Photo tour with Doug Gardner on Lake Marion

Took a few pics at Lake Marion with Doug Gardner and a few friends one a photography tour.  We had a great time.

Also I included a few other photos from the same weekend at Magnolia Gardens.  See if you can tell which are which.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Perfect Light, Interrupted

As as a photographer, you might have noticed that I practice a lot. Always in the hopes of great light and cool subject coming together and capturing something that I want to look at over and over again. Maybe someone else too, but that is really not important.
Primarily I shoot handheld or on a monopod, so technique and knowing my limitations and my gears limitations is paramount. How slow of a shutter speed can I hold my 300mm on a crop camera, and constantly have sharp focus? (3 out of 4 shots at 1/15’s of second with my new lens, so far on a good morning.)
I also walk or drive around thinking about what the camera settings would need to be to capture images of things passing by.   What lens would I use, what time of day I’d want to try to capture the image.  Or if I have my camera, I’ll “guess” the settings and take the shot to see how close I was to what was needed.  It is a fun way to pass the time between real subjects.  So I take more photos than most photographers everywhere I go.  But that’s OK.  Like I said, it is practice for those rare moments of great light and cool subject.
I also spend a lot of time studying my subjects or shooting it repeatedly, if living,  so I know if it has any patterns of movement, being able to anticipate what it is about to do, because, if you see it through the lens, it is over already and you missed it.  Different birds have different hunting habits and knowing how they are going to move and how fast, really helps to know when pressing the shutter, might catch something cool.  
This morning the light was perfect, diffused natural light provide by some clouds and some soft 20160501- 2016 - Magnolia Gardens-35early morning sun.  I was also having a great steady morning.  My warm up practice shots were going well.  My first 50-200 shots are warm ups everyday, as a part of my daily or weekly practice process.  I was still shooting some of my warm up shots, when I noticed something was about to happen, and got a bad photo of the one that got away.
I was starting to catch some images in great light that I liked.  The three attached are RAW shots out of camera, with crops only.  No cleanup or sharpening yet.  If you know your digital processing, all RAW images need to be cleaned up.  Out of camera, RAW images are like a digital negative image straight from the sensor without sharpening or any normal cleanup added that is done to JPG files in camera automatically.
Now, ready for something cool to happen, and hopefully capture it, everything was great and I was ready, or at least I thought I was.
Just then the phone rings, and my son had a small car emergency and in seconds I’m running out of the swamp, leaving perfect light and a few interesting subjects for another day.  Glad I at least got to finish my practice shots and grab a few pics I like to look at, before the phone rang.   See more of my practice photos at .
20160501- 2016 - Magnolia Gardens-56
Last shot before the phone rang.
20160501- 2016 - Magnolia Gardens-133

Hypnotic Peacock Photo by Cary McDonald — National Geographic Your Shot

Peacock at Magnolia Plantation w watermark.jpgI wanted a certain smooth background for a peacock photo, and needed to get as close a possible with the smallest DOF I could at 300mm and f 2.8, so I knew I had to get between 18 and 20 feet to have about a 1 inch sharp DOF. I needed the shade to get the tail the way I wanted and I had to be at eye level to get it so I was going hand held. Third day following the birds around and this is what turned out. I want to do it again at about 22 feet.

Source: Hypnotic Peacock Photo by Cary McDonald — National Geographic Your Shot

2016 – Photography goals

Since 2011, and getting back seriously into my hobby, I’ve been focusing on taking lots of images and attempting to master capturing the image that I envision of the subject in the camera.  After over 200,000 images and many hours taking photos of various subjects in various light conditions, my goals have started to change.  My goals are becoming more refined to achieve the envisioned end results.
To that end, for 2016 most of my photography goals are around photo editing.  Working on stretching the limits of the digital medium and correcting the deficiencies captured in the digital bits stored on the computer’s hard drive. All digital images have noise.  All Lenses have imperfections in refracting the light and other imperfections.   All cameras have different strengths and weaknesses.
The others goals for 2016 are around getting a new lens and capturing certain sports images with the new lens.  The new lens will allow me to get improved quality sports images from further away from the subject.  Last year, to get the images I wanted I had to get closer to my subject.  Standing in the ocean to get surfing photographs or standing in or sitting water up to my chest to get skiing images that I wanted.  The new lens will allow me to stay out of the water, or in shallower water, at least,  and get the images I want.
While saving up for the Canon 300mm f/2.8 lens that will likely cost more than my youngest son’s first car, I’ll be focusing on the editing side of my goals.  So to find images that need more fixing, I’m going back to images that were taken with a camera and lenses that had more imperfections that need to be addressed.
That may seem strange, but editing images on the computer is very much like it used to be spending hundreds of hours in a darkroom getting the image you saw in your mind on the paper, but now it is bringing that image  onto your computer screen and into print in some cases.    I decided to stop using Aperture 3 while back and I purchased Adobe Creative Cloud, Nik Collection for B&W editing, and some of the Topaz Labs DeNoise 6 software.
I’ve got 40,000 images from the last four years to play with and below are a few as I learn how to use DeNoise 6.   All of the money earned with my images goes towards new lenses and cameras and your support is appreciated.   Buy some images to use as screensavers or to print or purchase professionally printed images online at my at If you see a subject you like let me know and I bet I have more images as well.    Happy shooting!
2014-04-0507-36-00 (6)-Edit
RAW image from 2014 edited with Topaz DeNoise
2014-04-0507-36-00 (6)
RAW image from 2014 edited in just lightroom
20150308- Bird Magnolia Swamp-55-Edit
JPG from 2015, smoothed out with Topaz DeNoise.
20150524- Bird Magnolia Plantation Swamp-678
Great Egret from 2015 Edited with Topaz DeNoise.

Q&A: How does DOF impacts image overall sharpness relative to the focus points used?

My favorite website for DOF is  When looking at DOF it is all about the math.  at 420 mm, F/8, and 30 feet the DOF is about 6 inches from the focus point the camera used at the time of the shot.

A great blue heron (GBH) is almost 6 feet tall and about 12 inches wide when its wings are folded.  Look at the close up and you can see that the detail in the wing next to the dark patch has minimal detail, but the head and eye have very sharp detail and the“powder down” feathers on the chest are in detail as well because they are on the same focal plane as the eye which was where the focus point the camera was using at the time of the shots.

When taking photos of a GBH, if you are going to get close, make sure you don’t have too much lens to get the shot you are after.  At 30 feet, to get the GBH wings in sharp detail tip to tip, you would have to have about a 100mm lens at F/8 with the focus point used on the middle of the bird.


To get  a sharp eye or the whole bird in focus in flight, getting the focus point on the correct spot is necessary.  In most cameras, the center point of focus is faster and more accurate, depending on the lens used.      The more expensive the camera in most cases the more advanced and the number of cross-type f/2.8 focus points are available.   These points are able to take advantage  of faster lenses if they are attached.

So to take advantage of these faster focus points, the lens has to be capable of letting through that amount of light onto the sensor.  I have a  Canon t2i that I was using when I started getting serious about digital photography.  At that time, I switched to using a single point of focus for all photography, and then purchased some faster lenses that would take advantage of the faster focus points.  Using a single point of focus along with the faster lenses really helped take my sports and wildlife photography to the next level and capture moving objects a little better.

The 7d mark ii autofocus system is the best I have used and works well in challenging light situations with a fast lens.  I also often take advantage of the ability to move the single point of focus to one third of the frame or the other for creative shots very quickly to help fill the frame with a bird, or be creative with a flower as done below.

See more of my work at my website

20151128- Magnolia Gardens-32

Q&A: How does shutter speed impact photo sharpness?

20151107- Magnolia Gardens flowers-175The photo above was shot at 1/125 of a second, F/5 and ISO 100 at 200mm non image stabilization lens.  (70-200 f2.8 L non IS canon lens)

First, what is shutter speed?

In photography, shutter speed or exposure time is the length of time when the film or digital sensor inside the camera is exposed to light, also when a camera’s shutter is open when taking a photograph. The amount of light that reaches the film or image sensor is proportional to the exposure time.  

