Wild Bird Photography – Oriental Skylark

One of the most uncommon but conspicuous birds out there in the field is the Oriental Skylark (Alauda gulgula). Conspicuous, in the sense that when it gets excited, it would stand tall and proud with its crest raised despite its minute size,  and would give a very loud distinct shrill. However, you often get to see these birds in photographically boring dry open fields as this species does not perch on bushes or trees. With these circumstances, shooting the bird at an angle higher than its eye level, you will get the boring ground as its backdrop (as shown below).

In the few times I have encountered this species, I would often wish to capture it on camera properly. What I intend to have is to get a creamy bokeh/background. To do this, you can’t shoot from an elevated angle (as shown above), unless the bird is on an edge of an elevated mass that would eliminate the ground as the backdrop or would make the ground far enough not to be included in your thin depth of field. Instead, you need to be down on all four. This means you need to be on a prone position to achieve the effect (as shown below). This enables you to avoid shooting the ground as the bird’s backdrop.

 

Shooting the bird on the ground on a prone position gives one an eye level shot with both the foreground and background seem to merge and melt leaving the subject greatly emphasized. Below is a sample of this effect.

Shooting Disclosure

  • Gears:
    Canon 50D, EF 400mm f5.6L, 2-Pound Rice Bag
  • Settings:
    Shot @ f5.6, 1/640″, ISO320, Spot Metering, Auto White Balance, Aperture Priority, Cropped 16:9 to 3.6MP, RAW, Handheld, Prone Position
  • Lighting
    8:36am Light, Overcast
  • Others:
    Some very minimal sharpening and color vibrancy adjustments in Photoshop

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Wild Bird Photography – Dollarbird

In wild bird photography, gears and skills do really matter. Both needs to go hand in hand to produce the best snapshot of a beautiful avian subject. In the Philippines, it is often that you and your gears will be tested. For decades, our subjects here are hunted everywhere that birds here often avoid human encounters as much as possible. This cautiousness adds to the fun and challenge to wild bird photography in the country. Because of this, 400mm lenses are considered short. You have to exert more effort in terms of executing the shot to produce decent photographic captures at par with those that have bigger, longer and generally better equipment. However, one cannot fret with what he has. Working a bit more with what you have does the trick and solve some of the problems.

Compensate

Having known that I have a short lens at only 400mm (Canon EF 400mm f5.6L) with a fairly slow speed (f5.6) and a camera that is known to produce noisy images at high ISOs, I need to do a lot more to compensate on the limitations I have. In this article, I would detail how using a 2X teleconverter on a 400/f5.6 lens mounted on a Canon EOS 50D to shoot a very difficult scene can still be accomplished with satisfactory results. Here is how:

Below is a photo of an uncropped 800mm shot of a Dollarbird (Eurystomus orientalis) from more than 30 meters. I dont normally use a 2X teleconverter but I was tempted to because the bird perched motionless for minutes after I got several shots with just the bare 400mm lens mounted on my cam and the sheer distance between me and the bird. Getting nearer is also impossible.

Here is a cropped version of the same image. I cropped the photo down to 2.8 megapixel.

Shooting Disclosure

  • Gears:
    Canon 50D, EF 400mm f5.6L, Kenko Pro-DG 2X, Manfrotto 755X + Gimbal Head, 2-Pound Rice Bag, Remote Shutter
  • Settings:
    Shot @ 800mm, f16, 1/40″, ISO320, Evaluative Metering, Auto White Balance, Full Manual, Cropped 16:9 to 2.8MP, RAW, Liveview, Remote Shutter
  • Lighting
    8:42am Light, Overcast
  • Others:
    Some very minimal sharpening and color vibrancy adjustments in Photoshop

Often, we hear discouraging comments on the use of 2X teleconverters. It definitely degrades image quality even when use with large aperture wildlife lenses such as those with f2.8’s and f4’s. Using a 2X on an f5.6 lens would surely raise eyebrowes. But when you are limited to shoot with what you got, and in my case, I only have a Canon EF-400mm f5.6L, one needs to do a lot of compensating to get decent output from lowly setup with a 2X. And a couple of requirements to effectively know how to compensate is you need to know how a photograph is made and you know very well your gears’ capability and limitation.

