Portraits

Portraits

Nov 17, 2017 ~ Sometimes the birds just get too close. I know, this sounds like a strange problem to have, but with large waders or acclimated feeder birds, they can invade your minimum focus distance or overfill the frame and then you risk chopping off feet or clipping wings.  If you are shooting a zoom lens, often you can zoom back some, but physically moving back risks scaring the bird or just isn't possible.

So.... in that case, you can do portraits! Concentrate on the head and shoulders; don't worry about the feet and body. You just have to work a bit harder to make sure the close up is all in focus.

Juvenile Black Crown Night Heron ~ click all images to embiggen
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1250 sec f/7.1 ISO 1250; braced in vehicle window

I spotted this juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron in a ditch near Quintana Beach County Park. While Bill was backing up, I was afraid it was just one of those curled dead palm fronds that masquerade as all kinds of birds, but it turned out to be this fine looking juvenile. This was taken out the window of the truck, but later I did slip out and get a few more portraits. He was deep in the ditch and reeds and grasses were obscuring the subject.  

Plus, the background was messy AND close. When you are really close to a bird, you need a high f/stop (try f/8 or higher) to make sure all the bird is in focus. If the reeds, grass or foliage is close behind the bird, then the near background may be in focus as well. Often it is not too bad since the bird fills a larger percentage of the frame than the background, but you will not get that creamy bokeh look in this situation. That happens when your subject is perched on a branch or post and the background is farther away.

You can use Content Aware Fill or the Patch Tool in Photoshop to remove really distracting background items. If you are tempted to change the background or do extensive editing, just make sure you are up to the task. 

I am including the sizes of these photos as guidelines. Full frame cameras give you huge images for cropping; with smaller sensors be mindful of the % of crop and the final cropped image size. After cropping, I reduce all my images to 1500 pixels on the long side for posting on this blog or FB. If the image is going to be printed, I use a different process so the image is as large as possible.

Original image: 7360 x 4912 - 36.2 MP
Cropped image: 7009 x 4776 - 33.5 MP (93% of original)
Reduced jpg image for posting: 1500 x 991 - 1 MB

Young Yellow-crowned Night Heron with tasty crab
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/800
 sec f/10.0 ISO 2000; braced in vehicle window

Often you can get away with a messy background if the bird is doing something really cool. This young Yellow-crowned Night Heron has found a crab which is much more interesting that all those dead reeds and reflective water. I took this hanging out the truck window and f/10.0 because he was so danged close. 

Original image: 7360 x 4912 - 36.2 MP
Cropped image: 4593 x 3674 - 16.9 MP (47% of original)
Reduced jpg image for posting: 1500 x 1200 - 1.2 MP

Lovely White Ibis sub-adult 
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; tripod

This is a perfect set up, as the background was only water straight ahead and the reeds and rushes along the shore were on each side. We were IN the mudflats on the side of Crab Road in Surfside at low tide. The White Ibis is almost grown as she shows just traces of her dark juvenile feathers. She was feeding on crabs and soon forgot we were even there. I was sitting on my crate with the tripod in the mud about 15 feet away for this shot. The plain background gives almost a monochromatic look to the image and shows off the reddish bill and beautiful blue eye.

Original image: 7360 x 4912 - 36.2 MP
Cropped image: 5460 x 4368 - 23.8 MP (66% of original)
Reduced jpg image for posting: 1500 x 1200 - 614.6 KB

Young Black-Necked Stilt
Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G + 1.4x TC; 1/1600 sec f/7.1 ISO 1250; tripod

The juvenile Black-necked Stilt shown above was taken at the same place on another low tide day. It is one of my favorite portraits, in fact a slightly different crop is printed and framed in my entry hall. Young birds will often come very close to you; they haven't learned to be afraid of humans yet. 

The Sony A77II rig I was using last year has a smaller sensor (24 MP) than the Nikon D810. It is a cropped camera, not a full frame. The minimum focus distance with the Sony 500 mm is about the same as with my Nikon 500 mm  (about 13 feet) so this little guy was walking toward me and soon got too close to focus.

Original image: 6000 x 4000 - 23.72 MP
Cropped image: 4297 x 3399 - 14.6 MP (62% of original)
Reduced jpg image for posting: 1500 x 1179 - 678.3 KB

Just out of the nest White Ibis baby
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1000 sec f/8.0 ISO 2500; tripod

This fledgling White Ibis was still close by his nest at McClendon Park last summer. I was below the branch he and his siblings were sharing and he was perfectly camouflaged by the dappled light in the trees. The object of a portrait is to show as much detail as possible; you can see his fuzzy vestigial baby feathers and the texture of the wrinkled skin around his eyes. 

