Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Eagle and the Snake

I've been lucky enough to work in Uganda over the last couple of years and this has given me the fantastic opportunity to photograph some of Uganda's amazing wildlife.

I certainly don't profess to be any sort of bird or wildlife expert, far from it in fact, and before working in Africa I could hardly tell one bird species from another. However, when it comes to birds of prey, even they generally get the attention of many a non-ornithologist.

As they generally say, the best photographs require a high degree of luck and this one was no exception. A friend and I had gone for a drive in the Kabyoya Game Reserve, a small region around Kaiso on the eastern shore of Lake Albert in Albertine Rift valley of north west Uganda. Not far from us was the Lake Albert Safari Lodge and quite a lot of the normally high savannah grass had been burnt to the ground in the annual burnings. This is a good time for eagles, as normally hidden prey is revealed and less well camouflaged against the blackish brown, scorched earth, and stubble. Prey is one the move, trying to escape the burnings. We spotted the Brown Snake Eagle in a tree top and pulled over to try and take some photos. My friend sported a Pentax with 50-500mm Sigma lens, me with my trusty Canon 5D and my EF 100-400mm, f4.5-5.6 Zoom. Contrary to most wildlife blogs we don't have time for tripods and hours of waiting, ours is a few hours to catch what we can, so everything is shot hand-held from a car window. Image stabilisation (IS) I find invaluable.

I only managed to fire off a couple of frames (being on the passenger side) before the eagle took flight. Another disappointment. We drove on, just passed the tree, when suddenly there is a faint flash of something light coloured off to the drivers side, the next thing I hear is "It's got a snake!". The eagle had swooped down the other side of the tree and caught a cobra; the flash being the underbelly of the snake as it writhed around the Eagles talons, one talon firmly fixed on the cobras head. We pulled up as close as we dare and started shooting as fast as possible. I had to shoot across the driver so there was no time for even thinking about composition, just get the photo. I managed about 18 frames during which the eagle bit off end of the snakes tail, cloaked it's prey, then it flew off back to the top of tree grasping the wriggling cobra. I keep my camera set on AV, apperture wide open, with only the centre focus point enabled. I try to focus on the eye and quickly re-frame. It usually works well.

I was pretty sure I'd got a good shot but was disappointed when I saw the frames uploaded to Lightroom later on. There was a long blade of grass bowed over and blurred in the foreground which went right across the eagle in every frame. The burnt stubble background was almost as dark as the bird and several frames weren't that sharp. None of the snake were sharp.

It was several months later however, when I took another look and my shots. Really they weren't that bad, perhaps I'd been too critical at the time, it was perhaps ok the snake wasn't that sharp. Time for a bit of Photoshop and Lightroom work. I patiently cloned out the offending blade of grass, together with a distracting leaf in the foreground, adjusted the contrast, clarity, vibrance and saturation to make the bird's colours stand out as much as I could against the brown background. To finish off I applied a gradual blur to the background to accentuate the lens bokeh, sharpened the eagle and cropped the frame; this did the trick. Now I had a decent photograph, one that I was pleased with anyway.

Back up Devices - The Drobo

I can't stress the importance of backing up your data and image files as in the past I've been guilty of not doing this on a regular enough basis, and I have almost paid the price. I went for years without any hard drive failures at all, and was lured into the false sense of security that these devices were almost infallible. However, in the last year I've had 4 hard drives fail, and these were not some cheap makes either. I've had 2 external hard drive system crater, a 320 GB LaCie drive and a Western Digital 1.0 TB MyBook. Recently I've had a relatively new Seagate Barracuda fail in my Desktop and I lost my whole system. The makers replaced this under warranty but it left me without my main PC for some time and a further several days re-installing all my software. On top of that a hard drive failed in a Toshiba Satellite notebook at work. All this has made me totally rethink my back up strategy and change my set up.
External hard drives seem relatively cheap these days and present a very attractive option for back up and storage, with 1.0 TB drives selling for as little as £80 here in the UK and $100 in the US,. Having 3 such devices had worked fine for me for quite some time. However the recent problems and having over a Terabyte of image files and growing, a major reassessment was due. I looked at various RAID arrays, NAS units and even Home servers as options, but all seemed overly complicated. I wanted something I could just plug in and my photo's would be protected, irrespective of drive problems. Then I found the Drobo.

Made by Data Robotics Inc., the Drobo is a sleek, black, metal housing (smaller than a shoebox), that holds up to 4 Sata hard drives that you can simply slide straight in by removing the magnetically held cover on the front. Not only does it look cool, you can mix and match drives and capacities and all your data is protected even if a hard drive fails. It even warns you if a drive is having problems and needs replacing. Run out of capacity; simply pull out a drive and add a larger one. When I first saw these I thought yes, that's exactly what I need, then I saw the price, over £500 in the UK and that was without any drives. Well some time has passed since then and Drobo version 2 is out which supports firewire 400/800 as well as USB 2.0. The good news is that they are easily available in the UK and prices have fallen significantly. There are still not cheap min you, but with the fall in HD prices and my recent problems I bit the bullet and order one.

I'm not going to give a review of the Drobo here; there are plenty of other sites you can google that present in-depth reviews and all the technical details. Suffice to say, I've been living with my Drobo for a few months now and it has performed flawlessly. It's so simple to set up, just turn on and add the drives. I have mine populated with a few Samsung Spinpoint 1.5TD Eco Green drives and 0.5 TB drive I rescued from the remains of 1.0 TB WD MyBook that failed. It comes with a simple but adequate back up program, and Drobo dashboard, a small footprint, memory resident program, that monitors the Drobo and your drive space. I have my Drobo configured as one single 16 TB drive (the maximum), which is what Windows Vista sees the drive as, although I don't have anywhere near 16 TB installed. Hence I can add more drives when I need more space. It's that simple.

I wonder why nobody has come up with a system like this before, it's simplicity itself. Now wouldn't it be great if all PC's had this built in. Just think, no more opening up the PC cases, installing additional drives, fiddling around with small screws and cables, formatting. You could just open a door and slide in another there's a thought.

If you a professional photographer, or have loads of images and/or data files, then this could be the device for you. There are much faster devices out there, but this is no slouch either. It certainly gets my recommendation.

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