Sunday, May 31, 2015

Photographing Brown Pelicans in Flight: Part 1

Since 2009, I have had the great joy of photographing nesting brown pelicans in the Everglades. Each spring, I paddle out to the rookery as many times as possible and spend several hours at a time sitting in my canoe while attempting to capture scenes that include pelicans flying to and from the nest. So how does one capture large brown pelicans in flight from a canoe? If bird photography is your interest, you may find some good tips here on shooting birds in flight.

Consider these three things when attempting to improve your flight shots; knowledge of birds, camera technique, and post-processing of images. For this blog, I will begin with the first point which is,  know your bird. Watch it and study it. To get the best flight shot possible, it is essential that you do this. You can say that about any photography subject, but with birds in flight, understanding bird behavior and the dynamics of flight are most important. In this regard, keep these three points in mind.
  • Birds will mostly land and take off into the wind.
  • When landing, birds will go from a horizontal to a vertical position and use their wings as a parachute to slow down. When landing, a bird will appear to hover as it stretches its legs and feet forward and fans out its tail feathers that point downward (as seen in the photo above, for example).
  • Nesting birds will demonstrate a fairly consistent flight pattern and schedule.

I plan my mornings at the rookery when there is an expected easterly breeze. This means both the sun and wind are to my back and the birds will be landing and taking off toward me. This is important because to me, the best flight shots are when the bird is facing the camera and wings are open, and the sunlight captures the underside of the wings. During landing, I can capture a bird with full wing spread, including tail feathers, out-stretched feet and eyes facing the camera. During early morning hours, the sun will light up those beautiful wings and provide a nice catch light in the eyes, a glorious thing to see.

A few hundred feet away from the birds, I get my camera out and ready for use. I always have a lens cloth in my pocket if needed. I close the pelican case and then begin slowly paddling closer to the birds. As I paddle, I am watching the rookery, looking for nests and adults flying to and from. After a few minutes or so, I can determine where I will focus my attention, typically a busy nest. I then proceed to a location where I have good light on the subject and where I can anchor or stake out the boat easily without making undue noise or commotion. Typically, I station my boat about 70-100 feet away from the subject. Once in place, I rarely move to another location and will stay there for several hours.

To get the best flight shots, consider the distance between you and your subject. The first and most obvious point is that you do not want to get too close to the birds to disturb them. Through trial and error, you learn that birds have a species-specific comfort zone and if you cross that line, they will react. So get use to keeping a large distance between you and the birds (there are exceptions such as boardwalks where nesting birds are sometimes within 20 feet of a camera).

My second point here is that the ability to fill your frame with a pelican in full wing spread will depend on three things, the distance between you and the bird, your maximum focal length and your camera's sensor size (cropped or full frame). A cropped sensor digital camera will essentially make the bird appear closer in the frame compared to a full frame sensor camera. My camera, the Sony a77 has a 1.5x cropped sensor that can make a 400mm focal length look like 600mm. The good thing about brown pelicans is they have a wing span of 6-8 feet. This means that with my camera, I can fill the frame with an 8-ft wing span from a distance slightly greater than 100 feet. At the rookery, I am sometimes within 40-50 feet of a flying bird and use focal lengths of 250mm or less to capture it's wing spread (this is why a zoom lens is preferred over a fixed prime lens). In fact, clipping the wings is a common occurrence for me as I fail to zoom in enough to capture the entire wing span. The bottom line is, you need a significant focal length lens (400mm or higher depending on the camera's sensor size) in order to keep your distance from the birds. The good side of brown pelicans is they are large and can fill your frame from a great distance.

As you watch the birds, you will notice flight patterns. This is particularly the case for the male pelican that flies into the nest with a branch in its beak every 10-15 minutes. At the rookery I photograph, there may be a half dozen nests within my range of sight. After some observation, I can distinguish a bird from another simply by its flight path. As a result, I concentrate on the nest (sometimes two nests) that are in best light and have clear surroundings so I may capture the incoming bird without distracting mangroves or other birds. As the male pelican arrives with a branch, the female reacts by raising her head and opening her beak so that the male can pass off the branch to her. The male will stay in the nest for about 5-10 minutes before it flies off again on its quest for a branch. Within a couple hours, I can capture several hundred frames of birds flying into their nest.

With that much opportunity to photograph a pelican in flight, over time I have greatly narrowed my acceptance rate. Pelicans in flight or in landing present few variations of poses and after awhile images can look repetitive. I first narrow down my images using the following criteria. To keep an image, all criteria must be met:

adequate sharpness, especially on the face
at least one eye in the light
near perfect to perfect exposure
no object (like a mangrove branch) covering the bird
sunlight on the underside of the wings
bird is flying into the camera

In the field, I shoot with all above points in mind. Afterwards, I look for something special about each image to set it apart from the rest. It may be the exquisite lighting or it may be an interesting branch in the bird's beak. Clouds in the sky can add to the composition and an interaction with another bird can be fun as well.

