Pre-focusing As A Strategy

Two Acorn Woodpecker Face Off

In this post, I discuss a pre-focusing strategy I used in capturing the image above. I submitted this image to my PSA (Photographic Society of American) nature study group. Each month I submit an image to be critiqued by the other members of the group as well as the group moderator. In turn, I critique the other members’ monthly image submissions.

With each monthly image submitted, the makers include information on how the image was made and what factors went into creating the image.  I thought that my website followers would also benefit in learning how I used a pre-focusing technique in creating this image of two Acorn Woodpeckers facing off over a post perch.  Going into details of the creative process and explaining the goal when I came faced with this particular nature setting and situation.

Title: Two Acorn Woodpecker Face Off Over A Perch

Goal: My goal was to capture Acorn Woodpecker behavior. While hiking at the Stanford Dish trail, I noticed several Acorn Woodpecker granary trees and groups of Acorn Woodpecker flying around. The next time I went there I brought my cart with my 600 mm lens to try to photograph them as the trailhead was a fair bit away. Too far to lug my tripod and camera over my shoulder as I used to do in my younger days.

Unfortunately, these trees granary trees were very tall, and there were several of them. If I staked out one of them, the acorn woodpecker would favor the other trees. Even though, I am normally a very patience person; it one of my best personality traits. I felt frustrated and thought this is not working well photographically. While waiting I thought, maybe, I should bring my portable blind next time, and other thoughts of camouflage ran through my mind.

I was next to the hiking and running trail, so people would look at my large lens and some would comment how big it was, a typical remark. What was I doing questions came to me from some of the passersby too. Once particular observant walker told me that the Acorn Woodpeckers were lining up on a fence just up the trail. He said there was a water trough just on the other side of the fence. Immediately, I got excited about the prospects of getting some good behavioral images.

Technique: As I canvased the area and the situation, I realized that the Acorn Woodpeckers would land on the fence line before head down to the water trough behind the fence to drink. The light was behind me, setting in the west, throwing its beautiful late evening light on the woodpeckers.

My technique was to pre-focus on these fence post-landing areas. There were the traditional metal posts and a couple of telephone-type posts used for perches. I preferred the telephone post, as one was strategically placed right in front of the water trough. The water trough was away from trees in the middle of a grassy field. The only trees were right and left of the water trough but at least thirty to forty yards away. I noticed that the woodpeckers would stage in the trees and then fly out to the posts, land, and then fly down to the water trough.

Therefore, I could see them coming into this particular post. It seemed to be favored by them. I pull out my remote cord from my camera vest and would fire a bunch of images off when I could see that they were heading to this particular telephone pole perch. I would not even look through my lens as I fire off a burst. Many of the images were blank, as I started this series before they came into my lens view. Occasionally, they would bypass this particular post I was pre-focused on, and I would get nothing. Also, sometimes, I would be late with my sequence, and the Acorn Woodpecker would already be perched on the post or caught half out of the image. This wasn’t all bad, for it seemed like a territorial issue for them because they would sweep by and try to chase or bluff off the one already occupying the perch.

Using this technique, finally, I got some captures of the conflict. This particular one showed the dramatic engagement of one swooping in on the one trying to defend his perch position. This was the decisive moment as their eye contacted and wing positions strengthen the story of their behavior.

Yes, the telephone pole perched shows the hand of man, but in this case, the Acorn Woodpeckers use this perch and have incorporated into their natural behavior.

Processing: In order increase my chances to capture their behavior, I was pretty far back and the woodpeckers were pretty small in the frame. This helped with the depth of field, but lessen the impact of the woodpeckers themselves. I cropped more than usual. Then, I upscaled the image in Photoshop back to the original size, and then, made my small web jpeg files from the upsized image. The frontal lightning was so good, and because I used a tripod with a remote cord.  My original capture file was sharp, clean, with lots of detail. I didn’t lose much detail or sharpness with this upscale.  I also think that my fast shutter speed of 1/3200 sec really helped freeze the blink of an eye action.

I lighten the underwing on the approaching Acorn Woodpecker a bit with Viveza. I also intentionally chose a non-sky background, a non-distracting brown field rather than the blue sky.

Equipment/Source: Canon 7D Mark II body, EF600mm f4.0 lens with a 1.4 teleconverter III, 1/3200 sec at f7.1, ISO 1000, Aperture Priority, Pattern Metering.

Here is my response to the moderators and other group members’ critiques. One consistent comment was about the composition and the extra space above and below the Acorn Woodpeckers. The moderator pointed out that the one side of the post was a bit bright, and drawing the viewers’ focus to it and away from the subject. Afterward, I revised my image based on their comments. I think I improved the visual impact and overall aesthetics of the image. What do you think?

Hello Moderator and Study Group Members, 

Thank you for your comments on my December image of the “Two Acorn Woodpeckers Fighting Over A Perch”. I agree with your suggestion to darken the right side of the post perch. I am surprised I did not see this; I am usually very perceptive in seeing lighter areas that draw the eye.

