Three is Not a Crowd

The catalyst of today’s post was a typical journey through a few handy folders filled with pictures of birds and other wildlife.  That created the premise of an article  about images that contain three or more subjects. I’ll deal with a few compositional and depth of field (again) issues that crop up with the photography of multiple animals.

When I photograph birds in a line, or raft, I will often crop them into a pano.  I know a lot of people don’t like this format especially with wildlife.  Back in 1998 I made a pano crop of a scanned slide similar to what you see below.  I received an email from a viewer of my website.  He complimented my work except he did not like that pano of a group of Sparrows that were sitting in a row on the top of a fence.  He said it was unnatural and preferred a “normal” 35mm/digital view.  He also did not believe in cropping.  I asked him if he ever made a picture, and then looked at the scene again with his eyes.  His email reply said yes. I also asked why he thought that view, which is far different from what we see with our eyes, was appropriate.  I wondered (but did not ask), if he was in the process of making a wildlife image with a 100mm lens, and someone offered him a 600mm lens, if he would take the opportunity to use that super-telephoto.  I suspect he would and wondered what is the difference (except for quality) in cropping his 100mm image to that of a 600mm and actually using one.  I am not big on extreme alterations after the fact, but I realize that the cameras and lenses we use do not provide exact copies to what we see with our eyes.  Our perspective is different than you get with any size lens.

Trumpeter Swans

Gadwall Ducklings

Pied-billed Grebes

American White Pelicans

Birds lined up in order on a power line, are the same as birds swimming past you in the water.  You only need to keep their perch, parallel to the camera. As with these pigeons

Depth of field becomes a concern when you get into to the realm of three or more active animals.  The more shutter speed you need to stop action, the less dof you have.

The American Avocets you see below caused me trouble because I needed a fast shutter speed (1/1000th sec) to stop their constant movement.  Attempts to get all of them in focus with my f 5.6 aperture were in vain until they moved further out into the marsh.  The farther your subjects get away from you and your camera, the easier it is to cover them all with focus, at any given f stop.  This image is a crop.

These three Sandhill Cranes are obviously in action but my f 7.1 aperture was plenty of dof because the birds are all on the same plane.  If one bird would have been either farther away, or closer to the other birds, that aperture would have been insufficient.

A shorter lens (70-300 at 240mm) than 500mm, and a deep aperture of f 10, provided me enough dof to cover all three Bighorn Sheep despite the fact that the third animal is on a different plane than the first two.  It was a conscious decision. Images like this are why I use aperture priority and begin my thought process with dof on my mind.

Four or more subjects  of course, has all of the same principles as three , only sometimes extended.


Wild Turkeys

Wild Burros

Wood Ducks

Sandhill Cranes

Tundra Swans

The job of extending dof gets even tougher when you are working up close.  Depth of field is harder to come by, the closer your subject is to the camera.  I photographed these Milkweed Bugs (mature & immature) with my trusty Nikon 105 Micro lens at f 20. Even at that aperture I  had just enough to cover this family picnic.

Larger groups.  I managed to get these Redhead Ducks all sharp but once again they were all pretty close together.

Under overcast conditions (less light), with these Greater Scaups stretched out in back of each other, I made no attempt to get them all in focus.  I focused up front, and let the trailing birds get softer as they faded into the background. Notice it is the females that are leading.

Even larger groups. When you are photographing really big groups of birds, dof becomes even more of an issue, although the basic principles are the same.  The pictures below of Bonaparte’s Gulls, Dunlin shorebirds and Starlings are all action shots that require a fair amount of shutter speed and therefore not a lot of dof.  The reason they worked was that the birds in all three shots are on the same plane.  In other words almost all of the birds are about the same distance from my camera.

With the mixed flock of Ring-billed and Herring Gulls below, the birds were close, fast, and on different planes.  The answer (for me) was to focus on the closest birds and let everything else go soft. The image really became an abstract vision of gulls in flight. I like this at least as well as the previous pictures.   The option was to use a slow shutter speed and motion blur them into a true abstract.  My feeling is that the technique works well with a slow pan, but not so much with this helter skelter type of image.  When I visually “go into” this photo and notice each bird, it is indeed a helter skelter shot.  When I back off and take in the entire image at once, it becomes more orderly.  I always begin by looking at the whole image before I start the journey through each individual object within the picture frame.

Getting a lot of subjects sharp all at once is never easy.  It often requires little or no movement by your subjects.

The gull shot below was made with my 500mm lens set at f 22.  That is as deep as you go with that lens. My shutter speed was 1/30th sec.  I used a tripod and waited for a quiet moment.  I focused 1/3rd of the way into the scene.  Depth of field carries twice as far away from the point you are focused on, than it does back towards the camera.  This is hyper focal distance and it is something for you to remember when you are creating landscapes.

I cannot tell you the tech info on this photo of mixed Swallowtail Butterflies.  I made the image a number of years ago in the Smoky Mountains and on film.  I can tell you that the angle from front to back is somewhat severe so I did use a lot of dof.  The back butterflies are just beginning to lose focus.

Many landscape techniques can be applied to wildlife photography and many wildlife  techniques can be applied to macros.  Everything in photography crosses over including non-nature subjects.  The greatest thing about photography is the endless number of subjects we have to choose from.  Once you truly get all of the technical aspects of photography down pat, you will move from subject to subject, solving the problems that arise, quickly and efficiently.  That allows you to concentrate on your subject, and also allows you to place your own personal stamp on every image you make.

I know that some of these “how to” articles might be too simplistic for many of you who read Earth Images.  I write them because I know that they help some newer photographers. All of us can at times struggle with what turns out to be a basic photographic principal.

I know photographers, professional and amateur, who digitally sanitize every image they make.  In other words, be they wildlife, landscape, macro or architecture, they scrub every millimeter of every picture until it is what they see as perfect.  The “Artie” school of photography.  They can work on one wildlife image for weeks.  Eventually they either give it up, give up photography, or find someone else to do the work for them, in which case the pictures really cease to be their own.  I am not against removing the out of focus bit of foliage in the foreground.  I certainly have no problem working with contrast, exposure, cropping and removing noise.  When you make the biggest part of the job after the fact alterations, most photographers will look for other hobbies or occupations.  Working with each picture is a fact of life, but making a sterilized digital re-creations of each image is not why outdoor photographers get into this in the first place.  Just a heads up to you new photographers because once you discover what you are capable of doing in the digital darkroom, a quest for perfection can become addictive.  It will ruin the act of photography for most photographers.  Never forget why you started this in the first place and never let the joy of “photography” fade due to the unnatural act of sitting in front of a computer and creating over again, every image you make.

Sometimes I think I am like a fungus that you just can’t get rid of.  Should have been gone years ago.  Said I was done years ago.  Here I still am. The joy of creating images, and the greater joy of having a conversation about them with you, has driven me past my photographic expiration date.  I am grateful that you continue to allow me to have this platform.

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2 Responses to Three is Not a Crowd

  1. So happy to see those Pied-Billed Grebes:) I was watching some at Horicon and they were just beyond my reach for a sharp shot. I loved the patterns on the young so was happy to see you got the shot I was going after.

    • There should be a lot of young Grebes on their own right now. They are usually too inexperienced to fear photographers. It seems like when you cruise Hwy 49, you get something new on every lap. Of course the gas burned can get expensive.

      I always appreciate your comments Cindy!

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