Read here to find out more about the exposure triangle and shutter speed and camera shake.

With the longer focal lengths, the shorter the shutter speed the more likely you will be able to achieve a sharp image.   The rule of thumb for a 35mm lens is 2 x focal length x Crop factor = min shutter speed to hand hold lens.

The image above was shot at 1/125 a second when based on the formula above it should have been at 1/320 a second or higher.  So how did I get a sharp image?  Why did I want to shoot at 1/125 a second?  I was at f/5.0 and I could have gone down to f 2.8  from f 5.0 with my lens or raised my ISO and easily used a faster shutter speed.

A few reasons.

  • ISO 100 on a properly exposed image has the least amount of digital noise for the cleanest possible image.
  • At f/5 and 200mm and 180 inches from the subject the DOF was just over 3 inches.
  • I spend countless hours practicing holding a camera still for just such an occasion by improving my handheld technique.
  • Using a slow shutter speed allows for the proper exposure in early low light situations and also allows for creative exposures as well.

Creative exposures allow for images to show movement or blurred parts within an image making them more unique or giving a more intimate image.  I took about 40 images trying to capture the image below with the little blue heron shaking the water out of it’s breakfast.

Knowing how to break the rules on purpose is one of the many challenges of photography.

Happy shooting.
20151107- Magnolia Gardens flowers-152
#photography #shutterspeed #sharpimages #cary_mcdonald @cary_mcdonald



Q&A: Why are my images sharper with a lens with a larger aperture?

Lenses with a larger aperture are called faster lenses.  Look at the image below and think about it.  When a camera focuses, it uses the light coming through the lens to focus.  The more light that comes through the lens the more information the camera sensor has to use to focus the lens.  The aperture shutter opening is as large as possible until you push the shutter button.   So the camera can focus the lens faster with more light.

The more expensive the lens, the and the larger the aperture, the more glass and heavier the lens will be usually.  If you don’t have a nifty fifty for your DSLR, you should have one as it is the best lens buy that exists at around $99 if you shop around.  It is a f 1.8 lens, but at F/4 it is a super sharp lens and very clean.  At 10 feet away from your subject on a crop sensor camera, it acts like an 80 mm lens and has a DOF of about 22 inches.   From 6-10 feet is a great portrait lens.  Focus at 30 feet away, at f/16 and you have a great landscape lens and everything 15 feet from you away will be in focus because of the hyperfocal distance.  This lens may hunt for focus sometimes in really dark situations, but that is usually when any other lens would not even try to focus in a very dark room.

Add a small extension tube, and it makes a great macro lens, which is what I used for the image above.  The “Nifty Fifty” is always in my camera bag.  If someone is just getting serious about photography, this should be the first lens that is purchased to compliment stock camera lenses.  It has enough range to challenge and test the best photographers in many normal situations.   Again, I’m not going t get technical, but Cambridge in colour is a great website to find out more about photography terms and concepts.

Check to see how where your lens’s peak performance settings are at this link for canon camera lenses.

Why is a smaller number better?
Full F-stop images

Q&A: Why is “knowing where to stand” so important to getting a sharp image?

“A good photograph is knowing where to stand.”– Ansel Adams

This is one of my favorite photography quotes by Ansel Adams, but you have to take into account that he was a master landscape photographer. One of my favorite images of him is the iconic image of him on top of his car to capture an image.   So when he said knowing where to stand, he was really talking about perspective.   Moving yourself and your camera to have a unique view or finding the most flattering angles for a flattering image of your subject with a visually appealing composition. But also about the phase angle of light to provide contrast and detail in your images.

For sharper or more detailed images, knowing the phase angle of light and when a polarizer would be beneficial will make your images sharper and contain micro shadows that provide detail.  Again, I’m not going to get technical about it, but learning how a polarizer works will help you know where to stand or when to put one on your lens.  When shooting a living moving subject, I usually choose to leave off the polarizer filter.  Reaching out towards the end of your lens to your subject might scare it off before being able to make the best use of it.

