You know you can make a great landscape even better by having something animate in it. Like wildlife. Our latest speaker, Roy Jacobson CPAGB, showed us that patience, knowledge and persistence certainly pay off when you put the fauna in the flora. And aeroplanes too, though they are better in the sky. In both cases fortune favours the prepared.
Wildlife photography isn’t all about safaris in Namibia (I wouldn’t turn one down if anyone is offering a free one), it can be found much closer to home, like in your garden or local park. The key is to start small, get to know your kit really, really well, and know, I mean really know, your location and the sort of wildlife it attracts and when it attracts it.
Whereas there is definitely a case for having a 600mm telephoto in your bag when photographing shy or skittish animals, your back and your wallet will not thank you for it after lugging it around for the day. And that’s before we even consider the stuffed ant eater or who owns the copyright when the wildlife presses the shutter release. Start with the kit you have, was Roy’s advice and find somewhere local.
We have, of course, the benefit of Slimbridge under an hour away, if birds are your chosen subject, and it is set out for walking and observation. Roy suggested picking a spot and sticking with it, rather than wandering around and looking for something to happen. When it does happen it tends to happen quickly and be over just as quick: feeding, fighting, preening, breeding, taking to wing, coming into land or some other photo opportunity.
Much, as has been said already, is down to being prepared. As movement is going to be a big factor in most of the (airborne) shots then a fast shutter speed is going to be necessary, starting at around 1/1000th. To facilitate this it is probably best to select shutter priority/auto ISO and let the camera pick the aperture. Focal length is probably going to be long, metering and focus turned to spot (though that is questionable if you are composing on the thirds) continuous autofocus (depending on age and speed of your system), motor drive as we used to call it on as we are going to be shooting in bursts.
We might also use a monopod or tripod and if we have saved our pennies or do a lot of this sort of photography, maybe use a gimbal on the tripod. The problem quickly becomes how much gear do we want to lug around? How much can we practically use even, or especially, in an urban environment? Well, the happy medium is our own to find and is going to be dictated by subject, location and environment.
Birds aren’t the only option, of course. There are larger animals in most urban areas. Locally we have many different parks in which foxes can be seen with a little patience. There are two deer herds (Fallow and Red) at Ashton Court, the Red, in particular, are used to people being around, as are the grey squirrels around Cabot Tower on Brandon Hill if you get bored with shooting the Peregrine Falcons down by the River. There are plenty of pigeons and gulls to practice on whilst you wait. There are also some quite rare species of bird to be found (depending on the time of year) at the Arnos Vale cemetery as well as bats and foxes and badgers.
Now aeroplanes in flight that is a completely different matter. Actually only completely different from the earth-bound subjects as far as the mechanics go. Generally, aircraft are far more predictable than wild-life, especially at air displays (Weston Air Day this Saturday and Sunday by the way) through knowledge of the behaviour of each still sets the photographer in better stead.
The basics are exactly the same, fast shutter speed, single point meter and (possibly) focus. Don’t be afraid to boost the ISO and shoot Raw as we are probably going to see a fair whack of dynamic range within the frame, especially if the aircraft is dark and the sky bright.
In the stands at air shows, you will often see a forest of tripods and monopods. There are issues with doing this. The Mono/tripod will cut down on the flexibility that we have to move and pan. There can also be safety issues, especially when shooting around other ‘Togs using similar set-ups in relatively tight spaces. Better tuck your arms into your chest, deep breath and brace, takes more practice but it gives us more manoeuvrability and there is less gear to carry.
Air displays have a defined centre and also defined edges. If we know where these are (in front of where the crowds are thickest, basically) then we have the chance to hit peak action (centre) but at the edges is where the aircraft will turn in. Here we can get some great shots that aren’t aircraft flying straight and level.
Well, elections over all-bar-the-shouting, which is going to increase as we approach the end of Westminster’s first fixed term Parliament, and the use of the school as a polling station, Dan Ellis had us meet at the Dovecote in Long Ashton for a trail around Ashton Court. We are, in the nature calendar, between the bluebells and the lavender. It may have been the weather but there were more stay at homes than usual and that got me thinking about its effect on how and when and where we take photographs.
