A Turkey Disguised As A Rough-legged Hawk (a photographic enigma)

I almost didn’t have a turkey to post for Thanksgiving but this Rough-legged Hawk saved the day.


1/2500, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

This was one of only two cooperative birds I found on a very long birding excursion to Box Elder County three days ago. I was thrilled when I caught this wing position in great light during an unusually fast and unexpected takeoff and had high hopes for the image. But in the end those hopes were dashed.

The photo is garbage because it’s so damned soft and it shouldn’t have been. This version is not a large crop at all and I’ve applied my “normal” amount of sharpening selectively to the bird but the photo is still so soft that I would have deleted it already if I hadn’t planned to use it for my “turkey” on Thanksgiving (a designation it fully deserves. Apologies to real turkeys for the insult).



This version is cropped to 100% and not sharpened so you can see what a mess it really is.

I realize that everybody gets soft shots they can’t explain now and then but this has been an ongoing problem for me for months. Consider the following and see if any of you photographers can help me figure out what’s going on (apologies to all the non-photographers out there who will probably be bored stiff by all the photo-geekiness, if you’re able to wade through it at all):

  • I took 26 photos of this bird while it was perched and at takoff. Even the static perched shots were soft and some were even worse than this one.
  • Unexplained softness seems to be a problem for me only in early mornings even when there’s plenty of light. Other birds in different locations at about the same time that morning were also soft but an hour or more later my images were sharp again. And that’s an ongoing problem from day-to-day. Not every day but more often than not.
  • When I switch cameras (I have two 7D Mark II’s) the problem continues.
  • I can often (though not always) see that they’re going to be soft through my viewfinder.
  • I’ve been photographing birds for 10 years from my pickup with this same 500mm lens or the earlier version I of the same lens and never had this problem until a little less than a year ago. Yes, occasionally I could see heat waves (from pavement or from my hot pickup) and expect that the images would likely be soft, and they often were, but in those situations I understood what was happening. Now I don’t.
  • It was sunny and 28° F. when this image was taken at 9:40 AM but it was intermittently cloudy.
  • When I take photos at the same time of morning with a Canon 7D and my 100-400 zoom lens the images are nearly always sharp.
  • And here’s the kicker. Mia is usually shooting the same birds I do from the back seat of my pickup with her Nikon D500 and Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4 TC and her shots are soft at the same time mine are! When her problem clears up so does mine.

It doesn’t make any sense to me and I’m at my wit’s end so if anyone has a clue that might help me figure out what’s going on I’ll gladly award you my second-born child (don’t hold your breath though because I’m keeping Shannon, my first-born, and at my age and disposition there’s very little chance of another one coming along…).

Regular readers will likely notice that I didn’t put my copyright watermark on these images. Help yourself… 🙂

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I hope you like your turkey a helluva lot more than I like mine.




55 comments to A Turkey Disguised As A Rough-legged Hawk (a photographic enigma)

  • Wil Hershberger

    It could be heat coming from the engine compartment, or from under the truck, moving up the side of the truck you two are shooting from and getting in your way. Even on a still day, air moves slightly and can bring warm air from the truck in front of your lenses. Since both of you are having the issue at the same time, I think that this is it. The out of focus look looks a lot like heat distortion. There is certainly no indication of camera shake (great long lens technique for sure).
    Other than shooting some distance from the truck, there is no way to avoid this inconvenience.
    Good light,

  • Melanie Wells

    I learn so much from your blog, Ron! And usually end up giggling at the clever comments from you and your followers. Thank you for this forum. I love all of the theories and explanations regarding atmospheric particles and distortion. Reminds me of viewing planets, galaxies, nebulae and stars at an observatory and why it is best to view when the temperatures are way to cold for my comfort. I hope you and your family had a wonderful Thanksgiving and hope you were able to spend some time with your daughter.

  • Porcupine

    I’m surprised no one else has suggested the obvious cause. When your photos are soft it is because you have, in some way, offended HORUS. Once you make ammends, the photos wil get sharp again.
    Happy Thanksgiving all!

