Category: Bird Photography
I recently received my Pentax K-3 and have been eager to test its high resolution, 24 megapixel sensor. This morning I had a few spare minutes and mounted a Tokina ATX 400mm f5.6 lens onto the K-3, along with an AF360FGZ flash for fill light. Then it was off to the bird feeder to snap some test photos of house sparrows having their breakfast. Here are some of the results, with actual pixel images below the full frame shots (click on the smaller image for a larger view: )
I went into this exercise with several questions in mind. Here is what I learned:
How would the Tokina ATX 400 work on the Pentax K-3? I wondered if this older lens, designed for film cameras, had the resolution and edge sharpness to work well on the K-3s high resolution, 24 megapixel sensor. Judging from the images - detail and sharpness is quite good, IMO. The backlit shot of the bird on the peanut wreath showed a small bit of color fringing, but that was easily corrected in Photoshop.
I should comment that while I have always considered this lens to be very good, it falls short of being truly excellent. Not to bash it - the sample I am using now was purchased used for a few hundred dollars. (My original copy developed a bad case of fungus.) So - I am hopeful that many older lenses from the film era will do just fine on the the K-3. (Good news for those of use with many older lenses from the film era….)
Shake reduction: Seems to have worked exceptionally well. While shutter speeds were in the 1/750 to 1/1000 range, for the equivalent of a 600mm (full frame) lens, the percentage of sharp images in this hand held exercise was quite good.
How would the K-3’s auto focus perform? AF was quite fast and accurate. It even tracked the moving birds pretty well, with minimal hunting. Overall, it was quite an improvement over the K-5 and earlier models that I have used – BUT the cam driven AF was as loud as ever.
How well did the camera handle white balance? The camera was set to AWB mode. The morning sun was still quite reddish when I shot these images. In shots where the flash did not fire the white balance looks very good. When the flash did fire the images have a noticeable greenish cast. This was easily corrected but suggests that the AWB adjustment for the flash is a bit off. (No surprise but the AF360 FGZ was underpowered for fill flash use in this case.)
How did the K-3’s metering perform? The camera was set to the new evaluative metering process, and performed excellently. Many of the birds were splashed with sun with a background that was in shadow, and the K-3’s metering adjusted the exposure to avoid any blown out highlights in the bird. However, some of the birds in the backlit shots were a bit underexposed, though this was easily addressed in post.
And what about image noise? All of these shots were taken at ISO 800. In general, noise is minimal. However, in backlit shots where the exposure was adjusted in ACR, some noise emerges. (See the image of the bird on the green peanut holder above) Probably not as noise-free as the K-5, though a much larger image size.
And lastly – How many files fit on a 32 gig card? I shot 441 images in the 20 minutes or so that I worked on it. Based on how much they filled the card, I would expect to get 760 images on one 32 gig card.
Overall – I’m pretty happy with the results here, given that it was an unplanned test, hand held, with a relatively inexpensive and old lens. When used properly, the K-3 will probably shine even more.
(Since this is tagged as a review I should comment that I am not employed by or paid by Ricoh / Pentax in any manner and bought the camera retail.)
Looking out of my window this evening I thought I saw an unusual sparrow and went outside to check it out. I steeled down in the passenger seat of my car, parked in the driveway, hoping to get a closeup view of the bird - but it apparently departed when it saw me coming out. In a few minutes the house sparrows, grackles and jays came back and started feeding, and then this mourning dove. Here it is, shaking its head after a drink form the bird bath. Click on the image for a larger file.
Pentax K-5, Tokina ATX 400 f5.6.
