BY ROB COTTLE
You may have had the dubious pleasure of seeing the macro magician @geraintradfordmacro and I taking over the Olympus Instagram stories on Sunday 6th September and if you pop on over, there we will be, up on the highlights section (along with some from the past, worryingly).
We had our usual intense, tough and difficult day, oh okay it was a giggle filled stroll mixed in with photography, just how it should be. There’s not enough text space on Instagram to explain the techniques and ideas behind the shots and I have a tendency to forget to elucidate anyway, so I thought it would be nice to take you on a virtual Sunday stroll and go a little further into detail. During our virtual walk together, you can be my virtual Geraint. Imagine if you will, that you are wearing a rather fetching shirt, sleeves rolled up to show off your damselfly tattoo and your pockets are overflowing with bourbons. As Aerosmith once sagely sang, ‘walk this way’.
Ideally the first and last hours of the day are best for capturing nature as the light is warmer, lower and more directional but Geraint refused to get up! Luckily for him he didn’t have to feel my wrath (it’s not pleasant) as the South Wales weather was true to form and was cloudy anyway! Still, this gave us the opportunity to show that even when the light may not be on your side there are still a multitude of ideas and interesting shots to be had no matter what time of day, either by using, excluding or ignoring it.
Besides Grrrr, my constant companion throughout the day was the OM-D E-M1 Mark III with the M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 100‑400mm F5.0‑6.3 IS attached. Limiting yourself to one lens doesn’t need to restrict your creative juices flowing and it was great fun capturing everything from portraits to close-ups, this lens didn’t let me down, super versatile.
From White to Black
A visit to the lakes wouldn’t be the same without a paddle, so the Darth Waders were donned and promptly dunked in the tropical Welsh water. An effective but fairly easy technique I’ve been asked about is the spot lit image that is predominantly dark with a highlighted subject. This works very well on anything that is light or has light patches and especially on something like a beautiful mute swan, which fortunately enough I had in front of me.
Why the waders you ask? Besides having a rubber fetish, it’s all about getting low, your image will engage more with your subject and the lower you are, the background will become more of your backdrop. At these lakes the banks are quite steep, almost impossible to get low enough and I also like to work with the camera in my hand. Spending time with these magnificent creatures at close quarters is an extra huge bonus too. You don’t have to be daft enough to submerge yourself, you can still lay on the floor as best as you can or use the flippy screen which works brilliantly in combination with the fantastic stabilisation. You can also use your camera on a tripod with a remote or even the OI Share app where you can see your subject in real time. Another option I’ve seen used is the use of a monopod to hold the camera upside down and use a trigger of some sort. Some are lucky enough to work at reservoirs or water courses which are even above the eyeline, *add your chosen swearword here!
As I mentioned earlier, this is something that works much better in the first or last hours of the day when the sun is more directional. Because it’s a little later than ideal, you can see the tentacle like ways of the sneaky sun just reaching the background on this image. I could have processed it out but it’s more fun to return and try again but at the right time of day. Look to stand where the subject will be lit by sidelight against a reasonably dark and muted background (although you may be surprised what will turn dark where the light doesn’t reach). If you use conventional light over your shoulder methods, the subject will of course be lit from the front and it follows that so will the background which we don’t want. Carrying out just a small amount of research will pay dividends so, have a look at the Photographers Ephemeris on the web (or app) or PhotoPills app and check the angle of the sun. I will be honest, a lot of this knowledge came from trial and error and making mistakes, so working close to home is very important and persevere.
Less is More
The background dropping to darkness is a by-product of correctly exposing for the swan, it massively under exposes. Exposing correctly for the swan’s beautiful feathers will require around a -3/4EV exposure compensation but there is no such thing as a pre-set in photography, so keep trying until it looks right. I use manual mode but you can easily use aperture priority and use exposure compensation taking care not to burn the highlights. Funnily enough, your choice of setting doesn’t really matter much and you could even take this in programme mode with exposure compensation. I’m using the widest aperture (the small numbers) to achieve enough shutter speed to avoid a blurred subject, although there’s nothing wrong with a blurred subject either if that’s your bag. My focus point is on the eye/head and at this distance will render the swan totally in focus although if the head’s in focus and not the body, that’s fine too.
Clicker Bokeh Glory
Both Geraint and myself had a go at capturing bokeh that was shining up from the lakes surface like a sunken pirate’s treasure chest and as luck would have it, an immature Lesser-Black backed gull brazenly threw some shapes in front of it. This time, although I’m lying on the floor (probably in something I shouldn’t be!), I am a smidgeon higher than normal, at a slight angle above the gull’s head to pick up the bokeh off the water surface. Looking through the WYSIWYG EVF makes composing something like this much easier to do and it’s just a case of just moving around in various positions to find something you like. Once again you want to be at a wide-open aperture, which will render the gull in focus but the water surface out of focus which is how the bokeh will show off its Sunday best. It’s practically impossible not to burn out some of the highlights but you can limit it to some degree. I raised the shadows in processing a little, on the head only, you don’t want to make it obvious and reduced the highlights.
