Exposing for backlit photography subjects: Orange Sulphur

I am generally a fan of semi-automatic exposure systems when looking to photograph wildlife.  Specifically, I begin most outings with the camera in Aperture Priority Mode, and having an extra 2/3 stops of lights dialed seems to work pretty often.  However, as soon as I see a tricky lighting situation through my viewfinder I will try to get into Manual Exposure Mode as quickly as possible.

NJ Wildlife Photo

A macro photograph of an Orange Sulphur butterfly in New Jersey. This backlit capture was made using the Tamron SP 90mm VC 1:1 macro lens and the Canon EOS 60D DSLR.

Camera settings: 1/200th F/5.6 ISO 200

Above photo is a handheld capture with one of my typical rigs for closeup photography, the Tamron SP 90mm VC lens and the Canon EOS 60D.  The goal with this backlit photo was to get a good amount of illumination showing on the butterfly itself.  To achieve this, some of the brightest parts of the scene are pushed out of gamut because of the dynamic range restrictions of DSLRs.  As cameras are programmed to expose for the median tonal range of an image, it would require a significant increase in exposure compensation to get what I was after.  Turning the knob to Manual Mode and dialing in my desired settings was a much more succinct process.

“Blowing out the highlights” is not always a sin in my book, as I’ve learned to “see how a camera sees” and envision the end product.  Indeed there is some detail loss on the fringes of the butterfly and also on the petals of the flower, but in this case I think that adds to the “warm” feel of the image.

Expressing motion in photography: Laughing Gull in flight

Plenty of terms for the type of DSLR photography illustrated in the main image below and to tell you the truth I don’t even know what to call them.  Panning blurs may be the most logical terminology in my opinion.  Anyways, I often forget how much I enjoy looking at this type of capture.  It seems to boil the bird down to its very essence: shapes and colors.

Larus delawarensis

Photo demonstrating intentional use of a slow shutter speed along with panning of a telephoto lens.

Picture taken using a Canon EOS 7D and the Tamron SP 150-600mm VC telephoto lens.  Tripod lens collar is mounted to Manfrotto 055xProB tripod and Manfrotto junior fluid head.  Camera settings: focal length at 600mm, Manually set shutter at 1/30th, aperture at F/14, ISO 100, Camera RAW, Auto White Balance, VC On, Servo Focus Mode, High Speed Motor Drive.  Photography location: Ocean County, New Jersey.  Atlantic Ocean that is…

This type of photo can sometimes be performed in Aperture Priority mode by using a low ISO and large Aperture number to slow down the shutter.  The shutter speeds that usually work best for me are between 1/13th and 1/50th.  Your mileage may vary.  My goal when preparing for this kind of shot is to get a good amount of definition on the wildlife while emphasizing some motion (in this case the wing beats).  I also want a nice bright exposure that will retain a lot of details in the highlights but still have my histogram as far to the right as possible for maximum detail.  Compositionally speaking, I may be looking to place the bird prominently in the frame without cutting off any appendages or I may want try to include some scenery like showing the bird flying across the water’s surface.  There is a great deal of trial and error in this style of photography.  Patience, persistence, and studying other photog’s successful photos will go a long. way.

Expressing motion in photography: Beach Grass and Crescent Moon

When I first began doing photography, I thought that the prime objective was to freeze all action to record a moment in time.  Getting a sharp capture of a fleeting moment can indeed be difficult, whether it is a closeup view of the supermoon rising on the horizon, a sports photograph like a MLB baseball player nailing a fastball, or a bird photo like trying to shoot a tiny Tree Swallow mid-air.  There is also great validity to having motion within your frame.  In some cases, this can evoke moods like quickly fleeting action or on the other hand, serenity.

NJ Shore Night Photo

DSLR Nature Photograph from New Jersey showcasing how motion caused by wind can express time and add further dynamics to an image.

The above image was taken recently at the New Jersey Shore using a tripod-mounted Canon EOS 60D camera and the Tamron SP 90mm VC 1:1 F/2.8 Macro Lens.  Camera settings in manual exposure: 2.5 seconds F/7.1 ISO 100.  VC off (lens stabilization motor), Mirror Lock-up, 2 Second Timer, One Shot Autofocus (near the middle of the grass), and Auto White Balance.

