Thursday, March 20, 2014

Attention on eyes and head angle

In the bird photography forums, many comments relating to head angle and catch light in the eye are given as part of a critique. Often "HA" is used in place of "head angle" and many times, new members have to ask what is "HA". Lots of attention is given to head angle in fact and some times this provokes a debate. Pity the forum member that posts an image of a bird facing AWAY from the camera! The image might be perfect in all other ways, but that one flaw is considered a deal breaker sometimes. Here is one of my images that was criticized for not having the bird turned more towards the camera. Everything else was fine, including exposure, clean background, good light, and feather detail.

Is head angle really a deal breaker? I don't believe it is always, because there are so many elements that can make an image very appealing. And not all of them have to be present all at once. After all, it comes down to what your eyes find appealing. But nevertheless, as a bird photographer, I value the "rules" of bird photography because most of the time, there are legitimate reasons for those rules. For me, an image of a bird is most appealing when I can see its eye(s) and when its head is turned toward the camera. This makes the image intimate and draws the viewer into it; encouraging them, if you will, to look at the bird and attempt to understand it. It doesn't matter to me if that is a rule or not, it simply works.

When I have the opportunity to capture a close up of a bird, I look for the following; head angle, catch light in the eye and no distractions such as shadows on the face or eye. That is what works for me. I rarely get a chance to capture a close-up portrait of a bird and most of this is done when I am on land (i,e., Anhinga Trail). On rare occasions (such as the albino yellow-crowned nightheron found on Biscayne Bay, as shown above), I can capture a close-up from the canoe. The image above is severely cropped, however!

Sometimes with a close up, I capture the bird looking straight into the camera. This can be really interesting, particularly with long beaked birds that have intense eyes. For these close ups, make sure you have a narrow enough aperture to get the beak into focus (unless you are going for a different look). I find f8 to f11 work well here. Background and foreground are also important considerations with close ups, unless the bird covers the entire frame (such as the cormorant above). In this regard, I would have liked the image of the royal tern below to be less busy, but the fact that it is a breaking wave on the ocean behind the bird's head makes it easier to overlook that flaw. Besides, the back wind raising its head feathers is really what makes this image work for me.

And of course we can't always get close ups, nor do we want to. Take the image of the brown pelican bathing in the water. The feathers are the best feature, but those eyes are pretty cool as well! If you can get that intense glare from a flying osprey, that's also very cool, as seen below. The osprey was not happy with me as I unknowingly came upon a nest that was only about 20 feet above ground on one of the Ten Thousand Islands in the Everglades.

Who can resist a duckling, such as this little musgovy duckling that wandered away from its mom a short distance. I love seeing the duck's eye clear from the grasses that surround it.

With birds, look for the eye, the subtle turn of the head, capture them in the best light and look for clear background so the bird remains the highlight on the image.

Friday, March 7, 2014

David Bowie and the Green Heron

What does David Bowie have to do with photographing green herons? I was once a huge Bowie fan.  Don't ask me why but every time I see a green heron, the David Bowie song "The Jean Genie" pops into my head. This is only because of the line "Poor Little Greenie", as none of the lyrics to the song make any sense or has any connection to birds or photography what so ever. I just thought that was an interesting way to begin a discussion on why I love to photograph green herons.

Most of the birds I photograph are herons and egrets; thankfully there are several species to choose from. Each one is distinguishable one way or another but I believe the green heron is most distinct from all other herons and egrets; at least when it comes to photographing them. On Biscayne Bay, most egrets and herons stand out in the water clear of mangroves much of the time. But one that rarely ventures away from the mangrove trees is the green heron. It is for this reason that I love photographing this little bird, but it is also the reason why it is more difficult to capture it well.

