Saturday, January 23, 2010

Trumpeter Swans... A Success Story & a Lesson about Light

When I moved to Minnesota in 1990, every trumpeter swan I saw was sporting a little extra gear. Looking through a pair of 10X binoculars, you might have been able to read the large red and black numbers on a neck band. These birds were a rare siting, and nearly every one bore some kind of tag or band. 

By the mid 20th century, the trumpeter swan population crashed as a result of poorly regulated hunting, development, and lead poisoning. Fortunately, the diminishing populations were acknowledged before it was too late. Today, trumpeter swans are a protected species throughout their range, and they are making a comeback in the lower 48.

Relying on the stock of swans that continued to thrive in Alaska and Canada, the trumpeter was reintroduced to the slow moving rivers and lakes of the Midwest. Today, it is even possible to find migrating and non-migrating swans occupying open waters during a Minnesota winter.  

All of the swans pictured here were captured along the Mississippi River during January 2010. A program of regular feeding by citizens living along the river has created an unprecedented opportunity to see and photograph these majestic fliers during bitter winter days. 

Trumpeter swans are large white birds and capturing them with a camera might appear to be a simple task. In fact, although their bodies make for a large target, their rapid flight and bright white plumage can even challenge good photographers using sophisticated gear. 

In the days when we were all shooting slide film, the professional community learned how to expose for whites, blacks, and contrast. While the digital revolution has had some definite benefits, it has left many photographers with little knowledge about light how a camera “sees” it.

In general, the camera meter attempts to make all exposures neutral. This neutral exposure is standardized to “18% gray.” For a reference, 18% gray is approximated by the color of the following TEXT. As a result, your meter tells your camera to make blacks lighter (gray) and whites darker (gray). When photographing white or black subjects, the thinking photographer needs to take their camera off “autopilot!”

To achieve beautiful whites that preserve detail, “add light.” Specifically, set your camera to manual exposure or use exposure compensation with your “Auto” setting to add light. 
Adding light does not mean using a flash! Adding light refers to adjusting your shutter to a slower speed or using a wider (larger) aperture than the camera recommends. 

For example: If your camera is set to “evaluative” (Canon) or “matrix” (Nikon) metering and the meter suggests that correct exposure is 1/250 and f/5.6, you can add light by changing your shutter to 1/125 or aperture to f/4. Doing both adds two “stops” of light, while making a single change adds only one stop. Too much light will result in over-exposure and loss of detail while too little light will result in under-exposure and muddy shadows. 

For the above image, I looked at my evaluative meter’s suggestion and added one stop of light by adjusting my aperture from f/5.6 to f/4. Doing this allowed me to preserve my fast shutter and reduce the chance of capturing blurred wings. 

More on exposure, shutter speeds, apertures, and birds-in-flight in the future. For now remember the following... “A Light to White!”

©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Shooting When it's Cold

Ok... I lied. 
I cannot “embrace the cold;” prolonged periods of sub-zero temperature bring me down. 

I am the antithesis of a Minnesotan. I was not born here, I am not Scandinavian, and I do not take pride in my suffering. I like to complain about the weather, I say what I think, and I detest a passive aggressive attitude. I am a New Yorker, I am a Californian, and I live in a very cold place. 

So, what is a New Yorker - Californian Midwest transplant to do when he is burdened by the frigid conditions? 
Suck it up!

It was -24 degrees F when I left my home Saturday morning. It took 30 minutes to dress, but it was worth the effort. My survivalist buddy, Brian, collected my sorry ass around 7:00 a.m. and we headed south of the “Cities” to photograph ducks and geese. After a short hike through a foot of snow, we made our way to the efflux of the NSP power plant. Warm water flowed from the turbines into the Mississippi River watershed. The discharge produced pools of water surrounded by heaving shelves of ice, a waterfowl paradise for the non-migrants trapped by the heavy hand of winter. 

Photography in these conditions presents unique challenges; even simple tasks, like breathing, require mental energy. In the bitter cold, breathing preoccupies the mind. The cold dry air freezes the moisture at the base of the lungs with each breath. Don’t inhale too much as your cough will be dry, hard and painful. As I approach my camera, I need to take in a deep breath, hold it, and shoot. If I exhale, I fog the viewfinder and ice from my breath crystalizes on the camera body and LCD. It is no trivial task to produce an image when it is 20 below. 

The lubricants in my tripod have frozen in the cold. Although I wasted the energy hauling it into the field, it is nothing more than a brick to me now. These legs that I usually carry and call my burden, are now a real burden. 

The longer I exposed myself to these inane conditions, the more my muscles cramped. Deep chills caused tremors in my body that felt more like quakes than shivers. To alleviate camera shake induced by my spastic muscles, I knelt into the deep snow. While it may sound counterintuitive, the snow began to insulate my body from the biting breeze that threatened my exposed skin. 

To make art under these conditions requires a deliberate focus to the task. Rather than hurrying through the moment, I allowed the cold freeze time. I abhorred the cold that encased my hands, but I exposed them to the elements nonetheless. My paper thin skin gripped the camera and lens in an attempt to achieve critical focus. It is at this moment that I force myself to inhale the bitter cold, trap the breath, and squeeze the shutter.

When shooting in these conditions, layer up, keep hydrated, be patient, and expect to hurt.

©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission

Friday, January 1, 2010

Embrace the Cold

Even the most zealous photographers are challenged by the cold. While the majority of my cognitive effort is devoted to teaching biology, the noise-free parsecs of my thoughts are immersed in photography. As December approaches, I begin to think about my winter break and the winter photographic opportunities. The winter opens the door to unique landscapes and wildlife opportunities that are just not possible during any other time of the year.

However, these same winter conditions are physically and emotionally draining. The cold wind rips through the warmest clothes and leaves you feeling as if you were exposed in a meat locker. The frigid air bears down on your skin and face, and freezes the snot in your nose. A Minnesota winter demands respect and unless it is given, a price of pain will be due. 

I am off this week and I hoped for a gentle holiday season, but wishes this time of year rarely come true. With a high of 5 degrees, I am faced to make a critical decision: hibernate or celebrate. My first instinct is to stay in bed, sit by the fire, or drink hot coffee. Unfortunately, the empty parsecs of my thoughts call me to the out of doors. I can hear my sub-conscious scream, “you are a sniveling  wimp...” and...“you call yourself a photographer.”

At some point I recognize that only the stupid would crawl out of bed at 5:00 a.m. and humiliate themselves in the face of these frigid conditions. I am the idiot. I stretch expedition weight thermals around my scrawny legs. I layer my body with a t-shirt, fleece, and down. I stretch two pairs of socks over bunioned feet and cram them into Sorrel boots. It takes a half hour to dress and less than three minutes to feel ice crystals hanging from my mustache. I hate the winter but love photography... is it sadomasochism?

©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission