Nome a land of big sky, open spaces, wild country, rare birds and some pretty friendly birders. We were in Nome and the Seward Peninsula from June 5th through 9th, had great weather until the last day, but we had some very cool birds. Everyone on the Nome Bird Photography Workshop had life birds and added new birds to their photography collections.
Enjoy Thanks As Always Tim
Most photos of birds are either from above the bird looking down on them (like ducks or shorebirds) or from underneath the birds looking up at them (such as an eagle or gull flying by). If we were taking a portrait of a family member, we wouldn't stand above them or below them. We'd want to shoot eye level, to see who they are, to see their character, to understand the features of their face. Aren't people's faces and eyes the first thing we look at? We want to see if they're following what we're saying and to see who they are, etc. If we make a connection to other people by looking at their faces and eyes, won't our bird images be better if we do this too? In some ways, shooting eye level shows we are trying to meet them at their level, in their environment, and on their terms. We're looking for their character too, and we're looking to make a connection. It's possible to get eye level and make this connection in different ways. For this image, I was standing on the bank of a river and climbed down about five feet, so I'd be pretty much eye level with the landing Osprey. The Osprey nests near where I live are up on 40 and 50-foot poles, or on top of cell phone towers, so I also traveled across the state from Seattle to Cusick, Washington because I heard the Osprey nests there were at eye level. I also had the tripod at normal height since I was able to move up and down the bank to adjust my Point of View.
With water birds or shorebirds the most common way to get eye level is by lying on the shore or sand. Creating an interesting Point of View means working the subject to understand how best to create an image of it. The Western Sandpiper image was created at Ocean Shores during the spring migration of shorebirds. I was laying on the sand with waders on slowly crawling towards the birds. I got as low as I possibly could! By wearing waders when it's wet I can keep dry, and mud boots and Gortex rain pants help if the grass is wet or I'm shooting in a muddy habitat. If you can't lay down on the sand or shore, sit or kneel behind your tripod, just by getting as low as you can you'll create a better image.
If the photographer doesn’t make the connection with the bird, how can the viewer?
Ansel Adams said, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer."
I understand this better now that I know - as the photographer my connection to the bird will be the connection the viewer has or my connection will help the viewer connect with the bird. The day I created the Snow Goose image, I was looking for a different kind of image, I laid down in the road and shot into a flock of Snow Geese. When I started, I was just taking images of the rounded and curved forms, and patterns. But when this Snow Goose opened its eye I knew I had my image.
But, Point of View is only one of theses “connection” elements an image needs to have. Humans also make the connection to birds through the sparkle, gleam or highlight in the eye, thus making the bird look alive and not dull or dead with a flat black eye. A successful image will have both, a sparkle and an interesting Point of View.
While photographing this Mountain Plover, the tripod was lowered about 2/3 of the way to the ground, so the camera is about two feet above the bird. There's a slight downward angle present in the image, even from the lens being just a couple feet higher than the Mountain Plover. Sometimes to get the feet of the bird in the frame or to get the whole reflection of the bird in the frame it will be necessary to shoot from a slightly higher than eye level position.
This Snowy Plover image was made with the camera on the tripod but with the tripod legs fully splayed open and resting on the ground. The soft blurriness on the bottom of the bird is a small rise in the sand. This softening creates an element of mystery and maybe even movement in the image as it appears it could be moving sand. By being a bit higher in Mountain Plover image above the soft blurriness was avoided. Both work, it's a matter of personal preference and what you're trying to say in the image.
I think it's our job as the photographer to make sure that the connection between people and wildlife happens. That this just creates a more wonderful, intimate image is a bonus
A note on equipment and use.
I have a tripod that doesn't have a center column. Center column tripods don't allow for the tripod to sit all the way flat on the ground and keep the camera up a foot or two off the ground.
- I shorten the tripod legs first; then I spread them out wider to get the camera closer to the ground.
- It's difficult to push an opened legged tripod on the ground, so when I know I'll be crawling (like for shorebirds) I use a Ground Pod and mount my camera and lens to it. The Ground Pod requires a tripod head so; sometimes I'll use the taller Wimberley gimbal head, and if I want to get super low, I'll use a ball head.
- If I'm on the ground, most of the time I stay behind the camera to reduce what the birds see. But sometimes I'll kneel to the side of the camera and tripod.
- I often use a C Angle Viewfinder. This is a right-angle viewfinder that fits on the back of the camera so I can have the camera lower in I need to kneel and can't lay down.
Enjoy Thanks Tim
Here's a short list of the five things I think have to be right for an image to be successful.
The image has to be sharp. If the subject is sharp and the background is blurred, that's okay, but sharpness really can't be fixed in post-processing, so it needs to be right in-camera when the image is created. There are several ways to ensure you get a sharp image; check the shutter speed, use fill flash, use the professional newspaper photographer grip, use a tripod, with a big lens press down on the lens with your left hand to dampen vibrations, etc. For bird photographers, if the eye is sharp, then the rest of the bird can be out of focus. People connect with the eye! On the flip side, if the image is supposed to be blurry, it needs to be blurry enough, so the blur is obviously intentional.
The quality of light and the direction of light make a huge difference between a successful image and one that's just so-so. The quality of light means shoot at dawn or sunset when the sun angle in the sky is low. This enhances the yellow or golden tones in the light and thus makes the image warmer. For the angle of light ask yourself, where is the light coming from. Is it in front of you, sideways to you or behind you. The basic formula for bird photography is the light should come from behind you. Front -lighting works best for bird photography, but Backlighting makes great silhouettes, and Side-lighting which works great for human portraits doesn't seem to works as well for birds but can work if the light isn't too harsh. If you shoot before the sun is on the subject, like the Peregrine Falcon below, you might need to adjust the White Balance of the image, shooting in Auto White Balance will work most of the time, though.