What makes it relatively difficult to capture a green heron is the fact that it blends well in the mangrove roots and leaves. So I first have to find it. Plus, it is relatively small compared to the other Ardeidae family members. Once you find one, it remains difficult to capture it as it stands over the water on a mangrove root. In such close proximity to the tree, shadows and cluttered surroundings make it challenging to compose a good shot. And like all herons and egrets, this little bird is fast, very fast. Capturing it as it strikes the water and grabs something in its beak is challenging to say the least. Although I captured some images of a green heron with a bait fish in its beak, none was a keeper for some reason or another (usually because the image was not sharp enough).

On the flip side of that, I find the green heron to be the most approachable among the waders. I judge this by how close I can get to it (mind you, I am including my boat), many times within 10-15 feet of a bird. Because of this one trait, I have been somewhat successful in capturing it as it hunts for food. When I do find a green heron and attempt to photograph it, I try to position myself so that the bird stands out from its surroundings. I look for a clean background, and try to avoid leaves and branches that get between the bird and the lens. On the other hand, the mangroves can make the composition more interesting.

Once I have the correct exposure, I set the autofocus on continuous, adjust the focusing spot so that when the time comes, the bird's head will be focused as it comes into contact with the water. As with any egret hunting for food, you have to anticipate their movements and wait with your finger on the shutter button. The other advantage of the green heron is it is very active when it hunts, unlike certain birds that stand for long periods of time without moving. It likes to jump around from root to root, which can be fun to capture. Consequently, there are lots of poses and movement patterns that can be captured in one setting.

One day, I hope to display a keeper-image of a green heron with its prey. But until then, enjoy these images of the "Poor Little Greenie", even if you are not a David Bowie fan.

Monday, March 3, 2014

An odd kind of beauty

It is that time of year when Portuguese Man-o-wars wash up on the Atlantic ocean beaches of Florida. Appearing very conspicuous in the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay, I spot them from a distance away. Their gas-filled pneumatophore looks oddly beautiful in the water and I cannot resist photographing one.

The other day, I saw three Portuguese Man-o-wars (PMOW) as the easterly wind and incoming tide pushed the animals closer to the mangroves. I stayed with one in particular for about an hour, attempting to capture it in various positions. We often don't see these animals in motion as they are usually washed up on shore when we do see one. But in water, they move purposefully and not just at the whim of the current and wind. It appears that its tentacles were clinging to the grasses, maybe on purpose as it attempted to feed, or maybe to anchor itself. A few times, it unattached to the grasses and moved along quickly as the current pushed it. It almost appeared to be swimming on its own.

What I enjoyed watching most was how it moved its gas-filled float around. The movement created some interesting and weird looking positions. Sometimes, the dark blue tip of the gas bag looked as if it was a head with an eye, reminding me of a large seal.

These animals are quite interesting and they are described as being several organisms working together as one. The PMOW consists of the gas-bag (pneumatophore, which serves as a float) which has a crest from end to end. The crest is perhaps the most intriguing part of it as far as photographing goes. The light reflections and textures are amazing. The other parts of the PMOW consist of three types of polyps, one for digestion (the reddish area), one for reproduction (the light blue structures) and one for catching and killing prey (the stinging tentacles that appear that are a darker blue).

Interestingly, the float is made to lean either to the right or to the left, such that some will drift one way and the others drift another direction. This allows for a wider and more even distribution of colonies. There are so many interesting facts about the PMOW but one that is amazing to me is its symbiotic relationship with other animals. Certain fishes are partially immune to its venom and will feed on it while using the tentacles as a fortress against predators. There is also a strange little gastropod called the nudibranch which clings to the PMOW, sucks its venom and then uses the venom for its own defense. Pretty cool stuff.

But the short of it is, the PMOW is probably one of the most appealing animals to photograph and when a photographer can capture it from under the surface of the water, even better.

For many of my images of the PMOW, I remove the surroundings, thereby isolating it. I love the effect of this as it draws all the attention on the shapes and colors of the PMOW.  I got a bonus in some of the images as the reflection of me and my boat could be seen. Enjoy these images of one of nature's most intriguing creatures.