In the above photo of the Dollarbird, despite the constraints I had during the time of the shoot, I still managed to get a decent shot. Here are the key ingredients in executing this shot:

  • LiveView. Knowing that using a 2X on an f5.6 will force you to go full manual, using LiveView is one very effective technique. But of course this can only apply since the Dollarbird lingered long enough for me to set things up. Using LiveView in this scenario, one would get AUTOFOCUS using contrast detection method. My Canon EOS 50D allowed me to do this. Some cameras would probably do the same. Using LiveView in this scenario, it also allows you to visually zoom in to 10X using your LCD to get better confirmation if you have focused well on the subject. In the 50D, you can have these features work for you. You get to zoom in to your subject and get aufo-focus.
  • 2-Pound Rice Bag. At 800mm, very minute shaking is very visible. By increasing your LCD view to 10X (via LiveView), not only is the shake visible, it can make you dizzy :P. Putting weight on your rig would dampen the effects of this shake. It also speeds up in stabilizing your rig so you get to shoot in the soonest possible time. In my case, I have this useful 2 pound weight functioning as a poor man’s image stabilizer. All I have to do is place the weights on top of the lens where its center of balance is.
  • Remote Shutter. Without a remote shutter. This scene is hard to execute. One can use the cam’s timer though but that is cumbersome.

The above key ingredients helped in allowing me to capture this scene. Though it won’t surpass the quality of a shot using a bare lens at the same focal lenght, the result is decent enough to merit a space on my harddrive. Without any one of the three, it would be very hard to get a decent output from this scene. Compensating can do wonders especially for photographers that don’t have those desirable longer and faster lenses and better camera bodies. The same techniques used here can be applied using better gears of course. 🙂

Check out my Philippine birds photos @ Facebook!

Thoughts on Designing Databases for SQL Azure – Part 2

In the first article, I showed an example how a database’s design could impact us technically and financially. And sharding isn’t all just about splitting up data. It also brings to the table a group of terrible monsters to slay. There are a lot of concerns that needs to be considered when one attempts to shard a database, especially in SQL Azure.

NoSQL, NoRel, NoACID

In breaking things apart, one is bordering on clashing religions. One monster to slay is the issue of ACIDity. People discuss NoSQL, NoRel, NoACID to be one of the trends out there. And most even swear to the fact that these approaches are better than SQL. In my case, I prefer to call it NoACID and it is not by any means more or less than SQL. I have NoACID implementations on some projects I had. And I love SQL.  To simplify, I’ll put in these trends in a NoX lump as they commonly attempt to disengage with the realities of SQL.

For me, NoX is not a religion, it is simply a requirement. The nature of the app you build will dictate if you need to comply to the principles of ACID (Atomicity, Consistency, Isolation, Durability). If ACID is required, it is required regardless of your data and storage engine or your prefered religion. If it is required, you have to support it. Most cloud apps that we see, like Google and Facebook, could probably have ACID to be absent in their requirements list. Google is primarily read only so it does make sense to have data scattered all over various servers in all continents without the need for ACID. By nature, ACID in this regard, can be very minimal or absent. Facebook on the otherhand is read/write intensive. Seems like it is driven by a massive highly sophisticated message queuing engine. Would ACID be required in Facebook? I am not quite sure about Facebook’s implementation but the way I look at it, ACID can be optional. ACID can well be present in operations concerned only to one tenant in case of an FB account. Outside of this, the absence of ACID could probably be compensated by queuing and data synching.

