebel to the 5D Mark IV to the D1X. There are 30 menu items plus the green My Menu favorite.

Multi-controller button (little toggle joy stick) on the back is like the one on other Canon cameras. Lots of functions depending on what you’re doing with the camera. Convenient for my thumb on the back of the camera.

The rear focus button is right next to the multi-controller. Ergonomically, this is the right position for my hand.

The top display panel has basic information when shooting. Mode, battery level, f/stop, ISO, shutter speed, ISO are all there on top. Press the Illumination Button, though, and lots of icons appear. One glance and I can see AF mode, drive mode, white balance, release mode, meter mode, picture style, and recording card. Icons, of course, because the space is small but everything I need to know when shooting.

There’s a new “Control Ring” on the front of RF lenses. Rotate it and nothing happens. Rotate it while holding the shutter button half-way down and I can change the exposure compensation. Of course, the Control Ring is customizable.

Control ring on the front of the 24-105mm RF lens

The INFO button on the back of the camera has moved to the right of the rear display screen. Easy to access with your right thumb. Press the INFO button once for classic display screen, press again for live-view screen, press again for live-view with icons, press again for live-view with level and histogram, press again for uncluttered clean screen for live-view.

Classic display screen that’s familiar to those using Canon Rebel, 7D, 5D, and 1D models.

In one of those live-view screens, press the Q button and all the common icons show on the back of the camera for easy changing.

Live view screen with icons accessible by the Q button.

Touch screen on the back of the camera is activated with the Q button, too.

Video is activated with the touch of a button. Push the red button with your shutter finger and video is on. This is a great improvement over the twist lever and push on the Canon 1Dx and the Canon 5D Mark IV.

The R5 has in-body image stabilization. We’ve seen this in other mirrorless cameras but it’s a first most Canon cameras. This means we can hand-hold the camera and shot at lower shutter speeds. See below — I enlarge the file to 100% using 1/40th of a second shutter speed and ISO 1600.

100% enlargement at ISO 1600 and 1/40 shutter speed hand held. Should be grainy and blurry but it’s not.

Thanks to Hunt’s Photo & Video for getting this camera and lens to me. I know equipment is in short supply so my sincere thanks.

Perseid Meteor Shower

The Perseid meteor shower takes place in 2020 between July 17 and August 24th. The peak numbers of meteors can be seen August 11-13th as the earth moves through the debris of the Swift-Tuttle comet. It’s possible to see up to 50 meteors an hour during the Perseids.

Personally, I’ve been jinxed by cloud cover, bright skies, etc., during this meteor shower but I’m going out one more time to watch and photograph.

Basic things to know and keep in mind:

  1. The meteors come from the NE but you’ll capture longer streaks if the camera is positioned a bit more toward the west.
  2. The moon comes up a bit after midnight during the peak so it will light the sky and foreground. Use that to your advantage.
  3. Camera setting are important. Get things right.
    • Camera in the Manual Mode
    • Wide-open aperture so f/2.8 or f/1.4
    • Shutter speed set so you get pinpoint stars based on your lens. The formula is 500/(mm of lens x crop factor). Remembering basic arithmetic, that would be 500/16 for a 10mm lens on a camera with a 1.6 cropped sensor or 31 seconds. I know your eyes just glazed over, I’m sorry, but if you do that wrong you’ll be 80 seconds. Same formula for a 14mm lens on a full-frame sensor camera would be 500/14=35 seconds. Do a test, though. I use 20 seconds with my 14mm lens so the stars at the edge of the frame don’t streak. There’s an example below so you can see what I mean.
    • ISO in the 800, 1600, or 2000 range. Take test shots and monitor. Once the moon rises in the sky, you might need to lower the ISO.
    • Camera on a sturdy tripod.
    • Focus on infinity. Canon lenses focus on infinity when the tiny white lines on the barrel of the lens are aligned. Nikon and other lenses focus on infinity when the line is aligned with the middle of the infinity symbol. Test this during the day to see if it hold true for your lens. Test again at night by enlarging one of your photos to make sure the stars are tightly focused.
    • Shutter release in the locked position will take photo after photo for hours. Your reflexes are not fast enough to catch the meteors. Let the shutter release do the work for you. Delete the photos that don’t have a meteor.
    • Turn off long-exposure noise reduction.
    • Make sure your batteries are charged and you have several batteries.
    • Make sure your memory card is clean when you start because you’re going to take a lot of photos during the night.
  4. Remember to have your reading glasses if you need them to set your camera.
  5. Remember to have a head lamp or flashlight. A red filter is good for your eyes but it’s hard to remove that red light from your photo if needed. I use a regular flashlight that’s not super bright.
  6. Bring a chair so you can sit down and relax.

