Monday, April 30, 2007

Wildlife photo secrets (2): learn about light

The previous post generated quite a response so I'll keep going; for a while anyway.

Actually any kind of photographer, not just a wildlife photographer needs to learn about light. It's right there in the name, learn to write (graphy) with light (photo).

It's the seduction of animals, birds, butterflies, flowers (pick your poison), that brings many people into taking pictures. Most people are just happy to have records of what they saw. A few will attempt to see rarer and rarer things in order to photograph them. A few will try and catch a rare behavior. This is eventually the point of the the whole exercise to many.

But, this will not always make a good photograph and certainly not a good photographer. What makes the latter is a certain ineffable something. However, the first has quite definable elements. One of them is light!

Saying that light makes a photograph is trivial, except what I mean is it makes or breaks a good one. Good light can elevate the mundane to beauty and bad can do the reverse.

So what's to light? Well, there's different kinds of lights. Heres all the features in which light can vary and that you get to play with in a photograph.

(a) brightness (the obvious one). You can have a high key image in which you pour a lot of light onto both the background and/or the foreground. Or you can go with the darker more mysterious look that allows just a subtle limning of the solid form of the object being photographed. Picks up a little detail no more, unlike a silhouette (which you can also do.)

(b) spectrum: there are warm lights like the light you get just around sunrise and sunset are often make very winning photographs. Or cool light, which you usually get after the sun's gone down, on overcast days or in the shade, can make mysterious looking images.
The kind of colour you get will depend on the WB if you're using digital. So if you want to keep these casts (loosing which can be quite silly) the easiest thing I've found is to leave things on daylight WB.

(c) Hard light, where shadows have sharp defined edges. Most photographers seem not to like this light, it can nonetheless be turned to you advantage. At least partially because in this light, colours are often quite saturated.
Diffuse light, with softer or no shadows at all, the love of all photographers, particularly macro people. The light that seems to come from everywhere at once.

(d) The area that the light hits, how tight the beam/spot of light is and what kind of fall-off it has on the edges. Like the tighter, harder edged spot of light on the owl versus the softer edged halo around the saw-scaled vipers head. The idea here is to draw quick attention to the specific object of interest while keeping it away from that not of interest.

(e) The direction the light comes from:top-lit, back-lit, vs front-lit vs side-lit. The backlit and hence rim-lit tree cricket versus the front left lit ant.
Again, its a way of emphasizing one element as opposed to the some other element in the picture. (Note that the ant image also has pretty controlled fall off, avoiding lighting any other leaves or elements of the background that might prove disturbing.)

(f) and finally something I have no clear examples for, number of light sources and the intensities and 'cast' or 'colour temperature' of each source.

Now what you've to figure out, when working with available light, is what kind of light you're working with and how to use it to your advantage. If you're making you're own light, decide what is the kind of light that would be best for the situation. (I know it's hard, but this is just the start!). If you want to know more about light, and even more about lighting something up using your own light sources, try Strobist. I've learnt and continue learning a helluva lot there.

And if you're still with me at the end, wish you good light!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Widlife photo secrets: time and access

In my callow photographic youth, in 2004, I met another photographer. He cast a pearl before me, he told me half the battle in getting good wildlife photographs is access. I didn't think much of it then, but three years behind me, I know precisely what he meant.

There is no simpler non-secret to getting better shots than to keep trying. To keep your eyes and ears open all the time and keep iterating until you get what you want. You've got to know whats worth getting and whats worth keeping, and then you're set, all you've got to do is push push push.

The best stories are worked over many many (oh don't be shocked now) years! Yes, years! There are good one's that are shorter, but the truly blue chip take years. Lanting's Jungles, Salagado's Workers, Nick Nichol's work in Bandhavgarh, etc.

The luxury of that kind of time is very hard for most people to come by. Many wildlife photographers, filmakers will given a chance lament the quick turn-arounds that are required of them. It was one of the reasons the Planet Earth series was hailed as a breath of fresh air. It was a production the size and length of which hasn't happened in a looong while.

Even if you had the time, you may not have that other golden thing, access. In India in particular, few natural habitats remain and these have gatekeepers, forest departments. Just getting in can take a lifetime. Then when you are in, you're often allowed to do very little, no setting up hides, no water hole waits, no walking in some parks(!), no camera traps. Then there is the expense associated with living and travelling in the park. Our labs field station budget is of the order of thousands a month! And just to break the camel's back, there are huge fees associated with shooting/filming in parks, especially filming.

So, to cut a long story short, work on the access bit. Or work the bits that are accessible. Learn to mine the places that you can go easily and then work them to ...death. Hey, it's worked for me!

Seriously though, one of the huge advantages of undertaking the kind of project I have is that I have access 24/7 to most places. And I can get in to most other places with a little wheedling and cajoling. This is probably one of the few areas where being a woman makes things a mite easier, people percieve you as less of a potential threat. But even if you're a guy, it's not such a difficult skill, most people will let you in once, twice. The third and fourth time eyebrows rise and maybe you're turned back. But, persistence pays, and public spaces are still just that. You just have to bone up on your smile a bit. And as the big guy at NHM said, it's not how rare, exotic or unfamiliar your subject is, its about how good your photography is...Unfortunately we're all still stuck figuring out why or when something is 'good'.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Piece on Starling flocks in NYT

I thought this article on the European starlings in Rome and slide show that accompanied it was a nice follow-up to our own invasion, which has now unfortunately subsided.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Better feminists

There is a lot being said about the VT shooting, sympathy for those having gone through a horrid time, debates on gun control, criticism of VTs handling of the first shooting and information dissemination. I have very little to add.

But this post by Chris Clarke, whose perceptiveness rarely fails to amaze me, knocked me down. I've gotten so used to the language of reporting that I often don't catch the underlying currents.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Sally Glean

Did you wonder after the last post who the squabblers were and what they were squabbling over? I'll take the long route.

Among insectivorous birds, there two sorts of hunting habits. One sort in which the birds sally forth, leave their perches high above the ground and chase insects mid air and catch them in flight. The slender, aerodynamic and beautiful flycatchers fall in this category, as do the bee-eaters. The more quotidian habit is to grub about in the grass and undergrowth to catch what hops about there, to glean. To pick up the leftovers. And off course, the dull, common as dirt Mynas are gleaners. Poor things, boring in their habits and not rare enough to excite attention almost ever. Not even as smart as the crows.

But thats the beauty that is biology, every once in a while the commonplace is not itself. The first April showers came and with them came the dispersing insects, termites and ants, out to set up new life. An abundance usually prompts something equally exciting elsewhere. I was on the roof again, the light finished for the day just catching my breath, when I realized that although I was done, the birds were not. So I pulled out my camera and waited.

My weak non nocturnal eyes would pick up a little flicker in the air somewhere and it would be snapped up in an instant by a sallying myna, starling or crow. They looked like the flat lizards straight out of Planet Earth's Deserts episode. For just a little while, the myna's behaviorally adapted and shifted to being salliers, and became for me a little more special.

The squabblers in the previous post were two crows demonstrating their usual adaptability, joining the mynas at the hunt. They arrived at a flying insect at the same time and nearly snapped each other's faces off.