Saturday, January 4, 2014

Challenging light for bird photography

I recently spent nine days paddling through the Everglades. A significant portion of the route was in rivers and small creeks, but a small part of the trip was coastal. I blogged earlier about the challenges of bird photography on long paddle trips, but for this particular one, I had another challenge. In all the years that I have paddled 5 to 10 days at a time over the holidays into the new year, I have never seen as much rain and overcast skies as I did on this trip. With low light, photographing birds was not going to be on my agenda for this trip.

On our fourth day, we left Graveyard Creek to head up to Highland Beach, the one day where we would spend our entire paddle along the coastline. This section of the coastline shows serious damage from hurricane Wilma that passed through in October 2005. The storm surges destroyed some beautiful sandy beaches, including the Graveyard Creek campsite. Where there was a beach, there are now fallen trees that line the edge of the muddy banks of the deep set forest that currently serves as a small camp area. "Dark and buggy" does not begin to describe this once popular campsite.

The one nice thing about Graveyard Creek is that it attracts feeding brown pelicans and dolphins. At dawn, the pelicans were en masse, lining the mouth of the creek where several at a time would dive bomb the water while others rested on dead tree branches sticking out of the water and mud banks. It is a spectacular thing to watch these birds dive and make fantastic splashes. As I paddled away from the campsite, the sky was completely overcast as it was much of the prior days on the water. I paddled out and turned back toward the coastline where I could watch the birds diving between me and the mangrove shoreline. I wanted to photograph them as they group dived, knowing it would be extra difficult.

Brown pelicans obviously are not white birds and therefore, require more light to expose them properly, making my quest to photograph their diving feats more difficult on this gray day. I bumped up the ISO to 2000 (noise be damned!) and used the widest aperture reasonably possible in order to capture four or five diving birds at a time and went to work. They were loads of fun and I stayed on for about 30-40 minutes. Here are a couple shots, not rendered black and white.

Alittle slow on the take sometimes, it finally occurred to me that the diffuse lighting and the dark and light contrasts of the shoreline might make for some interesting compositions. And if I can find a white bird or two to throw into the mix, that would be even better. So I set the camera on black and white creative mode so that I could see the images in black and white. Please note, I shoot RAW only, which means the color data are not lost, rather I am using the creative mode as a way to see the black and white images. Once downloaded, they will appear with their color, and I simply have to re-convert them to black and white. I tried this in the Big Cypress awhile back and played around with selective coloring. Beware, you cannot do that with jpeg, if you shoot in black and white, that's all you get.

As I continued paddling north, I looked for scenes to capture in black and white. Normally, mangroves do not lend themselves well to black and white because their leaves are thick and formless when you take away the color. But on this hurricane damaged shoreline, I saw lots of opportunities for contrast and shapes. Later on the trip as I paddled down Roberts River, I came across an active osprey nest (same one I attempted to photograph four years ago) and was lucky to see both ma and pa osprey in the nest which was built on a strange looking tree.

Overall, I managed to capture a few good images of birds during this trip and have been inspired to look at black and white as another way to present them.  Below are a few more images. At one point, I saw several Magnificent Frigatebirds fly over. The first image below was an unintentional blur of two birds in one scene. I liked the effect of the blur well enough to keep it. The image of the royal terns is actually from four images. I cut and copied each bird into one image and arranged them as seen here. I rendered it black and white while deselecting the orange beaks to keep the color there. 

Lighting is key to excellent photography, but we can't always get what we want. So, remember the folksy saying "When handed lemons...", and look for unexpected opportunities.



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