Taking Charge of the Light
October 27, 2017 ~ Most of the marshes along the coast are full of water which scatters the birds, but a few fall visitors have shown up. The Surfside area has been our most productive location. Last Sunday we found a lot of birds, and constantly changing light.
Sometimes when you go out for a day of shooting, the light is consistent - bright, or overcast or maybe the sky is filled with those far off high cumulus clouds that never seem to make shadows. And then there are the days when the light seems to change from one moment to the next. These days are the best opportunity to really learn manual exposure. Yep, I mean not relying on auto ISO or Aperture preferred settings, but doing it all. I know some of your use your camera's automatic settings, and are pleased with your results. But learning to shoot manually, choosing the ISO, shutter speed and aperture is well worth the effort. Yes, it is a lot of trouble, but it becomes second nature if you practice enough.
Along Casco Road near the Intracoastal Bridge we found a few waders in the tidal mudflats. The sun was at our backs and the partly cloudy weather forecast had not materialized. But, there were birds. In these situations, you have to wait until the bird is parallel to the light to minimize shadows. In the above image, the White Ibis is throwing a shadow behind his body, and a little bit on his feet which are covered in dark mud anyways. ISO 400 works because the (white) bird is the subject, not the (dark) muddy background. Check your blinkies to make sure you aren't blowing (overexposing) the whites.
Later we moved on to a pond off Crab Rd and another White Ibis. This one was preening his feathers and was a most cooperative subject. He raised his wings, he stretched and did most of it standing on one foot. The light had changed from a few hours before and was still bright, but a stray cloud did away with all the shadows. ISO 800 is enough, f/8.0 gives enough DOF in case that long bill is pointed towards me, and 1/2500 sec is over kill, but hey. He might decide to fly.
Just to the left of the preening White Ibis was a Reddish Egret. He must not have been hungry and flew off shortly after we set up. I liked the thin grass in front of him and was trying to get it in focus as well as the bird. And I only partially succeeded. Still, there is a dark bird, against a bright water and a dark background. Expose for the dark bird (higher ISO), greater DOF (f/8.0) to get the foreground in focus and high shutter speed because the wind was blowing my artistic reeds all over the place.
Your camera and its automatic settings really don't know what you are trying to achieve. In the above example, the meter would probably underexpose the bird (based on the dark bird and background) and the reeds in the foreground would definitely be ugly green blurs across the bottom of the bird due to a shallow depth of field or even too slow a shutter speed.
What I need to work on is taking the same shot with a variety of settings. I should have tried even a greater DOF and slower shutter speed and maybe I could have gotten more of the foreground in focus. I mean, the bird wasn't moving and even 1/1000 sec is pretty danged fast. Although Bill was telling me it wouldn't work, I still wish I had tried a variety of settings.
Later that day we moved to the end of Bay Road near the Boat Ramps. It was sunnier, but the sun was to our backs and as long as you were careful with the position of the birds, the shadows were minimized. I know, I keep harping on shadows but a dark shadow across the bird from its body or vegetation blocks feather detail and is highly distracting. It makes your images look amateurish and ugly. I wrote about that last year in Let's Talk About Light and this blog post is Light 2.0.
The Greater Yellowlegs was a frantic hunter; shooting him was harder than keeping up with a Reddish Egret because he was smaller and closer. He was stalking tiny fish in the shallow puddles and was quite good at it.
We had earlier found a couple of Yellowlegs in a soggy, grassy lot near "downtown" Surfside, just after you cross over the bridge. It was mostly cloudy with an occasional burst of sun. This one was feeding in a reflective patch of bright water which helps to illuminate the chest and legs of the bird. But, in this shot the sun was behind a cloud; hence the exposure is increased.
There were about a dozen Marbled Godwits feeding with a larger flock of Dowitchers and the Yellow Legs in the grass and puddles. The Godwits are darker birds than the Yellow Legs, and against the grass there is not a lot of contrast. The higher ISO works here as well.
Godwits are more social than Long-billed Curlews or Whimbrels so it was a challenge to isolate one bird from the others, plus the little dowitchers would get too close. And the Grackles and Starlings. We took a couple of hundred shots.
And after our final pass through the area, we saw the Godwits were still feeding in the grassy lot. Out came the crates and tripods for a try in the late afternoon light. For a while the birds were much closer (note f/9) but the sun was still occasionally harsh enough to make shadows. Here I had to wait until the bird was parallel to the light source so it was evenly lit.
And this was taken within 10 minutes of the image shown above. The sun was low, and there was a cloud so no harsh shadows. With changing conditions, patience is your best bet to take advantage of fleeting optimal conditions.
Shooting manually and choosing each setting gives you more control in properly exposing your images. You can learn to expose correctly for the existing conditions, choose a depth of field suitable for your subject and a shutter speed appropriate for the action. My examples are just to show how I dealt with changing light; there are many combinations that will work.
Now your mileage may vary depending on the kind of camera you have. Nikon cameras are excellent in low light situations, and Sony's EVF is very helpful in showing you exactly what image your settings are producing. Canon, I don't know much about but I have friends who shoot manually and have excellent results. Gear is important, but without basic technical skills, you are trusting the camera and luck more than developing an understanding of how to make a good image. Find a more experienced buddy to shoot with, take classes or watch some of the fine tutorials on YouTube.
Do you shoot manually? I mean, select each setting each time? Or had you rather let the camera select one of the three? Or do you shoot totally on Automagic? Let me know in the comments below!