I cropped the original capture quite a bit, that’s why I was reluctant to even reduce the image file further in order to make the birds larger in the frame.  At the time of processing, I was a little uncomfortable with the composition, yet I didn’t see a better one. Sometimes I get tied to the 2 x 3 format too much.

Therefore, I went back and took Fran’s suggestion and made a square format for the capture, and also darken the right side of the post. I think these changes improve composition and the overall impact.  

To Butch’s comment and question about the focus wandering, I primarily used AF focus and sometimes will tweak it manually. The second time I was there when I took this image I did bring my cable release. Thus, I did pre-focus on the top of the pole and wasn’t even looking through my lens. I was tracking the birds with my eye, starting my burst when the one Woodpecker was little ways away in its flight to the post. I have found this technique works well with a repeatable landing spot.

Also, I use rear button focus practically all the time unless the situation specifically calls for shutter button focus. This separates the shooting function from the focusing function and means I can focus on the eye of the bird, and then recompose for composition. Whereas with shutter button focusing when the bird changes position quickly it’s much harder to get the focus correct. The tendency also with focus button focusing is to have center subject compositions, rather than creating more dynamic off-centered subjects. Especially with bird photography, off-center subject placement so much easier with rear button focusing.

Two Acorn Woodpecker Face Off

 

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Reviewing Images

A Second and Third Look
Through Your Images

After a long trip to Africa or Alaska, where you have taken many images, and hopefully some specials ones. Upon first review, you go through your images and think you got all the best ones marked out. Sometimes you are so excited you potentially could miss an image that’s really a star. One of the best ones of your trip.

Bald Eagle In Flight
Bald Eagle In Flight

I actually flagged this one and rated it, but never did anything with it until now. Sometime a second pass, or a third pass through your images after a reflective period of time gives you some gems out of rough stones that are most of your raw captures.

This image is one of my best Bald eagle in flight images. I would not have recognized it as a jewel, if I did not go through my 2014 Alaska trip images a second and a third time.

Also, with the advance in post-processing techniques, sometimes an image doesn’t appear at first glance to be something that can be truly great. Now, I look at raw files from the point of view of what is possible and how I can make the image closer to what I saw at the moment of capture.

So it pays sometimes not to give up on an image, and to keep your raw files instead of permanently deleting them.

With storage so cheap, you can keep the rejects as long as you want. One of my friends, use to laugh at me for keeping all my slides, even the ones that were a bit blurry. She would be laughing at me now as well.

Here though I found an image that I really like. One that I could have easily deleted and been gone forever. With technology forever changing and getting better, it pays not to be too hasty in deleting images.

I am going to get a scanner soon, and scan some of my old slides, ones that have the prospects and could become great with a little post-processing miracle.

I just can hear my friend saying, “yeah, really” to this, knowing that I probably never will. We will see…

Selecting A Winning Photograph

Ghost Boat, A Retrospective On The Past
Ghost Boat, A Retrospective On The Past

ANALYSIS CRITERIA

IMPACT —————COMPOSITION—————-TECHNIQUES

IMPACT — GETTING THE ATTENTION OF YOUR VIEWER

  1. COLOR — Appealing Color Palette
  2. SHAPES — Varied Size and Shape
  3. MOOD — Exposure To Match Mood
  4. STORY APPEAL — Clear Storyline
  5. CUTE APPEAL — Watch Out for Cliche
  6. ORIGINALITY — Don’t Copy Style

COMPOSITION — HOLDING THE INTEREST OF YOUR VIEWER

  1. Strong Leading Lines
  2. No Distracting Bright Areas
  3. Uncluttered Image
  4. One Prominent Subject (Ken, used to use the phrase, “Queen of Spades”, when he judged) I use the phase “Queen of Hearts”
  5. All Elements Directing Inward

TECHNIQUES — APPROPRIATE TECHNIQUE FOR IMAGE

  1. Professional Detailing — Touch-up, ETC
  2. Sharp & Diffused Areas Defined
  3. Perfect Exposure for Mood and Lighting
  4. Care in Use of Proper Filters
  5. Care in Use of Photo Manipulation
  6. Good Choice of Lens
  7. Mask (Crop) or Duplicate To Change Format

*By Ken Eugene
10-25-92

Remembering Ken Eugene

*Ken Eugene was a longtime photographer and member of Peninsula Camera Club, and saw service in WWII. The club’s award, the Parks-Eugene Service Award, for outstanding contributions and excellent service to the club is named for him. I won this award in 2000, and I have one of Ken’s sailing images frame for my contribution to PCC, gracing my walls of my apartment. In remembrance of him, I have included two of my images taken during the America’s Cup competition in San Francisco, during August 2013.

Artemis America's Cup Boat Makes An Extreme Turn In Front of Alcatraz
Artemis America’s Cup Boat Makes An Extreme Turn In Front of Alcatraz

Here is more information about Ken and his life from long time PCC member Lois Shouse.

