I wanted to get out of the house for a bit and do some gear testing, so I headed down to Moss Landing Harbor for a few hours. It’s generally a great place to watch and photograph otters and is about an hour away, and there’s a parking area quite close to where the otters hang out so it’s a very convenient place because I can photograph with a lot of gear without having to haul it around. Just add a camp chair and a sun hat and your set.

I had also seen reports that the Elegant Terns have returned from nesting in Mexico, so I was hoping I might get a chance to do some photography with them. As it turns out, there were over a thousand, and they had taken residence on a jetty very close to my preferred shooting location.

I’m starting to experiment with capturing audio; this first test was successful but not great, but I learned a lot about setup and dealing with the complexities of audio, so it was a useful experiment. I also started experimenting a bit with capturing video with the 2nd body. I also spent some time with the 2nd camera on a timer hoping to catch the tern flock in mass flight around the jetty, but somehow I set the camera to JPG instead of RAW, and the images just weren’t that interesting and I didn’t keep any.

With the main rig, I wanted to try out some changes to my autofocus settings. Dan Bailey has a new book out on the Fuji systems which had some interesting info on setting the AF and exposure systems and I wanted to try that out. I hadn’t been taking advantage of the priority customizations. The X-T2 has some preset configuration sets that can hint the AF system to the kind of conditions it’ll find.

I’ve typically shot with AF-Single, where the AF system locks on at the start of the burst and doesn’t refocus in the sequence. I wanted to see if I could get better results using AF-Continuous and one of the customization presets.

There are five presets available:

  1. Multi-Purpose
  2. Ignore Obstacles and Continue to Track Subject
  3. Accelerating/Decelerating Subjects
  4. Suddenly Appearing Objects
  5. Erratically Moving and Accelerating/Decelerating Subjects

I spent most of the trip in mode 2, trying it with the Fuji Point, Zone and Tracking area capabilities. I need to go back and test with the other modes, I’m especially curious how that fifth one will work with bird flight.

My end result, however, was pretty satisfying. I came back with a full card of images (around 1300), and in reviewing them in Lightroom, my ding rate for exposure failure with the X-T2 is effectively zero. I ended up with about an 12% ding rate for focus failure, where I deleted images that on first look were clearly out of focus or where the focus point locked onto the wrong part of the image.

A second, more careful edit then removed another 5% or so where the focus failure was a more subtle.I ended up dumping around 300 images in the sharpness evaluation, which compares very favorably with my typical edits of this kind of shoot. Conditions were fairly challenging for AF, since the terns are pure white birds with some black highlights, and they were mostly sitting on dark granite rock heavily stained by bird poo (1500 non-housebroken birds will do that quickly). The light was good for this in a way, with strong marine layer overcast giving me soft and even light but the end result is everything, including the water, went a bit grey with muted colors, so the AF was stuck trying to pull out white birds on light to dark grey backgrounds.

I found the results pretty impressive, especially since a large percentage of the focus dings came from three bursts where focus never locked; those few absolute failures accounted for almost a third of the focus failures.

So overall, my initial hesitance to use continuous focus was misplaced. It seems to be quite reliable and stays locked pretty well, where the single focus may start locked on the subject, but if it’s flying at an angle to you, it’ll go out of focus fairly quickly. the tradeoff is that your burst mode is somewhat slower, but I was still seeing 4-5 frames a second which is more than acceptable.

Elegant Terns

Elegant Terns

Elegant Terns

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Spin Dry

I continue to be fascinated by Otters doing the spin dry movement during grooming. Otters groom a lot, because they work to add air to their fur because it insulates them from the cold water. One common move can only be described as the spin dry where they more or less shake like a wet dog and eject the water out of their fur. Trying to photograph that behavior, I’ve found the look in a photo can be fascinating, and so if I see an otter grooming, I’ll invariably stop what I’m doing and try to capture the action.

Moss Landing Harbor

And besides, otters seem to enjoy this.

Moss Landing Harbor

Otters are just fun animals to watch. I could sit and photograph them every day. Maybe some day I will.

Another common behavior is otters holding their hands and feet out of the water. This also limits heat loss to the cold water, since these are areas with less or no fur, and so will leak more heat out of the body when in the water.

Moss Landing Harbor

Sea Otter

Other birds seen

A bit of a surprise to me, but when I arrived, just below my shooting position I found three Common Loons, each in a different look with their plumage, hauled out on shore and resting. All seemed healthy, and two of them waddled into the water and left fairly quickly after my arrival, but the third seemed happy to hang out for another 30 minutes or so before leaving as well. There are almost always common loons in the harbor year round, especially younger birds in summer.

Common Loons Resting on the Shore

Another fairly common bird there is the Red-Breasted Merganser. I saw one female, who was hanging around near the terns near a couple of Surf Scoters.

Red-breasted Merganser Female

The Brown Pelicans are back from nesting in Mexico. They, along with Heerman’s Gulls and west coast terns travel south into Mexico to nest and raise their young, then return north once the chicks are fledged. The last few years have been tough on all species, especially Heerman’s Gulls which had almost complete colony failures two years in a row. This year from reports things seem better, but the warming water is pushing their food supplies north and away from the nesting areas. The terns have been moving their nesting sites north, but the gulls and pelicans are still struggling to feed their young.

This pelican soared by, and I noticed it was tagged. Say hello to N44, which indicates at some point it was captured and rehabilitated by the International Bird Rescue group. I’ve reported the tag siting to them since it helps them understand both survival rates of released birds and their travel patterns over time. I’m hoping to hear some details of this one from them soon.

Brown Pelican in flight

I also was visited by some Brewer’s Blackbirds, who were hoping I had snacks to share. When they noticed I didn’t, they left again.

Brewer's Blackbird

I also saw, but didn’t photograph, a pair of White-Crowned Sparrows. Moss Landing is one of the places where these birds breed in California and are resident year round, so it’s a place you can find this species in summer when most of them are far north in Canada breeding.

You can see all of the photos from this trip over on my Smugmug site. You can also see some photos I’ve finally processed from an earlier trip in July there as well.

With a bit of luck, I’ll get back down there sometime this week for some more testing. And otters.