    • Knowing me I’ve probably offended every God that ever existed in the mind of man, Porcupine. Doing so is actually one of my goals! Guess I’m paying the piper for my transgressions…

  • Shirley

    Happy Thanksgiving Ron! I like the shot even though you call it soft (almost Sepia). I have had shots with that pinkish tone too and was never sure why so will finish reading what Ed has to say & the link as well. Don’t beat yourself up Ron, just remember nothing in this world is perfect, damn it! You may not like the shot but I do so there!

  • I am, of course, clueless about your problem. However I continued my education by reading all the comments.
    I hope Thanksgiving was/is wonderful – and extend my thanks to you and your knowledgeable and often hilarious commentators.

  • Marty K

    Thank you for sharing this shot. Despite the softness, I like it very much because of that marvelous wing position. I can imagine your frustration — and Mia’s — though. My smartass thought is to ask if you’re sure that’s only milk you’re having with your chocolate donut. 😉

    However, I’m guessing that “fisix” is your real culprit. Ed gave a wonderful explanation. My only additional thoughts are related to more recent atmospheric changes in gas ratios and microscopic airborne particulates that might be affecting photon behavior. That may be why you’re only having this problem now (and why it was 95-freaking-degrees the day before Thanksgiving along the SoCal coast!).

    Happy T-Day and may you all get the big half of the wishbone! 🙂

  • Jean Haley

    You are too funny. Beautiful bird, and lovely “soft” photo. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving Ron!

  • Kent Patrick-Riley

    Really creative! And its great that other smart folks help with figuring out what is going on. Happy T-day to you and all others on the blog list!

  • April Olson

    I too have had soft photos that I feel should have been sharp. They are just as the sun is warming up the air at sunrise. I usually blame myself and keep plugging along. I think our air has been gunkier in the last 5 years, when you can “see the air” with your eyes, I imagine the camera with a telephoto sees those particles even more. I hope you figure it out, it can be frustrating.
    Happy Thanksgiving Ron, Maybe I will run into you and Mia this weekend.

    • Interesting that you have the same problem I do at the same time of day, April – especially when you consider that we often shoot along the same road!

      And I do hope Mia and I encounter you again soon. We always enjoy the short visit.

  • Becky

    I hate that you are experiencing these issues, but love the fact that you share them with us. My gut reaction was particulates in the air. My guess is that you have a very consistent shooting style and technique. But minute changes in atmosphere would have to have some type of effect. I recently shot my best images of a pair of eagles in the most beautiful light, on a cold morning with a beautiful blue sky. Wind was very calm around 2 mph. I think winds from the previous day cleaned up the air. I’ve gotten nice shots in pretty light before, but never this sharp. Even when different days seem to be similiar in lighting, I have to believe there are still differences in particulate matter that we just can’t see with the naked eye.

    • “My guess is that you have a very consistent shooting style and technique.”

      Yes, I’ve worked very hard on my long lens technique over the years, Becky. Now it’s almost instinctual – like muscle memory.

  • Laura Culley

    I can’t help with the technological stuff. If we were talking about a Triumph Spitfire, we’d have a different story, but we’re not. So all I can do is wish everyone a joyous Thanksgiving celebration with a turkey prepared to perfection (OR the meal of your choice) and reiterate how much I enjoy your posts! You and Mia are a special delight. THANK YOU!
    And I hope you get your technological stuff solved to your specifications soon. I hate it that you’re so frustrated.

  • Dick Harlow

    I can’t do any better than the individuals who have already given you excellent synopsis of the situation, other than to say I have had similar problems with my Canon at times. However, I found that those times it was something I did without thinking, and most of the time it was due to working too fast. But, that is me and when I’m more methodical and can think straight, (which getting less and less as I get older), whatever happened doesn’t happen again. Until the next time! The frustration is very explicit, I understand it perfectly, but also life is too short, especially on a holiday, not to smile!

  • Chris


    Thank you for your passion, dedication, skills, and ability to teach us and share with us EVERY day!!!!