If Facebook and Google decided to require ACID, they could be facing concerns on locking a lot of things. While locked on, latency could be one of the consequences. It is therefore very important to lay out firsthand if ACID is a requirement or not. For a heavy transactional system, a sharded design presents a lot of obstacles to hurdle. In SQL Azure, this is even harder as SQL Azure does not support distributed transactions like we used to with SQL Server. This means, if your transaction spans across multiple shards, there is no simple way to do it as SQL Azure does not support it, thus ACID can be compromised. SQL Azure however does support local transactions. This means you can definitely perform ACIDic operations within a shard.

To be continued…

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Toto Gamboa is a consultant specializing on databases, Microsoft SQL Server and software development operating in the Philippines. He is currently a member and one of the leaders of Philippine SQL Server Users Group, a Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS) chapter and is one of Microsoft’s MVP for SQL Server in the Philippines. You may reach him by sending an email to totogamboa@gmail.com

Wild Bird Photography in the Philippines – Scaly Breasted Munia

One of the most common beautiful bird you will encounter in the Philippines is the Scaly-breasted Munia (Lonchura punctulata). It can almost be found anywhere in the Philippines. This species can also be one of the easiest to photograph considering that it is often close to human habitation. Where there are rice fields, you are guaranteed to see this bird.

Below is a photo I got in one of our sorties in San Juan, Batangas. I was patiently waiting for waders on a nearby pond when a few meters from where I hide, this fellow showed up. It probably got curious by my presence that it stayed a while and allowed me to get a bit closer and have some shots that I like.

Shooting Disclosure

  • Gears:
    Canon 50D, EF 400mm f5.6L, Manfrotto 755X + Gimbal Head
  • Settings:
    Shot @ 400mm, f5.6, 1/50″, ISO100, Spot-Metering, Auto White Balance, Aperture-Priority, Cropped 16:9 to 3.2MP, RAW
  • Others:
    Some very minimal sharpening and color vibrancy adjustments in Photoshop

On a mid-day harsh light, I usually go ISO100 to avoid getting a very fast shutter speed so more light gets captured with the sensor shutter being opened much longer. With ISO100, I also avoid some unwanted noise and it enhances the creaminess of background blur. Though it is hard to pull off and increasing the risk of getting a blurred shot, I prefer to shoot around 1/40 secs to 1/200 secs as I almost always get better color in this range (provided I am on a sturdy tripod). I just don’t know the technical reason but I suspect, the more time I allow the camera to absorb light, the better the output I got. This is why I always try to bring down ISO to as much as I can for as long as the shutter speed is within my prefered range. By constant practice, blurring cause by shake and slow shutter speed can be avoided. The bird allowed me to focus on its eye as it gave me a nice glance as shown in the photo. I also got lucky that it perched on a really photogenic decaying branch with a good greeny background from the distance.

The bird gave me a few shots but the above photo is the one I like most. It flew the moment I attempted to get closer.

Check out my Philippine birds photos @ Facebook!

Wild Bird Photography in the Philippines – Part 3

This is so far a 3 part series of what wild bird photography is to me. I would probably evolve this series over time to make it current as much as possible.
Wild Bird Photography in the Philippines – Part 1
Wild Bird Photography in the Philippines – Part 2

Previously,  in part 1,  I discussed how I came to photographing birds and detailed what you need to get a good start. In Part 2, I gave some ideas where one can usually find birds. In this article, I’ll give an idea how a bird photographer goes out there in the wilderness to look and start capturing beautiful images of birds.

A Birdnut’s Sortie

Often, when bird photographers (or birdnuts) go out, it is simply referred to as a sortie. A sortie is basically a mission to go out and photograph birds. Sorties vary from just a few hours birding away from home to weeks-long missions. Sorties can be done in singles or in groups. Sorties can be nearby, or one needs to travel for hours. Some sorties go from one country to another. Most sorties are done on foot, but there are sorties where birdnuts are in the comfort of their cars or boats. Some bird photography sorties involve laying out an elaborate plan compose of preparing the things needed for the trip, plotting destinations, identifying the risk and dangers associated with it and a lot of things go with it.


Reserva, Baler Sortie with Wild Bird Club of the Philippines

But How Do I Go About My Own Bird Photography Sorties?

