It’s the start of a new year and a new decade today, Jan 1st 2020. I’m not usually one for new year’s resolutions, probably because I know that the things I ought to do around improving health, or not biting my nails, are destined to fail.
But I am pretty good at walking more than the average person. It’s tough to find the time to take on challenges at particular places – I wanted to tackle The Bruce Trail, but work makes it tough to get out to the trail. I still intend to pick that up, eventually.
In the meantime, I thought it might be cool to see if I could walk across Canada “virtually”. Obviously I don’t have a spare six months to do it in person, but I could take the distance I walk each day for all of 2020, and plot it on a map.
The route I will take will not be a simple straight line, but will roughly follow the route of the Trans-Canada Highway. This adds a fairly significant distance, but is more realistic.
The route is 8,871km (5,512 miles) and I’ll start on the West coast in Vancouver, British Columbia. I will head East through The Rockies, into Calgary in the province of Alberta, Regina in Saskatchewan, Winnipeg in Manitoba and then into my home province of Ontario. Adding considerable distance, The Trans-Canada Highway heads south into Toronto before heading to the capital, Ottawa. Into Quebec next and Montreal and Quebec City. In New Brunswick I will visit Fredricton and Saint John. Adding a ton more distance, I will diverge from the Trans-Canada to cross The Bay of Fundy so that I can hit Nova Scotia which would otherwise be missed. I’ll swing through Halifax, then head back North through Truro. Back in New Brunswick I’ll follow Highway 11 until I’m back in Quebec. At Matane, I’ll cross the St Lawrence river and finally head back east for a long walk to the border with Newfoundland and Labrador. At Blanc-Sablon I will cross The Gulf of St Lawrence into Newfoundland at Sainte Barb. Via Highway 430, I’ll rejoin The Trans-Canada at Deer Lake to Gander, Conception Bay and finally St John’s.
Walking aggressively across Canada via a more direct route (about 6100km) takes about 150 days. Driving non-stop takes about 160 hours (7 days).
I will try to do it in 366 days (it is a leap year). I will need to walk an average of about 25km every day, which I think will be tough, especially if I am sick at any point. My fitbit will log my steps which I will use to plot my progress and I’ll try to update about once per week.
It seems like every year Toronto based media gets into a tizzy about Red-winged Blackbirds attacking residents, with Liberty Village being the 2019 aerial attack hotspot.
BlogTO says a Blackbird is “terrorizing” the neighbourhood, as yellow police tape cordons off the area. In 2018, CTV News described the birds as a “menace” in their headline about a spate of “attacks”. Some city parks display signs that warn visitors that birds may exhibit aggressive behaviour after a number of people whinged to the 311 city helpline.
So what is going on?
Quite simply, Red-winged Blackbird survival and success is reliant upon the territory that they claim. As is the fate with many animals, humans are responsible for removing an ever-increasing amount of habitat.
In the northern reaches of their range (which would include Canada), these birds are migratory. To avoid our winter conditions they will travel south. They will return to Canada in time for Spring, but the males and females will generally arrive at different times.
Most people are familiar with the males which are all black in colour save for their red and yellow patches, called epaulets, on their wings. The female (pictured) is a pattern of light and mostly darker browns. She is less territorial and therefore less conspicuous.
The males arrive first, around early-to-mid March in the Toronto area. A few weeks later, the females will begin arriving and they will be looking for a mate. One of the main criteria for selecting a male is the territory that male has secured during those early weeks. These birds are polygynous and so a male Red-winged Blackbird who is able to defend a good piece of territory may have the opportunity to mate with up to 10 females who are somewhat loyal to him.
Red-winged Blackbirds prefer wetlands and marshes, where they nest amongst Cattails and rushes. Next time you are dive-bombed by a Red-Winged Blackbird, it might be worth asking yourself a couple of questions:
Where have all the wetlands and marshes have gone?
Where are those 10 lucky females?
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Extreme Cold Warning
When I announced my intention to end-to-end hike The Bruce Trail in stages, I have to admit that a few of the positive responses that I have received on this site and on social media have helped to spur me on a little. I had some spare time on “Blue Monday”, supposedly the saddest day of the year, and so I decided to try to “find my happy” by heading back down to The Niagara region. This happened to be on the same day that The Government of Canada issued an “Extreme Cold Weather Warning”. It could reach -35°C with the windchill, they said.
If you read about my hike through Bruce Trail Map 01, you’ll know that I slugged my way from Queenston Heights to just beyond “Fireman’s Park”, noting how unfit I had become in the last few months. Having done nothing to improve the situation, I repeated the car journey along “North America’s busiest stretch of highway”, The 401, then briefly onto The 427, then The Queen Elizabeth Highway (QEW) which was named to coincide with a visit to Canada from George VI and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in 1937.