Nice, bright meteor overhead but the camera wasn’t focused. Jinxed!!
Two meteors in the pre-dawn sky with the Milky Way.
Nice pinpoint stars in the sky with a tiny meteor at upper center. Light from nearby towns on the horizon.
Meteor from the Perseid shower in the pre-dawn sky. Notice that the stars toward the edge of the frame are nice and sharp.
Comparison of two images. Left shows streaked stars toward the edge of the frame. Shutter speed was too slow. Right shows nice pinpoint stars along the edge of the frame. Shutter speed was right for the lens.

Good luck and have fun!

Adobe 2020

Adobe updates Photoshop, Bridge, Adobe Camera Raw, and Lightroom periodically. Most of the time the updates are small and occasionally they are big and monumental.

We got a big update recently with Adobe Bridge 2020 and Camera Raw 12.3. It’s always fun to see what new, major changes are under the hood.

I was processing photos today and thought I’d see if Adobe’s HDR had been improved when compared with Aurora from Skylum or Nik’s HDR.

Over the years, Adobe’s HDR hasn’t been very good compared with Nik’s or Aurora. Adobe Camera Raw 12.3 is almost where it needs to be but still not quite.

Here’s my test:

Noto, Sicily, Italy, photographed with the sky and highlights perfectly exposed. The shadows were brought out with the shadow slider in Adobe Camera Raw 12.3.
Noto, Sicily; Italy. Same scene but a blend of seven images. The images were photographed at 3-stops under, 2-stops under, 1-stop under, perfectly exposed, 1-stop over, 2-stops over, and 3-stops over exposed. The images were blended in NIK Efex Pro 2 HDR software.
Noto, Sicily; Italy. The same seven images are above. The images were blended in Skylum’s Aurora HDR 2017 software.

I like the RAW image but also like the Nik HDR image.

What do you think?

Super Macro During the Time of Covid

Nature does not stop during this time of Covid-19. I was self-isolating and working in my garden when a monarch butterfly flew by me and laid eggs on a nearby milkweed plant. The eggs were so small that it was hard to show them of my husband and my neighbor.

My husband, Gary Clark, decided to write about monarch butterflies for his weekly Nature column in the Houston Chronicle. I provide the photos for his articles so that meant I needed to take a picture of the extremely tiny monarch eggs.

Plan 1 —

I started the process of photographing the monarch egg by bringing the pot with milkweed inside.

For my first try, I used a 70-200mm lens with a Movo reversing adapter. This allows you to put your lens on backwards and shoot through the end of the lens that usually attaches to the camera.

Reversing the lens allows you to focus close and get higher magnification.

In this photo you see a flash on the left, flower pot with the milkweed, an artifical background held in place with a Wimberley plamp, milkweed held in place with another Wimberley plamp, and the camera lens.

The egg is not big enough and focusing is hard so I have to try something different.

Plan 2 —

I leave the Wimberley plamps in place and the flash in place.

I change the lens to a Canon 24-105mm lens. This is not a “high magnification” lens but I’m going to make it one.

I add a 12mm extension tube and a Canon 500D close-up lens. This is a filter and not a lens. It goes on the front of the lens and allows you to focus super close.

Here’s an blog post I wrote about this combination.

