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How To Clean DSLR Image Sensor

Back in the old days, we only cleaned our camera body. It was limited to external cleaning and blowing out dust from the mirror & focusing screen. The digital era added another component in that list, i.e. the Image Sensor.  It is also the most delicate part of any DSLR.  If you shoot  in outdoor or change lens frequently, the chances are pretty high that your image sensor will gather some dust, maybe even few stubborn dirt that ruins your images. 

Know When To Clean Image Sensor:

The only thing you need to do is to view your digital image at 1:1 enlargement. Almost all photo viewing / editing software has 1:1 enlargement setting. At 1:1 enlargement, scrutinize the image for tiny black ( or dark) dots or lines. You may not see anything in landscape shots if the whole frame is covered with objects  / trees etc. They are more visible in blue or white cloud sky shot covering the whole frame. The best reference would be the blue sky covering the whole frame, or just a white screen. This is a 1:1 crop of blue sky shot, showing dart in the image sensor.

Tiny dots at 1:1 crop
At 1:1 crop

How To Clean The Image Sensor:

The fist place you should look into is your camera setting menu. If it has a 'clean image sensor' ( most Nikon camera has) in the menu, select that and press 'OK' button. I've no idea what it does internally, but I know it could remove small dust that are not so stubborn. Once, you have done this, take a shot of blue sky ( white cloud is OK too) and view your image in 1:1 magnification.  You are in luck, if the image is clear. If not, read on.

Please note that image sensor is very delicate & sensitive component. It can be easily damaged by a tiny scratch from any foreign object. If you are not sure of handling sensitive electronic component, you must send it to any professional service center for cleaning. Nikon charges only $50 + shipping for cleaning image sensor. However, a damaged image sensor would need replacement that often cost more than $1000 for high end cameras. If you wanna do it by yourself, you risk damaging the sensor.

What You Need To DIY:

The first task is to identify the image sensor size. The full frame camera image sensor is 36 X 24 mm across the brands. Whereas APS-C camera sensor size varies by brand. You will need to get sensor cleaning swab as per your sensor size. Purchase that as per your sensor size. There are few other  items you would need, here is the full list.
  1. Sensor cleaning swab as per the sensor size ( at least 2 )
  2. Rocket Blower ( also known as blower brush )
  3. A small flash light
  4. A magnifying glass
  5. Lens cleaning solution
  6. Fully charged camera battery
The complete cleaning kit I used to clean full frame sensor

The Process:

Insert the fully charge battery in your camera and remove the lens. Turn on the camera and go to the setting menu. Select the option that says 'Lock Mirror Up For Cleaning' and press OK.  This will pop up a dialog that says "When Shutter Release Button Is Pressed, The Mirror Will be Locked UP, Turn the camera off to return to the main menu".
BTW, Nikon cameras will not allow you to perform this step unless the battery is fully charged.  I don't know about canon or other brand, but they must be having similar restriction.

Now, press the shutter release button and verify the mirror is really up. You should be able to see the image sensor directly.

Next hold your camera up, with the opening face down. Gently pump the rocket blower, the nozzle tip should be at least 2 inches away from the sensor. Make sure, your hand do not shake and the nozzle tip of the blower never touches the sensor surface. This will remove all loose dust & dirt.  You should not be needing more than 5 to 10 blows.

Once you are done with blowing, put the camera down on it's back, with the opening face up. Grab the flashlight and magnifier and inspect the sensor. Look at the placed where you see dirt in the image. Even if you don't see anything, you should still do the next step.

Unwrap one of the sensor cleaning swab. It might have instruction printed on the packaging. Gently place the swab at 60 degree angle at one end of the sensor and then slide toward the other end. You will need to make it 120 degree when you reach near the other end of the sensor, but make sure you go all the way, till the end. Now, do a reverse sweep till the start point. Put the swab back in it's wrapper, we might need it soon. This will remove moderately stubborn dirt.

Inspect the sensor with the magnifier and flash light again. If  you are satisfied, switch off the camera, attach a lens, and shoot a image of blue sky or white screen. Transfer the image in your computer, and inspect at 1:1 magnification.  If the dark spot are gone, your sensor is clean.

If you still see dirt from magnifier & light inspection or from 1:1 image on computer, we need to do a wet cleaning. Unwrapped the second new swab and spray it with lens cleaning solution. Now, repeat the step you did with the dry swab. If you saw any stubborn dart from magnifier & light inspection, you can sweep over that spot few more time. Now, put away the wet swab and run the dry swab again first forward and then backward. The chances are very high that all dirt are gone by now.  Only in rear cases, you might need to repeat with first wet and then dry swab. Don't forget to verify with 1:1 magnification in the computer before you close this DIY project. Good luck.

Shot the blue sky post cleaning, all stubborn dirt are gone. 