You get a good view of the western edge of Lake Ontario as you pass over The Burlington Skyway, continuing to just before St. Catharines and the replica ship of La Grande Hermine that sits forlornly in Jordan’s Harbour. Such a strange effect was taking place during this frigid morning as low cloud hung over the lake and hundreds of arms of mist reached towards the sky like Poseidon grasping for the heavens.
Although I don’t think it ever really dipped as low as -35°C, it was cold enough that my breath would blow back at me, condensate in my facial hair, before freezing into pieces of ice. Despite this, my coat ensured that the rest of me never felt too cold.
Things didn’t start so well. Upon arrival, it appeared that the parking lot had not been ploughed, but I decided to drive forwards to get a closer look. My car got stuck in a snow-filled dip at the entrance and took a few minutes to free again. I parked on the side of the road and hoped not to annoy anyone.
Next up, I managed to go the wrong way! This was hugely frustrating, but my own fault. I took a different trail by mistake as a result of not preparing myself by…. you know… checking the map before I started. The side trail that I took by mistake was deep with snow and was an absolute killer on the steep terrain. After slipping and sliding my way up to the top of a ridge, I was gasping for breath. This is where I realised my mistake and I wondered just how far I would now be able to get with my energy depleted.
When I got back to the car, I still had trouble orientating myself. To save you from reading any more about this ridiculous situation, I think there were some old white blazes – the markings on trees and signposts that you follow. Plus I am easily confused as I age.
About 30 minutes later, the time already 11 am, I finally figured out where to pick up the trail from last time I was here, parallel to some Canadian National Railway tracks. I got a real thrill when one of CN Rail’s huge, powerful, long trains blustered through, billowing clouds of snow all over the place.
Progress along the trail began easily enough (considering the weather conditions) because someone had already been through with an all-terrain vehicle. I was able to tread in the tyre tracks that were left behind. After weaving up and down a couple of hills, the trail returned to the same old railway bed that it had also followed back near Queenston. This stretch of trail was even easier because the snow had been cleared almost entirely by a plough.
Continuing through a crop of young trees, suddenly the snow was back to being as deep as my shins and it was completely untouched – except for some deer tracks. I could hear rustling the rustling of the shy creatures just out of sight. The hiking became difficult at this point. I had to kick and drag my feet through the snow.
Somehow life hangs on through the harsh Canadian winter. At first glance, it can appear that the only living things in the snow-covered scene are the Cattails protruding from the surrounding frozen lagoons. But there are also flashes of the red
of StaghornSumac. A small number of birds flitted amongst them. Throughout today’s hike, I also saw many Dark-eyed Juncos, Blue Jays, several pairs of Cardinals and a very vocal Downy woodpecker that I heard before I saw it. His calling “ pik” sound is somewhat similar to that of the Northern Cardinal, but less metallic sounding, of a lower pitch and the note is held for longer.
Large parts of this section of trail are also shared with The Laura Secord Friendship trail (as well as the Trans-Canada trail, recently renamed “The Great Trail”, which traverses the length of Canada). Despite being the daughter of a patriot, Laura Secord married a loyalist named James who served under General Brock at The Battle of Queenston Heights. Although his militia enjoyed victory in Queenston, James was seriously wounded. Through 1813, he would be nursed back to health by Laura.
By the summer, The Americans had successfully invaded the Niagara region and soldiers were billeted in the Secord home. Legend has it that, as the soldiers ate their dinner, Laura Secord overheard talks of an American attack on the British position at Beaver Dams. The next day, she hiked 27km from just north of Queenston Heights (where I began my journey), to just south of St. Catharines. There, she met with a camp of Mohawk warriors who were allied to The British. They escorted her another 5km to Lieutenant James FitzGibbon so that she could impart her information. The Laura Secord Trail approximately follows her journey – a journey that is more than double the distance I have achieved so far.
During The Battle of Beaver Dams, native warriors closed in on the flanks of the 500 Americans and launched a surprise attack. British regulars joined later and agreed to call off the Mohawk warriors only if The Americans surrendered. Thanks to the information shared by Laura Secord, The Americans were out-manoeuvred and they duly surrendered. Laura Secord lived the rest of her life destitute, particularly after the death of her husband. She was not recognised during her lifetime, aside from a belated award of £100 from Edward VII (at the time he was The Prince of Wales) during a visit to what would have been “The Province of Canada” in 1860. The prince was told of Laura’s story, her contribution, and her current unfortunate financial state. These days, Laura Secord is a woman of great legend and a Canadian heroine.
