Lake Kerkini Wildlife Photography Workshops

Very successful day today where we ventured into the Lake Delta on foot.. and were rewarded with fantastic views and photos of Eagle Owl (Bubo Bubo), Little Owl (Athene Noctua) and a Wildcat as the evening drew in and we were or our way back...

Hope you can join us soon on one of our courses... next course is in just a few weeks end of January into February again at Lake Kerkini... 3 day Dalmatian Pelicans special.. and there are still spaces available..!

Photography Tutorial - Exposure Scenarios

After a very busy few months over the summer I finally found some time to get to my computer to write this up... my apologies for taking so long to come back to this... so following on from the last tutorial here are a few scenarios to illustrate camera settings..

situation 1 - a landscape

Ideally we would want to have as much of the scene in sharp focus.. from right in front of us to way off on the horizon... and to do this we would generally need an f.stop (aperture) of f8.0 or more (preferably more).. a low ISO to retain as much detail as possible and our shutter speed is last in our order of priorities... so it can be set to pretty much anything (as long as we have a tripod to put the camera on !)

So for this photo of  Wastwater in the Lake District my settings were as follows:

ISO:   100

aperture:  f/16.0

shutter speed: 30 secs (with 10stop ND filter)

..this has created the effect of movement in the stream, clouds and trees but everything not moving is pin sharp from the rocks in the foreground to the lake and valley in the distance.

 

 Wastwater in the Lake District photographed as part of a landscape photography tutorial by George S Blonsky

situation 2 - action - bird flying overhead

In most situations where you are photographing a bird flying high above you, you will inevitably be shooting against a bright sky.. whether sunny or cloudy in most instances the bird in question will be silhouetted. In these instances it's no good letting the camera do the exposing as your shots will inevitably be under-exposed and the bird will be nothing but a dark shadow...  so you definitely need to either expose manually or add in some exposure compensation if shooting in either aperture or shutter priority.

So what are the considerations here.. firstly it is a moving subject so shutter speed will be a priority.. depending on the light conditions our ISO will also play an important role and our aperture is also important as a moving object high up in the sky is a challenge for focussing...lots to consider.! the lens we are shooting on also comes into play here as the longer the focal length of a lens we use then the shallower the depth of field we can achieve at any given aperture.. to illustrate, here's a shot of Short-toed eagle I recently took on one of our wildlife photography workshops in Greece using a 300mm lens with a 1.4x extender...

 short-toed eagle photographed during wildlife and bird photography workshop in Lake Kerkini Greece

...as you can see, the eagle is well exposed against the bright sky.. beak, eyes and leading wing edge are all sharp though the focus is staring to fall off at the bird's tail.. settings for this shot were:

ISO:   400

aperture:  f/8.0

shutter speed: 2500/sec 

I needed a fast shutter speed to freeze the movement and reduce any potential camera shake (hand holding a heavy camera + long lens is never easy!) but also a good depth of field to ensure eyes, beak and breast would be sharp.. hence my choice of a mid ISO of 400 

 Just a small aside.. in regard to photographing birds of prey... which are usually circling way up above our heads... whilst it's fine to try and get a couple of shots to help us id the bird.. please please don't waste your time shooting hundreds of pictures rapid fire when the bird is miles above your heads... the shots will never be good enough for printing, will lack any trace of artistic merit and will only add to the time spent editing.. for absolutely no reason whatsoever, Trust me... it is a pointless excercise.. a few shots to help in identifying the bird is all you need and you will save yourself a whole lot of editing time.

 

scenario 3 - a portrait 

The key to creating portraits with some impact is to separate your subject from the background.. this is easy if the background is a clear blue sky or some other plain background but becomes harder if the background is busy.  

The main tool at our disposal to achieve this is to be able to throw the background out of focus... and the way we achieve this is to open up our aperture as wide as we can so as to concentrate focus on our subjects eyes.  

