Dolphins & Weathery Stuff…

At this time of year I’m really busy with my Bottlenose dolphin work for Whale and Dolphin Conservation – the marine charity that I am the Field Officer for up here in the Highlands of Scotland. The old saying “It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it” only conveys part of, what to most people would be a dream job – photographing dolphins for a living. Weather plays a great part in what you can and cannot do when you are either photographing or filming dolphins and this goes for land based work as well as from boats.

Recently the weather has been slightly “changeable” to say the least and I have had to be working out at sea as well as being on dry land as the sightings of the resident dolphins around Chanonry Point has slowed down a little. Luckily I get on very well with all of our local tour boat operators and as well as giving me regular sightings of dolphins when they out and about with passengers – they take pity on me sometimes and let me jump on-board to take a spin out to see what and who is about. On a recent trip with Gwyn Tanner of Dolphin Trips Avoch  the weather was, shall we say – wet, but eventually the skies cleared a little and as we were passing Chanonry Point, I was able to get a snap of dolphin watchers at Chanonry with ID#866 “Zephyr” and her young son keeping the watchers amused.

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A little later we encountered Zephyrs young son as he popped up beside us on the boat to check us out – thrilling for the passengers and the sea is a nice blue instead of slate grey as it had been about ten minutes earlier.

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The next day I was out on a trip with Sarah Pern on-board the Ecoventures RIB from Cromarty and we had just been called up by Barbara Cheney from the Aberdeen University Lighthouse Field Station at Cromarty who was out on their research boat and told us about a group of dolphins heading our way from further down the coast – great news and sure enough before we knew it we were being “shot-gunned” with dolphins on either side of the boat – happy passengers and I was even happier as at least two of the WDC Adoption dolphins were right beside us – Moonlight, who was chomping a big fish…

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And Rainbow who was coming to check us out after bow-riding with a ship entering the Cromarty Firth…

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So at least the weather stayed reasonable for us out on the water, where waterproof outfits and camera spray covers are the norm – its only the middle of July…roll on the summer ! Grateful thanks as ever to Gwyn and Sarah for the trips out and to Barbara for the heads up😉

 

Rise Of The Super Zooms…

Up until just recently when we poor, hard working photographers thought of zoom lenses we were usually thinking in terms of 24-70 mm, 70-200 mm or even 100-400 mm in focal length but in the last few years, much, much longer focal lengths have been creeping in to the zoom lens line-up… lenses that I have termed the “Super Zoom”.

Sigma Imaging brought out the 300-800 mm “Sigmonster” a while ago but at £5,500 retail price it was out of reach for many enthusiast photographers, never mind professionals but seeing a gap in the market, Sigma have been bringing out very reasonably priced large zoom length lenses such as the excellent Pro build quality 150-600mm F5-6.3 “Sport” DG OS HSM which Sigma UK were very kind to send me to try through my friends at Ffordes Photographic of Beauly for a much more reasonable £1,200 rrp with the even more affordable “Contemporary” version of this lens for around £750 or so. Sigma describe these lenses as “hyper-telephoto zooms” and I certainly won’t argue with them.

DSC_0180Carole Pearce on a recent camera tuition day with me learning how to photograph Bottlenose dolphins using the “Sport” version of the 150-600 mm Sigma lens coupled to a Canon 7D MKII camera body.

Now although a confirmed Canon prime lens man through and through, every now and again you sometimes need a specific lens for a project and I must admit, two years ago I ordered up the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 DG OS HSM Lens along with the matching Sigma 1.4x  Teleconverter as I was needing to be able to compose shots a bit more for some jobs in low light than with the prime lenses that I normally work with. I was amazed at both the optical quality (with & without teleconverter) and the build quality of this chunky little beast so was expecting good news when I unpacked the 150-600. I wasn’t disappointed. Build quality is definitely up there at pro level with water resistant switches that have a nice positive feel to them – very little chance of knocking one to the off or on position accidentally. A rubber gasket at the camera/lens coupling for rain shower resistance and a front element coating that sheds dust, rain and grease completes the pro-level attention to detail. Everything just feels “right” with nothing wobbly or lacking in engineering integrity – even the lens collar has a lovely robust feel to it with 90 degree indent stops. A well engineered, solid lens hood completes the lineup and you are good to go in most weather conditions.

