Today is another excerpt from text that I am writing about the importance of shutter speed, also known as exposure time, in bird photography. This time I write about the range of 1/250 to 1/500 sec.
The light is coming up and you just entered the point when you can do pretty much anything you want with the camera and can still maintain a minimum shutter speed of 1/250 sec. Congratulations, you have just entered the promised land. Many bird shooters may disagree with the notion but the range of exposure time between 1/250sec an about 1/500sec is the best place to be. You most likely would disagree if you were using a very long lens between 600mm-800mm, or making a lot of birds in flight images. Granted it is easier to shoot at the higher speeds but not essential. With good support and stabilization you can get nice sharp images in this range.
Generally the time of day associated with these slower shutter speed ranges has a softer light, one that will be more flattering to your subject in all ways. If you are in close making portraits you can actually stop down a little bit and let me tell you that even with a 300mm lens at a range of ten or twenty feet you will want to stoop down. If you have the luxury of shooting a lens as fast as f2.8 and are making a small bird portrait wide open you would be struggling to get both the eyes and feet in focus. That is usually a depth of field around a quarter of an inch or less. Because the goal is to get as close as possible the depth of field is going to be very shallow depending on your success, so you are actually punished for achieving the impossible unless of course you have the where-with-all and the ability to stop down to just where you need it.
If it is morning, the birds are waking up and beginning to become active. Like all living creatures birds wake up at varying speeds and there are ones that are sluggish often making great subjects. In the evening birds are looking for that last meal before hunkering down and you will undoubtedly notice a large increase in activity.
Here is the kicker that makes this shooting range the most wonderful time of the day, it is flash. Most likely you are at the upper limit of being able to use a speed light without taxing the gear to the point of not being all that helpful. In a nutshell, most speed lights max out around 1/250sec for syncing to the shutter, some go a little higher and some of the better ones have a hi-speed mode. Hi-speed is simply a series of flash pulses over a longer timeframe hoping to catch the shutter opening rather than actually syncing with the shutter. It is hard on the system and does not work all that well so I avoid it. Using a regular sync speed, adding some flash can work wonders to your bird photography. It is very important for hummingbirds but for other birds it will often be that finishing touch. Adding that extra light will soften harsh shadows and create a better edge contrast and freezes the micro movements all which helps the image to appear sharper. You are best served to use your flash as a fill light so back off on the intensity with at least -1 stop of compensation and add an extender if you are using a long lens.
If you compare today’s photo with the one from last week you will see there is very little difference yet it changes the photograph a lot. I like both of them but both have challenges to process. I have already done a lot about processing photos so I won’t say much about that today, rather lets take a look at the stats about making those photographs. I will call it “the series”. For me the series is a number of photographs I make having set up on one bird in one place. As I move around, in and out and different angles and aspects, it is all part of the series. So this series was 24 images and about 7 minutes in duration. Short by my standards, there are times when a series can be hundreds of images lasting for more than an hour. After a few months it can be hard to put the details into proper context and the series mindset helps organize things. For example, in this series the bird may have flown off or I might have moved on to a more promising scene as it looks as though the light was getting harsh. To help preserve the context of the moment you might consider not deleting all of those forgettable images, you know like the empty perch or the out of focus back half of the bird as these will often jog your memory of the events. In this case it was a combination of things that made me pull up the sticks, I was a little further away than I wanted to be, angle to the sun was off a bit, the sunlight was becoming harsh, and there were other Eagles in the vicinity. By the way, if anyone gets clued in to the EXIF data for these images you can note that the timestamp is incorrect. I really don’t concern myself with the time of capture, date is important but with time zone changes and all that I just don’t rely on a time stamp at all.
Like I said, I like both photos, last weeks was nice because it had some action, the old head throw as this Eagle was chatting up a storm. It is a little awkward though, the angle is a bit off in relation to the sunlight and it casts a harsh shadow across the head. Today’s photo is nice too, it is the iconic Eagle pose with an almost perfect (best possible) angle to the sun. As you can see though, just a couple of minutes further along, the sunlight on this bird is getting really harsh, just short of being unusable.
So that is just a little glimpse of what happens behind the scenes, super exciting right!
