BEHIND THE IMAGE | Chachalacascape


The image Chachalacascape (believe it or not, it took me a long time to come up with that title) received a highly commended award a couple of years ago in the BBC/Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. This competition receives over 40,000 image entries from all over the world, and one is competing against large agency shooters and even National Geographic pros with plenty of time, budget, and equipment resources. It's far and away the most prestigious nature photography competition in the world, so to have one of my images among the ~75 images honored in the adult category was a thrill to be sure.

I was doubly pleased with the honor because I'm proud to have taken an everyday subject and made an interesting image out of it. Though I'm a moderator on the avian forum at, I don't consider myself to be a bird photographer and indeed, I think that this gray-headed chachalaca image is one that most bird photographers wouldn't even have thought of taking. The sky's all white, the bird is too small in the frame, the bird is a very common and nondescript species, and there's no color to this scene. These are exactly the things that got me excited!


Here's a behind the scenes look at how I approached this image:

First, I literally had seconds to see, meter, compose, and capture this image. I was photographing hummingbirds on a lodge balcony in Costa Rica when I saw this lone chachalaca in a Cecropia tree. I've always admired the architecture of Cecropias. With the lone bird as a compositional element and a point of added interest, I knew I had something. The bird was in the tree for only about 20 seconds from the time I spotted him to the time it flew off to join the rest of the flock.

Second, luckily I had my 300 mm lens at hand and mounted on my full-frame 5D. On another body, the 300 mm prime would have been too much reach to compose the picture how I wanted. These days I always have the new Canon 70-300 mm L IS zoom lens mounted on one body just for these kinds of occasions.

Third, it was a typical overcast day, so the gray sky and muted colors gave the scene a vaguely oriental look. This was basically a monochromatic image to begin with so I knew I'd be taking it into black and white.

Fourth, I composed to include as many of the interesting Cecropia branches and fruit as possible to provide a flowing frame for the bird. I knew I wanted the bird off-center. I set up my camera quickly and swung things around while looking through the viewfinder until I got what I wanted. The Wimberley Sidekick is great for this kind of work as it makes composing smooth and efficient with a medium-sized pro telephoto lens.

Fifth, I had to meter the scene. I knew I wanted a high-key look to the image, which meant letting the gray sky go completely white. In addition, overexposing the sky in this manner would open up details in the leaves, which was very important for texture. My camera was set in aperture priority so I immediately dialed in +2 stops of exposure compensation. Had I not overexposed in this manner, the camera would have made the sky a middle gray, in the process making everything else a silhouette, which definitely was not what I wanted here.

Sixth, what about my other camera settings? I quickly chose an aperture of f5.6, knowing that this was a sweet spot in terms of the sharpness of my 300 mm f2.8 lens and also knowing that it would give me plenty of depth of field. All of the subject matter was pretty much on the same plane, and that plane was a good distance away from the camera. I chose ISO 100 to obtain the cleanest file possible as I had high hopes for this one as a nice print. This gave me a shutter speed of 1/80, which I deemed acceptable given the fact that I was working on a tripod. Even though I didn't have time to get out a cable release and use mirror lockup, engaging image stabilization with pro telephoto lenses helps to give added sharpness when working from a tripod and using marginal shutter speeds, as I was here.

Seventh, image in hand I had to go about the black and white conversion. I chose to use Nik Silver Efex Pro which enabled me to add a bit of contrast to the scene. Playing around a bit with the structure slider helped to add to the texture already present in the leaves. These adjustments really made the image pop. That said, the final image really isn't that different from the RAW file as it came out of my camera (see below).

You can see the image here on the WPOTY website. Be sure to check all of the other images too. This competition always looks for images that go beyond the norm so there's some fantastic work there!

A book of all of the 2011 WPOTY winning images is available here, and the image is featured on some cool products in the British Natural History Museum gift shop, such as this graphic tote bag, this cool notebook, and this set of file folders. If you'd like to buy a large metal print of this image, you can check it out here in my print store.