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

 

Advertisements

What Goes Into a Spectacular Wildlife Portrait?

What Goes into a Spectacular Wildlife Portrait?
(5 Essential Ingredients)

Gray Fox Portrait
Gray Fox Portrait

Subject:

A portrait without a great subject just doesn’t work; there is nothing to catch and hold the eye, nothing to draw and elicit emotions from the viewer.  Some would think a green lynx spider is a great subject, it can be, for spiders and insects strike a chord in some. Yet, sea otters who have a human baby like face, and other attractive animals especially cats and members of the dog family, are more popular subjects and really strike the emotional heart of humans. Young mammals have that “cute” factor that always touches people and produce that “ah” and “wow” response.  Many nature photographers capitalize on this reaction and develop much of their efforts in photographing the young of many mammal species.  Yet, I still believe that any wildlife subject photographed extremely well can be a great portrait.

Background:

How clean is the image? Are there distractions? Where does the eye go to? Whatever the subject is it cannot stand out or sing, unless the background is clear and clean. Ultimately, a complex and busy background will draw the viewer’s attention away from the subject itself. The background’s color, line, and content need to compliment the subject and add to the overall impact of the image, not detract from the subject. Sometimes the background is just as important as the subject.

Light:

Another significant factor is light. Light is the key to any successful image. A great image must have great light. For inherently, photography is essentially capturing light. Many types of light can be used in portrait making. Side lighting can be effective, and with human subjects, the use of flash gives the photographer lots of control over the overall quality of light. The classic Rembrandt technique with its two to one ratio give classic human portraits. Window lightening is also a very simple yet effective light source in the hands of a competent photographer. For outdoor wildlife portraits, my favorite light is diffused light: soft and not harsh, and rendering colors to their most vibrant essence. Not the thick gray clouds of rain, nor the dreary gray of fogging days, but just the thin clouds just obscuring the sun’s direct and bright light–a big giant softbox obscuring the sun.       

Life:

Another factor is the spirit of life. That twinkle in the eyes that reflect back the spirit and personality of the animal. Black and dull eyes mean lifeless eyes. Without good illumination, you have a stuffed animal look that doesn’t capture the mystery and wonder of life.  Eyes must be sharp in focus. As they say, eyes are windows to the soul!

Composition:

The final element is composition. Like a great painter, you must draw the observer in. Create a three dimension space from a two dimension medium. Diagonal lines are more powerful and less static than horizontal or vertical lines. Use s-curves, color, form, and texture to keep your viewer engaged. Study great art! The composition principals are the same in both mediums. Keep the composition simple, for simplicity clarifies the structure and purposes the image-maker intend. Whereas complexity visually clutters the eye and leaves a general disinterest and disappointment with the viewer. Great composition means a powerful impact that engages on an emotional and spiritual level. Hauntingly drawing the viewer back time and time again, to see with fresh eye once more.    

In summary, you need an interesting subject that sparkles with life and engages the viewer with its own unique personality.  Where all the elements contribute and enhance the subject. Keeping the background simple and clean lets the subject captivate the viewer and tugs at the strings of the heart. Photography is an evocative art. The making of a great portrait image is accomplished with distinct and interesting illumination and with a creative composition that ties in all the elements together.

Adding a little behavior could also enhance the overall impact, educating the viewer, providing a glimpse or window into the lives of these animals. Here for my example, a fox with a prey animal in its mouth. Yet other than serendipity, this requires lots of time in the field, much studying their behavior and patience and more patience. However, the reward could be outstanding, a portrait with behavior.   

Applying these ingredients over time, with practice and dedication, you will develop a style, and furthermore, your vision and unique way of seeing the world will come through in your images, in your body of work, and that’s the making of great art! 

Here is a particular wildlife portrait I really love. It’s one of my gray fox images taken at my beloved ramrod ranch from a photo blind. It’s just incredible to watch a wild gray fox come into drink not ten feet away from you. It’s a humbling and spiritual experience. I just love the diffused fall colors in the background. Especially, the diagonal flow of the top part and the subtle warm circular colors in the bottom left. Love also the expression of life in this young gray fox’s face. It’s so alive and alert… One of my best wildlife portraits!!!

This image was taken at the Ramrod Ranch where I offer bird blind photography each spring and fall. Not only do birds come to water, but so does many other animals like this beautiful gray fox.

For more information click the link below:
https://dreamcatcherimages.net/bird-blind-workshops-at-the-ramrod-ranch/

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.