We always have the weather. It’s an environmental thing, no matter where you are you cannot but help taking the weather with you. There’s a song about that. In Britain the weather is always a topic of conversation – we generally have less extremes of it than other places and “Four Seasons In One Day” is not unknown (there’s a song about that too). One way to see it is as a regulator of activity: It’s too hot/cold/dry/wet , though others have it worse. There are two ways of looking at it – as a brake or an accelerator.
Of course there an infinite number of ways that the weather can effect a photograph, not least when it is its subject. At Ashton Court we had rain and sun together, which usually result in rainbows and one arced over Bristol, though was quite unusual from the perspective available in the car park of the Dovecote as the full Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet spectrum were visible, though that may not have transferred to all camera sensors. This was offset against a dark grey sky. Contrast! The clouds were quite low and at one point the prospect of Dundry hill was flooded in evening light framed through the trees of the park. The sun filtered through gaps in the low rain clouds picked out the flowers in the meadow, but eventually the clouds won out and the light went flat. The degree of contrast presented by the available light was diminished to the point that any shot of the landscape was not going to yield anything useable. I am sure more than one of us became covetous of the lighting rigs of the period costume drama that was being filmed at the house (This coming Thursday it’s the turn of the Antiques Road Show).
Nature doesn’t always co-operate. If it is the broad sweep of the meadows in front of the mansion you want come back during the golden hour to give the best chances – the Photographer’s Ephemeris for the regular, or you can look it up with a little more effort using Google Maps and the relevant tables. But the photograph is in the detail, it is as much about what is excluded as is included, it’s about looking for pattern and detail. And of course, in a flat(ish) light the easiest way to maximise contrast is to swap to black and white, or shoot for black and white and de-saturate in post processing. It doesn’t work for all photographs. There still has to be something to contrast. Black and white works best when there is a plenty of texture and tone in a scene. The easiest way to affect tonal separation is through curves in an editing programme, meaning affecting adjacent areas of black, white through shades of gray, but you can’t put in what isn’t there in the first place. You can do a similar thing with levels. You can see the difference between them here and though specific to Photoshop the principles are the same.
Flash maybe the first thing that comes to mind, direct, bounce, diffused, but we don’t always have the benefit of a separate flash for reasons of economy or space. There are reasons for not using the onboard flash, not least because it can look very harsh. There seems to be a lot of advice that says turn up the ISO and forget the flash, but turning up the ISO doesn’t do anything for the overall level of contrast in a scene. Power is a limiting factor, built in flash isn’t usually that flexible or that powerful for reasons of size and design. This just puts the same sort of limit a fixed focal length lens. You have to move the camera and given the relative under powered nature of built in units that means getting in close. Anything over about 10-12 feet then it might be a case of having to turn up the ISO to get the image, again depending upon the power of the unit.
Some of the harshness innate with a direct fire flash can be avoided by using slow synch flash. Flash photography freezes the image, but with slow synch, the slow referring to the shutter speed used, the extended shutter speed can cause the background to blur whilst still remaining lit and sharp because of the freezing effect flash. Smaller apertures are possible allowing greater sharpness in the final image. Then there is front curtain and rear curtain synch. Rear curtain sync tends to give a faint image trail and a sharp main subject. Front curtain sync illuminates the main subject. All these things get better with practice of course. Still need to look for the detail, to get up close, it is, as all the speakers we have had this season have emphasised, about the selection of detail.
Because the flash head is fixed doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible to model the light from it. Various solutions can be purchased but DIY can be just as effective – and cheaper! Not that most bought solutions are that expensive. Masking tape, pre-cut white card and black card, handkerchief or paper napkin, Styrofoam cup can all be pressed into use. There may be a need to use exposure compensation because of the increased distance the light has to travel or the translucence of the materials used if the camera does not meter automatically, or it can be dialled in using the ISO settings. And, of course, there is fill in flash, which can be used to highlight your subject against the background of ambient light.
So, if the weather is keeping you in, think again.