BEHIND THE IMAGE | Howler Monkey


It's not often that we get to combine dramatic light and an eye level view of a monkey in the rainforest. But that's exactly what my workshop participants and I were treated to on my latest photo workshop tour here in Costa Rica! I actually don't shoot much at all when I'm out leading a trip but since everyone was set up and working well, I decided to sneak in a few shots of my own and came away with the image below. I love mysterious light so I think this is already becoming a favorite of mine.

This late afternoon encounter with strong light streaming through the forest canopy was a great lesson in the importance of spot metering. This is something we had been talking about during the workshop, so this was a perfect opportunity to put the technique into practice. Precise metering, along with a tiny bit of fill-flash and attention to composition, is what made the image a success for me.

TECH NOTES:Canon 60D, Canon 70-300 mm f/4-5.6 L zoom lens, Canon 430 EX Speedlite, f/6.3, 1/100, ISO 500, handheld

PROCESSING NOTES: full-frame/no cropping, standard tweaks and a bit of selective dodging in Lightroom, a bit of tonal contrast with Nik Color Efex Pro, and noise reduction with Topaz Denoise


I've used my son's Canon 60D a few times now, and I really like it. For this tour, I decided to travel light and left my Canon 1D Mark IV and Canon 300 mm f2.8 lens at home. The extra effective reach of the 60D (which has a 1.6x sensor as opposed to the 1.3x sensor of the Mark IV) was perfect for this encounter, where tight shots really helped to emphasize the play of light and shadow on the howler monkey. With the 70-300, I had the perfect lightweight combo to handhold. I also left my larger flash and Better Beamer at home. The smaller Canon 430 EX Speedlite served as the perfect complement for this combo. It's good to know that I'll still be able to do some wildlife photography when I'm too old to hold a big pro body and pro telephoto lens!

This was a tricky exposure situation. There was beautiful late afternoon light streaming through the forest but of course that meant dappled light on our subject and backgrounds of varying intensity. I chose to focus my efforts on shooting only when the sun was hitting the side of the monkey's face because I thought this was the most unusual and intersting lighting. When the monkey was in shade I simply didn't shoot. To get the moody, chiaroscuro type of lighting I wanted, spot metering was the answer and that meant shooting in manual mode rather than aperture priority. Why, you ask? Can't I use spot metering with aperture priority?

Well, sure, you can, but every time you recompose your shot, your spot meter point would move, meaning that in aperture priority, the camera would constantly adjust the shutter speed to match the point (usually the center AF point) at which the spot meter was looking. We could hold down the shutter button halfway to keep the camera from re-metering the scene but that's a pain if your subject moves even slightly between shots. We also could use auto-exposure lock to hold the exposure but that lasts only about 13 seconds on Canon cameras. So, we'd have to keep re-metering the scene and pressing the AE lock button. This is hardly an efficient way to work, so aperture priority with spot metering was out. In fact, I never use aperture priority with spot metering precisely for this reason. I have my Canon 1D Mark IV set to use spot metering automatically when I'm in manual mode and to use evaluative metering when I'm in aperture priority.

So then, what about aperture priority and evaluative metering for this monkey shot? With this combination, the camera takes a reading of the whole scene and then uses an algorithm based on the active focus point and the values of the entire scene to arrive at the best average exposure. In this case, the combination of aperture priority mode and evaluative metering would have worked, but not consistently. Given all the dark tones in the image, the camera will try to bring up the exposure. To keep from blowing out the bright portions of the scene (the highlights on the monkey's back and head and the places where the sun was striking the face), we would have dialed in anywhere from -1 to -2 stops of exposure compensation. But, as I mentioned before, the dappled light meant changing backgrounds as well. Remember that I was focusing my efforts on shooting only when the monkey's face was sidelit by sun. This meant that I had a situation where my subject was always in the same light but my backgrounds could vary from full sun to dappled light to deep shadow. Aperture priority would not handle this situation well at all, and I would get some exposures that were right on but many others where the important part of my scene (the sunlit side of the monkey's face) was either underexposed or totally blown out.

In manual mode, we fix all three variables (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO) so there is no way for our exposure to change unless we want it to. By spot metering off the monkey's face and then setting my values so that this sunlit portion of the monkey's face was about 2/3 of a stop above average (that is, with sun on the monkey's face, I determined that the skin there was lighter than middle-toned), I was set no matter what kind of background I faced. Since the spot meter on the Canon 60D is always linked to the center focus point, I placed that point over the monkey's face for my metering and then recomposed as necessary. Since I was in manual mode, I knew my exposure would stay constant and that the sunlit monkey's face, the key part of my image, would always be properly exposed. A touch of fill-flash (flash exposure compensation at -3 stops) gave me a nice catchlight in the monkey's eye.

I chose an aperture of  f/6.3 to gain a bit of depth of field for my subject. Since I don't know the 60D as well as my other cameras, I decided to keep the ISO at 500 max. This meant a shutter speed of only 1/100 but I wasn't worried as I knew the great image stabilization of my 70-300 mm zoom lens would let me capture consistently sharp images. My son Chris actually has taken some ISO 1600 and even 3200 images with this camera that looked pretty good processed. So, in retrospect, I probably could have taken the ISO up to have a faster shutter speed. But, as I said, with the great IS of my zoom lens, I wasn't too worried and indeed, this image is tack sharp even when viewed at 1:1.

Howler Monkey behind the lens
Howler Monkey behind the lens


Having confidence in my exposure allowed me to focus on the artistic part of my photography. This is of course the fun part, and the technical considerations are simply the vehicle that allows us to get there. The first thing I concentrated on was lining myself up with a portion of the background that was in dark shade. I knew this would make for the most dramatic image and would best work with the mood I wanted to establish.

Composition was the next consideration, and when I saw how the sun gave a rim lighting or hair light effect to the top of the monkey's head and back, I knew I had something. I was definitely looking to place the subject's face in one of the thirds of the frame. Then I started to notice that the position of the face along with the rimlight on the rest of the monkey was giving me a pretty good approximation of the famed golden spiral.

If you've read The DaVinci Code, you'll know that the Fibonacci spiral is found in nature in many patterns of growth, the most famous example being a nautilus shell, which gave architects the idea for the spiral staircase design. DaVinci and other artists have employed this compositional pattern to great effect in art because the human eye responds well to the placement of elements that the golden spiral entails. Now I'm not saying that I went through the whole golden spiral thing in my head as I was taking this shot, but I've been looking at more and more classic art in my spare time so that I can aid myself in thinking about composition. Like the technical side of photography, the more we practice and have these things in mind, the more they'll become second nature.

Howler Monkey behind the lens
Howler Monkey behind the lens

I hope you've enjoyed this post and the thought process behind the image. Successful nature photography is all about previsualizing an image (even when shooting action or capturing a fleeting moment), analyzing the technical tradeoffs that your previsualized image entails, and then making choices. It seems that today we're seeing more and more really good images out there. How does one stand out? Well, without sounding pretentious, I consider nature photography to be an art form. Images and paintings with great light and great composition never go out of style, so I'm really trying to think more about these two key elements when I'm out photographing. Hopefully this little article will give you some ideas for the next time that you're out in the field.

If you have questions or comments, please leave them below, and I'll respond as soon as I can.