It's also important to note, as I mentioned above.. that the lens on which we are shooting plays a very important role when it comes to depth of field because the longer the focal length of our lens then the shallower the depth of field..

for example... if you are taking a portrait of a bird perched on a branch on a 400mm lens, opening up to f/2.8 and focussing on the bird's eyes could mean the eyes are nice and sharp but its beak tip and breast could be out of focus.. not what we want at all.. so in other words you have to also learn (by shooting lots..!) the capabilities of any particular lens in your arsenal at different apertures... and taking a photo of that bird at f/8.0 on the 400mm could give you the shallow depth of field and blurred background you desire but still retain focus from eyes to beak to breast.

By way of illustration take a look at the following images... 

The Little Owl was photographed on my 300mm + 1.4 extender (giving an equivalent focal length of 420mm) at:

ISO:   400

aperture:  f/8.0

shutter speed: 500/sec

 

 little owl, athena noctua, photographed during wildlife and bird photography workshop and tour of Lake Kerkini in Greece

The eyes, beak breast, talons and the wall edge are all pretty much on the same plane and in focus and yet even at f/8.0 the focus falls off sharply just a few inches further back at the top of his head and at his tail.. note though the nice blurred background which isolates the owl and lets him stand out despite being relatively small in the frame.

 

The Dalmatian Pelican was photographed on my 300mm without the 1.4 extender at:

ISO:   400

aperture:  f/4.0

shutter speed: 1000/sec

 Dalmatian Pelican photographed during 7 day wildlife and bird photography workshop and tour of Lake Kerkini in Greece

The eyes, beak (which is much longer than our little owl's above) and breast are not at all on the same plane and yet all are sharp and at a much wider aperture than for the owl shot... all down to the increase in relative depth of field created by removing the 1.4 extender and making the lens' focal length shorter by 120mm... again the background drifts off out of focus isolating our subject making him stand out.

 

I hope the above examples will be of some help.. let me know if you want me to clarify anything and I'll get back to you either in person or in a follow up post.

g

 

Photography Workshops Tutorial - Setting Exposure

Following on from my previous post where we talked about the parameters controlling an exposure... the immediate question that arises is.. ok.. so now I know aperture controls depth of field, shutter speed controls movement, and ISO the sensitivity of the film/sensor... how do I know at what to set each of these in any given situation..?

The answer is not an easy one to give because of the millions of variables that exist both in subject matter and light conditions... but setting aside for a moment any “artistic” requirements... and assuming we just want a “correct” exposure.. ie.. an even balance between highlights, mid-tones and shadows.. the question becomes a little easier to answer... and once we can get our heads around that... then we can start down the “artistic” effect road..

The first decision we have to make in any situation is what to set our ISO to... remembering our previous discussion..

lower ISO = lower sensitivity to light but better quality/detail, and

higher ISO = higher sensitivity to light but lower quality/detail...  

The next decision (at what to set aperture & shutter speed) is governed by the subject matter we are shooting... let me try to simplify this completely for you into 3 basic categories... 

  • landscapes
  • portraits
  • action

There are of course many other categories of shot, but for the purposes of this tutorial I will use the above 3 to illustrate the decision making process for exposure settings... and you can then transfer that on to all the other situations...

Landscapes - are for the most part static (some exceptions being.. water, clouds, trees in wind etc.... but more on that in a follow up post) and for the most part we would also want the maximum possible depth of field, ie from foreground to horizon in sharp focus.. so following our ISO decision... we need to decide at what to set our Aperture to as priority over shutter speed;

 The Meteora photographed during landscape photography workshop with george s blonsky in Greece

 Portraits - are almost static and for the most part we want the minimum depth of field to focus viewers attention on the eyes of our subject... so again following on from our ISO decision... we need to decide at what to set our Aperture to as priority over shutter speed;

 Portrait of a Russian Smoke Jumper taken on assignment covering the SIberian forest fires.

 Action - by definition is never static so no matter whether we wish to either freeze it or give some blur effect to show the movement, then following on from our ISO decision... we need to decide at what to set our Shutter Speed to as priority over aperture; 

 Little Bittern diving for prey photographed on one of our wildlife & bird photography workshops at Lake Kerkini

 So that basically defines our decision making process...