Folks on the PDML have been posting their 12 best shots of 2012 lately… I’m a little late and can’t say that these are my best shots, but they are my favorites for the year. To make it a baker’s dozen I added an older shot that I finally worked on enough to be happy with in 2012. So here are my 12 for 12 (click on images for a larger file):
Snow Crystal (January, 2012): It barely snowed at all here in SW Michigan in 2012, but I managed one nice crystal shot in early January:
Spring Colors (March, 2012): Why wait for fall for foliage colors? Spring tree blossoms and buds captured on color film wiht the Pentax 6x7:
Around the House (April, 2012): My boy Jazz - psycho cat Qu’est-ce que c’est? Made with a Pentax LX and Kiron 105mm f2.8 macro lens on Fuji Neopan 400, rated at 400. Developed in D76 1+1.
Jumping Spider (May, 2012): Pentax K5 and A* 200mm macro:
Ebony Jewelwing (May 2012): A common but elusive damselfly. Pentax K5 and A* 200mm macro:
The Jewelbox, St. Louis, Missouri (June, 2012): Sort of a street photo. Infrared converted Pentax K10d:
Gateway Arch in Infrared (June, 2012): Speaking of St. Louis… note the troop of Boy Scouts in the lower left corner, best seen in the larger file.
Visitation #1… (April, 2012) If these photos were music they would be pop songs…. nothing wrong with that but sometimes you want to really rock out. So I started the Visitation Project in the spring of 2012. Pentax LX, Kiron 100mm macro, Neopan SS pushed to 200 and souped in D76 1+1:
Dashing Blue Dasher (August, 2012): Ever a favorite Dragonfly - the drought this year really hit the mid and late summer species, so the Blue Dashers hung around for a long time.
Finches and Thistle (August, 2012):I let a few bull thistles grow in my wildflower garden and the goldfinches loved them. Here’s one munching on the seeds. Pentax K5, A*400 f 2.8, SMC 1.7x AF converter:
Pastoral Scene (September, 2012): I traveled to central Indiana a lot in the last few months of the year and bought a Pentax Q kit in late August to take on the road with me. Marvelous camera - a shot from my tavels:
Autumn Colors (October, 2012): 2012 brought a beautiful fall to West Michigan and I managed bump into it one October morning. Pentax K5 and DA 16-45 f 4 zoom:
Baker’s Dozen: The Shady Spot Taken in 2010 and worked on since then, I finally made a photo from this exposure that I like. I could say that I really like it. Pentax LX, fa 20-35mm F4 AL lens, Rollie 400 IR film, Hoya R72 filter.
I’m really enjoying my new Pentax Q kit… the dang thing is just so much fun I find myself snapping shots like crazy, but somehow I feel that when I want to take a serious photo, it is there. It is just a joy to use, unlike most compacts that I’ve tried.
But in one area I have hopes for serious applications - and that would be in the realm of extreme macro photography. I’ve commented before that the very small sensor size found in compact cameras is a real boon to macro photographers because it allows for excellent DOF at wide apertures. The Pentax Q with a K to Q adapter applies a 5.62x crop factor to the focal length of lenses. So that D-FA 100mm macro turns out to be a 562mm macro… Very cool.
The great thing about the Q and SLR lenses the macro work is that the lenses give tons of working room. You can quite easily shoot a small bug from a yard away (with the 200mm lens) and get frame filling shots.
But, the Q’s tiny sensor poses a challenge to any optic. The photo receptors are so small that only the highest resolving lens can take advantage of them. Diffraction takes a toll at fairly open apertures and small amount of color fringing can make an image too soft to use beyond web sized images.
So I’ve been testing the Q with a variety of lenses. Here are the results so far (I have a lot of testing to do yet.)For each image there is first an un-cropped full image (reduced to web size) followed by an Actual Pixel crop.
All of the shots below were taken with the camera and lens firmly on a tripod, usually using the 2 second self timer to minimize any shake from pressing the exposure button. No flash was used. Had I used flash I think that the apparent detail could have been higher, since proper lighting can accentuate details.
Macro lenses first, in descending focal length order.
Pentax A* 200mm f4 macro:
Well, you’d *expect* a lens like this to deliver, and it does a fine job. Clearly the best I have tried so far.