  • I have had this same problem 2 cameras, Nikon and Sony, and have gone through old files to identify the data. I have a November 2015 photo of an osprey that is so sharp and clear you can cut your finger on it. The same sharp cold clear November days have come in the following two years, but the photos are slightly softer. I have tried different hypotheses – worn sensor, new more sensitive sensor picking up more data, UV filter needs replacing, more particulates in the air, etc. I have replaced UV filter on the older camera, the Nikon. Made no noticeable difference. The other elements are beyond our control and I suspect that the answer might be more particulates in the air. (After all, we are now at more than 400 ppm greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere; that probably translates to more particulates in the local air wherever your locale is.) The way to test this theory is to take both cameras to a subarctic or oceanic location where there are fewer airborne particulates and shoot, or to ask people who do shoot up north whether they have the same problem. The latter more practical.

    Meanwhile, I have left you all two turkeys on my Facebook page today. May your crops be comfortably full, your struttin style happy, and your feathers preened and pretty.

  • Bernie Creswick

    Greatly enjoy this blog. Thanks for the effort.
    Two theories on your issue.
    1. It’s when the coffee is kicking in.
    2. Back to the fogging theory. Maybe 100-400 lens doesn’t do it when other does because
    it isn’t as tightly sealed and equilibrates with ambient temps more quickly.

    Happy Thanksgiving to all!

    • That’s an interesting theory about the 100-400, Bernie. I hadn’t thought of it. The first version of that lens definitely wasn’t as tightly sealed as the 500 because of it’s “trombone” push-pull focusing mechanism. However, the new version should be just as tightly sealed as the 500 – both are “L” (pro) lenses. Thanks, Bernie.

  • With it happening to you both of you at the same time, I suspect it’s a Ford truck issue. I would check with Ford and see if there have been any recalls for “instability while parked” issues. Isn’t it about time for a new truck anyway? I can’t imagine engine heat being the culprit, but if it is, does it only happen in still air or with any type of breeze? Is the motor off when you are experiencing the phenomena? Individually, I have some thoughts, but together, with different brands of equipment, I’m at a loss. Have you tried a Chevy or Dodge Ram?
    When I had a similar problem with my 400mm, neither Canon nor Foresters could duplicate the problem, but when I got the lens back the problem was gone (knock on wood) and has not reappeared. I suspect the problem was in the lens contacts even though I’m pretty anal about keeping the contacts clean by burnishing them with a pencil erasure. Both of you having contact issues at the same time over several events seems absurd and unrealistic. How many miles on the truck?
    Perhaps it’s time to cast that old and experienced equipment aside (near Hoytsville) and start wearing out some new equipment. I don’t know!
    What I do Know is that I’m Thankful for you and Mia’s friendship and I hope you get this figured out.

    PS. How many miles on the tires?

    • Ha, Neil. If I had to give up my Fords for either a Chevy or Dodge I think I’d rather give up photography! I think I’ve had an even dozen new Ford pickups over the years. FoMoCo even sent me a very nice gift a few years ago for buying so many of them.

      Yes, the engine is always off.

      If I throw away my gear in disgust I’ll definitely do it in your area!

  • Susan Stone

    I know nothing about why your photos are soft, but it is an intriguing problem, especially given that Mia has the same issue. If you figure out what the problem is, I’d love to know the answer, because there are some days when it seems like I can’t get a clear shot of anything, and I’m not going after difficult to photograph subjects. My camera may be a point and shoot but it’s actually quite sophisticated.

  • Charlotte Norton

    HAPPY THANKSGIVING great shot Ron!


  • Patty Chadwick

    Crummy photographer that I am, I would have bern pleased as punch to get a shot like that…most of my shots are grab shots for reference , but sometimes I try for something better…I say “try”…Are you sure that is a turkey disguised as a hawk??? It almost looks like a real hawk, even though I know better. Those turkeys, especislly the wild ones, are smart birds and this is one terrific disguise! Sure fooled me!!!

    • Patty, the first version of this image looks better than it really is for two reasons: I’ve sharpened it and images at the small size and resolution I post on the web can hide a lot of flaws.

