Rich Ditch's Photography Blog

January 11, 2009

Directional Light

Filed under: Birds, comparisons, favorite places, Gilbert Water Ranch, light — Tags: , , — richditch @ 7:39 pm
Black-necked Stilt - Gilbert Water Ranch

Black-necked Stilt - Gilbert Water Ranch

Many aspiring bird photographers are taught to “point your shadow at the bird.” This has many benefits: it puts maximum illumination on the subject, minimizes the chances that part of the bird will cast a shadow on another part of the subject, and makes metering as easy as it can get. Its a good way to show detail in the subject, and ideal if you are trying to get “field guide” style images. I use it when appropriate, as with the Black-necked Stilt (D200, 300/2.8 with 2x, ISO 200, 1/800th at f/8, June 3, 2007, Gilbert Water Ranch).

But I see no reason to get stuck in a rut and avoid directional lighting. Light angled from the side creates shadows, and shadows define form (making the subject and the image look more three dimensional). And those shadows help define texture by creating small shadows along feather edges. Note how the side-lighting in the American Avocet image create depth in this shot (Gilbert Water Ranch, May 9. 2008, D200, 300/2.8 and 2x, ISO 320, 1/200th at f/8).

American Avocet - Gilbert Water Ranch

American Avocet - Gilbert Water Ranch

So, don’t be afraid of the light if it isn’t coming over your shoulder.



  1. Hi there. Firstly let me compliment you on a great blog and awesome photos! I’m an amateur blogger and photographer based in NJ. I came across your Saw whet owl pic at and you mention that you had a lot of success tracking Saw whet in NJ. Would you be able to share your tracking tips with me? I’ve been looking for Saw whet for two winters and maybe I’m looking in the wrong spots/habitats. ANY assistance would be MUCH appreciated. Keep up the great work. If you’d prefer to email me please use

    Comment by Owlman — January 12, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

  2. My knowledge is rendered almost meaningless by almost 15 years of life in AZ, but here’s a little that I recall.

    Palmyra on US 130 on the north edge of Camden had a large expanse of undeveloped land, with suitable thickets and tangles of honeysuckle.I don’t know if that condition still exists, or who now controls the land.

    The trick was to walk around and check every thicket, looking down as much as up. Anytime “whitewash” is detected it is a good sign that the tangle has recently been used by an owl for a roost. Fresh owl pellets are a good indicator as well. Once you find this evidence spend a lot of time looking in the thickest areas directly above the white wash. Saw-whets might be sitting in plain view at eye level, as high as 20-30 feet above the ground, or even a couple feet off the ground.

    Assunpink Wildlife Management Area west of Freehold. Lots more thickets that have held a variety of owls in the past and probably still attract them.

    Pay attention to any agitated birds in winter wood-lots. I found a Saw-whet about 5 feet from where I used t park my car at an office complex off Parkway exit 109 because I looked to see what had a chickadee so excited.

    Make friends with the local birders through the New Jersey Audubon Society, but you’ll need to convince most birders that you can be trusted before they’ll divulge local owl sightings.

    Comment by richditch — January 12, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

  3. Much appreciated! Do you recall what type of trees they preferred? I’ve been spending a lot of time looking in Cedars with mixed results. I realize we’re going back 15 years and I can’t remember what I had for breakfast – so any tips would be MUCH appreciated.

    Comment by Owlman — January 13, 2009 @ 11:15 am

  4. I would definitely expand the search beyond cedars as I recall most (maybe all?) of my sightings of saw-whets in other trees. Look especially in tangles of vines like honeysuckle, and be sure to get down low and up look rather than relying on an eye-level view.

    Here’s some less encouraging information from a friend in central NJ I am still in contact with:

    “Well, the reason he isn’t finding them [saw-whets] is that they are not there… In the [Ray] Blicharz era [compiler for the Trenton-Princeton-Freehold area for Records of New Jersey Birds into the ’80’s-90’s] they used to have Saw whets annually on the Princeton CBC and it has now been over ten years since we had one at all, even in count period. That’s typical of the situation in the whole state. […] spot near his house hasn’t had them in several years either, nor Palmyra, and the numbers banded at Cape May Point are way down. I wouldn’t know where to suggest, quite honestly.”

    Comment by richditch — January 13, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

  5. Wow that is a little discouraging. I last saw a Saw whet in March 2006 and I managed to get some killer photos. I’m going to keep trying and I may even take a trip out to Assunpink some time in Feb to see if I can find one or two. There may be considerable less around, but I’m an optimist so I’ll keep trying. I’ve already found two Long Eared Owls this winter so maybe I’ll get REALLY lucky and find a Saw whet.

    Thanks for the advice and for reaching out to your friend in NJ. I guess I need to join a bird club to increase my reach 😉

    Comment by Owlman — January 13, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

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