Female willow ptarmigan
Female willow ptarmigan camouflaged in the tundra. Canon 1Ds Mark III, 500mm f/4L IS w/1.4x (700mm), 1/125 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 800
Camouflage is at the heart of this bird’s survival. The willow ptarmigan has many color morphs, depending on the season and the terrain in which it lives. In this case, the tundra is just awakening to spring, and the dull brown colors are a perfect match for her brown feathers. In the winter, this bird turns completely white to blend in with the snow. I was amazed at how well the bird blended into the surroundings. Soon she will have chicks hiding under her wings.
Male King Eider duck
Male king eider duck. Canon 1D Mark IV, 500mm f/4L IS w/2x, 1/320 sec @ f/8, ISO 200.
Earlier in the week I posted a photo of a male king eider duck that I took at midnight in Alaska ‘s arctic, under cloudy skies. In contrast, I wanted to share a photo of the same species, but under completely different lighting conditions. I took this picture at 12 noon, about 12 hours later than the other frame (and not much sleep in between), and while I do not consider that an optimum time for shooting due to hot light and heavy contrast, this worked out o.k. Photographing a subject with white areas in mid day sunlight can be tricky, due to the tendency to blow out the bright highlights. My general approach to a subject in these conditions is to shoot in manual mode, find an exposure that does not overexpose the whites, use as low of an ISO as possible and then be super careful on the focus. The low ISO helps when it comes time to boost the shadows in Lightroom, which are fairly underexposed due to highlight preservation.
I’ve included a screen shot below that shows the initial capture, and the red highlight reveals a tiny bit of blown out area which was recoverable in the RAW post processing.
Initial screen capture exposure before corrections. The red spot reve
It might appear like I cranked the saturation in post production, but I really did not. Below is the final processing. I boosted the individual channels of blue and aqua saturation a little bit, but the brightness and fill light brought the color to life in the bird’s face. I also added a brightness brush to the bird’s face to bring in the eye a little bit.
Final adjustments in Lightroom
It is also worth noting that I took this shot with Canon’s new 2x converter on the 500mm, on a 1D Mark IV that equals 1,300mm! It is amazingly sharp, and this tight compression let me make the simplicity of composition and use of positive and negative space that I think makes the image pleasing. It also provides a creamy, blurry background, with a slight pattern.
In addition, the bird raised its neck slightly for a few exposures, which make for a regal posture, as opposed to a more squatty, compressed look. I’ve got a few king eider photos posted on my website, but will have more added soon.
Noatak river flows out of the Brooks range in the Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska. Canon 5D Mark III, 24-105 f/4L IS (28mm), 1/1000 @ f/5.6, ISO 400
I’m often asked if I shoot black and white. The answer is no, in general. My world is one of color, and while I appreciate both the constraints and liberties of excluding color from an image, I generally prefer the invoked psychological elements that the inclusion of color creates.
But throwing away color opens up some creative opportunities as well, and I’m fond of all imagery that exhibits a powerful use of light and composition. Just for fun, I thought I would play with this photo for a few minutes in Lightroom. It was a pretty quick rendition of the file by reducing the saturation to “0″ and then cranking the blacks and contrast. It creates a rich and energetic scene, which in reality, is far more dramatic than what the human eye actually saw.
I took the image while flying with Dirk Nickisch of Coyote Air, as we traversed across the Noatak river valley in Alaska’s Brooks range. If you have followed my blog, you already know that I’m particularly fond of the magnificent Brooks range. If you are open to the idea, it will change your life in just a few glances, through its sheer immensity and wild ruggedness–it is sort of a quick work of self reduction.
When shooting aerials–use a high, high, high shutter speed, reduce wind drag on the lens as much as possible, and isolate yourself from the plane vibration, and shoot a lot of frames.
Compare with the color version.
Male King Eider on tundra pond, arctic, Alaska. Canon 1D Mark IV, 500mm f/4L IS, w/1.4x, 1/320 sec @ f/5.6L, ISO 800
The king eider is a bird I have long wanted to see. While it is hard to call out a favorite bird, it ranks up there with the best with its unique features, feathers, and colors. While in the very high arctic, I had only one evening to shoot due to a tight schedule and I fortunately found this male king eider swimming in a pond in the late hours of the nightless summer skies. The golden arctic light slipped behind a cloud about 10 minutes earlier. While I missed the golden light, this very flat and silvery light offers a soothing scene that really displays the features of the magnificent bird quite well. I took the shot at midnight, and the fog rolled in and vanquished much of the light, but I was lucky to sneak off this one frame. The following day offered more photo opportunities under completely different lighting condition.
Short-eared owl, arctic Alaska. Canon 1D Mark IV, 500mm f/4L IS, 1/800 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 800
Over the years of travel across Alaska, I’ve watched many short-eared owls hunting and flying over the tundra landscape. They are artful flyers, often visible in the treeless environment in which they roam. On a trip last week however, I had the first really good opportunity to photograph an owl, that did not seem to mind my close proximity. Furthermore, it made many funny twisting gestures with its neck as those yellow eyes seemed to pierce mine. I took the photo at about 10:00pm under the arctic sunshine, and a nice back-lit rim light surrounds the bird offering pleasant contrast. It is a tight frame in the landscape orientation but by the time I switched to vertical to give more room above the bird’s head, it lowered it’s neck and I much prefer this inquisitive stance.
Short-eared owl almost, but out of focus. Canon 1D Mark IV, 500mm f/4L IS w/1.4x, 1/500 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 800.
For those who can appreciate the world of “almosts” in photographing wildlife, here is a shot that I so wish was in focus. It was a hopeless grab shot effort, and would have been quite nice if my focal targeting had been accurate. All in all, I captured some nice images of birds that were not only new to my eyes, but also got some good images of a variety of birds that I’ll be sharing in future posts, including the amazing King Eider.