The best way to go about photographing birds in flight is practice, practice, practice. Even if you take 100 photos and find only one that is worth keeping, your experience is more valuable than the images produced. Next blog, I will talk about camera technique including exposure and will touch a bit on post-processing strategies to enhance your image of the beautiful brown pelican in flight.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Adding Ripples to the Water

Naturally, photography from a canoe means that most of my images will contain water in them. And because the shoreline of south Florida from the Gulf to Atlantic is primarily lined with mangroves, these are also a big part of my photography. It is a constant challenge to photograph mangroves and water in a fresh way. But, I keep trying. The other morning, I set up to capture some sunrise scenes on Biscayne Bay and located a single small mangrove to work with. I lined up with it so the tree stood between me and the impending sunrise. I examined the scene from various positions, estimating where the sun would appear relative to the tree. If I stood up, the horizon line would be above the little tree, if I crouched down, it fell behind the dense leaves. I decided to work with the latter.

This would be luxury as I would set up the tripod in the water while I sat in the boat with my legs over the side and feet on the ground (shallow waters here). I decided to experiment with water movement. By gently rocking the canoe, I created water ripples that would appear at the bottom of the composition and continue traveling toward the mangrove. Without filters, I set the exposure with a shutter speed of 1/4 sec, aperture at f11 and ISO400. I wanted a slow enough shutter speed to give the water a smooth appearance, but not too slow as to dampen the ripples.

I rocked the canoe gently and evenly in order to create ripples that were evenly spaced. Fast and short motions created thin ripples with little distance between them, such as the image above. For the most part, I liked the effect, but there is some unevenness and the ripples continue on toward the horizon. So I continued playing. You can see in the next image the ripples are wider and all but disappeared toward the middle of the composition. The shutter speed was 1/2 sec this time, which smoothed out the ripples. I liked it.

By now, the sun was beginning to appear and it was getting lighter. I put the filters on, a total of 5 stops. Below is a typical image, using a shutter speed of 3.2 sec. I decreased the aperture size to an extreme end, f22. With a narrow opening, light entering through the lens becomes diffracted or bent. This in turn creates points of light. This would make it possible to capture a sunburst as it appeared behind the leaves. The effect of the slow shutter speed was quite nice on the water, but I was not able to get that burst effect on the sun as I wanted.

I went back to making ripples. This time, I kept the aperture at f22 and increased the shutter speed to 0.4 sec (increased the ISO to compensate). I repositioned the camera so the sun would have more space around it. The result is seen below. I was pleased with the ripples, gentle yet dynamic and quietly disappearing into the middle of the composition. And the sun rays are noticeable around the mangrove. I love it! Could this image be improved? Of course! I don't like the dark line of water just below the horizon line and maybe the stringy marine debris hanging from the mangrove is unattractive. But, I do like the horizontal ripples against the vertical mangrove roots.

I really enjoy these little experimental sessions. This prompts me to go back out there and refine the "ripple technique" and search for creative ways to use it. That's what it's all about, creating through a camera lens.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

I know an anole

"Artists see the world through different eyes to most people; they see the beauty in things that may be considered boring or mundane". Nicholas Huggins

In Miami, a wildlife photographer has endless opportunity to photograph animals. Many of these animals are very common and easily seen as mundane. If you have lived in the area for any amount of time, without any research at all, you might conclude that one of the most common (mundane) animals is the anole lizard. Consequently, it is easy to overlook as an exciting photo subject.

Recently, I spent several hours on an overcast day at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, one of my favorite urban places to photograph. While plants are the main draw to the gardens, I inevitably spend most of my time hunting for lizards and spiders, and occasionally birds. Usually it is the orange-headed adult male agama lizard or the green iguana that I am after. I tend to ignore the "mundane" smaller brown or green anole because every time I notice one, it is in the same position. Currently, Chihuly glass art is installed throughout the park. These colorful pieces provide another surface for the expert climbing anole to cling to. With that, I thought I might be able to turn the mundane into something more exciting.

The anoles were everywhere that day and they love the glass. An interesting observation was that the Chihuly pieces installed among the cacti appeared to be designed like cacti. But as I observed the anoles, I began to think that maybe Chihuly had lizards in mind when he created these pieces. As an example, take a look at this image of the brown anole and its dewlap.

Anole is a type (genus) of lizard and is the most common and abundant in Miami. Among the anole species, the green anole is the only one that is native here. The others primarily come from the Caribbean. It seems that the non-native brown anole has taken over and in fact, is one cause of a reduced number of green anole. Apparently, the brown eats the green anole eggs.

An interesting fact about the anole is that it molts in pieces and will eat its shedding skin as a source of calcium. Here is an image of a molting brown anole, similar to the first image above.

Anoles have toepads that are large scales on the underside of fingers and toes. They contain hairlike structures called setae that allow the lizard to cling to smooth surfaces, like glass. Take a look at the next two images to see those toepads in action.

And here are two more images, both of a crested anole that has just captured a dragonfly while hunting on a Chihuly glass.

As nature or wildlife photographers, we are challenged to be creative in order to set our images apart from the rest. One way to do that is to go after the mundane animal (you know, the one that will always be available to you) and capture it in an extraordinary way. At the very least, spend some time getting to know your little neighbors. They may be more exciting than they appear.