All of the images below were from an outing on Tuesday Nov. 24,  2015. I started out at the bridge and went to Magnolia Gardens.  Almost everyday I go out to shoot, I have a rough plan or idea of what I’m going to practice.  I know which lens I’m going to take with me when I leave the car and try to stay on task, but try to be flexible enough to see what is around and adapt also.  It was initially a very cold morning and frost was on the ground when I left the house and I didn’t think any birds would be out early.

My goal for the morning was “eyeballing creative and balanced exposures” for some landscape shots.    I was not going out to capture anything specific, but wanted to get some images without using the back of my screen or my histogram until I was done shooting at the location.  Before leaving a location, I will look at the images to see how I did on the exposures and see if need to try again.

Why do I do this?  If you “know” what the exposure should be approximately as you are walking up evaluate a shot,  getting the camera setup the way you want it is much faster with less trial and error.  So knowing where to stand becomes the hard part, and the exposure settings become second nature.

If you go out taking photos often, you will find that those special moments where the light, location and subjects are just right to create a unique and spectacular image are few and far between.  Anything you can do to practice or be ready for those moments helps.

Recognizing those moments is one challenge and then being ready to take advantage of those fleetingly changing elements as efficiently and effectively as possible is another challenge that practicing and pushing yourself helps accomplish.

After my 2nd location of getting some trees and moss “eyeballing” exposures, I walked up towards my third spot.  This thirds spot was a softball. I believe could almost shoot this location blindfolded I’ve been there so often, but as I was walking up I saw a immature  little blue heron(Bert) that had been there a few times the last few weeks.   If you follow me on facebook you would have seen some of the previous shots of Bert the last two weeks.  I spent so much time with him, I gave him a name.  lol  When I saw him, I turned around and “ran” back to the car, all the while thinking about what I wanted to capture when I returned.

I had my 17-40 L lens on which is my goto landscape lens and knew I wanted more length.  My previous visits with Bert, I had on my 300mm L IS f/4  lens, but a few times, I was able to get too close for the 300mm to have a DOF that I wanted.  At 10 feet from your subject at 300mm at F/8 that is just over one inch DOF.   (F/8 is where I start with my 300mm f/4 lens for the best quality image, corner to corner and I’ll blog about it later.)

I was planning to be closer  than 15 feet and wanted a deeper DOF,   so I grabbed my 70-200 f/2.8 L lens.  It does not have IS, but is one of my favorite lens when trying to be creative.  Also at 200mm at 10 feet, it has a 3 inch DOF at f/8 or  6 inches at 20 feet or at 100 mm 6 inches DOF at 10 feet.

As I headed back to Bert, I also knew that I wanted to get as low as possible  to smooth the background and get the light reflected from the water at the strongest point possible.  Also the lower you go as you get close the closer you can get before the bird feels threatened. Also you have to approach silently as possible.   Getting any animal at eye level or just below is a great angle for wildlife.  This is a wild bird, so it is going to go where the food is and it feels comfortable.

Since it was just above freezing, I was covered head to toe and I had on a black hoodie and gloves and the only skin exposed was behind my camera from the bird.  I was able to follow the bird for about 90 minutes total some of that time, standing in the swamp behind a tree and at another point I laided down where I expected the bird to feed as it made its way around the edge of the water.   I set up on where I expected the bird would feed and I would have an optimal view as long as nothing scared the bird away.  I also laid down where I could see into the water and not the reflected area behind it.  I did not need a polarizer in this case, to get the sharpest image.

This was one of those moments that I knew would not likely repeat itself with the same light angles and subject.  I took 600 photos during the 90 minutes following Bert.  500 of those shots were practice, anticipating the birds movements, catching the angles of the eyes, the subtle tilt of the head.  In this situation, I have a goal of 95% of the images to be in focus and on exactly on what I was aiming to be in focus, the eyes or the water droplets flying when eating.  (I’ll blog about my editing process later and my 95% goal.) When I done and I could not hold my arms up or still any longer, it was time for me to go home.

In this case, it was not about standing to get the best image, it was about laying down and getting dirty next to some cypress knees and letting Bert come to me.  I hope you have the chance to get to know your own “Bert”.