BORDERS, EDGES & BACKGROUNDS
When you're looking in the viewfinder, look at the background. Is there a branch, light pole, building, Eiffel Tower or anything else coming out of the subjects head? Does the horizon cut the subject into two pieces or is it at the neck and make it look like the head is getting cut off? Then as you look through the viewfinder, take a quick glance around the edges of the viewfinder to see if there is something protruding into the frame that shouldn't. A branch, building, another bird etc.
Why is Exposure fourth? Well, to a degree (within a few stops of light) you can fix Exposure in post processing. But, start by reviewing your Histogram and exposing the image to the right when you're shooting. If you can get even some data into the far right sections of the Histogram the image will be close to an accurate exposure. The Histograms in the Canon cameras I use had five sections to the Histogram. I always try to expose the image so some data reaches halfway into the fifth section. It's very easy then to make any adjustments with the Blacks, Whites, Shadow and Highlights Sliders in LightRoom to finish the image and get an accurate exposure.
Try to create the composition of the image in-camera while you're shooting. Yes, you can always crop to fine-tune the composition later in post-processing but the closer the image is to the final composition in-camera the more pixels you'll save for later use (like printing), or the less time you'll need to process the image. The biggest thing to avoid is the DSLR classic image of a centered subject. By using the Rule of Thirds, or placing small subjects in one of the corners the image will be better. That said, sometimes dead center is where you want or need the subject and the horizon or the bird can be centered horizontally or vertically and the image still works. The Rule of Thirds is really, "The Suggested Default of Thirds" encase you can't decide what else to do with the composition. It doesn't hurt to explore compositional ideas in-camera while you're in the field!
I hope this helps you create better images.
Enjoy! Thanks Tim
Shorebird migration continues on the Washington Coast. This past week -- Wednesday and Thursday there was great weather on the Washington Coast and while there were fewer birds than a week ago, there are still thousands and thousands of shorebirds out there.
I use the car as a photo blind a lot, and this works really well for gulls at the beach since they're used to a lot of vehicles. Well, some people even feed the gulls from their cars ;-) so the gulls are habituated to cars and humans. Taken with a bean bag drapped over the window/door and the camera and lens resting on the beanbag.
I was really hoping I could get some more Raven images, but the crows were more plentiful and cooperative. Oh well, next winter then.
Killdeer are so funny, they're nervous and curious at the same time. This one ran towards me, then ran away form me several times, trying to figure out what I was doing. I just sat and watched, not making any noise or sudden movements.
How to Get Close:
The next three images were made on an incoming tide. As the tide came in I was laying in the sand with my camera and lens mounted on a Skimmer Ground Pod II (made by Naturescapes) and a Whimberley gimbal tripod head. As the birds are pushed towards me by the tide, I slowly crawl a little closer to them. Moving very slowly it's possible to become just part of the landscape, and they will eventually get closer than the lens will focus. At this point I crawl backwards very, very slowly so I don't scare them and either continue to take more images or go back to my car and let them feed. Shorebirds need a lot of fuel for their migration, and I don't want to have them waste any energy by me spooking them. I think these eye level images of shorebirds are the best way to create an image of them in their environment, at their level we don't tower over them or look down on them, and it's easier to connect with them. It's also possible to get even lower by using a ball-head on the Skimmer Ground Pod, Then then lens will be only a couple of inches above the ground.
This Sanderling is still pretty much in non-breeding or basic plumage. Other Sanderling were already starting to get a little brown and a reddish coloration on thier necks and heads, their breeding or alternate plumage. This is a great time of year to study molt or feather changes in birds.
Shorebird congregate wherever there is plenty of food. The stretch on beach I was on was loaded with marine worms. There was also a limited clam dig open when I was shooting and I was told that clam diggers look for where the birds are and that's how they know where the clams will be. I watched the clam diggers and the shorebirds use the same stretch of beach, the birds were actively feeding within several feet of the clam diggers. Neither bothered by the other too much.
Although it appears as if the Western Sandpiper is looking at itself in the reflected water, it's really just a search for the next worm.
Thanks & Good Birding
While presenting a shorebird identification program to the Grays Harbor Audubon Society last weekend, I learned that there are plans for railroad oil tankers to offload crude oil into ships in the Port of Grays Harbor. All of this oil transfer would take place right next to the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge. During spring migration it's estimated that 50% of the 17,000 remaining roselaari subspecies of Red Knot use Grays Harbor. The Red Knots used to concentrate across the harbor on Bottle Beach, but now use an area near Grass Creek which is closer to the Port transfer site. Grays Harbor has been described by the American Bird Conservancy as the most important staging and stopover spot for shorebirds on the Pacific Coast outside of Alaska. 50% of the remaining 3,500,000 Western Sandpipers also use Grays Harbor during migration. The Western Sandpiper population has already declined by 50% or more, in 1973 there was an estimated count of 6,500,000 just on the Cooper River Delta alone. Over one million birds use the harbor as a critical feeding spot. Even a slight degradation on the food supply could make migration more difficult or reduce body fat so the birds can't survive the first few days or weeks on the tundra. For more information visit Friends of Grays Harbor or Grays Harbor Audubon Society.
Twelve birds from the last day of the San Diego workshop. These images chronicle the last day of the San Diego Workshop (January 11th). This brings me to 50 for the month. But more than the numbers, it's the great expeiences I've had. The surpise of seeing and spending time with the Little Blue Heron, the Snowy Plover, Wrentit, California Towhee, and the Brown Creeper. The very animated Snowy Egret were all special moments and why I want to continue to spend as much time as possible with birds.