Each and every scenario in nature photography has its own nuances and challenges that it will throw at you the photographer. Some are completely random of course, whereas others are fully predictable.
Rookeries are no different. Each rookery that you visit will be completely different from the last. There will be different backgrounds, different challenges to access it, different lighting situations, and the list goes on. However, there will also be certain constants that you can mentally prepare for.
In this second post on photographing wading bird rookeries, I am going to describe some of those constants and help you understand how to approach and overcome such challenges.
As Thoreau wrote in his classic treatise on returning to nature Walden, “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”
When it comes to photographing rookeries, there really is no better piece of advice than to simplify. Rookeries are chaotic. Chicks, sticks, leaves, and adults all stand before you in a swirling vortex of entropy. It is therefore absolutely vital to keep two basic concepts in mind when it comes to this:
- How can you simplify the composition?
- Can your lens choice, aperture choice, and exposure settings help in any way to simplify and bring focus on your subject.
Are these questions all that unique to rookeries? No of course not. But they are extremely important when it comes to photographing rookeries.
In your pursuit to simplify the composition, here are a few tips that will go a long way for you.
- If you cannot remove distracting elements from the composition, try to work with them. Try to line them up in a pleasing way with your primary subject so that such elements now enhance instead of distract.
- Try to isolate birds from one another. Whether its chicks from adults, two adults standing side by side on a nest, or birds in the background, try to find at least some separation between them. Though we may see separate birds with our eyes, on a two dimensional plane, you will not.
- Watch out for sticks that will appear on a two dimensional plane to be growing out of birds heads, beaks, etc.
Lighting at wading bird rookeries can be somewhat tricky. Unless you are working with birds at the top of the trees where you can find unobstructed light to work with, you will battle with dappled lighting and extreme contrast. All of that chaos that I mentioned above also works to break up the light and create a lot of patchy contrast. This zebra striping if you will, more often than not will produce a dynamic range that is too great for your camera to be able to handle.
When you are dealing rookeries that lend themselves to this sort of difficult lighting situation you basically have 2 options:
- Work with the contrast and be extremely selective regarding which birds you photograph, and only photograph those for which the sun fully lights, while the background is in deep shadows. This will create a dramatic lighting scenario and beautiful photographs. However, these opportunities may be non-existent.
- Photograph on overcast days. By far, this is the most common and the easiest way in which to photograph a rookery. Overcast skies diffuse the light and distribute it evenly. This will then eliminate contrast by taking highlights and shadows out of the equation. The downside is that now you are dealing with flat light and muted colors. This can be overcome by the use of flash. Very small amounts of on axis flash (on camera or on a flash bracket) can help to give a bit of saturation to colors, and make your subject pop. Off axis flash (flash that comes in from somewhere else other than the direction of your camera and lens) can create depth, detail, and breathe life into your subject. Just remember that if you are going to use flash, only use very small amounts of it if the flash unit is on your camera or a flash bracket. For both Nikon and Canon this means that TTL settings will be in the negative for your exposure compensation.