Rich Ditch's Photography Blog

February 3, 2009

Shoot the Subject no matter the light

Cooper's Hawk, Boyce Thompson Arboretum

Cooper's Hawk, Boyce Thompson Arboretum

Many of the best photographers will tell you that “its all about the light.” The “best” landscapes are usually taken very early or very late in the day, when the light comes from low on the horizon, making it softer (less contrasty) and warmer (a lot of the blue gets filtered out by the longer trip through our dirty atmosphere). The low sun makes long soft shadows that give texture to the landscape, making it more three-dimensional.

A lot of bird photography is done around dawn, partly because of the color and softness of the light, but also because many birds are more active early in the day as they feed.

But if you are a birder as much as a photographer, then you place a lot of value in the particular subject independent of the quality (or amount) of the light.

When this young (check the color of the eyes) Cooper’s Hawk landed in a nearby tree I wanted to get a decent photo of it. It didn’t really matter to me that the light level was low, or that the sky was an uninteresting white. What mattered was the bird was in the open, it was sitting still, and I had a clean view of it from where I stood with my camera.

To help deal with the low light I had to increase the ISO to 800 – a value I seldom use on the D200 because of fear for the amount of noise that can show up in the image. Even at ISO 800 I could only manage a shutter speed of 1/80th second at f/7.1 with my 300/2.8 lens and 2x converter (effectively a 600/5.6 lens). I took the exposure reading on the hawk to avoid having the bright sky behind it give a false reading and cause underexposure of the subject. In a backlit situation you basically can exposure for the subject and overexpose the background, or expose for the background and underexpose the subject (or add fill light from flash to get better exposure on the subject at the risk of making everything look unnatural).

Knowing that I wouldn’t want to crop this image (that only makes the noise more prominent) I was careful to compose the image with the coop’ right of center so the empty space would be in front of the bird (the direction in which it is looking).

There is obviously some noise evident in the image, especially in the background areas within the large chunks of green and brown where the lack of texture makes the noise more pronounced. But its not enough to ruin the image for me, and I’m glad to have taken advantage of this brief opportunity. So, instead of proclaiming “shoot the light,” I say “shoot the subject.”

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