  • how much light is there?... set our ISO;
  • what is it that we’re shooting?... prioritize either shutter speed or Aperture, then set the other to balance;

To help us know at which f/stop to set our apertures or at which fraction of a second to set our shutter speeds at any given ISO... we can use any one of several tools at our disposal...

The first is a light meter.. a small handheld gadget that can read light levels and convert them into photo-speak for us.. ie.. we tell the gadget what ISO we’d like to shoot at and it tells us what to set our aperture and shutter speed to... and by changing any one of our 3 parameters it will immediately make the necessary calculations and adjust the other 2...

The second is the camera’s internal light meter which does almost the same as a handheld meter only it is more immediate as it is “in-camera” and any adjustments you make are therefore immediate..

Important note:        Whilst both of the above can be set to make:

weighted average” readings... an average reading over the entire scene in front of you,  

or,

 “spot” readings...reading of light on a particular part or point in the scene in front of you,

...the important difference to note between the above two is in the “kind” of light they both can read...!

...and it is important to understand that for the purposes of metering an exposure there are actually two types of light..! 

  • the first is called Incident Light... this is the light falling on to a subject direct from the source of that light;
  • the second is called Reflected Light... which, as the name implies, is the light being reflected by our subject;
lightgraph.jpg

The difference between a handheld meter and the camera’s built in meter is that the handheld can read both Incident & Reflected Light but the camera will only read Reflected light... and as a rule... Incident Light readings are always more accurate.

The third tool, and by a long way the most commonly used tool.. is our digital camera’s back screen... ie.. we guestimate an exposure.. take a shot.. look at the little screen and make adjustments accordingly... by far and away the least accurate method of shooting... unless you also go to the effort of pressing the “info” button.. if your camera has one... and examining the histogram.. which you also have to know how to read. It is a useful tool though to help you know you’re on the right track but shouldn’t necessarily be relied upon..

The fourth tool... is yourself... the more you shoot and the more you shoot in different conditions and the more you shoot different subjects.. the greater your knowledge will become and you will find yourself setting exposures automatically.

There are also a few little tricks such as “the sunny 16 rule”... which states that... on a bright sunny day... at any given ISO... at f/16... your shutter speed should be equal to (or near to) your ISO... and you’ll get as near as damn it an accurate exposure... 

eg. at ISO 200 at f/16 your shutter speed should be 200 or 250th /second... and you can make adjustments from there to suit your subject... so if you wanted to shoot at f/5.6 you’d re-adjust your shutter speed also by 3 stops up to 2000th/second...

In the same way as for the sunny 16 rule you can also set your exposures as the nearest reciprocal of the ISO and aperture according to the following table which you might find useful to print out and have in your pocket...

Aperture                       Lighting Conditions                  Shadow Detail

f/22                               Snow/Sand                               Dark with sharp edges

f/16                                Sunny                                      Distinct

f/11                                 Slight Overcast                        Soft around edges

f/8                                 Overcast                                  Barely visible

f/5.6                              Heavy Overcast                        No shadows

f/4                                 Open Shade/Sunset                 No shadows

So having gotten our heads around the decision making process in setting our exposures we need to learn which apertures, shutter speeds and ISOs will give us the effects we desire to achieve for our images...

...what aperture will throw the background out of focus enough to give us a nice portrait... or keep enough depth of field to have from near-ground to horizon in focus? what shutter speed will freeze a bird in flight.. or blur the movement of a river..? what ISO do we set for for a sunrise.. or for photographing a small bird under a dark canopy of trees..?

All good questions..!  and I’ll set up a few scenarios to illustrate in my next post....

Happy shooting... and if you have any questions please feel free to leave a comment or send an email and I’ll do my best to answer it for you...

g

Photography Workshops - Exposure

The word photography is derived from the Greek φῶς (pronounced.. phóss) or in its genitive form.. φωτός (pronounced.. photóss) meaning "light" and... γραφή (pronounced.. graphí) meaning "drawing", which when taken together is literally... "drawing with light".