As I had waded through more and more snow – a never-ending supply of snow – it became apparent that I was not going to cover a great distance today. I examined the map for the next parking area to make it easier to pick up the trail next time. There were three parking options all grouped together about 3km away, but I was exhausted. Even 3km seemed difficult. I was about 1km-2km away from a supposedly haunted tunnel (aptly named “The Screaming Tunnel”). Surely anything less than making it that far would be
There were slippery stone steps hidden beneath the snow. There were bits of trail that had been boggy, but were now frozen over with thin ice, also hidden by a layer of snow. Sometimes I would step on these hidden traps, the ice would collapse, and I would fall literally knee-deep into the water, winded by the impact. It was a hell of an effort to climb back to my feet after this happened for the third time. It was hazardous. I came across a drain whose cover had wide enough grates that you could easily lose a leg through it. It was only partly visible under the show.
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At this point, let’s take a little breather so that you get a break from what may sound like incessant complaining. I’m not complaining. It just happens to sound an awful lot like complaining. This was an arduous hike, but it was enjoyable in its own way. And I’ll get fitter. Right? RIGHT?!
A large pedestrian bridge crosses a stretch of The QEW highway that I would have driven under an hour or two ago. This bridge marks 10km from the beginning of The Bruce Trail and about 3km of progress made today. The bridge was free of snow, perhaps from the rising heat of passing vehicles or from the lateral direction of blowing wind. It felt so good to be out of the snow. My legs felt like they were floating on air.
A short distance later the trail turns to the right, through The Screaming Tunnel. A number of different interpretations of a ghost story surround the local name for this tunnel, which allows you to cross beneath The CN railway tracks. Some say that a young girl was set alight and ran for these tunnels screaming before her death. Another story tells of an unhinged woman who was hated by neighbours. After frequent quarrels and fights, she would travel to the tunnel at night to scream in her madness. If you stand in the tunnel at night and strike a match, the screams of the ghost will fill the air and a whoosh of wind will extinguish the flame.
The Bruce Guide warns that the tunnel is often filled with ice during winter, and it sure was! The culvert pictured ejects water that runs into the tunnel which was completely frozen in these sub-zero temperatures. It was uneven and had a sprinkling of snow which afforded me enough grip to make it through unscathed. At the other end of the tunnel, I turned left onto Warner Road.
After around 1.5km, the trail turns right off Warner Road onto the edge of some property. It then enters
WoodendConservation Area. That will have to wait until next time. For today, I found a fence to sit on and I ate some lunch. I am now 11.8km along The Bruce Trail. In two days, I have still only hiked about 1/3 the distance that Laura Secord completed! Not including the time I spent walking in circles when I first arrived, I travelled 5km. That doesn’t sound so great, but the conditions were pretty rough. That is my excuse.
Sitting still for a while felt good, but it did allow the cold to take hold for the first time, so I didn’t stay long. Walking back was very slow going and I was pretty much dragging my left leg by the time I got back to the car. I didn’t pass a single person on this section of trail, although there were several more cars parked on the side of the road once I had returned. Most people were in Firemen’s Park sledging or snowboarding down the slopes.
It will be a disaster if I don’t get to The Welland Canal next time!
I’m not sure when I will get back out here because of some potentially good news for the first time in a long time. Stay tuned.
I dropped my wife off at work in Markham and assured her I would be back to pick her up at her finish time of 6 pm. No, no, I won’t be late. Yes, yes, I’m sure. The previous night I had prepared for this hike. I had packed The Bruce Trail Reference Guide, I had charged my DSLR camera, my mobile phone, and my backup battery. More importantly, I had dug out the long-johns that were bought for me as a parting gift from my mother back in 2007 during her blind panic that I was emigrating from England to Canada – a frozen land of igloos still to be tamed by the pioneers.
It took about two hours to arrive at Queenston Heights, not far from The Niagara River on another unseasonably warm day that has been typical of our 2018-2019 winter. This end of The Bruce Trail is marked with the “Southern Terminus Cairn” in Queenston Heights Park. I have marked the parking with a hastily drawn dark blue ‘X’ on the map. It is handily close to public washrooms, which I made good use of after downing a Tim Hortons Double-Double along the commute. The parking was almost empty on this December weekday, but I’m sure I would have been pulling teeth trying to find a spot during the summer.
The War of 1812
The Bruce Trail begins at the cairn shown as a red pin on the map and photographed in the image above. The trail initially works its way through the park. During The War of 1812, this was the scene of The Battle of Queenston Heights. Perched upon the top of an imposing 185ft column is the statue of Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, built on the crest of a hill so that he can continue his watch for invading American forces some 200 years after his death. This British general, so widely regarded in this part of the world, was shot in the chest and killed here, but his forces were still victorious, forcing an American surrender. Brock had earlier captured Detroit with the help of his ally, the Native American Warrior Chief Tecumseh.
The War of 1812 has captured my imagination since I emigrated to Canada. What I find particularly interesting are the different interpretations that people have.
- Many Brits have never heard of it. It is considered a series of battles in which Britain was mostly victorious, that form a minor part of The Napoleonic Wars.
- Although Upper Canada was a British colony at the time, Canadians see this conflict as Canada’s war and their own victory over The United States. It forms part of the Nation’s identity, especially in Southern Ontario.