How To Photograph Bird Catching Fish

If you shoot wildlife, one of your most seek after action shot would be 'bird catching fish'. The large birds with long bill ( herons & egrets family) pulling a live fish out of water looks fantastic in the photo.  The other group is the eagle & osprey family. This group usually catches fish that the other group wouldn't even dare. The size of prey is always proportion to it's predator.

Eagles & Ospreys are not found in abundance. They lives in specific area, and often migrate with the season changes. To shoot them catching fish, would require special planning. You may have to drive to their habitat, and book hotels for few days to see them in action.  Whereas herons & egrets are very common bird.  They are seen almost near every water body.  To shoot them in action, you just need a lot of patience & patience only. It will never be like you go out with your camera and the bird would be ready to pose with a fish in it's bill.

The Gears:

You will need the following

  • A first camera, minimum 4 fps ( frame per seconds)
  • A telephoto lens, minimum 300mm
  • A sturdy tripod
  • Cable release / Remote Release (Optional)

The Time & Place:

Birds are usually hungry most at dawn or dusk, but that is not written in stone. They will catch fish anytime they find one. But make sure you get plenty of light to properly expose your shots. A poorly exposed shot would show lots of grains, may not be usable or presentable.  
A Snowy Egret got 2 at once, but the photo is underexposed due to limited light.

Head to a place where birds usually catches fish.  This should be shallow water with moderate stream. If you are shooting in a enclosed lake, the Egrets or Heron will be somewhere at knee deep water near the exit or entrance pipe. They find fishes that swim through the pipe as easy prey. Do your research in your local area. You will know where the birds are.

The Setting:

Mode: Shutter Priority, the minimum shutter speed should be 1/500s for a 300mm lens, for any bigger lens, use 3X (or faster) time of  the maximum focal length of the lens  e.g. 1/1800 for 600mm.
Focus: AF-C (Continuous Focus)
Focus Area: Single Point or Group Area(Depends on your camera's AF performance)
Metering: Spot metering
Exposure Compensation: As per the available light and condition
Release: CH (Continuous High, the fastest your camera offers)
ISO: Auto ISO if your camera supports it. The max ISO should be below the tolerable noise level. 
Shutter release: You can use a remote release or cable release to reduce motion blur. This could be optional, pressing the shutter release button directly would be OK too.

The Shooting:

Once you arrive at the location, find a bird that is waiting for it's prey. Go as close as possible without being seen by the bird ( stay far enough not to disturb the bird). Set your tripod, mount your camera on it, focus & frame, and take a test shot of the bird. You may need to adjust your exposure compensation based on the test shot. Remember, you can't bracket your shots here. You want all shots are perfectly exposed.
Once satisfied with the test shots, the wait game begins. Your eyes should be on the view finder, monitoring every move the bird makes. Every time it looks down, you fire the shutter for a series of shots. If it flies, you fire the shutter too ( you would get few take off shots ) and then find another bird to monitor.  You would get the shots sooner or latter, but keep trying.  
Here are few pictures of a 'Blue Heron' pulling out a large fish to swallow it within a second.





Blue Heron made the final gulp before the fish disappeared in it's tummy

I wish you the best with your bird-fishing shot.  If you think these tips were useful to you by any means, you may subscribe to my blog for future photography tips & tricks. For any questions, you may email me at

A drive to Yellowstone

I've not yet learned to plan a vacation few months ahead. I usually have few targets in mind and pick one on the night before travel. Only in rare case, it might be a month ahead because I either need a visa to the destination or have to reserve a plane ticket or both.
So when I thought about Yellowstone and search the internet, I discovered that you would need to book your hotel room at least a year ahead if you wanna stay inside the park. There are plenty of hotels outside the park, but they too get sold out during summer. Fortunately, I got a hotel at West Yellowstone, just less than a mile from the west gate entrance. There are other options to stay south ( Jackson, Moran),  north, or even east. But West Yellowstone is the best for people driving from San Francisco.
The distance is about 1000 miles that you shouldn't drive in one day.  I decided to drive 600 on day one and stopped at Wells, NV for the night. Got up early the second day and headed for Twin Fall, Idaho. Highway 93 is very scenic. Our first stop was at Shoshone Fall, Twin Fall, Idaho. It's  an amazing waterfall on the Snake River. The park has an entree fee just $3.00. There are ample parking available inside the park . There is also a gift shop and the restroom is just behind it. We spent about 2 hours in the park before we headed for the West Yellowstone.

The amazing Shoshone Fall on Snake River, at Twin Fall, Idaho

From Twin Fall to West Yellowstone is about 4 hours drive. By 3 pm, we were at our hotel gate. We took about half hour to freshen up before we headed for Old Faithful Biscuit Basin. It's Geysers everywhere. They smell awful but looks spectacular.