  • This is all very interesting. I had the old version of 100-400 and everything started coming out soft too. I thought….that’s too many. I can at least get one sharp photo. ha. So I got the newer 100-400 and things have been pretty sharp. I think I’ll get the old one out and check and see what it’s doing now. Maybe nothing is wrong with the lens. Just ‘atmospheric conditions’. But, I sure do love the new version!!

    Thanks, Ron, I have learned quite a few things from you!

  • Steve Kelly

    Ron, could it be that both your and Mia’s cameras and/or lenses are stored at a temperature that is vastly different than the outside temperature? If so, when a heated (70 degrees in your truck) camera/lens is stuck out the truck window on a (28 degree) cold morning it will experience a degree of internal glass fogging that will clear up once the equipment temperature matches the outside temperature. Until the two temperatures match and the fogging clear you will get soft shots. I have a suggestion to overcome this, leave the photo equipment in the truck overnight and cover with blankets during the morning drive (also don’t heat the truck to be too warm, sorry Mia). Bring your batteries in overnight so they aren’t cold soaked. Hope this helps.

    • I doubt it, Steve – for the following reasons:

      1, For many years it never happened to me. 2, If my glass was fogging I should be able to see it (and I have occasionally in the past in other situations) but I don’t. 3, It doesn’t happen with my other lens in the same conditions and at the same time. 4, It happens reliably based on time after sunrise and not on varying temps inside my pickup and out.

  • Marina schultz

    Happy Thanksgiving Ron !!!!!! Hey if you figure out soft issue please let me know ..

  • Judy Gusick

    I’m with Ed/Jeremy on the atmosphere since it clears up later – at least here it’s been a weird weather year. You need a drone to check temps ground level and higher – ha! Don’t expect that will happen…………:) Happy Thanksgiving to you, Mia, and everyone who visits here.

    • “Don’t expect that will happen”

      Boy, you’re absolutely right about that, Judy! As far as I’m concerned drones should be illegal except for use over private land. I despise those damned things.

  • Ed MacKerrow

    Atmospheric turbulence is my educated guess Ron. Try to be there for the 15 minute window the C_n ^2 parameter is at a minimum. Two I times per Day the air and ground reach thermal equilibrium. I am not 100 % sure of this winter when it is cold air giving the problems. For sure I have seen the issue in winter and no matter what you try to do things are soft.

    Without using active optics methods it is hard to get a sharp image since little air pockets are at different temperatures and therefore different index of frefraction. A smaller aperture might help some and also try a technique referred to as lucky imaging from Astro photography. Take a bunch of shots hoping some are lucky to have less dephase across the field of view. Google the term and you can see some examples. (On an iPad at fine moment and typing is hard)

    • Thanks, Ed. For a long time I assumed it was some kind of atmospheric turbulence and perhaps it is.

      But I’m skeptical. Why did it not happen to me for so many years? And why does it always happen at about the same time of day relative to when the sun came up, no matter the temperature or time of year? And why do I usually get sharp shots at the same time while using my other lens?

      Many times I’ve tried “lucky imaging” (though I didn’t know what it’s called) by taking gobs of shots in bursts but it never makes any difference. I’ve also tried deliberately focusing on something else in the background and then refocusing on the bird and that never helps either.

      So darned frustrating!

      • Ron, I am not sure why it did not happen for many years. Perhaps you are looking at your images more closely now? Maybe you could dig up some past photos to check.

        I think it can happen around the same time each day relative to sunrise and sunset, since there are changes in temperature as the sun heats up the air and ground. This happens all year long.

        Are the other lenses, where you get sharp images, the same focal length? The non-uniform index of reflection of the air will deflect the light ray by an angular amount, a longer lens has a smaller angular field of view so the angular deflection caused by the cells of air at varying temps (i.e. “tapioca” ) will be more noticeable on longer focal length lenses.

        Here is an good easy read on Lucky Imaging. In it they also discuss averaging over many frames taken very quickly. In theory this **might** work some on our cameras, however our cameras are not in the same league as these astronomical research devices.


        There images of the 50,000 frame lucky imaging processing are impressive !

