ZenOptic Wetlands Dawn Digital Capture at First Light
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One very early (and very dark) morning my friend Robert Valenton (ImagesByRv.com) and I were hunkered down trying to photograph Sandhill cranes in the fog. I was having no success. It was turning into one of those days when one questions one’s sanity. It’s when you question your sanity that you really feel the cold and wonder again what ZenOptic means.
Robert was shooting, checking his LCD, making changes and shooting again. When I asked Robert for his numbers he came back with a minus 1.3 exposure compensation (-1.3 EV). “It may be dark out here but the fog is brighter than the birds,” he said.
“How can you expect to get any light at all if you underexpose that much?” was my perplexed reply.
“Try it.” And a curtain was lifted.
It made technical sense. I had perfectly exposed fog and barely visible cranes. Dialing down the exposure dialed down the light reflecting from the fog. And increased the shutter speed, always a good thing. It darkened the cranes against the fog and added contrast to an otherwise very grey scene.
It’s not always the case that decreasing exposure will always bring a creature out of the fog. In the photo of the Great Blue Heron (Fog Perch) above the EV is +0.3. It was later in the morning and there was much more light. The bright reflection from the fog was essentially the same as backlighting. While looking back through the photos that I took of that heron I see that I applied the formula and began shooting at -.7 EV. That quickly changed as I evaluated the results and adjusted for effect. The real lesson here is not a formula for shooting in the fog. The real lesson is to look at your LCD, assess the results of your current numbers and then change them. Shoot. Assess. Change. Shoot. Assess. Change. And keep doing that until things are dialed. It makes no sense to shoot and hope that you’ve got it right when you can get immediate feedback from your LCD, make adjustments and then take a better shot. The days of waiting for the Kodachromes to come back from the lab are way over. So while you’re patiently waiting for your subject to do something, anything at all, take a few moments to fire some test shots and make adjustments. Try it.
One adjustment that we have not discussed is focus. Focusing in the dim light of dawn through a long lens is as hard as it gets. There are some tools that will make it easier to see the focus. One tool magnifies the image in your viewfinder. It clips on to your viewfinder and suddenly the image that you’re trying to see is 1.5 or 2 times larger. Since your subject rarely fills the frame of your viewfinder any increase of it’s size will help you to critically fine tune the focus. We shoot with right angle viewers that have magnification. Quite a helpful tool. Try it.
Another way to check the focus is to include focus examination when you assess your shot on your LCD. It’s possible to magnify the view and that is helpful, but the real trick is to use another tool that magnifies the LCD image and blocks out ambient light – the Hoodman Hoodloupe. This little baby hangs from your neck (along with your binos) for rapid use and then you just let it go. The process is really fast and it will prevent you from continuing to shoot when that focus is off just enough to spoil an otherwise great shot. Try it.
Not all wildlife photography is action. Sometimes your subject is content to be perfectly still. After you have shot the heck out of that natural statue try this: If you have liveview, engage it. Magnify the subject so that it fills the screen and then focus. Turn off the live view and your lens is perfectly focused. Disengage autofocus before you press your shutter. This is a beautiful technique to use in low light as the screen will be much brighter than looking through the viewfinder. Try it.
Probably the most valuable technique for rapid and controlled use of autofocus is “back button focusing”. If your camera has a button on the back (usually within reach of your right thumb) to control autofocus you are in business. It will require some menu navigation to set up and that may actually require you to read the manual (RTFM) but there is nothing to buy.
In your menus your goal is to turn off the autofocus activation of the shutter button and apply it to the autofocus button on the back. The problem is that if you use autofocus it will change with each one-half press of the shutter. Holding the shutter half way down to keep that perfect focus that you worked so hard to obtain is a ridiculous option. The solution is to take focus control away from the shutter button and assign it to the button on the back. It quickly become intuitive. Tap the button to allow autofocus to find the focus and then don’t touch it. For continuous autofocus tracking keep the button down. It works like a charm. If there is enough light. If your camera doesn't have an autofocus button you won't be able to disengage the focus activation role of the shutter button, but you can use the focus lock button to lock your focus once you have it nailed. Tap once to hold focus. Tap again to release it and give focus control back to the shutter button. A particularly fine application of this technique is to pre-focus to a point ahead of a moving or flying creature, lock it there and then fire the shutter when the creature moves into your focus zone. Your understanding of depth of field will inform you of the depth of your focus zone. Since the focus zone will extend on a plane perpendicular to your line of site you can use a point on the ground (in many cases) to focus on an area of sky above it. Try it.
Unique Dawn Challenges
f7.1, 1/500 sec, ISO 800, 0 EV, AP mode, 400mm lens, 12/1/09 7:27 am
f8, 1/640 sec, ISO 1000, -.3 EV,400mm, 12/27/10, 8:46 am
High Dance Flower
f6.3, 1/200, ISO 1000, -1 EV, AP mode, 12/22/09 7:26 am
f7.1, 1/800, 640 ISO, +0.3EV, 550mm (1.4xTC), 1/18/11 8:49 am