First trip of the season to the San Luis area refuges

I decided to make my first trip out to the refuges in the San Luis NWR system this week. It’s early — I normally don’t make my first visit until early November, but I wanted to see how the refuges looked, and I am still trying to get me head around how to best control the Fuji X-T2 autofocus and wanted to try it in real-world, not easy conditions out in the field. And I kept seeing reports of cranes being seen in various locations around the central valley, and I couldn’t wait.

So I set an early alarm, got my gear and got out to Merced NWR, followed by San Luis NWR, and then I spent a couple of hours at O’Neill Forebay.

Merced NWR

Merced is my favorite refuge, so I love visiting it. Overall it’s in good shape, and flooding is in progress with other areas ready for flooding as the initial ones are filled. The sad thing you see here are the large number of majestic oaks that have been killed by the drought (and Merced isn’t alone to this — I can’t tell you how often I see a picture published online touting fall color that is in fact a stand of dead trees).

It’s too early for geese and most ducks, although I did find a couple of Greater-White Fronted geese, a decent number of Shovelers (they usually arrive first) and a few Northern Pintails. I was seeing a fairly high number of Greater Yellowlegs than I’m used to, but otherwise shorebirds were about normal with nothing special. There were White-Faced Ibis as well.

There were cranes. I found a flock of about 100 just outside the refuge, and I saw or heard them intermittently through the refuge. Most of the ones I saw on-site were flying.

Sandhill Cranes in Flight

But overall, the refuge looks to be setting up for a nice winter but it was fairly slow and rather than spend time trying to find shots, I headed over to San Luis NWR to see what they were up to.

And ran into this.

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The smoke was visible from miles away as I headed towards the refuge. It quickly became clear it wasn’t an agricultural brush pile being burnt. As I got closer, I saw it was on the refuge, and my big hope was it was a controlled burn, not a wildfire. And then I saw the signs, and yes, a controlled burn. (whew)

The burn was either in, or right next to, the Tule Elk compound. The smoke was thick across the refuge entrance and headquarters, which must have been fun for staff, but I never saw any warning or closure signs, so I headed in and took the Waterfowl tour road, having decided that even if the Tule Elk tour wasn’t closed further in, it didn’t make much sense to head into the smoke and possibly get in the way of the authorities.

One thing I’ve learned over time is that early in the season, San Luis NWR is often better for crane viewing and pictures than Merced, because the flooding process encourages the birds to hang out near the tour roads; as the refuges get fully flooded, the advantage switches. So I was hopeful I might get some up close time with at least a few birds — and they did not disappoint.

Sandhill Cranes Dancing

San Luis also has a lot of open areas which makes it a beautiful place if you want to watch or photograph hawks, especially the Northern Harrier. This is a mixed blessing for me because traditionally the Harrier is one of those birds that seems to have it out for me and refuses to cooperate for good pictures. This trip, however, that changed a bit and I got a bit lucky.

Northern Harrier on Patrol

Northern Harrier on Patrol

Again, like Merced, it was early. I saw almost no ducks, but that’s not a surprise, since on this refuge they seem to congregate first on the areas flooded for the hunters, and the primary areas on the tour route for them are still dry. There weren’t a lot of cranes visible but those that I found were quite close to the road; well within reach of a 300mm lens, and they were clearly aware of me, but not worried about me.

There were harriers and red-tails everywhere, and the harriers were nice enough to put on a real show for me, too.

Overall the refuge looks to be in good shape moving into the winter migration, except perhaps for the part that was actively burning at the time. I completed the Waterfowl tour fairly quickly because of the dry areas, and because of the smoke, decided not to stick around trying to find shots that didn’t seem to be there. So I headed into Santa Nella, grabbed some lunch, and headed over to the O’Neill Forebay Medieros recreational area.

O’Neill Forebay

O’Neill Forebay is the area just past the San Luis Reservoir dam that leads into the inlet of the Delta-Mendota canal, one of the big water moving projects in the Central Valley. It’s a fairly large lake-like area that’s used for boating and fishing, and in the winter, it can host some stupendous rafts of ducks and other water-based birds; the grounds around it are good for hawks, ravens and winter migrants such as the Say’s Phoebe. What I was originally thinking of doing was hauling out the camp chair, sitting down, relaxing and watching birds go by, but there was enough of a cold wind that I decided instead to explore the entire shoreline from one end to the other, stopping in at various picnic or empty camp areas along the water to look through the rafts of birds out on the water.

And what I mostly found — not surprising for this time of year — were American Coots. Thousands of coots. Very few ducks, although I did find some Northern Shovelers and got a nice look at a single male Redhead. There were a few female ducks out there and what they were is a total guess, but at least a couple of them seemed to be teals of some sort. But still, very early for ducks. Later in the winter this will be a nice place for breeds like Canvasback and Scaups.

