Let’s begin with a photo of a Gray Catbird. I made the mistake of writing in an earlier blog that these birds are hard to find out in the open. Not true. This adult was doing what so many do this time of year: it was gathering food to feed its young. But it was doing so in a way I’d never seen before. It was “dancing” in the grass, using its feet and flight feathers to rustle up prey. Notice its tail feathers. The bird reminded me of a Snowy Egret gathering prey in shallow water.
A Brief Exchange
Here’s a brief exchange I had recently with wildlife photographer Colin Franks. I thought some of you might enjoy. I was responding to some of his photos. I introduced Colin to readers in “A Few Stories and Anecdotes” (see “A Wildlife Photography Story”). Colin is in a class by himself. He also struggles with ALS.
Dave: “What’s your secret to taking such good photos? Do you use a tripod/monopod? Is it the gear? Do you use a blind? Is it the research you do? Is it your giftedness?”
Colin: “I sometimes use a tripod, but often not. The newer lighter lenses are easily hand-holdable. I will go as long as I can [using them] before the ALS robs me of that ability. The gear certainly helps, especially the new bird eye-detection, but it still comes down to many other factors, like simply getting out there, knowing the species, and an eye for composition. I think we all know some guys who have all the gear, but still produce mediocre images because they just don’t have that “eye” or haven’t worked on developing that eye for what makes a good image. I perhaps have had a slight advantage as I have worked in graphic design for 33 years, so I think that helps.”
Dave: “Interesting and helpful. Love the line about getting out and knowing the species. Both so important. So glad you’re still able to go out and take pics. Photography is our therapy, isn’t it?”
Going, Knowing, and Seeing
I like Colin’s emphasis on getting out, knowing the species, and having an eye. All are underrated, yet so important. Far too many of us focus on gear. All were factors in my capturing these young Barn Swallows and nest mates. I got out and knew where to go, I knew something about the species’ nesting cycle and behavior, and I could imagine an evocative final image, despite the distracting elements. The birds, here, remind me of ballplayers leaning on a dugout railing.
Regarding knowing where to go, I took the photo (and the catbird photo) in the greenspace I mentioned in “Photography and Art.” It’s an area with trees, grass, meadows, a marsh, and a pond. It’s also a stone’s throw from an old cow barn. Barn Swallows get their name from their tendency to build their nests on human structures like that barn, and I’m sure the barn hosts many. Here’s one of the 4 I captured 15 minutes later. It was in the tree that had fallen into the pond. The birds had fledged yet were still dependent on their parents. You wouldn’t know it, but one of the parents was just out of view in the photo above. It was on a nearby branch.
Since we’re talking about swallows—I captured this juvenile Tree Swallow in the same tree 3 days later. Other swallow species have discovered the area, too. I took the above photos in the morning just before 8. I took this one in the evening right around 7.
Another Brief Exchange
The photo is one of my favorites and has attracted attention. I had an exchange with my friend Jady about it. I thought you might enjoy this one, too.
Jady: “Those fluffy feathers are too cute! David, how do you achieve that crispness of detail despite the low lighting?”
Dave: “Jady, I took this around 7 p.m. last night. Am a big fan of evening light. The bird was in a dead tree, but there was plenty of light on it, even though there was darkness around it. It was also close and just below eye level. I think the trick here was those things and also having light from the setting sun coming from almost directly behind me. Also, light quality and atmospherics change when the sun is low like that. Hope that helps!”
Jady: “I think I need to move my blind and feeder set-up to a place that gets the evening light. Thanks!”
Dave: “Evening and morning…always the best times.”
Here’s what I was trying to say, if the above wasn’t clear: “The photo worked, and I achieved those details because the bird was near eye level, and the sun was low in the sky and behind me. That kind of frontal light always provides great detail. Also, when the sun is low like that, light quality and atmospherics change, and the light is softer, more colorful, more pleasing. So, there were a number of things that helped.”
Shortly after I took the photo, I was able take another of the female Osprey. That early evening, low angle, frontal light helped again, even if the bird wasn’t quite at eye level.
And This Just In
Alan Ross worked as an assistant to Ansel Adams. He wrote an interesting piece about what his mentor called “visualization” or visualizing the final image before a picture is taken. There are some great pointers toward the end.
“Bring the camera. Shoot even if you’re facing the sun. Shoot even if you have to shoot through brush or other obstacles, or you have to blow out part of the background to expose for the subject.” Some words of encouragement from a talk I gave a while back. I acted on those words when I took the photo of the 4 young swallows.
Quip, Question, Quote(s)
“The entire process of shooting—from choosing a subject matter to discovering new angles to manipulating light—requires absolute focus. This very process of observing, by nature, is a meditative task that draws you into a peaceful state.” From “Photography as Therapy”
“There may not be a special methodology or killer tip to producing engaging wildlife images, but I believe lighting plays a big part.” Alpha Whiskey from his article, “Reflections on Wildlife Photography”
Thank you for reading.