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Welome to my blog. This is where you'll find my thoughts on images, projects, equipment and all other things photographic.

 

Hanging with the night birds

Nov 14, 2014

There's nothing quite like falling into cold, smelly marsh water up to your neck in the middle of the night to make you question whether it's time to put the cameras away and go back home. But when the photographic opportunities are as good as this, you can put up with the occasional mouth full of water weed. Earlier this year I got the chance  to test a new hide for uber-wildlife photographer Bence Mate. Set at water level  in the marshes of Kiskunsagi National Park, Hungary,  the hide had  halogen lamps on the roof to illuminate a reed-bed pool at night. I spent three fascinating  nights photographing the after-dark activities of  herons,  egrets... and a few rather unexpected visitors. 

(Image: Black-crowned Night Herons stand motionless waiting for fish to swim within striking distance. Canon EOS 1DX, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, 1/800 sec @ f/4, ISO 2500, tripod, hide)

(Image: Black-crowned Night Herons stand motionless waiting for fish to swim within striking distance. Canon EOS 1DX, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, 1/800 sec @ f/4, ISO 2500, tripod, hide)

Black-crowned Night Herons are very much the stars of this watery stage. I've always liked their roly-poly looks,  outrageously long head feathers and the weird poses that they strike. At night they were more active than I'd ever seen them before.  Every night groups of them congregated in the shallow water, sometimes motionless for minutes at a time before lunging for a fish. Occasionally a territorial squabble would break out - they seemed to get especially annoyed at the presence of Little Egrets. There were bizarre scenes in which thin, fragile egrets and short dumpy herons would face each other, feathers puffed up, seemingly trading insults across the pond before one or other would huffily stalk off into the night.

(Image: A Little Egret and a Night Heron having a dispute about who's pool it is. Canon EOS 1DX, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, 1/160 sec @ f/5, ISO 2000, tripod, hide)

(Image: A Little Egret and a Night Heron having a dispute about who's pool it is. Canon EOS 1DX, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, 1/160 sec @ f/5, ISO 2000, tripod, hide)

At twilight, when there was still faint light in the sky, some striking colour effects were possible. Halogen lights produce an orange - yellow glow which can be compensated for by setting the camera's white balance to a low setting (typically 2500 - 2800 K). This white balance adjustment ensures that the birds illuminated by the lights come out the right colour. However, the setting also changes the appearance of residual natural light in the sky, shifting it to the blue end of the spectrum. I quite like the overall effect, but I guess it may be a love-hate sort of thing.

(Image: Great Egret catching a fish. Canon EOS 1DX, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, 1/1000 sec @ f/4, ISO 1250, tripod, hide)

(Image: Great Egret catching a fish. Canon EOS 1DX, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, 1/1000 sec @ f/4, ISO 1250, tripod, hide)

(Image: Night Heron holding its prize at nightfall. Canon EOS 1DX, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, 1/1000 sec @ f/4, ISO 2000, tripod, hide)

(Image: Night Heron holding its prize at nightfall. Canon EOS 1DX, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, 1/1000 sec @ f/4, ISO 2000, tripod, hide)

Shooting at night is not without its pitfalls. One night, at about 3am, I decided to stretch my legs for a bit. Turning off the lights so that I wouldn't be seen leaving the hide I made my way back along the path through the reed beds. Unfortunately, in the dark I slipped and fell into the marsh. I squelched back to Bence's farmhouse, showered and changed and returned. The next morning Bence and his team found my mud and weed covered clothes on the line outside. I think they believed that I'd decided to go for an evening swim...

On the second night, I was amazed to see an otter. It appeared at the edge of the pool and then dived in and began catching fish. To be honest, I struggled to get a high enough shutter speed to avoid motion blur - otters move quite quickly, and 2000W of halogen light isn't that bright over a wide area. . I managed a few more successful shots of the otter while it was eating some of the fish that it caught.  I'm returning to the hide in a couple of months and I'll be taking along a couple of powerful Profoto B1 flashes which should enable me to freeze the otters this time. Watch this space...

(Image: A surprise visit from a European River Otter. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 300mm f/2.8L IS, 1/200th sec @ f/2.8, ISO 3200, tripod, hide)

(Image: A surprise visit from a European River Otter. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 300mm f/2.8L IS, 1/200th sec @ f/2.8, ISO 3200, tripod, hide)

(Image: A Night Heron wrestling with a fish. Canon EOS 1DX, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, 1/500 sec @ f/2.8, ISO 1600, tripod, hide)

(Image: A solitary Night Heron just before dawn. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF300mm f/2.8L IS, 1/320 sec @ f/3.5, ISO 1250, tripod, hide)

(Image: A solitary Night Heron just before dawn. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF300mm f/2.8L IS, 1/320 sec @ f/3.5, ISO 1250, tripod, hide)

Back-lighting with natural light

Many people shy away from making back-lit images (where the subject is between the camera and the light source) but it isn't as difficult as many people think, and can produce eye-catching results.

   Little Egret back-lit in late afternoon sunlight.   Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF300mm f/2.8L IS + 1.4x III, 1/2000 sec @ f/5, ISO 1250, tripod, hide

 

Little Egret back-lit in late afternoon sunlight.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF300mm f/2.8L IS + 1.4x III, 1/2000 sec @ f/5, ISO 1250, tripod, hide

Back-lighting can seem daunting at first. It's all to easy to end up with a photo that's not quite a silhouette, but is still too dark to make out the subject clearly against a bright background.  Wedding photographers have been dealing with just this sort of lighting situation for years when photographing bridal parties on sunny days. They don't want their subjects to face the sun as that would make them squint so  and they usually fix the problem by using a flashgun, or a reflector, to illuminate the dark front of the happy couple. Sadly, flashguns aren't always practical with wildlife which may be too far away for the flash to make much difference. It's also not very practical to wave a big reflector around to bounce sunlight back to the subject as that rather negates all the trouble you've gone to to conceal yourself from the animal.

However, there is one large natural reflector that you can use: a body of water. Water has the happy habit of reflecting light very well and by photographing animals on the edge of lakes, some natural light will bounce back onto your subject and help illuminate the side facing you. This also has the advantage that it's the same kind of light (the same colour temperature) as all the other light in the picture, so you don't have to worry about using gel filters on flashes to try and match their contribution with the ambient light.

This technique works best with large bodies of water (a puddle won't make much difference to a back-lit swan). It's often best to use spot-meter mode to set exposure for the subject. I often dial in a bit of negative exposure compensation to slightly darken the subject to emphasis the rim of light on the feathers or fur at the subjects edge. Keep the highlight warning set on your cameras playback to make it easier to see if you've overexposed the image (a few spots of pure white around the edge of the subject are usually fine). Dark backgrounds usually work best (the brighter the sunlight, the darker the background that you need for this to be effective - a light background will usually  burn out when you set exposure for the subject in midday sun.) It's a good idea to keep the sun itself out of your image, unless you want a lot of lens flare. And speaking of lens flare, if you want to avoid it then it's best to use a lens hood and to make sure that your lens and any filters you are using are clean and free from dust. Depending on the angle of the sun, you can get some nice internal lens patterns (the roundish shapes in the water in the image above). 

It's easiest to back-light effectively when the sun isn't at it's brightest, so shooting early in the morning and late in the afternoon is a good way to get started. You don't have to use water as the only reflector - with winter coming up, don't forget that other great natural reflector when shooting back-lit images: snow.