You can keep up with all the action by following me on twitter @RonBoyd
Just a quick mention today guys. Thought for the day, just as in real estate, in bird photography it is all about location, location, location. Go find your location.
Follow me at Twitter @RonBoyd
Last week we did the most basic editing by separating the subject from the back ground, balancing the exposures and making contrast, saturation, and shadow/highlight adjustments independent of each other. Today we are going to finish off the photo with some cloning. There are plenty of different ways to do cloning and none of them are wrong, so don’t think you need to do it the same as I do. Any way that accomplishes the result is just fine. Lets go back to that background layer that we just adjusted and duplicate it. We see an ugly black waterline from the river going right through the bird. This is going to be a lot easier to fix with the layer mask in place, we won’t have to worry about our bird at all. Select a soft brush with medium opacity in your clone brush tool and be sure that you are sampling only the current layer and the “aligned” box is checked. Here you have your choice, you could clone with the river bed rock, the foliage, or a combination of both. In this case I did both trying to make the water line slightly meandering so it is not a straight arrow shooting straight through our eagle. The log under the eagle could also be cloned out at this point but I think I will leave it in. The only big distraction it creates is the huge black spot behind the subject in the trunk. I am going to sample the area just below it and at a very low opacity tap the brush repeatedly until it looks ok.
Yeah, that’s the ticket. Now lets look at the bird. Not much to do here, the beak has a white highlight on the tip, it is not a blown out highlight just a white area that is overexposed. All we need to do is put some color in it and that is easy to do. I could clone from the area around it but since the area is round and irregular shaped it is much easier to simply sample a nearby color and paint over it on new blank layer. At this point you could try different blending modes and the “color” mode is often a good choice but since the underlying layer is white just lowering the opacity until everything blends in works just fine. By the way, there is a lot of blood and dirt in this eagles head area, usually eagles clean up after eating but this guy must have forgotten. I could have cleaned that up but for me it is just part of nature so I left it in. On the strip of the tail that was too bright I did a little cloning lowered the opacity and changed the blend mode to multiply (I think!) to darken it up a bit. After that Shift<Option<Command<E to make a complete layer, flatten the image if you need the performance. I now just need to clone out that branch in the lower left corner, healing brush will get it too, and send the image over to Lightroom for some final adjustment. I like to use Lightroom for sharpening, noise reduction, saturation, and selective exposure or gradient masking. There is no need to do it in Lightroom but for me it seems easier, probably because it is one step closer to a final output.
I am sure you will agree that the final image is a vast improvement and I hope one or two of these methods finds its way into your workflow. Until next time Thank You for stopping by and Happy Shooting.
You can catch me on Twitter: @RonBoyd
The past few months I have had the time and pleasure to talk with a number of photographers, some professional, some not, some for wildlife, some not and it seems to me that things have changed a bit. It could just be the crowd I run around with these days is a little older maybe a little more sophisticated but I feel there has been a change overall. Different from the past is the fact that a number of folks I encountered were now using Nikon products. Almost irrelevant beyond a data point, for many years I felt as an outsider in the gear department. As far as nature and wildlife were concerned almost everyone was in full Cannon gear. Cannon had been a little cheaper with a few more choices but some how Nikon made up some ground. That could still be repercussions from the tsunami in Japan a few years ago.
More important to me is that it seems as though the photography frenzy has begun to calm down. A year ago a lot of people were aspiring to be professionals, there seemed to be no middle of the road, one was either a struggling professional or desperately seeking ways to make money to become one. As it turns out a lot of these folks were doing nothing more than marketing to each other and that fuels an air of frustration and despair. I have run into a number of people who have no desire to sell their work or even show their images. On one excursion the leader told me that only about half of the participants volunteer to show their work and that indicates to me those people are making photographs for some reason other than selling them to the public. I was not able to make it to Bosque Del Apache last Fall so I thought I could enjoy the sights from the internet perusing the thousands of pictures posted. There was a very small number compared to previous years. Though I didn’t make it a major ambition, I really could not find much participation and what I did find was professional. It is possible that the sharp increase in the price of entry for many photography genres, in particular bird, helped slow things down. Maybe photography is not as cool as it once was. Maybe it is just me. In any case I like what I see.
