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White-tailed kite hunting at Ellwood Mesa

White-tailed kite at Ellwood Mesa in Goleta, California. Click above to see larger. Much more after the jump.

Same bird diving after prey in the meadow.

And then joined a buddy in a nearby shrub.

Didn't follow my instructions to fly in front of a rising moon, but close enough.

I had never heard of Ellwood Mesa until visiting on Saturday. Wow. What a great place. It has a monarch butterfly sanctuary, meadows, bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean and big, wide and empty beaches. It's located about 12 miles north of downtown Santa Barbara; more info and directions here

As for this sequence of photos...I'm pretty happy with them. The top photo is perhaps the best image I've captured this year. It's brutally simple: raptor, sky, mountains. That's it. Nothing else to distract the eye. 

All the photos were taken with my Nikon D5100 and Nikon 70-300mm telephoto lens. The photos were taken in the hour before sunset so the light was quite awesome. Although the area is heavily visited, the kites weren't very shy and went about their business of hunting in the meadows behind the bluffs. 

The top photo is interesting for another reason. It's heavily cropped -- I threw out about 75 percent of the original image in order to get a tighter view of the bird. The downside of this is that it will limit the size I can print the image. The cropped version is about 4 megabytes, meaning that to get a good 8 x 12, I'll have to print at a resolution far below the ideal of 300 dpi. 

Solutions for this?: 

1. Get an even bigger telephoto lens. My 70-300mm lens is actually a lens for full-frame cameras and is equivalent to 105-450mm on my Nikon DX 5100. There are even larger lenses but they come with a hefty price tag. The Nikon 80-400mm lens is only $2,700 and Nikon makes even longer lenses that cost in the neighborhood of 10,000 boxes of ziti. Ugh. 

2. I could get a teleconverter for my existing lens. Teleconverters sit between the camera body and a lens and magnify an image -- making it look like you're using a bigger lens. The long-standing issue is that teleconverters can degrade image quality and cut the amount of light coming into the camera. But they're a lot more affordable than telephoto lens -- a few hundred bucks versus a few thousand bucks. 

3. I could also get a camera with more megapixels. For example, if I was shooting with a 24mp Nikon D7100, I could toss 75 percent of the image away and still have 6mp left for printing purposes. My hunch is that in terms of image quality, I'd be spending a lot of money and not getting results that are noticeably different. 

4. Finally, one way to get closer to distant subjects is shoot with cameras that have smaller sensors with big lens -- i.e. a 4/3 mirrorless camera paired with a big telephoto lens. For example, a 75-300mm telephoto lens on a mirrorless camera is equivalent to a 150 to 600mm lens on a mirrorless. 

I'm not sure I need to do anything; I typically am pretty happy with 8 x 12 prints. The most sensible solution is to try a teleconverter with the 70-300mm and see how it does; I'm guessing it will work okay in good light but will inhibit shutter speeds. I'm sure I can find a deal on the used market. 

Check out more of my work on my Smugmug site where quality prints are available for good prices; 8 x 12s start at $11. And follow me on Twitter


These photos are ©Steve Hymon and may not be used elsewhere without my advanced written permission. All rights reserved.

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