I think the crescent moon has a really great distinctive shape, a shape I generally associate with a peaceful sky.  The grass that I have included within the frame is typical vegetation of the mid-Atlantic shoreline, so this gives a nice sense of orientation for the viewer.  For others, the grass may be reminiscent of a prairie or meadow.  The back and forth motion of the blades of grass tell us that time is passing, and also gives the photo a much softer edged appearance than a motionless capture.  I did shoot several similar frames, but in the other images I actually felt there was too much motion and not enough definition on the grass.

Butterfly Photography: An American Copper

Several of our local species of butterflies like to rest on whatever flat surface they can find.  I often see butterflies in the middle of dirt trails, dirt roads, and gravel roads.  Probably a nice place to bask for a cold-blooded life form, but not necessarily the ideal scene for a photograph.

Lycaena phlaeas

A closeup view of a small and interestingly marked native butterfly of New Jersey.

DSLR photo of an American Copper butterfly using the Tamron SP 90mm VC 1:1 F/2.8 Macro Lens and the Canon EOS 50 DSLR.  Camera settings in Manual Exposure Mode: Shutter at 1/50th Aperture at F/5.6 and ISO 200.  Autowhite Balance is selected (my typical default), RAW file size, One Shot focusing in Continuous Drive Mode.  VC (in-lens stabilization) On.

This dainty insect is actually sitting on an unattractive dirt trail here, but the camera’s angle of view disguises the surroundings.  To get this view I am lying prone on the ground (a very common posture for good wildlife photographs) and the camera is pressed to my face.  I will often fill the frame as much as possible while trying not to have the subject looked too cramped within the image frame.  I did have to angle the Canon 50D slightly downward to keep the butterfly’s legs in the photo.

Using the “focus and recompose” technique, I pressed the shutter halfway down after initiating autofocus directly on the butterfly’s eye, and then I angled the camera until the lens hood of my macro lens was touching the ground, but the camera body was not.  This low and close-focused perspective has disguised the fact that myself and the butterfly are surrounded by a trail of non-photogenic packed dirt.

Photographing wildlife in harsh lighting: an Eastern Fence Lizard

Below we have a photo of a small, harmless, and downright cute Eastern Fence Lizard.  A native reptile of New Jersey that is widespread within its habitat, but generally not familiar to residents of Northern New Jersey.

Sceloporus undulatus

A closeup photograph of a wild New Jersey reptile taken with a Tamron macro lens and a Canon DSLR.

Photo taken with the Tamron SP 90mm VC F/2.8 Macro Lens and the Canon EOS 7D.  Camera settings: Shutter at 1/100 Aperture at F/3.2 and an ISO speed of 200.  One Shot focus mode, camera handheld, VC On, RAW image format, manual exposure mode, auto white balance.

F/3.2 is not the punchiest aperture of my lens, but it does yield acceptable sharpness.  Shallow depth of field was very important to me in the making of this photo.  My “go to aperture” for macro of F/5.6 brought a lot more detail in the foreground AND the background.  The impact of this photo is in its simplicity and having prominent background shapes and textures strongly detracts from this type of “mid-day silhouette capture”.

Clearly with the sun high in the sky and without cloud cover, the natural illumination of the subject is going to be uneven with a large contrast between the shadows and the highlights.  Many established photographers would call this “bad light” or “problematic light”.  This is not necessarily the easiest condition to create impactful photos in but by manually exposing for the subject’s mid-tones and shooting into an uncluttered background I’ve created a minimalistic photo that evokes thoughts of desert climates.

Bird Photography in Cape May – American Goldfinch

I was recently down in Cape May to do some nature photography.  Since CM is the undisputed birding capital of New Jersey, it only makes sense to take a long telephoto lens along like the Tamron SP 150-600mm VC.  Below is one of my favorite captures from this excursion.

Bird Photography

A closeup view of a female American Goldfinch at rest on a Sunflower in Cape May, New Jersey.

Shutter speed: 1/500 Aperture: F/9.0 ISO: 200 in Aperture Priority Mode +2/3 Exposure Compensation.  The Focal Length is 500mm.  Other settings: VC On, Manfrotto tripod, Spot Metering, Manual White Balance on my Canon EOS 7D

There was a flock of at least 1 or 2 dozen Goldfinches busily feeding in this Sunflower Patch, but upon my approach they retreated to the trees which is the expected response from most songbirds.  Most wildlife is genetically imprinted to flee from humans, as they were historically a food source in the days when hunting was our only means of sustenance.  Experience and literature will tell us that individual bird species have their own expected “flush range”.  Meaning different birds will typically fly away faster than others.  In my personal experience, a very slow but direct approach on a feeding Goldfinch may occasionally get you as close as you want to get.