It is not that I could not figure it out myself, I had most of it rattling around in my head anyhow. It is more about the fact that I would not have done it. Only a few hours into the workshop Matt asked me if I was shooting manual mode. After a puzzled look from me he ran it down. It was a remarkably easy thing to learn and I shot in manual mode the rest of the trip. Because Bald Eagles are such high contrast it is particularly helpful to shoot in manual mode, especially for in flight shots. Over exposing the bright white head of the Eagles is the most common problem when photographing these birds, so if you set a manual exposure to protect those highlights you are good to go. Your Eagle is properly exposed. If the body is under exposed, well that is a dynamic range and intensity of light issue, don’t confuse that with a proper exposure. Cameras in auto modes will rarely produce a properly exposed Bald Eagle on its own. typically, you need to set exposure compensation. With a manual exposure as long as the light does not change the exposure will always be correct regardless of the scene or background. Going from a dark brown tree line to pure white snow-covered mountain peaks is going to make a camera in any automatic mode do drastic changes and the exposure of the subject may or may not be correct. In manual it will always have that original correct exposure. The caveat to all of that is now the rest of the scene may or may not have a correct exposure. In the example of the treelike and snow caps one of them will be way off but remember you subject will still have a proper exposure. That is when you drill down a tad further setting the scene you want to photograph. Be selective, work the scene you have properly exposed and you will make your best shots. Like I said at the beginning it is not that I could not have figured it out on my own it, but rather the fact that I did not appreciate the need to shoot manual and would not have tried it till late or not at all. That is where expert instruction becomes the game changer. That little pivot point marks my greatest accomplishment of the entire trip.
Regrets, I have a few. No, I am not going to break out in song and actually there is only one. One day we came upon a rather picturesque scene of a Bald Eagle sitting on a huge boulder in a stream. I rushed up on the bird and scared it away. You have heard my in the past write about taking the position away from those who are not making the most of or not themselves taking the best position. You can read that here. Everything I wrote still goes but this was a different situation. First, I was indeed too close for the distance I had. Even though there was running water between us and that usually calms the bird I was too close and should have been using a soft step circling approach at that point. Second, I did not have the lens I needed. I was sporting an old 28-85 lens for landscape shots so I could never make the shot I wanted anyhow. If you can’t make the shot, you can’t make the shot and there is no need to be fighting for a place and making things harder for others. I know better than to do that and it was stupid and thoughtless. Don’t be a Bozo kids, think about what you are doing.
No account of the Alaska experience would be complete without mentioning the co-leader of the group, best of the best, a kind man named Bill. Yes, I do know his last name but I will not mention it today because I did not ask permission to write about him today but I am sure if you are really interested you can figure it out. Bill is a wonderful guide, he is a local to the area and knows the terrain, wildlife, and people like the back of his hand. He is also a very accomplished photographer and artist. You can see some of his work here. I can’t think of a moment when Bill was not lending a hand, answering a question, or just trying to make the whole Alaska Experience a once in a lifetime experience.
I hesitate to use the term “once in a lifetime” when writing about the Alaska Experience, I could do it again, again…
Thanks for stopping by everyone I shared 3 of my favorite images. They are quality publishable images so I apologize for the big ugly watermarks but I hope you enjoy them and I hope you enjoyed the whole series about Alaska. You can see more of my Alaska photos here. If you are thinking about planning your own Alaska Experience, I suggest you give Matt Shetzer a look see.
Oh, by the way, those images I thought were the best I had ever seen. Do I still think the same now that I have my own Eagle photos? Yup!
It all started a few years ago while perusing the forums on DP Review for information about long lenses when I found the best Bald eagle images I had ever seen. About a half a million bird photos later I saw some of those images again and felt the same way. They were inspiring, crystal clear, and in a setting like I had not seen before. Back in the day there was no chance of making those kind of images on my own but now with a bunch more experience and some travel time under my belt, yeah, maybe I could pull it off. Cost was an issue but I was beginning to learn that saving money can be over rated anyhow. There was a workshop to go along with those images and one thing important to me was that I was able to reserve a spot more than a year in advance. That gave me the time I really needed to save and prepare. As far as I know there is only one legitimate photography workshop shooting out of the Chilkat and that is run by Matt Shetzer, the creator of those images I so admire.