Here are 3 shots, with actual pixel crops following. I took these on breezy overcast day, so I pused the ISO a bit. The first shot is ISO 640, the second two are ISO 800. The Q can get noisy but keeps the color noise down. Overall, I find ISO 800 workable, which is a surprise.
I think the shots above are at f 5.6. I did a series of shots, starting at f4 and stopping down a click with each successive exposure. By f 8 diffraction really impaired the level of detail. F 5.6 seemed to be the best compromise between sharpness and DOF. The last shot is at 1:1 magnification… Depth of field is still pretty tight even with the Q’s small sensor.
Pentax D-FA 100 f2.8
This lens fared pretty well, though not up to par with the A* 200. The shots below were taken at f4. The ISO was 250, 125, and 250 respectively.
Kiron 105mm f2.8 Macro
A legendary lens from the 80’s that back in the days of film was virtually unrivaled. Sadly, it is not up to the demands put to it by the Q. The chromatic aberrations in the fly shot really mess up the details in the eyes. The test shot of the cocklebur is just as bad. I’ll keep this for shooting with Tri-X!
These shots are at ISO 125 and 160 respectively - so while the Q is pretty good at higher ISO’s, it never gets to truly low noise levels at low ISO’s….
(Drat! That could have been a good shot!)
XR Rikenon 50mm f2
Rumors on the Internet persist - is this one of the sharpest lenses ever? Since the Q is pretty demanding, I thought I’d give it a try. I only made a half hearted effort - I put the lens on two 12 mm extension tubes and then back onto one. The sky was clear and the sun was bright, but the wind was gusting like made. I took less than 10 shots and decided to stop wasting by time… but then found this image stuck in the middle of a bunch of motion blurred photos:
That was at ISO 200. The results are close to the D-FA, and certainly warrant another try with this lens.
A* 300mm f4
OK - aside form macro photos, I was also interested in using the Q as a compact birding camera, so I tested it with an A* 300 f4. On the Q this lens is the equivalent of a 1686mm lens on a 35mm camera. Unfortunately, the A* 300 was not up to the job - a couple test shots, first of a goldfinch and second of a house finch.
For an example of what I would *like* to see, here is an actual pixel crop of a photo I posted recently, taken with the Pentax K5 APS-C sensor camera and A*400mm lens with AF 1.7x converter (equivalent to 1360mm on a 35mm camera.)This is from a recent post.
Well - I’m still hoping for clarity like that on the Q. If you are peeking at the noise levels in the bird images - the top goldfinch photo taken with the Q was at ISO 500, the house finch, aslo taken with the Q, was at ISO 200. The K5 goldfinch shot was at ISO 800…
But, to give the birds photos some perspective, here is an old photo (circa 2002)of a Yellow Warbler taken with a Pentax Mz-S and the same A*400 / 1.7x converter setup as used with the K5. It was taken on Kodak E100S and scanned on a Canon Canoscan 4000F. I’d say that the level of detail - which at the time I considered to be quite good - and noise - which also was state of the art back then - is comparable to what the Q is producing with the A* 300. Well, the Q might not be quite as sharp… But, I certainly hope to get useable bird photos from the Q, ultimately.
I have a few more 50mm lenses to test yet - most notably I’d like to try the Pentax 50mm f1.7 (I have both an FA and M version on hand), SMC M 50 f4 macro, and Sigma EX 50mm f 2.8 macro.
For birds… I’ve finally come to regret selling my A* 200 f2.8…
I live in the city and have a small urban yard. It’s not much for attracting wildlife, but it is sometimes surprising to see what can pass through this little space. Over the last few years I’ve been trying to cultivate wildflowers in a strip along the edge of the yard. The project has resulted in a mixture of domestic and wild plants, some native and many not.
Here we have phlox, grey coneflower, day lilies and queen of the prairie alongside peonies, tulips, and spearmint. Some tall grasses pop up here and there. Asters bloom in the spring and autumn, some white, some blue. Each year I mow a little less of the lawn and leave a few inches more to go wild. The grass grows high and in a few weeks the coneflower, asters or phlox appear and get started.
