8.2 Angles and Light

Now that we’ve spent some time considering the importance of subject placement in the frame, let’s change gears for a bit and think instead about the placement of the camera.  Far too many photographers stand complacently behind their tripod-mounted cameras and wait for the perfect image to spontaneously form directly in front of them.  Sometimes they get lucky.  But most often, the ideal image for a given situation is either at an odd angle (i.e., not visible from a point 5 feet 6 inches above the ground on an officially designated park trail) or is a moving target, in the sense that the ideal angle changes over time.  If you too often find yourself standing quiescent behind your tripod in the field, it may be good to meditate on the following rule:

Kelsey’s Rule of Ideal Angles

 “If you’ve been standing comfortably behind your tripod for more than ten minutes, then you’re probably not getting the ideal angle. 

Kelsey the Dog.

I am firmly convinced that the best way to inject novelty and perspective into one’s bird photography is to always be ready to try a new angle (literally).  Birds, as flying creatures, live in a somewhat more three-dimensional world than we do, and capturing them in their element sometimes requires deviations from normal human thinking.

The author photographing shorebirds on his belly.  A newspaper
reporter found this scene strange enough to be newsworthy.

    In the case of waterbirds (such as ducks and herons), an especially productive exercise is to get down on your belly—even when that means lying in mud or shallow water (or even in mounds of smelly goose droppings)—and expore your options for getting images of the bird at or near eye-level.  By placing the camera on the ground, at the bird’s level, you effectively take the viewer of your images into the bird’s world, so that your photos look less like amateur snapshots and more like professionally crafted, artistic depictions of the lives of birds. 

Fig. 8.2.1 : Willet from a very low angle.  The use of a low angle
for birds on the ground or in the water helps to take the viewer
into the bird’s world, providing a more intimate visual encounter.
Note that crossed legs often mar an otherwise good photo.  The
slight tilt to this photo can be seen as another defect, but I think
it improves the novelty of the perspective.

The willet (Tringa semipalmata) shown above is less than a foot tall, but by getting low and pointing the camera up at the bird, it’s made to look much larger.  Note that the use of a shallow depth-of-field (DOF) here makes the beach look like it extends indefinitely into the distance, and also blurs the distinction between the sand and the sky.
    Shooting birds in the water at eye level can produce rather striking effects due to the compression of the water into a narrow band.  For the white ibis (Eudocimus albus) photo below, I was actually kneeling in the water with the bottom of my lens barely touching the surface.  A shallow DOF again helped to compress the in-focus portion of the scene.  If you look critically at some of the works by great photographers such as Art Wolfe, you’ll see that they often employ angle tricks like this to produce the novel effects that make their photographs so memorable.

Fig. 8.2.2 : Low angles do amazing things to water.  The use of a shallow depth-
of-field helps to accentuate this effect.  For this shot my lens was as low over the
water as it could get without submerging.

    A low angle coupled with a large focal length can be especially useful in capturing intimate images of hunting behavior by waterbirds.  The large focal length allows you to get closer to wary birds than you otherwise could, and provides magnification for the small prey items captured by the bird, as demonstrated by the ibis image below.

Fig. 8.2.3 : Another example of low-angle waterbird photography.

Shooting from low angles doesn’t have to mean getting wet and dirty.  When I know I’m going to be lying in mud or wet sand, I’ll take along something to lie on: either two large trash bags (which fold up nicely into a vest pocket), or a large sheet of painter’s plastic.  The latter can be purchased in rolls from the hardware store and then cut to your size.  I fold mine up and keep it in a trash bag that I then clip to my belt with a carabiner clip, for easy carrying in the field.
    In order to keep your lens and camera clean and dry, you can use a frying pan (or similar device), as illustrated below.

Fig. 8.2.4 : Keeping your lens dry and clean when crawling on your belly
can be difficult.  Expensive
ground pods are available that can help with
this, but I prefer my $7 frying pan from WalMart.  Note the carabiner clip
on the handle, which allows me to clip the pan onto my belt when walking.

The frying pan is easy to carry around if you use a carabiner clip to attach it to your belt, and is easy to slide around on smooth surfaces such as sand or mud.  By placing the lens foot in the pan, you keep sand and dirt off of the tripod mounting plate (if you’re using one); you can also place the external battery pack for your flash in the pan, to keep it dry (which is obviously very important).  Note that you do still need to keep hold of the lens and camera while using the frying pan, in order to keep the rig from tipping over and falling into the shallow water (this happened to me once, but fortunately nothing was damaged).  There are professional ground pods you can buy which allow you to attach the lens to the pod, reducing the chance of your rig tipping over; these typically cost over $100 (US), and for that reason I prefer my $7 frying pan from WalMart.