Original image: 7360 x 4912 - 36.2 MP
Cropped image: 4764 x 3811 - 18.2 MP (50% of original)
Reduced jpg image for posting: 1500 x 1200 - 1.1 MB

Great Blue Heron standing on a fence
Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G + 1.4x TC~  1/1600 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250; braced on truck window

Great Blue Heron's large size and habit of standing motionless make them good subjects for portraits. Some that frequent piers and popular fishing spots are habituated to people and will let you get quite close. Brown Pelicans are also often accommodating of photographer's curiosity.  The above image is taken at f/6.3 and you can see the nearest ruffled feathers on his shoulders are a tad soft; a higher f/stop would have worked better. 

That is the problem with big, close birds and head shots. You are intently focused on the eye and forget the body has thickness, or the head is turned toward you -  a good depth of field is needed to get it all sharp. 

Original image: 6000 x 4000 - 23.72 MP
Cropped image: 2876 x 3720 - 11.1 MP (47% of original)
Reduced jpg image for posting: 1500 x 1200 - 1.1 MB

Redwing Blackbird in the wet grass
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
 sec f/7.1 ISO 1000; tripod

Don't overlook the blackbirds for portraits. Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds will both come quite close. This guy was in the grass just in front of my set up for a Yellow Crown Night Heron who was hunting crabs on Frenchtown Road in Bolivar. I like the water drops on his feathers. Yes, you can see his feet but the main focus is his head and shoulders. 

Original image: 7360 x 4912 - 36.2 MP
Cropped image: 4469 x 3575 - 16 MB (44% of original)
Reduced jpg image for posting: 1500 x 1200 - 1.1 MB

My fave bird for portraits: Clapper Rails
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600 sec f/8.0 ISO 2500; tripod

And the Clapper Rail who gave me the idea for this adventure. I have so many half-shots; missing feet, tails, wings because they have come so close. Portraits of birds with long bills require a really good depth of field. This was shot at f/8.0 and is sharp because he is parallel with the sensor. If the bird is facing you or even turned slightly away from the horizontal plane, you will need MOAR depth of field. Try f/9.0 or even f/11.0. Trust me, I have a lot of good images with the tip of the bill fuzzy and unacceptable. 

Original image: 7360 x 4912 - 36.2 MP
Cropped image: 4501 x 3601 - 16.2 MP (45% of original)
Reduced jpg image for posting: 1500 x 1200 - 1.4 MB

Big Red Cow
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1250 sec f/8.0 ISO 1600; tripod

And don't forget the other wildlife you see when you are out chasing birds. Cows, dogs, goats, and sometimes chickens will let you get quite close. And you will need a greater depth of field to get the whole face in focus. This one is the tightest crop of the examples.

Original image: 7360 x 4912 - 36.2 MP
Cropped image: 2910 x 2328 - 6.8 MP (19% of original)
Reduced jpg image for posting: 1500 x 1262 - 1.2 MB

Screen shot from ACR showing Cattle Egret original RAW image and potential 38% crop (and yes, I removed some distracting branches from the final image)

Here is a screen shot from Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) showing the original image and the crop of the Cattle Egret I used for the lead-in portrait to this blog post. It is immensely helpful to crop in ACR - and I have to admit I resisted for a long time. Look at the text at the bottom of the image. This is showing you the pixel dimensions and size of your crop. It shows "13.9 MP" for the total size of the crop which results in a sharp image. The crop tool (6th icon from the left at the top) lets you choose common ratios such as 4 to 5 or 5 to 7 or you can change to Normal for a free form crop. Cropping in ACR allows you to determine if the final size is going to be large enough to show the detail your want. 

A potential crop that will not be sharp or impressive. 

Just a word of caution. This post is NOT suggesting you heavily crop an image you took of the whole bird; this is for situations when you cannot fit the entire bird in the viewfinder. These example images are still very large and most of the crops are not substantial. It depends a lot on your equipment and the size of your sensor, BUT crops less than 7 MP should be closely evaluated. If you are getting a blotchy, painterly look after cropping, the crop is too much. Excessive cropping is damaging to image quality. 

Cropping for portraits requires the subject be large in the frame to begin with. If your subject is small in the frame, then go for an environmental shot where you show the bird in his habitat and surroundings. Hmm...  that could be the subject of *another* adventure!

Do you ever take nature portraits? Did this help a bit with all that complicated pixel and size math? Are you happy with your cropped images? Let me know in the comments below. 

Circles, Curves and Arches

Circles, Curves and Arches

Three Trips to Crab Road

Three Trips to Crab Road