- Strangely, the widely held view of Americans is that they were victors of a war they started, lost more troops in, and in which resulted in a state of status quo ante bellum (territory was returned to each country).
Once I had navigated the manicured grass, playground, and the closed-for-the-season cafe, the trail turned into woodland and traced the edge of what would have been a bluff along the shore of Lake Iroquois. I have talked about this great, ancient lake that was a forerunner to Lake Ontario, in my now rather dated documentary videos that you can probably still find on Youtube (if you must). Were Lake Iroquois still here today, half of Toronto would be underwater. Northwards and to my right, the terrain dropped off around 200 feet to where the shore of Lake Iroquois would have been, but instead of ancient waters, today there were lightly snow-dusted farmland, golf courses, and one of the many vineyards that the Niagara region has become known for. As I walked over the hard frozen ground, I thought to myself about the workers who are often woken during the early hours of the year’s first frost to urgently pick the sweet Niagara grapes, a crucial moment in time for the successful production of Ice Wine.
The Bruce Trail Reference Guide breaks the colossal Bruce Trail into 42 maps or sections, and when I had set off on this journey I had hoped that one map per hike would be reasonable. I was keen to not have to drive too many journeys to and from the trail as it is quite far from my home and thus expensive in gas. However, it was becoming apparent quite early on that this was laughably optimistic. I had set out to film myself completing this hike with the idea of uploading an episode-by-episode documentary. There was no way I could follow through on this. Recording slowed me down far too much. I also brought my dSLR camera, but even this felt like a burden. On future hikes, I would have to travel much lighter to make better progress and suffer less from equipment weight. The other problem with an end-to-end hike is that I have to park my car, walk the trail…. but then double-back to return to my car, effectively doubling the length of the trail.
I pushed on. To the south, a huge crater in the earth revealed itself to be an abandoned quarry. I have read about an old mine hidden around here that is explored by people far braver than I am. Also of interest, just before reaching the quarry, there is a large rusted iron structure which I initially assumed might be mining equipment, but further research suggests that this is a Cold War-era antenna tower built in the 1950s and used as part of the Distant Early Warning system.
A side trail branched off to the left and passed through huge cliff-like boulders. This seemed like a good spot to rest and take lunch. I ate a sandwich, some fruit, and a granola bar. I quenched my thirst with some water while I again examined the guide map. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I had hoped to make it as far as the Welland Canal today. Maybe with less faffing around and early-morning traffic. Plus I needed to get back to Markham on-time, remember? Time for a new goal. It would make sense to stop somewhere with parking to make it easier to pick up the trail next time around. Therefore, I decided to aim for “Fireman’s Park”.
After 3-4km, the trail drops very steeply in a zig-zagging pattern straight down The Escarpment. With the ice and snow, I considered the possibility that I might have to scoot down the rockier sections of the descent on my backside. The idea of having to come back this way did not fill me with joy. At the bottom of the slope, the trail turned left and followed the route taken by what used to be the New York Central Railroad, though the sleepers and rails are long gone. At this point, I had made it to where maps one and two of The Bruce Trail Reference Guide overlap. A moment of celebration, I suppose. Although I think the first map is probably the shortest of all the sections!
My Alan Patridge Moment
For my Canadian readers, I’m Alan Patridge is a British comedy series about a cheesy washed-up television presenter teetering on the edge of mental collapse. In one episode, out of lonely desperation, Alan decides to walk rather than drive along an inappropriately busy road, traffic whooshing past, to get to a gas station to buy some pointless supplies. For no right-minded reason, he completes this journey whilst singing the theme tune to the James Bond film Goldfinger.
And so, while the trail was interrupted for a few hundred yards by Niagara Regional Road 100, I too found myself murdering the theme tune to Goldfinger, nonchalantly skipping along trying to ignore the cars whooshing past me. This may have been a tribute to one of my comedy favourites. Or it may have been a man teetering on the edge of mental collapse!
The trail turned right into more woodland, muddy in parts, with a couple of more difficult climbs. There was a lot of weaving around and I think there may have been some re-routing as I had to reorient myself a lot, but the trail ultimately emerged onto Dorchester Road near some railway tracks. I walked on a few more meters to just past where “Fireman’s Park Side Trail” splits off. To continue from here in the future, I would be parking a few hundred meters along from this side trail. I stopped for something more to eat and to contemplate.
When I was driving into Niagara from Toronto, I passed roadsigns for locations that I knew I would hike through along The Bruce Trail. I passed a road sign for Ball’s Falls Conservation Area as I drove along the Queen Elizabeth Highway on the way to starting this adventure. When driving, it seemed SO close to Queenston Heights. But I had barely managed to scratch off map one. Ball’s Falls Conservation Area isn’t until map four. What have I let myself in for?!