        Here is what I have noticed so far:

        1) Long path lengths close to the ground are worst. Better to get up high and shoot down/up at angle. I rarely do this though. Maybe next time in Larmar Valley in -20 degrees I will test my camera’s sharpness on the top of a pine tree and compare to a horizontal shot.

        2) Wild horse photography on hot days in the desert, long distance wolf photography in Larmar Valley in winter, shooting with focal lengths > 1000 mm, seem to be where I notice it the most. Once in Larmar Valley I almost took my new Canon 7D2 to the trash can — glad I did not 🙂

        3) For sure I have been able to time when I photograph, find the time in the morning and evening to take photos when the turbulence is at a minimum. It is a very short time window (~ 10 minutes). You can often feel this time of day yourself. It feels “good” to be outside, the air is still. I remember this as a kid in the summer going out to hike after dinner on hot summer days. I have utilized this while photographing wild horses in the desert. Read books and sleep all day, take photos only during these times of equilibrium.

        4) Wind, clouds, humidity also affect the optical path. I have read where wind can really help sometimes, since it is mixing the air temperature pockets better. I am trying to find that article.

        This website, The Clear Sky Chart, is very useful. I mostly use it for nightscape photography, however it can help all day long. Pay close attention to the data for “seeing”. Seeing is the measurement we are talking about here. I set the location for Salt Lake City, however you may find other measurements site closer to your photography location (i.e. Bear River NWR versus Antelope Island). Their description on seeing is also useful to read, including the part about clear air and seeing.

        I surely do not have this figured out in anyway though. Lately I have been thinking it through and brushing off the cobwebs to research this more.

        Maybe you could try one cold morning from the causeway at Antelope Valley, then quickly drive over to an elevated area and try some slant path lengths. The goal being a comparison in path length through the ground layer of atmosphere.

        I remember in the days when we were doing experiments with atmospheric turbulence and optics we would often use the analogy of privacy glass used for shower doors. In static conditions that optical wavefront is degraded and the image is blurred. When you are close to the glass it is worst than farther away from the glass. No matter what the image is degraded and resolution is lost.

        The way I think about it now out in the field is that I am looking through air that is like tapioca pudding (perhaps I am always hungry). The globules (frog eyes) in the air tapioca are due to temperature differences (and humidity). The longer the path the more deflections the light rays have gone through. In theory a smaller aperture will let in less rays deflected by large angles. However we are asking our cameras to do a lot, sharp feathers of a bird at long distances.

        It is frustrating. I keep blaming my camera, or my autofocus, however I think the issue is really just physics and the laws of nature.

        • April Olson

          Thank you Ed for this wonderful explanation. I learned a lot.

        • Wow, I very much appreciate all your effort on this response, Ed (so others will know, Ed is an expert on optics).
          1. No, the two lenses aren’t of equal focal length. One is 500mm (usually with 1.4 tc) and the other is a 100-400 zoom.
          2. I will read the link about “lucky images” when I’m finished responding to these comments.
          3, Shooting from the window of my full-sized pickup gives me a higher angle than most folks shooting from vehicles but it still isn’t all that high.
          4. I notice the soft shots equally as much on days of extreme temps and days of mild temps. There’s often a breeze when I’m shooting but seldom a wind.
          5. I’ll check out the “clear sky chart”.
          6. I like your tapioca analogy.
          7. Fighting against the laws of nature and physics is a lost cause. However I’m fairly convinced there must be some solution because I photographed for years with essentially the same gear and never had this problem…
          Thanks again, Ed. You’re a champ. And a good friend to boot.
          PS – Because of my blogging style I very often go through my old images and check for sharpness and I got more sharp shots back then than I do now in those morning hours.

  • Sharon Constant

    Jeremy says it atmospheric conditions when this happens to me. According to him, we may not be able to see the particles in the atmosphere between us and the bird, partially because our brains help eliminate it, but those “atmospherics” interfere with the camera/lens focus. Don’t know if that’s what’s really happening here, but it sounds plausible to me.

    • I’ve heard the same theory, Sharon. I’m skeptical though, because for many years it NEVER happened to me on such a reliable basis and at the same time of morning. I used to get my best shots at that time of day but no longer. Thanks to both you and Jeremy for your input.