Amazingly enough, since its beginnings over 175 years ago, the principles of photography have remained unchanged.. namely the capture of light onto a light sensitive material... and in particular the 3 controlling parameters available to achieve that capture have also remained the same... those being, the level of sensitivity of the light sensitive material, the aperture of the lens through which that light is both directed and focussed and the speed of the shutter which opens to expose that light onto the light sensitive material.

So, what is a correct exposure? As most photographers and teachers of photography will tell you... the correct exposure is the one that achieves the image the photographer had intended... a little bit of a "cop-out" answer but also true nonetheless.

Technically however there is another answer... both photographic film and digital sensors are physically restricted in their ability to record light. This spectrum of recordable light is known as the dynamic range of the film/sensor and therefore any light values which fall out of that range are recorded as "black" (under-exposed) or "white" (over-exposed)...  meaning that strictly speaking a correct exposure is one where the balance of light between the lightest and darkest parts of an image is even.

In reality however, there are many light conditions where the difference between highlight and shadow light values may be larger than the ratio between the maximum and minimum values of the film's/sensor's dynamic range...  In this case, adjusting the camera's exposure settings only allows a choice between underexposed shadows or overexposed highlights as it cannot bring both into the dynamic range at the same time... so what to do and how do we as photographers get around this.?

Some examples of options available to us are.. using flash or reflectors to provide "fill" light to increase illumination to shadow areas or using filters which can reduce the amount of light emanating from highlight areas; we can also employ HDR (High Dynamic Range) techniques whereby we "bracket" exposures (ie. take separate pictures exposing in each in turn for highlights. mid-tones and shadows) and then combine the images in post production to create perfectly evenly exposed images... but more on these and other techniques later.

To achieve all of this however, we first have to get our heads around the 3 elements at our disposal to create an exposure... ISO, aperture and shutter-speed, what aspect of the image they control or affect and how they relate to each other...

ISO

ISO stands for International Standards Organization and is an internationally agreed upon scale of measurement of the sensitivity to light of film or nowadays, digital sensors. In film, the light sensitive material is SIlver Halide which is in the form of crystals embedded in a gelatin emulsion. The size of the crystals embedded within the emulsion governs the sensitivity to light, so that tiny fine crystals with a small surface area consequentially have low sensitivity to light (low ISO) but can create finely detailed images and large crystals with a bigger surface area are more sensitive to light (high ISO) but consequentially cannot create as finely detailed images.

The same principle is true for modern digital sensors whereby a low ISO rating will be a lot less sensitive to light but create beautifully detailed images and a high ISO rating will be more sensitive to light but create less detailed "noisy" images.

The dilemma for us as photographers is balancing our need for quality/detail i.e.. keeping as low as possible an ISO rating, which will allow us to shoot at the shutter speed or aperture we need to in order to photograph whatever it is we're shooting... in the light conditions that are prevailing at that moment.

 Night Heron photographed at dawn on one of our landscape and wildlife photography workshops at Lake Kerkini

 APERTURE

The aperture or "f-stop" is probably the greatest source of confusion amongst photographers.. both beginner and professional..! 

The aperture is basically the size of the hole in the lens through which light is directed and focussed on to the film/sensor to make a photograph. It is a diaphragm made of very thin interlocking blades which can be closed down to make a tiny hole or opened up to make a large hole. The size of the hole controls the amount of light that is allowed through the lens to hit the film/sensor... and most importantly it governs what we call the "depth of field". Depth of Field is basically how much of an image is sharp from the foreground to the horizon.

