Anatomy of a Photo Shoot

I have a lot of fun putting these blogs together. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy creating them.

We’re going to take a closer look at a series of photos I took in Chesapeake, Virginia on the morning of 7/7/20. But before we do that, I’d like to share with you what, for me, was a sad observation.

What began like this in March, with so much hope and focused energy,

Male Osprey building a nest
Male Osprey

ended like this in June, with a failed and empty nest.

Failed Osprey nest
Failed Osprey nest

Here’s my “Nesting Diary” entry on the OspreyWatch website. It’s rewarding monitoring nests in the world’s “Osprey Garden.”

I discovered the male building this nest in March 2020. The female showed up later, and the pair mated. They produced offspring (don’t know the number). Sometime in June, the nest was abandoned. I assume a predator got to the chicks. I’ve been back several times, but haven’t seen any signs of life there. Please see the photos which document the “progression.” The last photo is of the abandoned nest.

Alas, nest failure is a common occurrence in Osprey’s lives, in bird’s lives. But they appear to take it in stride and forge ahead despite the setbacks. Many, if time permits, will simply build another nest.

Osprey carrying branch
Male Osprey with nesting material

The Photo Shoot

I visited lakefront Lakeside Park in Chesapeake not long after sunrise. I love taking advantage of  “golden hour” lighting, and I love the photo opportunities that parks like Lakeside afford me. You may recall that I mentioned in an earlier blog that professional nature photographer, Don Mammoser, encourages folks to practice their photo skills “in the neighborhood”—in city parks. He also urges readers to pay attention to light.

There wasn’t much activity when this bird photographer arrived, and I wasn’t feeling particularly hopeful. But I’ve learned to dismiss as improbable the notion that there are no photo subjects around. There are ALWAYS photo subjects around. Furthermore, if a candidate is in impossible light and I’d have to blow the highlights, I quickly change my game plan and grab a silhouette instead.

Northern Mockingbird silhouette
Northern Mockingbird

Or I poke around and train my lens on something else entirely. (Please click on the 2 photos below to enlarge them.)

The Mallard Family

After I’d been at the park for a while, I discovered a female Mallard with her brood. Her ducklings hadn’t been out of the nest for long.

At first, the family was at the edge of the lake. But when I inadvertently came a little too close, they skedaddled and wound up on the odd wooden structure that sits out in the lake’s middle. I knew then and there that I’d found worthy subjects. I also knew that my focus would be on the young.

Mallard duck brood
Mallard duck brood

So, I headed for the best vantage point: a small observation deck nearby.

My first consideration as I headed there was an ethical one. I didn’t want to disturb the family again. So, I hunkered down behind the deck railings, which also served as a blind. Blinds can be anything from a tree or a bush to the side of a building or a car door. The railings weren’t only a blind, however. They were a place where I could rest and steady my lens. I seldom use a tripod but instead work hard on handheld technique. But I’m never averse to using something in the environment for support.

My next consideration was the light direction, notably the light direction relative to the position of the birds’ heads. I usually want the light to come from behind me so that my subjects are frontlit. I love frontal lighting, especially the early morning kind. But in this case, the light was coming from my side, and the birds were sidelit. Oy. But that didn’t stop me—I had to shoot anyway. I took my own advice about being unafraid to experiment.

Mallard duckling
Mallard duckling

Speaking of experimenting, here’s a back-lit shot I took several days later of  2 members of a different brood. Notice that they’re larger, have a mix of down and feathers, and that each is outlined with a nice rim of light.

Two Mallard ducklings
Mallard ducklings

Lest you think that I took the 3 photos above in a matter of minutes, think again. Each time I had to wait for the ducks to get into position and until there was the right separation between them. I also had to wait for good light and for interesting gestures. Wildlife photography is a waiting game, an exercise in patience. But, to me, all the planning and effort are worth it, especially if the results foster an interest in birds.

Three Mallard ducklings
Mallard duckling trio


Dismiss the idea that you won’t find any photo subjects out there. I felt that way when I entered Lakeside on the morning of 7/7, yet I returned home with one of my best photos ever: the one above.

Quip, Question, Quote

This is another unedited journal entry. And this is as good a time as any to share it. In a nutshell, it describes me and my approach to photography.

It’s not that I’m a great photographer. I’m not. I’m a semi-pro, which means I’m neither a semi nor a pro. But, as I told a couple of guys I met on the dock @ Elizabeth River Park in Chesapeake while out shooting the Osprey, I go out in the field and where birds are likely to be, I double-check my camera settings, I keep my eyes and ears open, I spot the birds, I try to anticipate their behavior, I position myself for best possible lighting and captures, and I shoot.

And This Just In

This “fly-by” Laughing Gulls recording is for you children out there. Some moms and dads have told me that they read these blogs to their kids. That noisy flock flew right over my head as I was out birding several weeks ago.

We’ll end here. Please stay tuned for “Part Two.” I have more to say about my gear, my camera settings, tripod use, and fieldcraft. And there’s always more to say about birds: our little friends and fellow travelers. Thanks, as always, for reading and for sharing your thoughts and comments.


9 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Photo Shoot

  1. With so much nature photography (including my own) I always enjoy blogs that go beyond the photograph. A nature journal description, or behind-the-shot technical descriptions – or both in the case of your blog – make them quite enjoyable, useful, and lasting. Thanks for taking the time to do it. William


  2. Dave, your ending photo of the three ducklings is amazing their eyes are something else, I think semi pro is a little less than totally descriptive. Thank you


    1. Clark, My pleasure, and thanks for the kind words. Capturing the eyes and that catchlight or sparkle are all-important. Sometimes, getting those right is the only thing that matters in a photo.


  3. The stripes on the dragonfly are really something else! Normally when I am out with the girls they fly past us so fast we never get to appreciate their pattern!


    1. Wonderful, Katie. Glad you all liked the photo. Dragonflies are almost impossible to shoot when they’re zigzagging around, but they’re easy to photograph when they’re stationary. I hope the girls liked the Laughing Gulls!


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