I am a weekend warrior.  Though there were times when I went out on a whim, I mostly do my sorties on a weekend. I usually plan days ahead of the trip. I would typically go with a birding buddy or with a group for safety reasons. But I have gone out alone.

I usually prepare all the logistics needed and my gears a day before the trip. I’d check the vehicle for its condition and make sure it is ready to go. I’d have all the batteries recharged. I’d have the GPS properly loaded with routes and waypoints. Then I’d go to the nearby grocery or convenience store for my supply of food and drinks. Here is the usual stuff that I buy and prepare:

  • bottled water (Absolute) and some flavored drinks (Gatorade’s Propel) for rehydration
  • some biscuits (Skyflakes or some other brand) just to fill my tummy when out in the field or when on a long drive
  • some sweets (chocolate bars) to give me some caloric/energy boost when things go tough in the field
  • first aid kit
  • clothing (hat, extra shirts)
  • birding gears

I’d make it a point to get enough sleep but often I do get excited that I can’t sleep properly hours before the trip. Typically, I would wake up early in the morning (e.g. 4:00am for Candaba, 3:00am for Subic, 5:30am if it is just nearby), get some quick shower, then off I go. I usually make a quick stop in the nearby 7-11 store to buy me some packed hot meals for breakfast (I love their liempo on plain rice) and some bags of ice to fill my cooler, before I hit some more roads or pick up my birding buddy.

Once  on the site, it is usually breakfast time for me. 🙂 Then after that .. it is mostly birding, birding, birding! Sometimes I don’t get to rest, sometimes I don’t get to eat when in the field. What my day is like will all depend on how many and what kinds of birds I encounter. Then I go home!

My Most Memorable Birding Sorties

For more than a couple of years now, I have been to several birding places all over the country. My most memorable was getting stranded in Subic in 2009 while Metro Manila was being flooded by a record breaking storm Ondoy (Typhoon Ketsana). My birding buddy Dennis and I were just clueless what was about to happen during that day. The next thing we knew, Metro Manila had its most catastrophic flooding while we got stuck somewhere in Subic and left no other choice but to wait out until the storm passes through. Another most memorable birding trip I had was when I had gone with by fellow birdnuts in Mindoro. We had a chance to capture in photograph the rare Scarlet-collared Flowerpecker (Dicaeum retrocinctum).


Mindoro Sortie with Bulbuleros 400

The Risks

  • The hardest part is when going home. Often, you are so tired to move and drive yourself home. When I am with a birding buddy, we usually alternate on the wheels to lessen the risk of getting so sleepy on the road while driving for home. If sleepiness is unbearable, I/we stop to take a nap.
  • Insect bites. I remember a birding buddy of mine (Dennis), got hospitalized due to insect bites, after we went to the forest of Subic.
  • Wild bee stings
  • Snake bites
  • Getting attacked by wild animals
  • Getting stranded
  • Encounters with some not so really nice people (thieves, illegal loggers, etc). I guess the worst thing that will happen to you is when you get kidnapped by known terrorist groups and you would have to save your life as what happened to a fellow bird photographer. I happen to cross paths and shoot birds with Ivan personally one weekend in La Mesa Ecopark. Such a great guy by the way.
  • Weird accidents
  • Being flown off by a giant jungle woodpecker and be brought to its hole/nest on top of a 500 meter tree

The Lows

  • Going home empty handed
  • Going home with a ruined camera or a broken lens
  • Getting to the birding site only to find out you left your birding lens

The Highs

  • Getting stranded
  • Getting a rare photo lifer. In bird photography lingo, a lifer means you got to photograph a bird species for the first time
  • Getting a close up of a very beautiful bird
  • Getting a good photo of a target bird
  • Bump in the field with fellow birdnuts
  • Lastly, getting attacked by a thousand sunbirds

Wild Bird Photography in the Philippines – Part 1
Wild Bird Photography in the Philippines – Part 2

Check out my album of Philippine birds!