A large aperture (big hole) such as f/2.8 has a very shallow depth of field.. meaning that only a small part of the image will be in focus;

A small aperture (small hole) such as f/22 has a very deep depth of field... meaning that a large part of the image will be in focus;

HOWEVER..! It is not just the aperture that has an affect on the depth of field... a very important consideration is the Focal Length of the lens;

i.e.. its angle of view.. ranging from super wide fish-eye lenses at 8mm to very narrow super telephoto lenses at 600mm and even greater;

The human eye is considered to have a 50mm angle of view and in photography a lens of 50mm is considered to be "standard".. anything smaller is considered "wide" and anything longer "telephoto".. simple enough... BUT... the longer a lens gets both in its focal length and physical build... the longer it takes for light to travel through it at any given aperture.. logical enough.. that being so, f/2.8 will not be the same on a 14mm wide angle lens (which is 9cm long) as on a long 400mm telephoto lens (which is 35cm long)... in terms of depth of field this has the effect of shortening the area of focus the longer a lens gets.. so again using the f/2.8 example.. f/2.8 on a 14mm lens could give a depth of field from 3 feet in front of you to the horizon whereas f/2.8 on a 400mm lens could give you a depth of field of only 2cm forward and back of your point of focus..!

As mentioned above, aperture is measured in "f-stops" which typically number as follows... F/2.8  F/4  F/5.6  F/8  F/11  F/16  F/22

Each one of these increments is called a "whole" stop in exposure... in most modern DSLRs we can however use apertures in-between these whole stops.. usually numbered in thirds or half stop increments.

I think the reason most people become confused with apertures and f-stops is because the size of the aperture is not reflected by its number..

i.e..

a large aperture (big hole) has a small F number.. e.g.. F/2.8  

.....but......

a small aperture (small hole) has a large F number e.g.. F/32

It is useful to note that lenses are usually referred to by their widest possible aperture.. for example.. 24mm F/2.8 or 400mm F/4

You might also hear photographers talking about "fast" lenses... these are lenses which have a very wide maximum aperture for example f/1.4 or f/2.8... they are referred to as fast because the wider an aperture a lens can open up to, then the "faster" the light can pass through it to hit the sensor. 

Fast lenses are hugely more expensive but have many advantages.. the first and foremost being that you can shoot in lower light conditions and maintain a lower/better ISO to shoot at and/or maintain a higher shutter speed; secondly, the optics are larger and usually of better quality, and thirdly your view finder will appear much brighter making it easier to shoot and focus in low-light conditions.

 Mute swans photographed on Lake Kerkini during one of our wildlife and bird photography workshops and tours.

 SHUTTER SPEED

In order to "expose" the camera's film/sensor to the light we have a mechanical shutter that opens and closes to let the light in. The shutter speed is very simply the speed at which this shutter opens and closes again.

If the shutter opens for too long... too much light is let through and the image will be over-exposed (too bright)..

If the shutter is not open for long enough... not enough light is let through and the image will be under-exposed (too dark)..

The other main effect of shutter speed has to do with movement.. both of your subject, and of your hands holding the camera.

It is important to note that Aperture and Shutter Speed have a reciprocal relationship.. so that at any given ISO, changing one will affect the other.

Where the most important effect of aperture is in controlling how much of an image is in focus... the most important effect controlled by shutter speed is movement.. with fast shutter speeds freezing movement and slower ones blurring it.

From this relationship you can see that depending on what it is you will be shooting you have to prioritize one or the other... for a portrait you want to throw the back-ground out of focus to bring all the viewers attention to the subject, so your priority is to have a wide/large aperture to limit the depth of field.. if you wish to photograph a fast moving bird in flight you have to freeze the action and so your priority is to set a fast enough shutter speed to achieve this.

 Dalmatian Pelicans in flight over lake Kerkini photographed during one of our landscape, wildlife and bird photography workshops in Greece.

So there we have it... the 3 main parameters controlling our exposure... each of which has a direct and reciprocal relationship with the other, and each of which can be used as a creative tool to artistic effect in making our photos.

So now that we know what each of them is/does.. how do we know at what to set them in any given situation..? that... will be the subject of my next post in a few days... 

Hope of some help..

happy shooting,

g

Wildlife Photography - some ethical considerations

I'll be publishing more photography FAQ's soon.. but for the moment I thought I'd start a series of mini tutorials on wildlife photography.. with further series to come on Landscapes, Photo-Reportage, and Street photography..

Where to start..? I think in terms of wildlife photography, before we get into the technical and artistic aspects of the subject it would be useful to outline some ethical considerations first...