This year I stopped mowing back a bull thistle plant. The plant always managed to send out spiny leaves that were low enough to avoid the mower’s blade, but it was never able to send forth its flowering stems. After several years of being mowed back it finally got its chance to bloom, and it sent out an array of thorny stems and branches that soon bore lots of flower heads.
The flowers weren’t particularly attractive to my eye, but they brought in interesting visitors. I saw several swallowtail butterflies visiting the plant while it was in bloom, but as the first flowers faded a pair of goldfinches showed up regularly to eat the seeds and harvest the silk for their nest.
I first noticed this one day around noon. I had just gotten into my car and glanced over at the thistle to see a female goldfinch with a mouthful of downy thistle seeds. She looked like she had silky white whiskers. Over the next few weeks the pee-weep pee-weep became commonplace, as the pair would land on the thistle to feast on its seeds and gather the down.
In addition to letting the thistle grow, I stopped feeding the birds for the summer. The birdseed that had fallen from the feeders over the winter sprouted and started to grow. Early in the summer we had many stalks of wheat, that turned brown and died up by midsummer. Only after it was dry would the squirrels nip off the seed head and eat the wheat kernels. Lots of sunflowers also rose up, and these too where a favorite of the finches and other birds.
Looking at Stoke’s Guide to Bird Behavior, I see that the goldfinch nests and breeds rather later in the summer, and that nest building starts in July and runs through August. The timing of the bull thistle’s flowers and subsequent seed heads and down is perfect for the finches.
In early September I cut down the now dried up and dead thistle. The finches weren’t visiting it anymore, and the dried up stalks were pretty ugly. I put out a feeder filled with Niger thistle seed, and set the dried husk of the bull thistle onto the top of the compost pile, where the birds could still visit it if they needed any more down.
Next year, if a bull thistle shows up, I think I’ll let it grow.
While up in the U.P. earlier this month, I stayed in a cabin on Coast Guard Point, just outside of Grand Marais. There were signs on the beach about the Piping Plover – apparently this little peninsula is one of the last breeding areas for this endangered bird.
On the first morning I stumbled out of the cabin and saw two little shore bird chicks running by the front door and then scurrying off into the beach grass. Their concerned parent landed a short distance off, and started bobbing and wobbling around, almost like a Killdeer feigning a broken wing.
It was over in a flash and I thought “Gosh! Could that have been a Piping Plover!”
And so later in the week as I lounged on the beach and read, I made sure to bring a simple birding setup with me – Pentax K7 camera, Tokina 400mm f 5.6, flash and monopod. Ultimately the parent bird returned – but it was no Plover, just a Spotted Sandpiper.
It was still a lot of fun to watch and I took a few snapshots as it bobbed on the rocks out in the bay. The little flash was not powerful enough to do much with fill lighting, and the lens has been clouded a bit inside due to fungus, but overall I was happy with these – the first few bird shots I’ve taken in several years.
Saturday, Otober 10, 2009: I rise early (for me) and am on my way into the game area before 7 am. The morning is frosty and cold – temps about 30 F – but the rain of the last few days has abated and a Libran sun rises in a clear sky.
The first stop of the day – on the plan at least – is the Swan Creek Dam, near the game area. But as I roll down 118th avenue I pass the old Swan Creek Mill Pond – and I do a 180 and head back to the boat launch. The mist on the pond in the early morning light looks just great.
Dropping down into the parking area, I find that it is full of cars. Lots of goose and duck hunters are out this weekend. I grab tripod, camera, general purpose zoom, polarizer, and head down to the water. I am not disappointed as I quickly set up and shoot.
Swan Creek Millpond
I shoot with a camera, and the K7 is nearly silent. Hunters shoot otherwise, and shortly after I started photographing I hear one, then another, then six, and then probably 30 shotguns go off, simultaneously in their stages. It was surprising, even to one who is used to random gunfire.