At 10 frames a second, there were only 10-20 seconds out of those 90 minutes that I was really looking to capture images of Bert that I thought were worth keeping. They are those moments that keep me going out to take photos every weekend.  But all of them are just as important to learn from.

Can you spot any of the images that I considered keepers?  I included only 4 shots of Bert that I would print.  Please, let me know which ones you think are my keepers are with comments on the images of Bert.








Q&A: How can you use Long exposures to make people disappear in a pinch.

Sometimes you cannot control when you have access to a location, or if you are the only people that are there at the same time.  This happened to me this weekend.  My wife and I visited Angel Oak on John’s Island, SC.  It is a very popular tourist site with a very old oak tree and definitely worth a visit.  The resurrection fern is really cool too, make sure you go during a wet season.

There were about 50 strangers walking around the old tree while we were there so trying to get a clear shot was impossible.  (I will go back on a bad weather day someday and get some cool shots, but I wanted something yesterday. )  The cover photo shows what I could get by waiting on people to leave, but the signs were still all over the place and I wanted to minimize their view as well.

I had a ND8 filter in my car and my tripod in the car.  So I set up some shots for over 10 seconds and if no one stayed still too long, they looked like little ghosts in the final images.  Are these my best work?  Not at all, but it was fun playing with long exposures and making people disappear.  Now I know I can do this at other locations and with a little practice, get some really cool images.


long exposure test
long exposure test
long exposure test
See the people that stood still for too long and almost appeared in the shot?

Q&A: How does practice improve your photography and take you to the next level?

What to do the guys that came before us have to say about photography?  Each of these quotes can be related back to practice and the need for learning the basic principles of photography and proper shooting technique.  Think about these a minute.  It is interesting how these quotes mean different things to those at different levels of of experience.

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”  ― Henri Cartier-Bresson

“There is a vast difference between taking a picture and making a photograph.” – Robert Heinecken

“The sheer ease with which we can produce a superficial image often leads to creative disaster.” – Ansel Adams

“If you are out there shooting, things will happen for you. If you’re not out there, you’ll only hear about it.” – Jay Maisel

“It can be a trap of the photographer to think that his or her best pictures were the ones that were hardest to get. – Timothy Allen

“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” – Ansel Adam

“A good photograph is knowing where to stand.”– Ansel Adam

To be honest each of these quotes meaning changed for me over the last few years.   As my understanding of photography has grown,  and the understanding of what the quotes above mean keeps hitting closer to home.

Let’s back up a bit.  A few years ago, I decided I wanted to take my photography to the next level and I took Henri’s quote above literally, but he made that quote about shooting film.  When shooting film, photographers would take a long time to set up for shots because the camera would take only 1 or 36 shots, if they were lucky.   They could not take the shot and look at the back of their camera to see how it might look.   The masters did not likely have auto focus, and did not have image stabilization and vibration control or many of the tools we have today.

What they did have, was time… without distraction and time to learn their craft.  I decided to try to take 100,000 photos in one year of various subjects.  That year, I only made it to 70,000 shots, but after that time I noticed a marked increase in the quality of my shots, the number of keepers and my comfort level with my camera’s controls and features.      I made sure to try different sports and types of photography to create new challenges.  Also having different goals on each outing and mastering different techniques.   Paying attention to using different perspectives and trying to be in the moment and make photographs and not snapshots.

In March 2015, I purchased the 7D Mark II, and as of this morning I just was curious about it and I’ve taken 68, 716 shots in 6 months on weekends and vacations days.

I looked because today I only took 30 shots.  It was cold and windy, but I wanted to practice…since I was on vacation.   Below are a few flowers from my walk this morning where I took photos of a few flowers from different angles.   You have to be out taking photos and trying new things.  Practicing proper camera holding techniques, paying attention to the light, getting a good exposure and always remember the backgrounds.

See more images from the last few years at my website.

20151123- Magnolia Gardens-8 20151123- Magnolia Gardens-7-Edit 20151123- Magnolia Gardens-4-Edit