Thursday, September 22, 2011
Two versions of bird photographs come out of my Biscayne Bay visits. On one side of me are the high key images. On my other side, are the low key images. For this blog, I present the latter. Both are appealing to me because a bird stands out well from its surroundings in either version. In the low key version, a white bird stands out exceptionally and ironically, is an easy capture regarding exposure settings. It may not appear that way at first given the great contrast between the bird and its surroundings.
How does one expose such a scene? Simple, expose for the bird and underexpose the surroundings. I find that matrix metering (also known as evaluative metering) works quite well for this. In the morning light, the mangroves foliage and prop roots and their reflections tend to be midtone or slightly lighter than midtone. Dark tones prevail in and around the roots and where the water is not reflecting anything. So overall, it is a midtone scene. If I know I am going to photograph a white bird (egret, adult ibis, very young little blue heron), I compensate about -1 stop, using manual exposure (this amount of compensation may vary between cameras). For darker birds that contain some white, such as tricolor or little blue heron, I compensate about -1/2 to -2/3.
There is one small area that I love to capture these birds. The mangroves barely receive the light because of a few small trees sticking out into the water that cast shadows on them. This leaves the water in front of the mangroves clear of shade and when a bird comes into that part of the water, it is lit up with light while the background is dark in shadows. This is a very cool effect as it allows the bird full exposure while all else goes dark. Some of the prop roots and mangrove seedlings in the water will appear in a shadowy form. The best parts are the reflections, especially from the bird. In calm, debris-less water, it is striking.
Once I know I have the right conditions and birds, I attempt to capture the bird in interesting or dynamic positions and with catch light in their eye. These opportunities vary according to the type of bird. For instance, the tricolor heron is a great subject with it's large yellow feet and striking pose. The ibis is a bit more challenging, but the long down-curved beak gives the bird an interesting profile regardless of what it is doing. The ibis forages nervously and is almost always moving. If you are lucky, you will capture the bird with prey.
Once I hone in on a bird or two or three, I have a range of area I can work with from one position. Remember, I am in a boat, staked out or anchored in one spot once I have my ideal scene. I find that with the sun directly behind my back, I have about 90 degrees of freedom to work with (45 degrees to the left and to the right of me). Outside of this, the side lighting is ineffective. Certain birds will cooperate better and stay within this light range most of the time. The ibis and little blue heron are good examples. The great white egret and tricolor heron tend to move along, which means I have to follow them, not easy to do in a boat. The best condition is when the water is shallow enough for me to move the boat with my foot. Having long legs pays off sometimes.
The shadowy mangroves and the reflections give off an impressionist type of feel as the greens and reds tend to flow into each other. I love the scene and with the right positioning of the bird in the frame, it is beautiful to me. I use the mangroves and reflections as a means of framing the bird.
I have a direct approach to post processing. Because the camera is dumber than my eyes, I need to work the image a bit to get back what I saw with my eyes. With the correctly exposed bird in the frame, I will either bring out some of the light on the mangroves and the reflections using some curves and dodging, or I will darken the surroundings so that only the bird and its reflections appear. The two photos below demonstrate these techniques. The first one was darkened, although I left the reflections in the foreground. And the second is where the mangroves are as much a part of the scene as the resting egret.