With quite a few sunny days recently, it was a good time to capture some winter wildlife at our local, rocky cove. As well as the assortment of gulls and smaller coastal birds, we’ve seen Kestrels, Cormorants, Gannets, Curlew, Little Egrets and Oystercatchers so far, plus the occasional Grey Seal at high tide. A pair of Kestrels is nearly always hunting over the cliff tops, but never when I have my D500 and 200-500mm f/5.6 lens with me!
These two images show a pair of Little Egrets (Egretta garzetta) and a group of Oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus). Both sets of birds are very jumpy, meaning that you can’t get very close to them at all, and once they flee, they don’t come back for an hour, or more. They both seem to feed on things in the washed-up kelp, around the high tide mark.
When it’s very sunny (EV15), you can use 1/1,000s, f/5.6 and still get the native ISO of 100. Once it gets overcast though, at around EV12, you need to boost the ISO to at least 800, which clearly loses some quality and generates more noise. The two Egrets were taken at 500mm, 1/800s, f/5.6 and ISO 400 (as the afternoon sun was starting to go down), whereas the group of Oystercatchers was taken when it was slightly brighter at 330mm, 1/800s, f/5.6 and ISO 180. I use Auto-ISO for these wildlife shots, as it allows you to control the aperture and the shutter speed, leaving only the ISO to be determined by the camera. Normally for all my other photos, I use Manual for everything, but with the need to take pictures potentially very quickly, the Auto-ISO is a great tool for wildlife. Obviously, I always use back-button focussing with the AF-ON button.
1/500s is a bit slow for most images, whereas speeds of 1/1,600s or more are only really needed for birds in flight – so, I tend to use 1/800s or 1/1,000s. Strictly, the VR should probably only be used when the speeds are lower than 1/500s and should definitely not be used at 1/1,600s or more. However, I find that the VR still works well at those intermediate speeds of 1/800s or 1/1,000s, even when using a monopod, which I often do. 3.5kg of camera and lens is tricky to hold still for any length of time!
The skies are darker here than in London, but surprisingly, not as dark as you would think – there are still enough major towns around to give some light pollution. Still, this time of year is great for viewing the asterism known as the Winter Hexagon or Winter Circle on a clear winter’s evening. It covers a big expanse of the sky, over six constellations, ranging from the horizon to almost straight up. This was the view from our garden last night – the waxing gibbous moon was also out (and at 85% illumination), which doesn’t help in viewing the stars, of course, but it does add some drama to the image though.
The six stars that make up the Winter Hexagon are:
1. Bottom, slightly right - Sirius, the Dog Star in Canis Major – the brightest star in the night sky;
2. Lower right - Rigel, the bottom right star in Orion - 7th brightest star, which is slightly blue;
3. Upper right, just below the moon - Aldebaran in Taurus, which is definitely orange;
4. Top, slightly left - Capella, the Goat Star in Auriga, which was almost straight upwards - 6th brightest star;
5. Middle left - Pollux lower down (paired with its twin, Castor, directly above it) in Gemini, which is slightly yellow; and
6. Lower left - Procyon in Canis Minor – the 8th brightest star.
Another asterism, the Winter Triangle is also clear - Procyon, Sirius and Betelgeuse forming an equilateral triangle. Betelgeuse is the top left star in Orion and is definitely red, while also being the 10th brightest star. Betelgeuse is a red supergiant that is likely to explode as a supernova shortly, i.e. within the next 100,000 years, by which time we’ll be able to see it on Earth during the daytime for several weeks, but as we’ll most likely also be experiencing the next Ice Age, we’ll be under 1km of ice! It’s Beetle Juice, of course, not Betel Gerz. Just above the moon, in the top right corner, you can also easily see Pleiades - a cluster of seven hot, blue stars, aka The Seven Sisters.
I started off using my 24mm f/1.8 wide angle prime lens on the D810, but the hexagon only just fits in the frame and it is very difficult to ensure that all the correct stars are in place. It’s quite soft wide open and so for night shots, I always use it at f/4. However, in the end I switched to my 16-35mm f/4 to get a wider angle for a single shot, and then used this at 19mm and f/5.6, where the image quality is just as good – although it does need the exposure to be bumped up a bit.
I usually use a 15s exposure on my 24mm prime, but increased it here to 25s on the zoom lens, using the 500-rule (exposure = 500/focal length) - anything longer generates much more noticeable star trails. You’re then left to adjust the ISO to suit. For very dark skies at EV-6, you might well need to use ISO 6,400, while normally out in the country at EV-4, you would use ISO 1,600, but with the moon out too, the best exposure was at ISO 800.
It is quite difficult to focus on individual stars, even with Live View – so, you just need to ensure that you have focussed on something more than about 5m away, as the hyperfocal distance at f/5.6 is only about 3m. Best to be safe and use something at least 100m away.
In Lightroom, the optimum WB was at 5,000K and you then have to really boost all the other settings to get a more powerful picture, with higher levels of contrast, clarity, sharpening and noise reduction to suit. I’ll try it again in a few weeks’ time, when the moon is not around to wash out the stars as much – but it does need a clear night as well, of which there have been very few recently!
Porthleven is one of the classic storm locations in Cornwall, where the huge surf can be very spectacular, especially when it crashes over the harbour church and clock tower at high tide - although it’s not actually a church, but the Bickford-Smith Institute. We had been there during the last named storm, Storm Barra in nearly December, but the tide was low at the time. So, we went back just after Xmas, on a very windy day at high tide – it wasn’t a named storm but the waves were enormous. The steep beach at Porthleven seems to really increase the height of the waves here.
The waves were not quite crashing over the Institute, but they were having a good go at the harbour pier and the main beach defences. The morning was beautifully bright and clear, and this first image was of one of the many huge waves bashing the end of the pier - this was taken at 62mm on my 24-70mm f/2.8 using ISO 80, f/10 and 1/320s. The most natural white balance (WB) was 6,500K and I held the sky back by 0.3 stops.
The second shot looking south along the main beach shows the maelstrom as the incoming waves hit the water rushing back down the beach from the previous waves – all very impressive. This was taken at 66mm using ISO 100, f/10 and 1/320s. Facing more towards the sun, the better WB was at 5,750K, with the sky held back a tad more, at 0.7 stops.
You can’t beat a good storm!