Fig. 8.2.5 : Yet another on-my-belly shot.  This shorebird is
extremely small, but by using an eye-level perspective the bird
is made to appear much larger.

    Note that while a frying pan can be used at the edge of a body of water to keep the lens foot (and battery pack, if you use one) dry, waves or changes in water level can cause water to splash into the pan, possibly damaging your equipment (this is especially true for battery packs).  Also, when shooting birds from a prone position at the edge of any body of water subject to tide changes, be sure to keep all water-sensitive equipment well away from the water.  I once had a cell phone destroyed when the tide slowly crept up to me and imperceptibly soaked my pants’ pocket where the cell phone was.  On the same trip I encountered a fellow who had just destroyed his teleconverter in the same way.  I now keep my phone, memory cards, and other important items in sealed ziplock bags at all times when in the field.
    While shooting from ground level can be very useful, it’s not always the ideal angle—even for waterbirds.  Sometimes you can get better background colors, or even a reflection of the bird, by changing your angle.  Although reflections of the subject in water are considered by many to be cliché, many others find them to be quite pleasing.

Fig. 8.2.6 : Reflections may be considered cliché according to some standards, but
many people still like them.  To capture a coherent reflection of the bird the camera
typically has to be at least a few feet above the ground.  Note that distance to the
subject has a significant effect on the resulting angle.  This shot was taken from
a considerable distance while the camera was tripod-mounted (about 5 feet high).

In the field it can be difficult to pay attention to both the subject and the background—particularly when both are in motion—but it’s often worthwhile to try to do so.  Birds swimming in water provide a particular challenge, because as the bird moves across the surface of the water, the background reflections can change drastically from one instant to the next.  And though we as birders tend to concentrate inordinately on the bird, to a wider audience the background is quite often what makes or breaks an image, in terms of its artistic impact.

Fig. 8.2.7 : Non-birder viewers of your images may care more about the
background than about the bird itself.  Water can provide wonderful
opportunities for capturing interesting backgrounds, via reflection of
colors from the far shore.  In this case I specifically waited until the bird
passed through a prominent patch of brown (matching the bird’s dorsal
wing plumage) to create some visual interaction between foreground
and background.  This bird’s head angle does mar the image somewhat.

One strategy is to take a shot every time the bird’s head is oriented properly (showing the face and at least one eye), and to later sort through the images and pick out those that happened to have nice background reflections.  This strategy can result in large numbers of images that later take a lot of time to sort through, but the effort is often worthwhile. 
    One thing that I like to do at my local duck pond is to find a part of the pond that has good reflections at that time of day, and then photograph any ducks that wander into that area.  Even when working the same tiny patch of water for an hour or more, the photos all turn out different, due to the neverending variety of wave patterns on the surface.  Autumn is an especially good time of year for getting waterbird photos with interesting backgrounds, due to the reflections from changing leaf colors (in those locations where deciduous trees shed their leaves in the fall).

Fig. 8.2.8 : Reflections of autumn leaves in water can provide for an amazing
background palette.  The constant movement of waves results in a neverending
variety of color patterns.  In this type of setting I typically take lots of photos
and sort through them later to find the ones with the best backgrounds.

    Angle tricks aren’t only useful around water.  In addition to getting different views of the bird, changing your angle can let you take advantage of certain lighting phenomena.  The great egrets (Casmerodius alba) below illustrate what’s known as rim lighting—what happens when a light source behind the subject provides bright illumination around the edges of the bird while leaving the rest of the bird somewhat darker.  As you can see, this creates an interesting mood for the scene.

Fig. 8.2.9 : Rim-lighting.  Though back-lit subjects are usually avoided by
bird photographers due to the poor illumination of the bird’s front side,
in some cases back-lighting can create interesting effects.

     A more extreme (and probably more familiar) effect is that of silhouette lighting.  Silhouette shots are a good reason to stay in the field right up through sunset.  If you do try to capture some silhouette shots of birds, don’t be disappointed if yours don’t seem to be as bright or contrasty as the one shown below: for this shot I had to significantly increase the brightness, contrast, and saturation in Photoshop to get the final image shown here.  I also had to rotate it just a few degrees to restore the horizontal symmetry (my camera might not have been perfectly level when I took the shot—a common problem in the field).