And Ruddy ducks, which seemed to be the second most populous bird on the water. Third was the Pied-Billed Grebe, with a lot of younger birds spread out among the coots. I also found a few other Grebes, mostly eared, with about five Clark’s and a single Western just to keep me honest.

White Pelican

And a single white pelican, which has a fishing lure and some line attached. I watched it for a while and didn’t see any indication it was in distress from this, but still, a sad sight. It seems to be doing okay, though.

I was also supervised for a while by one of the ravens hanging out in the grounds that day. This one followed me around about a quarter of the trip and found places nearby to perch and keep an eye on me. Why? Because it’s a raven, of course. And it was probably hoping I’d break out some food.

Common Raven

The Gear

The official reason I wanted to head out was to continue learning how to best use the Fuji X-T2 in real field conditions and understand how to set and adjust the autofocus to get the shots I wanted (what I’ve already learned: I can basically set the exposure system to aperture mode and ignore it, and it’s good enough to get an image that can be tweaked later without worry, if you shoot raw. This impresses the hell out of me, and it seems to indicate the death of ETTR, because it’s not necessary any more)

It also gave me a chance to get out into real field conditions with the Fuji 100-400 lens and see how it handled it. The rig I used was the X-T2 with the 100-400 and a 1.4x teleconverter, giving me the equivalent of a 560mm lens, which I set to F/8 and left there. I was generally shooting with image stabilization on at ISO-800, and all images were hand-held. And yes, the idea of a 560mm lens as easily hand-holdable as Canon’s venerable 100-400 just makes me smile, as long as it can get the shot.

Oh yes, it can get the shot. I was trying fairly challenging shots, whether it was a quick shift to a flying bird that comes into field, or trying to shoot through brush clutter and get focus locked onto the bird behind it. Nature photographers will understand that latter is generally the kiss of death where you fall back to manual focus (if the bird stays long enough….), but these were the kind of results I got:

Great Egret Fly-by

Savannah Sparrow

I found the 100-400 autofocus on the XT-2 to be astoundingly fast and accurate. I rarely got mis-focus blurs on images. In a burst, the first image might be a bit soft, but by the second it had locked on and was quite good, consistently.

And then I found the swallows. And bird photographers will tell you that swallows are the bird that make you want to throw your gear in the lake and take up golf. They are fast and erratic flyers with few predictable patterns that help you plan a shot. Getting them in frame and in focus and in light and in a decent pose is an exercise in failure, and I’ve gone out to shoot swallows where I’ve spent hours and hundreds of frames and come out of it with one usable image. Or less. So if you can shoot swallows and get decent results, that to me is impressive.

I found about a dozen tree swallows hunting bugs along the water, and they were on and off congregating on a tree on the water’s edge.

Tree Swallow

And yes, I’m cheating just a bit here, knowing they had a favorite perch to use and fight over (at least until the Mockingbird showed up and claimed the tree and dispersed them…) — but still…

Tree Swallow

But still… And to be honest, much as I love the cranes dancing, this shot made my day. I don’t think I could get it with the Canon gear because the AF is slower and less reliable.

Tree Swallow

Or that one.

Tree Swallow

Or that one.

Gear Settings

If you’ve used Canon gear for wildlife work, you’ve probably heard of (and used) back button focus. That is where you disconnect Autofocus from the shutter button and attach it to the AF button on the back of the camera. This allows you to trigger the shutter with your finger and manage the AF via your thumb. It’s a godsend for cameras that have a tendency to refocus every time and end up blurring images because of it, which until the Fuji X-T2 was basically every autofocus system.

I set up the X-T2 that way, and to be honest, I mostly failed at taking decent pictures. Some of that is muscle memory in learning the timing of triggering focus, but that’s just not how this camera is built. So after an afternoon of frustration at things not working, I realized I had to treat the Fuji like a Fuji camera and not like a Canon with a funny name on it, and so I decided to turn on Autofocus and use it until I understood where it would fail — and then find ways to fix those.

Except basically, it never fails. I shot 700ish images this trip, and about a dozen were deleted because of autofocus failure. I could see that rate as high as 20% on the Canon 7DmkII. That doesn’t make everything a great (or good) picture, but it does make them technically sound.

There are lots of ways to tweak the focus system. On the front of the camera is a switch that sets it to Manual (effectively back button focus), single, or continous. With single, when engaged it’ll lock focus and stay there. With continuous it’ll continue to evaluate focus and adjust it if needed between frames. A side effect of that is that when shooting in burst mode it’s slower in continuous than it is in single.

Another way it can be tweaked is the area that the autofocus uses: it has three broad settings, point, region and entire screen, although that’s misleading, because the region size can be adjusted and the point can also be adjusted between a single point and a nine point square.