I finished eating and began the long journey back to my car. By the time I reached Niagara Regional Road 100 and my Alan Patridge moment, I had a desperate, burning desire to google taxi firms or to hail an Uber for the first time (perhaps not a bad idea for the future when I have an income!). By the time I reached the horrible climb back up the escarpment, I thought that perhaps my future would be spent living in these woods. The Quarry had trebled in size from when I had passed it the first time. The Cold War iron structure was a Tyrannosaurus Rex from which I could not outrun.
I enjoy hiking, but I have lost some fitness over the last few years. I will need to quickly get used to longer distances than this. As mentioned, I’d be bringing much less with me in future (I had a pain in my shoulder from the straps of my bag which lasted for three days). As I emerged back in Queenston Heights Park, I spied General Brock long after he would have spied me. I enjoy the affinity I feel for this “Loyalist” part of the world.
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Driving back to Markham through Toronto in the afternoon was a bigger nightmare than I had imagined due to the awful traffic through the city. And as for my earlier guarantee of being back on time? My wife was delighted that I was somehow 40 minutes late (kidding – she was quite good about it).
The next leg of this epic journey will take place where I left off at Fireman’s Park and I will pass through a haunted tunnel.
I also welcome any feedback on this article. I know it is longer than those I normally write. Too long? I would love to hear from you in the comments below. Thank you for reading if you made it this far!
This is part two of my series on understanding your camera’s exposure settings. Part one is about ISO.
Hopefully, you have a good grasp of ISO by now and you are almost ready to start getting your fancy camera out of “Auto” mode. I mentioned in the first part of this three-part series of articles, that getting out of auto mode allows you to be more creative with your camera and that this begins with understanding three primary settings.
I had mentioned that ISO was the easiest concept of the three exposure control settings to understand, but shutter speed is very easy, too.
Here is something obvious: A photograph is made by capturing light.
Your camera controls the amount of light that is captured.
Imagine you are wandering along with your camera. Light is all around you. It is bouncing off everything, and some goes into the lens of your camera. The lens takes that light and focuses it into a tiny spot.
Because the shutter on your camera is closed, the light doesn’t make it (far) into your camera. To allow the light to get into the camera, you have to press the “shutter release button”. The big one that takes a photo!
The shutter release button causes the shutter to open then close, allowing a certain amount of light to pass into the camera body. The light is then detected by the sensor, and your camera builds a photograph. You can change how long the shutter stays open for, and this will control the amount of light entering the camera, and therefore the exposure of the photograph.
Think of this example. Even if you understand now, this exercise will help with part three when we talk about aperture.
- Imagine you have a piece of pipework that carries water.
- The pipe has two controls. We are only going to worry about one of them.
- The control we care about is the on/off button.
- When the pipework is “on”, water can flow. Otherwise, no water can pass.
- We also have a bucket.
We want to fill the bucket “perfectly”. We want it filled to the brim, but we do not want to spill any.
Therefore, there is an exact amount of time that we need to have the pipework “switched on”. If it isn’t on for long enough, the bucket is underfilled (the photo is underexposed – too dark). If it is on for too long, water spills and ruins your carpet (the photo is overexposed – too bright).
The range available to you will depend on your camera. But to give a couple of examples, I have a Samsung Galaxy S8 and my Nikon in-front of me.
Samsung Galaxy: 1/24000 – 10
If I put my camera in “pro” mode, I can change the shutter manually to “1/24000”. This is the fastest the shutter will operate and it just means one twenty-four-thousandth of a second. I can move it to the slowest speed, which is “10”, or simply, ten seconds.
Nikon DSLR: 30″ – 8000
Controls vary by camera, but if I put my camera dial into the M, S, or P modes (more on this in a future article), I am able to change my shutter speed with one of the control dials. If I turn it all the way, it will say “Bulb”. Again, more on that shortly! One click back again and 30″ is the slowest. This is thirty seconds. Much like the Samsung, but Nikon has added quote marks so that you know it is seconds (and not one thirtieth of a second). At the fast end, 8000 is simply one eight-thousandth of a second.
If you camera is in bulb mode, it simply means that the shutter will stay open for as long as you hold the button down on the camera. A common use of this feature is in astrophotography, where photos of stars in the dead of night need a long time to expose.
For any type of photography where you have the shutter open for a longer period of time, you are going to need extra equipment, some of which I have mentioned in the column opposite.
Why Use Manual Shutter Speeds?
Most of the time, your camera will select the right speed for you, but it will generally try to “freeze” action.
Sometimes, you might want to be creative. Ever see those photos of waterfalls where the water looks creamy and white? It looks that way because the shutter was manually selected to remain open longer. The water is actually blurred and looks milky.
How about shots where crowds of people are walking through a busy street and everyone is a blur? Similar technique.
Long Exposure Equipment
If your shutter will be open for more than, approximately 1/80th of a second, you will need a tripod. It is around this setting that you will no longer be able to keep the camera steady enough when holding by hand.