This particular female American Goldfinch did not fly when the rest of her flock retreated, instead it appeared to me that this bird was mostly basking in the warmth of the sunlight.  She was splitting her time between preening (tending to her feathers) and plucking seeds from the Sunflower head below her.  After years of bird observation, I could tell that this bird was relaxed because it showed no intention of flying away and also lacked the nervous head movements and body twitching that comes before the songbird flushes (flying away).  I got my tripod to the desired photographic height and slowly worked my way forward, one large deliberate by quiet footstep at a time.  The photo featured on this page is not cropped whatsoever and I would not have wanted to shoot it any tighter.  After I was done making my captures I exited the scene in the same slow and deliberate manner to not cause undue stress to the passerine (songbird).

Dusk at Sunset Beach

I was doing nature photography in various parts of Cape May this past Thursday, and had a gameplan to head to the well-known Sunset Beach area to try to make some photos of the setting sun.  My plan was foiled as the horizon clouded over as the sun began descending closer and closer to the horizon.

Cape May Dusk

A recent long exposure photo taken in Cape May, New Jersey.

With a fairly bleak sky I shifted my attention and tripod-mounted camera downwards to try to capture the water motion near the tideline.  For this capture, I have a circular 3-stop Neutral Density filter attached to my Tamron 18-270mm VC lens to allow more time for motion within the frame.  The resultant exposure time here was 30 seconds with an aperture of F/13 to have an expansive depth of field.  The ISO value of 100 provides the best image quality possible on current DSLR cameras.

The composition in this image incorporates the rule of thirds to draw the viewer in.  The dark rocks of the jetty occupy roughly 1/3 of the horizontal width of the frame and the sky occupies approximately 1/6 of the vertical height of the frame.  The misty water occupies the vast majority of the scene, but the rocks and the sky give a sense of scale and environment to the scene.

Just another Macro Monday

Sometimes when I head outside to do nature photography, a few nice shots quickly present themselves to me.  Other times, I am outside for hours and the subjects are not cooperating or I just can’t find anything that catches my eye.  3 hours had gone by after lugging around 2 cameras in a local meadow today and it looked like it was time to throw in the towel.  Low and behold, a charismatic insect in a charismatic setting was found while returning to my car.

Ladybug

Asian Lady Beetle atop a white blossom (probably Queen Anne’s Lace).

The above photo was taken with the Tamron SP 90mm VC Macro Lens and a Canon EOS 7D.  It is generally my preference to shoot from a tripod but when your subject is blowing from a breeze I find that a tripod can actually become an obstacle to getting the capture.  The sky had clouded over at this point in the day so I switched the exposure to full manual controls to ensure a proper bright image.  At ISO 400, which I consider my upper threshold for daytime macro shooting, I was still limited to a low shutter speed. 

Choosing a fairly large aperture of F/3.2 allowed more light to hit the camera’s sensor and provided a “dreamy” rendition of the white blossoms.  Composition-wise I thought that executing a vertical photo would create a more dynamic picture and the Beetle is in pretty good compliance with the Rule of Thirds.  I did have to shoot at least a dozen frames with the VC (Vibration Compensation) on.  1/100 of a second is not a very fast shutter speed to freeze a small fragile plant swaying in the breeze and increasing the ISO would degrade the image quality too much for my liking.  Nature photography does take a good deal of tenacity and perseverance in my opinion, but a few sharp shots a day keeps the grumpy Dave’s away.

Using a Neutral Density Filter to Enhance Motion

This photo was taken on an overcast morning so a slow-ish shutter speed was inevitable. However, I really wanted to emphasize the motion in the flow of the water, so I mounted my 3-stop neutral density filter which allowed for a shutter speed of 8 seconds at F/16 ISO 100. The lens used was my Tamron 18-270mm VC, at 18mm.

New Jersey Scenery Photo

Rockaway River and Footbridge

Long exposures like 8 seconds are a matter of taste, but I love the painterly effect it can give. I find that the majority of ND filters on amazon are decent quality, and I usually don’t spend much more than $20 on mine.