The nature of wildlife photography will in many instances put you in quite close proximity to wild animals and that in itself carries certain responsibilities which all photographers of wildlife should observe.. no matter how common or how rare... all animals deserve the same amount of respect and consideration in your approach to them.

Firstly, photographers should fully research their intended subject to gain better knowledge of behaviour and habits; this will not only aid in the photographic process and approach but will also ensure that disturbance is kept to a minimum;

Following on from the first point is that your photographic approach to your subject should in no way disturb or distress the animal in question.. especially if that approach is likely to increase the chances of the subject falling victim to predation or for it to fail in it's reproductive efforts.. this is especially true for photographing nesting birds where your presence could either lead to the parent birds abandoning their nest or for unwanted attention to be drawn to the nest by your presence leading to predation; Photography of nesting birds should only ever be undertaken if you have the necessary and specific knowledge of that bird's nesting behaviour or from such a distance so as not to worry the birds unduly.. at Lake Kerkini for example we are lucky enough to be able to photograph nesting cormorants and herons from boats and canoes from quite a close distance without worrying them unnecessarily as the birds have become accustomed to the fishermen's boats on the lake and do not become distressed as long as they keep a decent distance... the same may not be true at a different location so local knowledge should always be sought out and regardless... care should always be taken.

 Syrian Woodpecker photographed at its nest bringing a luscious grub to feed its baby; Image made during our summer wildlife and bird photography workshop at Lake Kerkini.

Syrian Woodpecker photographed at its nest bringing a luscious grub to feed its baby; Image made during our summer wildlife and bird photography workshop at Lake Kerkini.

 The same is true for the erection of hides... it is not that because it is made of camouflage material the animal will not notice it.. it is more a case of the animal becoming so used to its presence to the extent that it is not bothered by it... so it follows that the location you choose to erect a hide should not distress the animal in the first place and again should not draw unwanted attention either by predators or even in some instances by tourists. Your route to and from the hide should also be such that disturbance is absolutely minimal.

Baiting of wildlife for the purpose of photography is a controversial subject... being a little bit of a purist when it comes to photography, my own opinion is that I don't like it or approve of it and my feeling is that it goes against the principle of wildlife photography... supposedly we're out there trying to capture amazing images of animals in the wild behaving naturally.. baiting them.. for me.. goes against the grain. Having said that.. setting up a bird table in your garden to attract a few birds on which to practice your technique.. as long as you don't make them more vulnerable to the local cats.. is harmless enough.

As I mentioned above, seeking out local advice is always a good thing. Locals will not only know where local wildlife frequents, but will also be able to best advise you on your approach, on any hazards to avoid and on any local sensitive places which may not always be marked but may have a raised level of protection/conservation... in highly organized countries like the UK, sensitive and protected areas are usually well marked both on the ground and on maps... in other countries, such as in Greece where we operate, this is not always the case and so asking locals is usually the most advisable thing to do.. or even better.. take a local guide with you..! some basic advice is that without advice to the contrary... always stick to existing well trodden paths, don't pick any flowers, don't cut any trees and definitely don't start any camp fires.

...and that leads on to my final point... which is more a piece of advice rather than an ethical consideration... when visiting other countries with the purpose of photographing wildlife (or anything else for that matter).. you must acquaint yourself with local laws and customs if you are to keep yourself safe... as in the UK, in most countries around the world, ignorance of the law does not excuse you. A good example of this is actually in Greece where many amazing wildlife spots are in militarily sensitive border areas... for example... Prespes Lakes in the Northwest of Greece... staying in Mikri Prespa (Small Prespa Lake) you are quite safe... however.. venture into Megali Prespa (large Prespa Lake) and you could literally find yourself in deep water as the borders of 3 countries... Greece, Albania and FYROM, all meet in the the lake and without knowing it you could easily pass from one country into another and find yourself arrested for illegal entry by Albanian or FYROM authorities... registering your identity, presence and intentions at the local police station is well advised.. as is using a local boatman to guide you.!

Keep safe.. respect your subjects.. and happy shooting!

g