One of the best tripod brands is Manfrotto, and the MK290XTA3-3WUS is a good choice for most work.
The MK290XTA3-3WUS is available from Amazon Canada and Amazon UK .
You’ll also want to investigate remote shutter options and maybe an ND-Filter, but they go beyond the scope of this article.
Sometimes you might want the shutter to operate more quickly. Perhaps at a sporting event or during wildlife photography, where animals can move quite suddenly. Altering your shutter speed manually could help you here.
Remember, ISO changes the sensitivity of your camera (thus how much light will then be needed). Shutter speed changes how long the shutter is open (thus how much light is received by the camera).
They work in tandem.
If you increase the ISO (sensitivity), the shutter can operate faster because it doesn’t need to be open as long. But remember that a higher ISO can introduce more noise.
If you increase the shutter speed (more light gets in), the ISO can be lower. This reduces the noise… but if the camera or the subject in your photo moves, you’ll risk getting a blurred photograph.
It is a question of priorities and balancing the two settings.
This article is about the principles of these settings and is not intended to be an exhaustive list of all possible situations and their ideal settings.
But… while you wait for part 3 on aperture, have a think about what photograph you would like to capture. A waterfall? A sporting event? Just hop onto Google and search for what priority your settings should have for the situation you are interested in. As you practice and actually try things out, you will come to realise how it all fits together.
I hope this article was of help. I will leave you with a couple of photographs I have taken where altering the shutter speed was a primary part of the final result.
This photograph was taken early in the morning, with the sun rising up behind the silhouetted tree. It was still dark. Therefore, I left the shutter open for longer, helping to expose the photo better. As a bonus, having the shutter open for longer can sometimes lead to capturing bolder colours, like in this sky.
Did you receive a new camera for Christmas or a birthday?
Or perhaps you are one of many people who has had a camera for a while but never did figure out what “Aperture” is. Let me guess, your camera has been stuck in “Auto” mode for a while now?
Good news: It’s not too difficult to understand your camera’s exposure settings, and once you do, it will unlock some of your camera’s potential. A lot comes down to balancing three primary settings. I will write about each, starting with ISO. So read on!
The easiest exposure setting to get to grips with is ISO. It stands for International Standards Organisation, which doesn’t really help us, but if you remember film cameras, it will help you to understand ISO. Film is rated by a number such as 100, 200, usually up to around 1600, and all it means is that the higher the number, the more sensitive to light the film is. In practical terms, this means:
- 100 Film is for outdoors or places with lots of light. It is “fast” and can freeze action, like sport. But in difficult, poorly lit conditions, photos come back way too dark.
- 1600 Film is for darker conditions, like barely lit indoor locations. But in any kind of fast moving action, your photos come back blurred.
- Faster film (100, 200…) will typically be sharper and less grainy than slower film (800, 1600).
- You’d be tempted to opt for, say, 400 film…. More forgiving in dark areas than 100 film and less potential blur than 800 film.
- But this is the analogue equivalent to locking-in and restricting your creativity!
Your digital camera (maybe even the one built into your mobile phone) has the same ISO setting, but unlike a film camera where you are committed to the same film until it’s finished, you can change the ISO setting on a digital camera at any time. The setting is usually in the menu of your camera and it controls how sensitive the sensor is (instead of the film).
On my Nikon: Menu > Photo Shooting > ISO sensitivity settings > ISO sensitivity
- Makes the camera LESS sensitive to light – for when there is plenty of light
- Photo will be SHARPER (if you focus properly).
- To compensate, your shutter may have to be open for longer (article on shutter speed – coming soon)
- Makes the camera MORE sensitive to light – for if it is darker
- Photo will start to degrade. Noise will make the image less sharp.
- To compensate, your shutter may have to be open for less time (article on shutter speed – coming soon)
REMEMBER: All three settings I talk about in this blog balance together for your final image and changing one may impact the other two. See Shutter Speed (coming soon) and Aperture (coming soon).
Final Takeaways on ISO:
You want the lowest possible setting in almost every situation to eliminate as much noise as you can. You will need to learn your camera’s tolerance for dealing with a higher ISO. High end cameras will allow for a higher ISO with less noise than a mobile phone camera, which generally have a lot of noise that they try to filter out automatically (but this reduces sharpness). It’s why all those photos on Instagram taken on a mobile look great in bright conditions on a small screen, but an enlargement of an evening photo… well you don’t see too many of those, do you?
Your camera will select the correct ISO in MOST situations. In wildlife photography (with sudden movements) or darker environments, your camera will usually select a setting which is too low. If ISO is too low, your shutter has to open longer, and this leads to blurring.
I hope this helped you to understand ISO and how it relates to exposure settings. I have an article on Shutter Speed and one on Aperture is coming soon, and reading those should make it all start to fall into place.