The long boardwalk goes around all geysers. Be sure to stay on the boardwalk. There were incidence where people tripped while taking selfie. The result could be a badly burned body, if not death. So, stay on the boardwalk and enjoy the nature's wonder.
Sunburst in the Geyser

Some of the Geysers erupt at regular interval. So you need real patience to stick around one of those to see hot spring water erupting out of holes. The steam makes it foggy very often. Protect your camera lens and wipe off the water if you find few sprinkler drop on the glass. They have sulphur which would be difficult to remove once dried up.
A Geyser in Biscuit Basin
Hot Steam Erupting from a Geyser at Old Faithful

We were done with the Old Faithful Geysers by the end of Day 2. We had our dinner at 'Three Bears Restaurant'  at West Yellowstone. There are a lot of restaurant around, but I'm not talking about food here. However, most restaurant closes at 10 pm, pretty early compared to Bay Area.
If you want to see animals, get up early and stay late. Animal loves dawn and dusk more than bright sunny day. On day 3, we drove to the Canyon Village early morning. It's called 'Grand Canyon of Yellowstone', has two spectacular waterfall on the Yellowstone River.
The Lower Fall at Canyon Village

This is the Lower Fall. It's a bit of hike to go all the way near the fall. But it sure worth it. However, you get a wide view of the fall and the valley just from the vista point, 200' from the parking, only if you get to park there. It's a long queue to park near the view point. People usually park on Grand Loop road side. Be sure to park off the road, the park rangers could give you ticket  if you block the traffic.
Drive south from Canyon Village, and the whole animal kingdom will emerge as you hit the 'Hayden Valley'. There are Bison everywhere. If you are lucky, you would see wolves, bears, elk and moose too.  Unfortunately, we saw only Bison. The bulls started a fight over the small sand pit. All bulls want to take sand bath  and there were only one sand pit :)

The bulls were locked in horns over the sand pit
Further south of Hayden Valley, is the Fishing Bridge.  I don't know why they call it fishing bridge, I saw a board that stats 'no fishing on the bridge' !! You can see the Yellowstone Lake from the bridge. Down south, the Yellowstone lake starts. It's huge lake, and you would be driving around it till you hit West Thumb Geyser Basin.  Once again, it's a long boardwalk around many Geysers, some of them are inside the lake.  The moose below came to drink water. As the tourists crowded the boardwalk around  it, the moose panicked and jumped over the boardwalk before it vanished in the woods. I captured the whole movement from distance.
A moose flying over the boardwalk

From West Thumb, the Grand Loop  road turns towards Old Faithful which we already visited on our first day in the park. So we decided to take an 'U' turn and head towards Mammoth Hot Spring. It was a long drive through single lane narrow road. We took right at north-east junction to see Lamar Valley, where we saw more bison with calves, but no bears. Disappointed, we headed back to Mammoth, which is again full of Geysers. This one is probably biggest boardwalk in the Yellowstone. By the time we finished the walk, it was already dark. Then it was time to return to hotel for our last night.
Day 4, our last day in the park. We had half a day for Yellowstone & Grand Tetons. We drove straight to Hayden Valley to see some animals. Once again it was Bisons everywhere and lots of Geese in the river. This pair of Bison was crossing the road just in front of us. The shot is full framed, no cropped. They were that close :)
A pair of Bison exercising their right of way in Hayden Valley 
 The Grand Tetons would amaze you when you see it over the Jackson Lake. It was August 2nd week, but you could see snow on the mountains.  Further down south, is the Jackson Lake Dam. You could stop by to see gushing water being released to Jackson River from the Dam.
The picturesque Grand Tetons mountain range

Jackson Lake Dam
Our Vacation was virtually over once we were done in Jackson Lake Dam. We made some  mini stop to appreciate the beauty of the Grand Tetons while we drove south to Jackson Hole. It was  about 2 pm when we stopped at Jackson Hole for lunch. At this point, I was not sure where to stop for the night. We wanted to return via Salt Lake but it would be too early to stop for the night. I check in Expedia app, and found a hotel room at Wells, the same hotel where we stated 2 nights back. So I decided to stop at Wells for the night. But it was really tough to reach there that evening. We were caught in a storm and it was already dark by 6 pm. I never wanted to drive on freeway when it's dark, windy and pouring heavily. By the time I reached the hotel at Wells, it was 10 pm, tired like hell.

Day 5 was all driving back to home on I-80 west. We started lazy, stopped in every 2 hours, ate fast food and enjoyed the drive. We were back home by 6 pm, Yellowstone was now conquered once. I'm already looking forward for my 2nd trip. This time I would want to see bears, and so I would have to visit during early June, which is the best time to see bears with calves.

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