Turns out that workshop was everything it claimed to be, in fact, it was much more and that is why I named todays story “The Alaska Experience”. The shooting was superb but we were also given a good dose of Alaska life. We toured around between sessions and saw some of the most beautiful places in my life. I made some landscape images that I cherish just as much as the Eagles. We also had a couple of evenings talking about using Photoshop. Now, I have used Photoshop every single day, a few hours a day, for about a dozen years but I picked up several advanced techniques that I incorporated into my workflow. We went to the American Bald Eagle Foundation every evening and learned about and saw other Raptors and Alaskan wildlife in general. We spent some time talking about and exploring the Native American Tlingit culture. That was kind of important because in a lot of respects that is the framework from which the whole Alaskan experience builds out. I met other professional level photographers. The Chilkat tends to attract the best of the best as it really does take a considerable commitment to get up there with good gear. I have been on other photography workshops, all of them great experiences but this Alaska trip was really first class. Most of you probably will not relate sitting in frozen mud surrounded by half eaten salmon heads and tails with the term first class but yeah for this bird shooter it was.
If you were a novice you would for sure come home with the best images you have ever made. Intermediate, well you are going to improve to the point of making publishable images. Great images, ones you will cherish for life. Very advanced, pro level shooters are going to see and pick up those little things that you catch only when interacting with other top-level photographers. I have my own way of doing things and I have spent a lot of time tailoring them to bird photography. Things that I don’t ever see other people doing, we all do I suppose but I picked up on things that I never thought of before and to be short, I made images I will cherish the rest of my life.
I am a big fan of people who always do what they say they are going to do. I figure at some points that person has to go the extra mile to deliver. Very rarely do we give them credit for doing what they are “supposed to do” but when someone gets everything right all the time it is something to be applauded, no excuses, it just works. Everything just worked this time around.
But wait! There’s more. Indeed there is and I invite you to come back next week when I close out the Alaska experience. I will tell you about the biggest accomplishment, biggest regret, my favorite Alaska image and possibly the very best bird photo I have ever made and much more for the low, low, price of free.
Thanks so much for stopping by and always remember when using the term “bird shooter”, take a moment to explain yourself.
I was very fortunate in my travels in Alaska to meet the people connected with the American Bald Eagle Foundation in Haines AK. The name is a little misleading because it covers far more than Bald Eagles. It is a live raptor center with the Eagles, hawks, and owls, hundreds of real wildlife figures and thousands of photographs, artwork, and souvenirs to see. They do good work there promoting awareness and conservation of the Eagles and all of Alaska in general. Although I missed it by a couple of days this year the foundation has a week-long Bald Eagle Festival every year in November with rehabilitated Eagles released to the wild, Indian wood carving, culture tours and much more. The American Bald Eagle Foundation is a registered 501 c3 charity so if you are the sort who needs to lighten your tax burden I suggest you give them a look. They are a worthwhile cause.
While in Alaska I was also lucky enough to take a brief tour of the nearby Tlingit Native village of Klukwan. I was told that the residents prefer to be left alone and would prefer not to have photographs made of their village. Sometimes there is tension between the natives and other people in the area. I can appreciate that, I am sure I would feel the same if I were in their shoes. The Tlingit live in an extremely modest village. Coming from a land where a Native American casino can be found in all four directions it is easy to forget that there are still Native Americans in the country who do not benefit from the gaming revenue. It is obvious to me that the Tlingit Natives get little or none of that money. The Tlingit Natives are important to us because they are closely intertwined with the Bald Eagle in their culture and their history gives them the Chilkat lands. It is their domain and they should get the respect for keeping a pure reserve for literally centuries.
The photo you see above is one of my favorites because it shows just a hint of the Klukwan village meeting hall in the background. I had better photos in that series but I chose that one specifically because it tells the story of the close relationship the village of Klukwan has with the Eagles. Telling a story is one of the keys to a great photograph. A picture is worth a thousand words. Nuff said!