Note: This guide applies to North-Eastern North America, but the general principles apply elsewhere with some variances in the names of birds.
There is a lot of joy to be found watching birds in your backyard, and it’s a great way to get photographs. Birds will get used to you once you have been at this for a while, allowing you to get a little closer. With a half decent camera and lens, and a tripod, you’ll have plenty of opportunities.
When you first start feeding birds, things can be a little slow. It can take some time before birds develop a routine for visiting your feeder. This page will help you to ensure that the food you are providing is correct, and will give you some tips on what birds will eat.
There are a huge array of different feeders that you can use, and you’ll want to find a balance between what looks great decoratively versus what works practically. If you have space in your yard, I highly recommend using more than one feeder for the widest array of birds. Some birds will use certain feeders, but others will not/can not. Let’s take a look.
Bird Feeder Types
Bird Table (1): This could be a traditional looking wooden bird table or just a wire or plastic dish as shown in the picture. Essentially, something that provides a flat surface. Almost all birds can use these, and it would just depend upon the food you provide. You would need a separate feeder for hummingbirds. Goldfinches may visit, but prefer their own feeder. This type of feeder can easily become overwhelmed by less desirable birds like House sparrows and, if it is large enough, Mourning doves, Grackles and Blackbirds.
Hanging Tube Feeder (2): This type of feeder will be visited by most birds, depending upon the food offered and the size of the feeder. If it is smaller in size, it will likely swing around too much for larger birds like Blue Jays.
Hanging Wire Feeder (3): This feeder is best for woodpeckers and nuthatches for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is ideal for holding peanuts. Secondly, both species of bird are adept at clinging to the feeder.
Humming Bird Feeder: These are typically plastic and are filled with sugar water or similar nectar like liquids. See below for more on this, but PLEASE take care when feeding hummingbirds. Choose a feeder that is red with a yellow feeding area. This is most attractive to hummingbirds.
Finch Feeder: Goldfinches often hang upside down in the wild. There are special tube feeders, like the one pictured, that allow them to hang from a perch with a hole in the tube below. They will be much happier with their own feeder that most other birds cannot use. Goldfinches much prefer nyger seed, so stick to this.
Suet Feeder: A suet feeder is typically a wire cage designed to hold suet, a fatty meat feed with some seeds. This type of feeder is most attractive to woodpeckers and nuthatches, but may get others.
Mixed feed: The type of stuff that you pick up at pet stores, and such. It contains a wide mixture of feed, but honestly, it tends to be of low quality and has a lot of corn in it. A lot of birds will literally pick through this type of food, throwing the corn and grains onto the ground, looking for the better stuff – like sunflower seeds. This feed has its place. Sparrows will eat it, so you can always provide it on one feeder, and better stuff on a different feeder!
Sunflower Seeds: Now we are talking! Most birds love to eat sunflower seeds. I recommend “Black Oiled Sunflower Seed”, which is smaller than normal sunflower seed and is black in colour. You can get bags of it at places like Canadian Tire, or buy it by weight at Bulk Barn. It has more protein than regular sunflower seeds and birds need lots of protein.
Peanuts: Blue Jays, Nuthatches, and Woodpeckers love peanuts. They contain lots of fat and protein to give them energy. These are best placed in a hanging wire feeder (see above). You can also buy peanuts inside the shell at places like Bulk Barn. These can be placed on bird tables. Ensure you buy UNSALTED.
Suet: Placed inside a suet feeder, you will attract many birds with this high fat, high protein food. It is most attractive to woodpeckers and nuthatches, but other hungry birds from Chickadees to Blue Jays (if the feeder is large enough) will eat it. Suet contains meat and fat – do not leave it out for extended periods. It will spoil and could cause harm to wildlife.
Nyger Seed: This is a favourite of Goldfinches and, if you are lucky, Pine Siskins. It is best used in a feeder specifically designed for Goldfinches (see above).
Sugar Water: Believe me, it’s pretty joyous when you get hummingbirds into your yard, but you do need to be cautious. Feed them sugar mixed with water. Aim for 1 part sugar for every 4 to 6 parts water. Do not be tempted to use more, as you could damage the hummingbird’s liver. You will need to empty and thoroughly clean the feeder every 2-3 days, as the sugar will ferment and could cause harm. Use a plastic hummingbird feeder. You could also re-purpose a hamster feeder, which may also attract Orioles. Both birds only visit Ontario during the summer. It is good practice to remove these feeders before the first frost to discourage birds from hanging around when it could get too cold for them.
Oranges: Half an orange placed upon a surface, perhaps nailed down or held in place with a stake, will be particularly attractive to Orioles. These birds are only in Ontario during the summer.
Do NOT use bread: Bread will fill birds up and reduce their hunger, but it contains next to no useful nutrients. Fill them with the seeds and grains mentioned above to help keep them healthy. This applies to wild birds and ducks too. Feeding the ducks is great fun, but bread is not a good food source. Please avoid it.