Fig. 8.2.10 : Silhouettes are among the easiest and most rewarding scenes
to capture in the field.  Don’t worry if the color of the sky isn’t intense enough
when you take the shot: that can easily be fixed in Photoshop.

One nice thing about shooting silhouettes is that they’re usually fairly easy to postprocess: in many cases, all you have to do in the field is get a sharp image of the bird’s outline, without worrying about depth of field or color or brightness.  As long as you get a good, sharp silhouette shape, the foreground can be made black and the background some appropriate, bright color, with very little effort (in Photoshop).  Noise is typically very easy to fix in silhouette shots too, because you can easily select the foreground or background and apply strong noise reduction to just the selected area, since there’s typically no fine-scale detail within regions of the image (away from the edge of the silhouette).
    If you’re shooting without flash (or are forced to use a low flash ratio), one thing that you need to be constantly aware of is the distribution of shadows in the scene.  The ovenbird photo below illustrates some of the relevant issues related to shadows.

Fig. 8.2.11 : Shadows can both enhance and mar an image.  Direct
sunlight is a special problem for today’s digital imaging sensors, due to
their limited dynamic range; capturing detail in highlights and in shadows
typically isn’t possible without exposure bracketing.  Note also that the bird’s
eye in this image looks dead, due to the lack of any catchlight.

First, shadows affecting the bird are typically the ones you most want to avoid (unless you’re using them to achieve some sort of artistic effect—see below).  In the image above, the underside of the bird is heavily affected by shadow since the sun is shining from directly overhead (though parts of the shadow are lightened by light reflected upward from the branch).  Note also that the bird’s beak casts a fairly prominent shadow, which some viewers may find distracting. 
    The main problem with shadows is that the dynamic range of today’s digital imaging sensors is often too limited to capture detail in both the highlights and the shadows of a scene
especially one lit by direct sunlight.  To avoid blowing the highlights you’ll generally have to underexpose the shadows, so that any detail you would have seen with the naked eye is likely to be lost in the digital image.  Shadow areas also tend to harbor noise, due to their lower photon counts and the resulting sampling error (see section 2.5).  Note also that, in the image above, the eye is shaded from the sun and therefore lacks any catchlight that would have given it some dimensionality.  The use of flash can often fix (or at least mitigate) many of the foregoing problems (see Chapter 7).
    Shadows aren’t always bad, however. 
Shadows can help to improve the dimensionality of the scene, and can also give the viewer a sense of time-of-day (via the implied position of the sun).  In the bald eagle photo below, extensive shadowing of the bird’s body greatly affects the mood of the resulting image, and the pure black background (entirely due to shadow) forces all attention onto the subject.  Tiny shadows cast by individual feather barbs (possibly accentuated by the side-lighting) result in a natural form of the micro-contrast phenomenon discussed in Chapter 7 in relation to flash; micro-contrast can help reveal an enormous amount of fine detail in a bird’s plumage.

Fig. 8.2.12 : Shadows aren’t always bad.  Here, the dark background and shadowing
of one side of the bird has imposed a certain mood on the image.  Direct sunlight on
the bird’s head has also resulted in more fine detail, due to the effect of micro-contrast.
Note that this image was produced by merging three different exposures using the HDR
feature in Photoshop to overcome a lack of adequate dynamic range in the camera.

For the above image, however, additional effort was required to bring out the bird’s body, since a single exposure would have resulted in either blown highlights in the white head or far less body detail than shown here.  To make this image I had to take three different exposures in rapid succession (via exposure bracketing—see section 6.9) and then merge the exposures via HDR (high dynamic range) in Photoshop.  HDR and the related concept of tone mapping are discussed in section 6.9 and in Chapter 13.  Note that while the black background in the above image occurred quite fortuitously, due to the deep shadowing of the background, a similar effect can sometimes be achieved, when using flash, by employing a high flash ratio so as to expose the subject more than the background (see section 7.6); the use of flash wasn
t feasible for this particular image, because the (captive) bird was behind a wire mesh. 
    In terms of the strong side-lighting evidenced in the above eagle photo, it’s worth noting that direct side-lighting is most often not desirable in the field, since in many cases you’ll end up with a half-illuminated bird that many people would find unpleasant.  When the sun is low you can eliminate side-lighting by repositioning to either the sunny side of the bird (to obtain direct front-lighting) or the dark side of the bird (to obtain rim-lighting or a silhouette shot).  Alternatively, you can wait until the bird moves out of the direct sunlight, and then either employ flash (to make your own frontal lighting) or rely on ambient light.