Just a couple of tips about photographing Bald Eagles and a couple of lesser known facts about these great birds and their behavior. At the Chilkat Preserve the best and most dramatic photographs you can make are of the Eagles fighting for a piece of salmon. It is not uncommon to have three or more birds competing for one piece of fish. The salmon are so large that it can last for more than a half an hour before it disappears entirely, so if you see a fish being dragged out of the water you’ll have a fair amount of time to set up and choose your settings. First, let’s think about what the ground is like around that feast. If it is wet, rocky area you may have an issue with secular highlights, the annoying blown out highlight spots. Sandy soil is going to produce a darker more even background. You may find a sandbar with rushing water around it. While this could be challenging, deeper running water around the action will add a different color to the scene like blue, aqua, or even green and that can really let the subject stand out. The fourth look you might encounter is the snow and ice scenario. In overcast (snowing) conditions this is great because the white snow and ice will reflect light back up under the birds and help illuminate those usual dark places under the wings. The exposure is very similar to the adult Bald Eagles head and tail so you will have very even images. Remember that adult Bald Eagles are a high contrast subject, essentially black and white, so be careful to not blow out the highlights. Much more about that in a couple of weeks, suffice to say for now, compensate accordingly. In most cases you are best served to focus on the piece of salmon and stop down some and give yourself a wider field of view as the action will spill out of a tight shot and you are much better off cropping in a bit than trying to chase the action. Just as a loose reference I found 420mm, f6-7, at about 10-20 yards out to be a very good combination. Adjust the sensitivity to keep the shutter speed around 1/1,000sec. If you can’t get the shutter speed above 1/800sec you probably are not going to be happy with the results.
The photo at the top is an immature Bald Eagle, around a year old. It is often mistaken for a Golden Eagle. All the cool kids know there aren’t any Golden Eagles on the Chilkat River. Be a cool kid. The photo below is also a picture of an immature Bald Eagle, it is about 4 years old. It takes 5 years for one to become an adult and as you can see they gradually lose the darkness in the head, geek, and tail over that period of time. Bald Eagles can live to be well over 40 years old but in the wild tend to live for about 30 to 35 years.
This is the second part of a series of stories about photographing Bald Eagles in Alaska. Thanks for stopping by and be sure to come by next week for more photos and info. Meanwhile you can see more of my images here.
Those of you who follow regular know that I spent some time in Alaska a couple of weeks ago photographing Bald Eagles. It was South East Alaska based out of the town of Haines AK and most of the time we were shooting about 20 miles away on the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve which is along the Chilkat River. It is a special place because every year around this time when Alaska and Canada begins to freeze over a bit to the North thousands of Eagles head to the Chilkat to feed on an overabundance of salmon. The Chilkat meanders along the valley and at some points the bed or “flats” as they are called look to be about a mile or two across. In all the State Park is 48,000 acres and it is estimated that about 3,200 pair of eagles migrate there every year. Waters that run through the Chilkat include glacial runoff that contain a lot of minerals and other sediment that can leave the river bank ranging from sandy beach to rocks with driftwood looking logs for the birds to perch. The outer banks are lined with tall trees where the Eagles prefer to eat their food. As an added bonus when the Chilkat freezes most of the birds congregate at the spots with deepest waters and it is not unusual to have hundreds of Eagles in your field of view. One unique thing about the Chilkat River is that it has warmer water constantly percolating through the rocky river bed so it never completely freezes over thus insuring a food supply for the Eagles and Gulls.
The Eagles come to the Chilkat to feed on the spawned out salmon that seem to be everywhere in the river at that time. The 4-year-old fish are huge in size, far to big for an Eagle to bring up to a safe tree branch so the best they can do is drag it up on the bank of the river and pick at it. That is where all the action happens. Bald Eagles have a fairly loose family unit, true that the do mate for life in most cases but when the young are able to leave the nest they are done and on their own. Fighting for a share of the fish is a common occurrence and makes for the best Eagle photography. The birds tend to not be distracted by humans at that point either so getting close is only a matter of logistics.
The preserve seems to have its own weather too. It is almost always different from the water’s edge just 20 miles away and can change fast so it is best to be prepared for any conditions. As you can see in the photo above it can have grey low light conditions at times that result in muddy images that need a lot of help to make viewable but if you hang out for more than an afternoon you most likely see some really soft pleasing light at some point. When that happens, make the most of it because it won’t last long!
Thanks for stopping by everyone. Please come back next week, this is only the first in a series of stories about photographing Bald Eagles in Alaska and I would hate for you to miss any of it.
You can see more of my Eagle photos here at my SmugMug site.