All creatures great and small! Everyone has to eat. But I get it. You don’t really want a bunch of grackles taking over your feeder and scaring away smaller birds.
Squirrels: Consider placing a baffle on the pole of your bird feeders. This is a curved disc that prevents them from climbing. Believe it or not, I have also coated my feeder pole in Vaseline. You need to apply it every couple of days, but squirrels are then unable to grip and slide down the pole. An amusing sight that is also not cruel or harmful.
Grackles, Crows, and Blackbirds: During the summer, Grackles and Blackbirds have a tendency to pour onto your feeder. This isn’t so bad. Most of the smaller birds that we tend to favour are less in need of non-naturally available foods at this time of year. However, if you really want to dissuade these birds, they tend to avoid Safflower seed. It looks a bit like sunflower seed but is white. The more desirable birds will usually continue to eat this while dissuading some of the birds you may not want. Safflower is a little more expensive and a little harder to find. Try Rona.
If you found this information useful and would like to learn more, I highly recommend the North American Birdfeeder Guide by Robert Burton and Stephen W. Kress. The information I have shared was partially gleaned from this book and is also stuff I have learnt on my own from when I ran a live webcam service, filming several birdfeeders in an Ontario backyard. This book takes things to a whole new level and will provide a ton of information on the birds you might see, all the way to helping you to design a garden with native species of plant that will attract birds. I wouldn’t recommend this book if I didn’t think it was genuinely a great resource.
I hope you found this information useful! All the best!
I recently took a family trip to Ripley’s Aquarium in downtown Toronto, and hoped to get some neat photos of the creatures there. Now be prepared; An aquarium is an extremely challenging environment to take photos, but I will share some tips and tricks so that you can make the most of your shooting time.
A quick note before I start. I’m not an activist, but I am keen that we take care of our environment, respect the creatures we share it with, and generally keep it clean. I don’t want to get too bogged down in this, but I also don’t want to feel like a hypocrite. There are many concerns about the impact that aquariums have on sea creatures in particular. Only around 5% of creatures are bred in aquariums. The rest are captured. Of those captured, around 80% die before reaching their destination. If you care to read more about this, please do. Moving on…
- Get there as soon as they open: Number One Rule! There will be fewer people frustrating you and getting in the way.
- Do NOT use Flash: The built-in flash on your camera nearly always sucks, but especially when you are shooting through glass. You’ll get reflections.
- Avoid curved glass: Shoot up against flat glass to reduce distortion.
- Pick your subject: Lighter coloured, reflective creatures are easier. Shoot creatures near to the glass. The more water between you, the more blur you will get.
The following tips apply to SLR cameras (not mobile phones) and more advanced users:
- Use a tripod: In these low-light conditions, a tripod will offer stability. Bonus points if you have a remote shutter release.
- Shoot in RAW: You will have way more freedom to fix images later
- Use manual focusing: Set your focus by taking a test shot and zooming in 100% on the LCD. Repeat until correct. Then set your camera to manual focus. Auto-focus is under extreme conditions and will frequently fail. It will try to focus on the glass, on reflections, on debris in the water… Even worse, some cameras will shine a light that normally helps it to focus. This will lead to worse reflections and may disturb some creatures that like the dark, such as octopodes.
And some technical tips and settings:
- Lens: Everything is about the low-light. You want the fastest lens you own in this situation. If you have more than one lens, look at the F number(s). If the lens can zoom, it will have a range of F numbers. For example, one of mine is quite slow at 4.5-5.6 and another is 3.5-5.6. I am going to choose the lens with 3.5 on it. Balance this against the practicalities of the lens (no point bringing in a 10-foot long telephoto lens).
- Aperture (F-stop): The lower the number, the more light enters the camera. So you want this as low as you can go. Just also bear in mind that the lower the number, the less depth of field you will have (the amount of the image that is in focus) and that this effect is also exaggerated the more that you zoom.
- ISO/Shutter: You want the ISO (how sensitive the camera is) as low as you can set it. The higher it is, the more noise there will be, especially in the dark. BUT, the lower the ISO, the lower (slower) the shutter has to be. You don’t want the shutter to be much lower than “60” (60th of a second). At this point, the shutter will be open too long and pictures will be blurred. These settings are all about balance and will vary from camera to camera. A high-end camera might be good as low as ISO200-300. Older, lower-end cameras might have to be in the thousands. You’ll have to fix noise afterwards.
Last of all:
- Include People: Don’t be afraid of including people in your shot. As silhouettes, they can help give a sense of scale.
- Consider cheating: I personally do not like adding, moving or changing the actual content of my photos. I prefer to only alter levels. However, many people, many successful people, edit their photos quite extensively. You can get a great result by taking multiple images and “compositing” them. In other words, copy and pasting fish from several photos into one overall image.
Hope this helps!