_7D22787Bottlenose dolphins at Chanonry Point, Scotland. Harsh back-light didn’t phase the 150-600 mm Sport – Canon EOS 7D MKII 1600th sec at F6.3 200 ISO +2/3rds stop+ EC, Focal length 320 mm  
_7D22123The shape, size and natural markings of the dorsal fin of a Bottlenose dolphin – part of the science of studying dolphins is to be able to tell them apart – this is how we do it. Canon EOS 7D MKII 1600th sec at F6.3 320 ISO +2/3rds stop+ EC, Focal length 560 mm

Without having much time for doing any sort of auto-focus micro-adjustment before the demo day at Chanonry Point I simply connected the 150-600 to my Canon 7D MKII and started taking shots of the dolphins that I study in a variety of light conditions ranging from dull and grey to hard, bright sunshine and was very pleased with the auto-focus reaction speed and the Optical Stabilisation operation, much like what I remember with the Sport 120-300 F2.8. I managed some good frames of dolphins being dynamic right away, with sharp images that had good contrast and nice colours and when you are photographing fast moving dolphins for a living then that is a pretty good start! Setting up the lens on a tripod and gimbal, you will maybe find that you need to spend time re-adjusting the balance point when you have extended the lens right out at 600 mm as it does affect the balance a fair bit but once you get it set up properly it feels fine, with a good amount of friction on the zoom plus a handy built in zoom lock too. It is a chunky lens, no getting away from it, with 24 high quality glass elements inside this beast it couldn’t be anything else really but at just over 2.8 kilos without a camera attached it is not too much to carry around for a days wildlife shoot – and that’s the beauty of it – it can be used for a whole range of subjects from near (2.6 metre minimum focus distance) to far, far away – even better if you couple it up to the dedicated 1.4 extender, the TC- 1401 for even more reach at 840 mm all day, every day.

All said, this is a great value for money, general purpose wildlife lens that will delight with its optical quality and sheer quality of build. A wise move is to purchase the USB docking device that allows you to adjust the AF and OS parameters to your own liking and set them through your computer – Canon and Nikon take note… this is a very useful tool to have !

My thanks to Sigma UK and Ffordes Photographic for letting me have this lens to try for a short period – these new generation of Sigma lenses are fantastic and I have no hesitation in highly recommending any of them for either enthusiast or even professional use in virtually any weather conditions.

DSC_0218Charlie with the 150-600mm Sigma Sport DG OS USM “Hyper-telephoto” zoom lens coupled to a Canon EOS 7DMKII DSLR body – photo by Alister Bowie of Ffordes Photographic.

 

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Charlies new highly acclaimed hard backed book “On A Rising Tide” recalls over 20 years studying and photographing the resident Bottlenose dolphins in the Moray Firth. Available from book shops and his own website www.charliephillipsimages.co.uk priced at £19.50 +p&p

Cover On a Rising Tide

 

 

 

 

 

 

Minox Marvels…

Some time ago now the manager of the local family run camera shop near me Ffordes of Beauly and I were chatting about optical equipment such as binoculars and scopes and the conversation inevitably headed for the subject of German optical quality and how superb it is, but generally the “problem” with it having a stratospheric price tag attached to boot. Alister, the manager of Ffordes happened to mention that the company more famous to most people for its tiny “spy” cameras, Minox, were looking to make inroads into the UK market with a great range of binoculars and telescopes.