Monarch eggs with Canon 24-105mm lens with 12mm extension tube to allow me to focus closer. A Canon 500D close-up filter is added to the front of the lens to allow me to get even closer.

Plan 3 — The egg is not as big as I want. I can see the ridges on the egg but I want to get closer.

I contact Camera Lens Rental and order the Canon MP-E 65mm macro lens.

This is not your ordinary macro lens. It’s a speciality lens that will photograph from 1:1 life size to 5-times life size.

1:1 life size means the subject is the same size in life as it is on a full-frame sensor.

5-times life size means the subject is five times as big on a full-frame sensor as it is in real life.

Depth-of-field is super narrow even at f/16. A focusing rail in needed to ensure the subject is in focus. (Note: One more thing to buy.)

Same monarch egg at 5x life size. Not cropped.
Canon MP-E 65mm macro lens, 250 shutter, f/16, ISO 400, three flashes at -2.3 powers

The photo above is what I had in mind when I started this project. I just needed the right equipment to capture my vision.

Final equipment list for one monarch egg: Canon 5D Mark IV, MeFoto Globetrotter tripod, Neewer Pro 4 Way Focusing Rail Slider, Canon MP-E 65mm lens, two light stands, three Wimberley plamps, two Canon 220 mini flashes, one Canon ST-R2 Speedlight transmitter.

Thanks to the folks at Camera Lens Rental for getting the lens to me so fast and for being open in the Covid-19 lock-down.

Do I Need to Learn Photoshop?

Photoshop came first from Adobe.
Everything that any creative person needed in one place.

The Photoshop program is becoming less and less needed.  At one time, all the tools were in Photoshop.  

Then Adobe made Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) and moved Photoshop’s photography tools into sliders.  We had everything we needed to process our photos in one place.  Adobe gave us Bridge as a “light table” where we could layout all our photos and work with them.

Then Adobe made Elements and put photography tools into sliders.  

Then Lightroom came along from Adobe

Then Adobe made Lightroom and put those same photography tools into sliders.  Lightroom took the Bridge concept to a new level.  Lightroom’s Library is a database so you can layout lots of photos from different folders onto a “light table” and work with them.

Lightroom’s Library is super-powerful and super-complicated.  I recommend the Scott Kelby book to learn and understand Library.  Life gets complicated when you update computers, work on two external hard drives, merge or split catalogues, etc.  Sometimes you have to call in an expert because the Library is a mess.

Thanks to Adobe we have three programs to process our photos.  

·         Bridge/Adobe Camera Raw, 

·         Elements, or 

·         Lightroom.  

The one you choose is up to you.  Bridge/Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom do exactly the same thing when it comes to processing.  The difference is interface.  

Bridge/Adobe Camera Raw lets you file your photos the way you want.  

Lightroom files your photos for you and you need to understand what it’s doing.  Hence the need for Scott Kelby’s book, lots of online videos, The Lightroom Queen, etc.  I tell people on my workshops “I will not help you find your lost photos in Lightroom.  I will help you process your photos in Lightroom.”  If you use Lightroom, take time to understand the Library feature.  In my experience, this happens in only 25% of Lightroom users.  

Personally, I find the Bridge/Adobe Camera Raw combination easier to use.  I copy my pictures from my card to a folder under My Pictures, open Bridge, go to that folder, start processing.  Simple and easy.  The 25% who understand Lightroom’s Library say the same thing about Lightroom.  (The Lightroom versus Adobe Camera Raw argument is amazing among photographers.  More powerful than Mac vs. PC or Canon vs. Nikon.)

But what about Photoshop?  Photoshop has Layers and we still occasionally need layers.  There are still photographers who use layers to make vignettes even though we have a slider for vignette in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw.  There are still photographers who use Layers to open shadows despite the great shadow slider in Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom.  

Layers in Photoshop are needed for a lot of advanced processing.  Merging star trails, for example.  Merging lightning strikes for a more dramatic photo, for example.  Photos with light painting need layers.  We can make a mat for our photos in Layers.  Good stuff happens in Layers and we can only get that in Photoshop.  