A lone pied billed grebe plinked around in the water in front of me. Almost silently, it drops into the water and then pops up a few yards away. It paddles around for a while, and then disappears into the water again. Coyote grebe – it slinks between the legs of hunters and laughs as it slides out of sight.
Pied Billed Grebe In The Swan Creek Millpond
Well, 45 minutes at the boat launch, and that was the day. I spent several more hours tooling around the forest. Bird hunters were everywhere. It was too cold for dragonflies and the mist was burning off as I drove away from the Mill Pond.
45 minutes that I’ll remember forever. A gift to be treasured.
Swan Creek Millpond
Back in 1997, when I first got into photography, birds were one of my first passions. I first started shooting them with a 200mm zoom, then a 300mm zoom, then a fast 200mm and 2x teleconverter, and next a 400mm f4.6 prime lens. This progression ended with a Pentax A* 400mm f 2.8 EDIF lens, combined with 1.4x, 1.7x, and 2x teleconverters.
The 400mm f2.8 was probably a mistake. A 600mm f4 cost about the same, but I figured that the 400mm and teleconverter combo would give me more flexibility, be a little lighter, and focus a little closer. But the 400mm is a mnaul focus lens, and sometimes gets a downright ugly bokeh.
So here it is, spring 2007, birds are out and it’s time to see how the K10D and teleconverter combination works with the new digital body. My standard birding setup is the A* 400 f2.8, combined with the AF adapter 1.7x. This is an unusual teleconverter – 1.7x magnification of the image, plus the elements in the converter couple with the camera’s autofocus system, allowing for some very limited autofocus capability – just enough to snap a pre-focused image into sharpness. (In all fairness to it – the 1.7x AF adpater works quite well on fast normal to short telephoto lenses.)
So yesterday I set up the birding rig and tried for a few test shots of the robins and sparrows in the backyard. Since small little jpegs, like the one above, don’t tell a thing about image quality. So here is an actual pixels crop of the Robin’s head:
And here is an actual pixel crop of the bird’s shoulder:
This shot was taken at an effective aperture of f8 (lens set to f 4.6, with the teleconverter multiplying the aperture to f 8). This shot was taken as a RAW DNG file, opened with Adobe Camera Raw. Aside from tweaking the color temperature a bit, the detail (sharpness) was dialed up to 60. ISO for both shots was 400. The image was opened without any up-sampling.
Overall, the A* 400 f2.8, AF 1.7x converter, and K10D produces excellent sharpness and detail. AN AF360 FGZ, set to –5 flash compensation, was used for fill. The camera was, of course, mounted on a tripod. The heavy duty ball head was left to rotate and swivel freely, allowing the camera to be quickly positioned. This was my standard setup for birds with film in the past, and works well with the digital setup.
One disappointment with the K10D was that the slow flash synch setting does not work with older, manual focus lenses. I don’t know why that design feature is there – but it’s documented in the manual. Since fill flash is essential for many birding situations, a slow synch setting on the camera is a real boon. My older Pentax film SLR’s didn’t provide for this – so I would shoot birds in manual mode, manually selecting the shutter speed. I found that I had to resort to that again shooting with the A* 400 setup on the K10D.
(I’ll be testing the slow synch setting on some autofocus lenses, where it should work.)
I was also hoping to test the K10D anti-shake function while birding – but here human error crept in. With a manual focus lens you have to input the focal length when using the anti-shake feature. I don’t know what I was thinking, but for some reason I kept inputting 550mm, instead of the 700mm I should of put in. (The 1.7x teleconverter and 400mm lens are and effective 680 mm.) So – I can confirm that anti-shake really does need accurate focal length input. Whether or not it would work well with a lens loosely mounted on a tripod has yet to be seen.
I plan to continue birding tests, and hope to report more in the future.