Friday, 23 July 2010

Barn Owl - photography tips

Picture - Juvenile Barn Owl (female). Exposure settings: 1/100, f5, ISO 800.

I've never been one for early mornings, so I've surprised myself with the ability to rouse myself regularly at 4.30am in recent weeks. This morning, however, it was in vain. Silence from the tree (where the young roost) and no sign of the adults. Had I returned for the umpteenth consecutive evening my family may start to have trouble recognising me, so I'll be back tomorrow.

I'll take the opportunity to explain the challenges facing a photographer when shooting Barn Owls in the evening. Ideal conditions generally occur at the beginning and end of the day when you are relying on natural light (i.e. the sun). Currently - nearing the end of July - we're talking from 6am to 9am and from around 4pm to 7pm on a clear day. You don't want the sun too high or you lose any shadows and the resulting image looks rather flat, but you need enough natural light to keep the shutter speed fast enough to freeze the subject. With birds in flight this is vital - ideally you need to be at around 1/800 or faster for a Barn Owl (higher for smaller, faster birds). I'm basing the following tips on my usual kit for the job - a D300 with a non-VR 300 f2.8 lens and a 1.7x teleconverter. This gives a focal length equivalent to 750mm on a 35mm camera at f5. Not ideal, but then I can't find a buyer for my kidney at the moment to fund a 600mm f4 lens and D3s!

So how do you achieve this when they're showing up at 8pm or later? Compromise. You'll have to surrender a bit of quality in the overall image to get something other than a whole lot of dark and grubby colours. You'll want to be in Manual mode to start with for maximum control of your exposure. The easy option is to take down the shutter speed, but get too low and you'll see motion blur or camera shake evident. The former can give a picture a bit of life when used appropriately, the latter is your worst enemy and will render your shot useless. This is where VR (IS on inferior equipment!) is handy, or a monopod to help support your camera and/or lens. Steady hands are a bonus. Realistically, 1/500 is as slow as you should go until the other options are exhausted - unless of course your bird is stationary. You can also open up the aperture, but remember that IQ is better on most lenses when stopped down a couple of times. Then there is ISO - the sensitivity of your camera's sensor to light. Most current DSLRs will comfortably handle ISO 800 without too much noise (grain, in old money) - even 1600 can produce acceptable results. When post-processed with Noise Reduction software (Photoshop CS5 is brilliant at this) it's a handy option. If you have a D700 or D3/D3s you'll know that these beasts can go further and still get usable images - if not then your kit is wasted on you. Give it to me and buy a D90 or D3000 instead!

It's worth bearing in mind that the background light is likely to change rapidly and play havoc with metering, so to a certain degree you should ignore it - only address this if it goes way out. Watch out if you are switching between very bright and dark backgrounds (sky vs trees, for example). The exposure settings that are acceptable for one could be completely inappropriate for the other and you'll need to adjust quickly.

So in summary... Keep the shutter speed above 1/500 unless you're still needing light at your lens's widest aperture and above ISO 800. After that, it's time to give up and go home - or just stay and admire the beauty of these majestic creatures without worrying about where to point your camera.

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