At one time, we could only get panoramas with Layers.  Now we have a feature in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw for that.   

I’ll offer a Photoshop Layers class in the coming weeks.  Layers is a powerful tool but has a steep learning curve.  I’m not a master but know how to get what I need – most of the time. 

Check out my class schedule at www.kathyadamsclark.com

Great Costa Rican Adventure

My husband and I have been taking birding/photography groups to Costa Rica since 2004. We’ve used Strabo Tours for each of these as well as a local Costa Rican tour company and our local guide, Willy Alfaro. The same operators and guides for every trip. We change the locations and time of year, and that changes the birds. Each trip is the same but each is different.

Our March 2020 trip was to the northern reaches of Costa Rica. We began in Liberia in the state of Guanacaste and ended in San Jose in the center of the country.

Our first lodge was in the hills of the Rincón de la Vieja volcano. The habitat was officially dry forest but the grounds were lush and filled with birds. Temps were in the 80s but we were plagued by misty rain. This gave us amazing rainbows but made photography a challenge.

Birds on the grounds included crested guan, white-throated magpie-jay, black-headed trogon, Garter trogon, keel-billed toucan, and turquoise-browed motmot. Those were the big, colorful birds. We didn’t overlook social flycatcher, summer tanager, western tanager, and other small but important birds.

We spent two nights at this location, then packed and drove past the Miravalles Volcano to the Rio Celeste. A stop along the way at Celeste Mountain Lodge gave us a chance to eat lunch and photograph birds at the feeders. Yellow-throated euphonia, scarlet-rumped tanagers, palm tanagers, and others gave the group new birds.

Our lodging in this area put the group in an unexpectedly luxurious eco-lodge. My room had a private outdoor terrace, a private outdoor shower on the other end, an indoor shower big enough for a football team, luxurious bathroom, and amazingly comfortable beds.

Bird feeders on the grounds attracted buff-throated saltator, Montezuma oropendola, and others. Overhead, we photographed swallow-tailed kites during a morning walk. After a nice mid-morning hike, we got to photograph the turquoise-colored Rio Celeste.

After two night, we packed-up and drove to the Arenal volcano area. Along the way we stopped at Danaus Nature Center to photograph two-toed sloth, white-nosed coati, boat-billed heron, and other things. The group was not ready to leave but our hotel for the night held lots of photo opportunities.

Arenal Volcano in the La Fortuna region of Costa Rica.

We maximized our time in the Arenal area but packed again to drive to Maquenque Eco-lodge near the Nicaraguan border.

Maquenque is a destination that nearly overwhelmed the group. Feeders near the dining room attracted many birds we’d already photographed but then there were new birds. Brown-headed parrot was the star and a lifer for me. All three honeycreepers — red-legged, green, and sparkling — came into the feeders frequently. Amazon kingfisher, great egret, purple gallinule and northern jacana frequented the property’s marshy pond.

After two nights, the tour headed a bit south to the Sarapiqui area. This is a favorite location for bird photography and our main stop was Dave & Dave’s Nature Park. Dave and Dave (father and son) have built a location where birds land on natural perches to feed on native fruits. The photo opportunities are amazing.

Two visits to Dave & Dave’s gave us a chance to photograph different perching birds plus several hummingbirds. The group was exhausted but still managed to eat amazing TexMex food before heading across the mountains to San Jose.

We gave the group one last stop while driving through the mountains. A small roadside coffee shop has a balcony overlooking a lush tropical valley. Feeders attracted mountain birds including Emerald toucanet, black guan, and a little Tennessee warbler. Hummingbirds feeders let us photograph green hermit, coppery-headed emerald, and violet saberwing.

As we cruised into San Jose for our last night in Costa Rica, the group was happy but a bit anxious. Corona Virus was in the news back in the United States. We’d experienced great bird and wonderful lodges. Our memories will always be enhanced thanks to the 500 or so pictures we took each day.

We’ll do this route again in March 2021. Details are on the Strabo Photo Tour website.