Ken was an avid Sailor and served crew on sailing ships like the ones that competed in the recent S.F. races (the older sailboat version, not the catamaran type). He had many talents. He created parts for camera equipment – attachments to tri-pods, quick releases, etc. He was always willing to share his knowledge freely and help other photographers. He was always ahead of the times in what he was trying in photography. He was doing adjustments to slides before Photoshop came along, but he took to it like a duck to water. Ken taught Photography free at Little House in Menlo Park for years. He was always willing to give of his time to share his love of photography with others. He was truly worthy of having the Peninsula Camera Club honor him by adding his name to our Service Award. He served the club for about 20 years, and was a mainstay of our social and field trip life.

 

Selective Focus

Selective Focus

A camera’s vision is not quite like ours. As a photographer you need to see the world as a camera see it. One of the differences is that the eye focuses constantly, and we see everything in focus from near too far. With a small aperture selection like f22 and a wide-angle lens, you can almost get the focus of the human eye, where everything is sharp and in focus. This focusing is good for landscape photography, where you usually want to see all elements of an image sharp from foreground to background.

Another way is to use selective focus: emphasizing a particular part of an image, making the subject of the image stand out; singing its visual song. This is a powerful technique to draw the viewer’s eye to the subject, where the photographer wants the viewer’s eye to go. The eye is drawn to the sharp focused subject surrounded by the blur area containing the rest of the image. This seeing is as the camera sees not as the human eye sees. Controlling the aperture size is the key to controlling the depth of field and selecting the focus area–what’s sharp and not sharp within the image.

Here is an example of selective focus; I entered this image in my camera club recently. This cheetah image was taken at the San Diego Wild Animal Park.

I did not use a small aperture like f22 to render the whole portrait of the cheetah sharp. I used instead an aperture of f5.6, so my depth of field with my 600 mm lens and with 1.4 tele converter was shallow, leaving the neck and parts of the shoulder slightly soft. This makes the alert cheetah’s face and eyes seem very sharp, more so because the rest of the body is slightly soft. The story and impact of the image is the face, the alert expression, and those penetrating eyes. Penetrating eyes that look into the soul of the animal! With selective focus, these features are emphasized to the viewer. Subtle in its effect, but nonetheless greatly contributes to the overall success of the image.

Also, it should be noted that this image was taken after sunset late in the evening, so I needed to use a large aperture and a high ISO of 800, just to obtain the proper exposure… My camera was on a tripod and with the animal not moving; I had a choice of using a sharper aperture, and slower shutter speed. My goal for the image was to focus on the face and the great intense stare. Choosing an aperture with a small and shallower depth of field gave me the critical focus on the face, very slightly blurring the neck and shoulders, making the face really stand out and sing.

Why not make the neck blurrier? That would make the face stand out more. I think if you did that; it would make a face on a blurry body (a post it or cut out look), and the blurriness would attract the eye and away from the face you want the viewer to see. A completely burly neck doesn’t work well for this type of animal portrait.

Why not make the image completely sharp? Well, yes, for a nature interpretation, you might want a completely sharp image. I believe this makes the image more a record shot, rather than an artistic presentation.

This selective focus technique is used a lot in macro photography, flower photography, and many other types of image making as well. The uses are endless, so make sure you apply this technique to your photography.

PS: This image won best of show at my camera club’s week night competition…

Procedure To Darken Or Lighten Areas Within An Image

Procedure to Darken or Lighten Areas within an Image

By Bruce Finocchio

(Dodging and Burning Tip For Photoshop)

  1. Open Image Within Photoshop
  2. Hold Down Alt Key while clicking on New Layer Icon in Layers Palette
  3. Within New Layer Dialog Box Select Soft Light or Overlay Mode
  4. Check the Fill With Overlay or Soft Light Neutral Color 50% Gray Box, this will create a new layer filled with 50% Gray in the Layers palette
  5. Set Foreground Color: Black to Darken, White to Lighten (To switch from black to white or back, click the little rotating arrow on the top left of the black and white color box in the tool palette)
  6. Select Brush Tool, and size and type depending on area to dodge and burn (Use keyboard shortcut: open “[” bracket to decrease brush size, and close bracket “]” to increase brush size)
  7. Change Brush Opacity to 10 to 20, the sets the strength effect; these are general settings and can use more or less if desired (The lower opacity setting the lesser the effect)
  8. Paint areas where change is needed, key is to be very subtle, don’t overdo
  9. Click on the Dodge and Burn (Gray Filled) Layer Eye Icon to Observe the Changes

Close up of Original image without any darkening or lightening adjustments.

Using the above procedure I lighten the iris of the eye and darkened the pupil for added contrast. I also lighten some of the face feathers around the eye. The effect is subtle but yet enhances the photo, making the eye dramatically stand out.
“After all, the eye is the light of life”.

(Original image After Post Processing)
What do you think?

  • This Procedure I learned from Tim Grey many years ago….