Minox Kit

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It was suggested that the company might be looking to supply loan equipment to a few lucky recipients for evaluation so when the sales manager and area sales adviser were visiting Ffordes, I popped in and introduced myself. I’m glad to say that we got on very well and a few weeks later I was unpacking boxes of loan equipment – my Christmas and Birthday had come all at once – the Minox gear had arrived. The company had very kindly asked me what they could supply to make my Field Officer working life a bit easier so I had asked for two sets of binoculars to use – one set for long range observing and another set of waterproof marine type of units for use on the research boat. I also said if they had any spare small telescopes then one would be very handy. As I was gently unpacking everything I realised that the equipment that they had sent me wasn’t just good quality – it was absolutely superb…the finish and firmness of construction and the way that they felt in your hand – reassuringly solid but not too heavy and ergonomically brilliant.

When I am trying to find the dolphins that I photograph and study on behalf of the marine charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation, there are two different sets of  search”rules” that I follow…for high season and for low season. High season means that dolphins are going to be in their usual haunts like Chanonry Point, the Kessock Channel or the entrance to the Cromarty Firth and on a rising tide, will be relatively easy to find even with the naked eye. In the low season however the dolphins tend to be much more difficult to find and this is where the magical Minox BL 15 x 56 binoculars really help me out – the sheer clarity and range that you get with these big, but not huge or heavy units is simply astonishing.

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I can regularly spot not only a dolphins dorsal fin at maybe a mile or so but because of the sheer sharpness and clarity of the image – I can identify which dolphin I’m actually looking at. I don’t have any images of myself using these brilliant units – I must get round to that !  I have to confess that the best way of using these fantastic binoculars for me is to settle them on my big telephoto lens beanbag that fits over the lowered car window and then everything is rock steady and you can really get accurate focussing. Wonderfully clear and sharp, the sheer detail that I can see never fails to bring a smile to my face.

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ID#105 “Sundance”

When out at sea during the high season and using the wonderful white rubber coated 7 x 50 Marine DCM units (with their advanced active LED display for the like of compass bearing, altitude, atmospheric pressure and time) I can rest assured that if there is anything out on the wide blue yonder with a dorsal fin then these brilliant units with their very bright, clear and very sharp image, will find it. I’ve had them with me on full day research surveys and everyone (scientists, boat skippers and crew) that I have let have a shot of them have raved about them and it’s been difficult sometimes getting them back again !

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Me out on the Aberdeen University research boat looking for dolphins with the 7X50 DCM binoculars – absolute wonders of clarity and sharpness.

Instructions MINOX BN 7x50 DC Photo

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One of my marine charity colleagues “borrowing” the wonderful BN 7X50 DCM units

Last but not least is the lovely, compact but sturdy spotting scope that Minox have sent – the MD 50 with its 15-30 zoom and good clear image with a useful zoom range makes an ideal companion wherever you might go. Small and light enough to put in a jacket pocket but still has a tripod mount and really packs a punch.

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Its been a while now since I opened that big box full of Minox goodies and gazed lovingly at them and wondered just how often that I would get to use them… it turns out that these are pieces of precision  equipment that I use EVERY day and to be quite honest I wonder just how I managed without them. The sales manager at the time asked me what Minox could supply to make my job “easier” and the simple answer is – all that you sent me and thank you SO much Minox.com for your generosity. Please visit their website, look at the range and decide whether you would like a bit of Minox loveliness in your life and either buy from their online shop or visit the Ffordes website – you will thank me if you do !

Almost Time For Dinner…

The migratory salmon are almost running in big enough enough numbers to get the attention of the local dolphin population around the Inner Moray Firth near Inverness. Famous salmon rivers such as the Tay and Spey are recording good runs now so with a bit of luck I will soon be seeing and photographing prey manipulation by dolphins like young “Yoda” here, grappling with a nice fish as the salmon track their way to their home rivers – the Ness and Beauly.The migratory salmon are almost running in big enough enough numbers to get the attention of the local dolphin population around the Inner Moray Firth near Inverness. Famous salmon rivers such as the Tay and Spey are recording good runs now so with a bit of luck I will soon be seeing and photographing prey manipulation by dolphins like young “Yoda” here, grappling with a nice fish as the salmon track their way to their home rivers – the Ness and Beauly.

Dolphin & Grilse