I’ve ended up setting up a button on the back of the camera to let me quickly shift between point, region and screen. I’ve set up another button (the FN button on the front of the camera) to let me quickly bring up the size adjustment, which uses the front wheel to change. Between those two, I can easily shift the AF systems around as needed without taking my eye off the screen, because the AF area is shown on the image screen in the viewfinder, so you can see the changes without looking at the back LCD.

I did a lot of experimenting with both single and continuous and region and and point modes. I found that I was happiest with the camera set up for single AF rather than continuous, and I found I got my best shots in point mode rather than region — but if I was shooting a wider angle shot with a lot of activity (say 200mm with ducks flying everywhere) I’d shift into region mode. Most of the time, shooting near 600mm, there’s a single bit I want in sharp focus, and the point mode is most useful for that.

That said, I found myself shifting the size of the point a lot, and I love that Fuji has that capability. using the 3×3 most of the time worked great, especially if the subject got a bit out of center of the image, but when I was fighting clutter, I could easily shift to that single point, aim that through the clutter and usually lock on. And with the engage button on the front near the wheel, it quickly became almost painless to do this.

Another thing I learned quickly: with autofocus this fast, you can simulate continuous mode by repeatedly lifting and pressing the shutter to re-engage focus at a new point. Almost a tap-tap-shoot-shoot-tap-shoot-tap-shoot to keep a bird flying at an angle to you in focus. It quickly became second habit and worked quite reliably.

You can also use the joystick on the back of the camera to adjust where the center of the AF area is, so if the subject isn’t centered in the screen, you can easily move the AF point around to cover it. Again, this is easy to do without descending into the menus, and soon becomes a habit without removing your eye from the viewfinder.

Fuji has one other configuration option: you can set its sensitivity parameters for seeking and locking on. It comes with five pre-set options (look at this Fuji page for details). I found using option 2, for moving objects with AF ignoring obstacles, worked best for what I was doing.

Weak spots of the X-T2 and 100-400

So, in case it’s not obvious, I’m quickly learning to love this setup for my field work. The Fuji X-T2 is a stunningly good camera body, and the 100-400 is sharp, even on a teleconverter, with good contrast and amazingly fast and accurate autofocus.

It’s not perfect, though. Here are a couple of things I’ve found that could be better.

First, look at how the 100-400 handles specular highlights:

American Coots

See those dots? Do you find them distracting and kind of ugly? I do. That’s what happens to a specular reflection with the 100-400. Fortunately, they are fairly rare in general use, and easy to fix in Lightroom. But it’s definitely an aspect of the lens I’m not thrilled with — but pretty much the only one.

And remember the joystick I mentioned on the back of the X-T2? the overall design of the back of the X-T2 is a massive refinement over the X-T1 and the addition of the joystick is good, but I find I’m hitting it inadvertantly and moving my focus point around without realizing it as I’m working through a shot. I think part of this is because I’m left-eye dominant and so my face is up against it, and between the fingers in the area and my nose, I’m bumping it and moving the focus point around. oops. I’ll have to work on technique to see if I can eliminate this glitch.

Finally, batteries. In the field, I was seeing 300-350 shots per battery. This is massively less than the Canon 7DmkII and feels less than the X-T1 (but I didn’t do enough field shooting with that body to be able to say for sure). On my shoot this week I went through about two and a half batteries, filling one 32 gig card and partially filling a second for about 725 images.

With the bigger sensor comes more bits. And with the bigger, more complicated AF systems comes more computational work to lock focus. And a much improved exposure system. All with the same battery as the X-T1. So I’m not surprised it eats more batteries, but you shouldn’t be surprised out in the field, and so I think it’s a good idea to plan to carry an extra one (or two, or three) to be sure. I might typically do a day’s field shooting with a battery, or two, but now I’m planning on at least 3 for a busy, 1000+ image day, and I’m going to be carrying at least five or six with me to be sure I don’t run short. The good news: the Wasabi version of the batteries hold more power than the fuji, are cheaper, and I’ve found them both good and reliable to date.

And with the bigger images, a 32Gig SD card only holds about 700 images. Plan on carrying more cards, or start upgrading to bigger ones. All my cards from now on will be 64Gigs; the good news is prices of these have come down so that you won’t wince badly when buying them…

Overall I’m massively happy with the Fuji X-T2. it passed its field test easily. And stop and think about the images above: look at the dark blue of the water and the color in the skies. How many cameras can you think of when taking these kinds of images where the skies get blown out and colorless? Or to get the exposure on the bird or animal right you have to fight to keep the water from going pale and sickly?

Those images are all with very light touches in Lightroom; nothing required even minor surgery, much less significant work. Which makes me think the simplification of the process of doing the images will save me a bunch of time in the digital darkroom, too…

So two thumbs up from me on this; it’s clearly my new birding rig moving forward. Well done, Fuji.