Making a Beeline for Me
Next, we were off into the woods and meadows to search for bugs, flutterbies, leaf hoppers, maybe an elf and other size challenged beings. As Geraint was having all the fun I felt left out so, not wanting him to see me crying I thought it best to try and find something suitably diddy to use the 100-400mm’s close focussing ability on. This bee was doing bee like things on a planty thing (yes you are correct, no idea what it is) and by climbing up on tippy toes to a towering 5’ 9” I was able to capture it by rocking slightly back and for until this ace pollinator was in focus, just like using a macro lens. As I was waiting for the sun to stop playing hide and seek with the clouds and wobbling a bit (probably from vertigo at this height), I tried multiple shots. This is a perfect example of how little depth of field there is when working at a close distance and is something to be mindful of. People bang on about micro-four thirds having too much depth of field but we/they forget the basic rule, the closer you are to your subject, the less depth of field you have and this lens, like much of the range, can focus incredibly closely.
It was around this time we returned to the socially distanced café for a coffee (I think they should call it that from now on, sounds like a bistro for left wing people with long arms). Okay I’m going to admit it now, we returned multiple times before heading once more to the lakes, this time on the other side, making use of the afternoon sun position.
Whilst Geraint was getting engrossed in a bit of ‘slowmo’ (I don’t think it’s against the law yet) I thought some close-up detail capturing was in order and as luck would have it, a mute swan swam over to say hi. I find the mute swan an endless treasure trove of possibilities and there is always something new to discover. This swan was very chilled and promptly started preening, so I knew I could get reasonably close if I moved in when it was busy plumping up its feathers. By honing in on detail you can exclude or use the bright sun making it a good idea to use for the main part of the day. This is a very similar technique to the first image however this is now about exposing for the foot/web (and amazingly what looks like fingernails!). Be careful with your exposure though because even though the foot is black you will still have bright highlights. There’s no great technique to this except using your EVF to look for shapes, angles and detail that look good as a composition. Shutter speed was simply enough to capture the foot sharp and the aperture was once again wide open to achieve this. Being this close there isn’t a great deal of depth of field as I mentioned earlier but by being parallel to your subject if you can will keep everything in focus.
Geraint was still off with the fairies (probably in ‘slowmo’ not sure what part of Wales that’s in?) so as immature Lesser Black-backed gulls were flying right in front of me (so immature they were sticking their tongues out at us), I thought it a good opportunity to test my BIF credentials. These gulls are not the speediest, which was handy as the sun was just settling down for a light nap but a reasonable shutter speed is still optimum, so by upping ISO to 1600, gave me a doable 1/800s.
Ideally with BIF you would like as high a shutter speed as possible however I am more than happy with blur in my images as long as the head is sharp (unless you are going all arty on me and then all bets are off, do what you want, in fact just do what you want anyway as there are no photograph police, only people who have nothing better to do than be unkind!). I was in continuous shooting and auto-focus mode, using the 9-point focus array positioned just a little over the half way mark and aimed for the gull’s head.
Any more than 9 point and you will more and likely catch the background instead. If the bird was happily gliding in a cloudless sky you could simply use all points and let the camera do the heavy lifting. Keeping the body grounded and swaying my hips like a 60’s go-go dancer (look it up kids), I smoothly rotated from one direction to the other as the bird started it’s flypast whilst pressing the shutter button. Keep on shooting until it just passes by but don’t shoot too long after, as a bird’s bum is still a bird’s bum and an image from behind very rarely works.
A beautiful sunset, almost autumnal found us bathing almost Zen like in the orangey serenity of the scene before we were rudely shaken out of our slovenly like ways with the realisation that the last rays of light could still be milked like a photographic cow (which is vegan of course). If you haven’t enough light try something different, you have nothing to lose and besides it’s fun trying.
Even when the light was being extinguished by the night, we carried on looking for opportunities. I tried a couple of ideas;
Let Sleeping Swans Lie
One was to pick out the white of the resting mute swan in the last of the serene evening light, almost full circle from the mornings shoot. There wasn’t a great deal of light to be had but enough to make the swan shine out of the gloom and in exposing for the swan, the two horizontal light patterns behind found themselves being thrust into the spotlight, highlighted like a snail’s trail on a black carpet.
Ghosts of the Lakes
The other was to try slow shutter speeds. I really enjoy this aspect of wildlife photography as it can create such a unique image. It’s very hard to recreate something like this and that can’t be a bad thing in a world saturated in images. I’m sure I don’t really need to say this but I am anyway, as we are down to the light dregs, have your aperture wide open to gain as much shutter speed as possible, in this case barely registering and use your ISO to have the shutter speed as fast as you want it. Remember you are not trying to capture a sharp image, just one you are happy with. This lone mute swan was being harassed by another (something to do with image rights on boxes of matches) and I simply panned as the swan legged it (winged it?) using the same technique as for the BIF however this time I used a single focus point on the head.
So inevitably the night became impatient and told the day to buzz off and that was our cue to vacate the lakes. Which is also a good point end this weighty tome and leaves me just to thank all of you who join in on these take overs, for your questions (we want more), comments and japery.
Hope to see you soon, take care and be kind.