I've become increasingly interested in wildlife photography that tells a story and/or conveys a sense of place. As a result, I've spent the last few years moving away from simple telephoto portraits and challenging myself to do more wide angle wildlife photography. Though much more difficult and time-consuming, the images stand out, the process is fun, and I enjoy the opportunity to continue to grow as a photographer.
I was in Ecuador last month working on The Mashpi Project, the first conservation photography project under the auspices of the New World Conservation Photography Group that I've founded with photographer friends Nick Hawkins and Lucas Bustamante. While there, I put my wide angle wildlife photography skills to the test with a nice little portrait of the White-throated Quail Dove (Geotrygon frenata). These birds are not the most colorful in the forest, but they were handsome nonetheless.
The doves were accustomed to foraging below a fruit feeder that attracts Crimson-rumped Toucanets and Flame-faced Tanagers. The doves would feed on the plantain chunks that their more colorful (though messy!) avian brethren would drop while eating. I set up in the leaf litter below the feeder, and my goal was to capture a sharp, well-illuminated shot that showed the quail dove in its forest floor habitat.
I knew I would be using a camera trap beam so that I could be far away from the set to avoid spooking my quail dove subjects. Though regular visitors to the area, they were shy if a person approached. I used the Cognisys Range IR, which is a simple yet highly portable and effective little camera trap sensor. Whenever the beam was tripped, my camera would fire. By placing a bit of plantain hidden in the leaf litter, I was able to control where I wanted the bird in the frame and also my focus point, which I set manually so that the bird would be sharp when the camera was triggered.
The next step was to determine how to light the scene. I was faced here with a dynamic range problem. The background foliage, a light gap in the forest, was much brighter than the forest floor foreground. The difference in luminance levels was so great that raising the shadows in post-processing would introduce too much noise and image degradation. And HDR or exposure blending techniques, which work fine with static landscapes, are useless with a wild animal at a camera trap setup.
The image below shows how my scene looked with only natural light. The background foliage looks quite nice but the rest is very dark. Yep, there's a quail dove in there at bottom left!
Nature photographers who profess to use only natural light would be forced to give up at this point and move on to another subject, e.g., one in perfect light on the African plains or the Florida coast :-) But if you know me, you know that I always have some flashes in my bag. Indeed, flash would allow me to solve my current dynamic range problem quite easily.
So, with the help of my friend Sebastian Di Domenico, a photographer from Colombia and a team member of the New World Conservation Photography Group, I used zip ties and duct tape to secure 2 flashes to some small trees just off-camera, one from the right and one from the left of the scene. I set the flashes in manual mode and made sure that the flash coming from the right (the direction in which I hoped the bird would face) was set about 1.5 stops brighter than the flash coming from the other side. Below is an image where only the fill-flash, coming from the left, was triggered.
I wanted to maintain natural-looking shadows on the scene so that the flashes would do their job but not be obvious. Done well, flash should mimic natural light, and the fact that the left side of my scene is brighter than in the natural light shot but still underexposed is a good start. Remember, my main flash (aka, the fake sun) is coming from the right. If the flash from the left side is too bright it ceases to be a fill-flash. I wanted those shadows on the left to remain once I added in the main flash. My idea was to simulate a shaft of sunlight hitting the forest floor.
A final challenge was dealing with shutter speed. A polarizing filter was critical as it allowed me to cut the glare on the wet cloud forest leaves in the background of the shot. Indeed, I always use a polarizing filter when shooting tropical forest landscapes, and this shot was essentially a landscape with a bird in it. A polarizing filter has the downside of cutting some light (usually about 2 stops) from the scene, and that is problematic with a moving animal because of ghosting at slower shutter speeds. I knew that my flash use, though mostly serving the purpose of balancing the foreground illumination with the background, would also help to freeze my subject movement. Nonetheless, a shutter speed that was too slow would reveal blurred movement during the portion of the shot where the flashes were not firing.
Put differently, I needed an exposure long enough so that the light gap foliage in the background would be properly exposed; the time necessary for that would be much longer than the duration of my flashes, which was around 1/10,000th of a second. A shutter speed that was too long would leave motion trails if the bird moved during the exposure. That can be a cool effect but it was not what I wanted for this image. So, I needed a shutter speed slow enough to allow light in for the background leaves but not so long that a slightly moving bird would be blurry.
I had determined previously that an aperture of f/8 would give me the depth of field I wanted for my subject without bringing the background too much into focus. I want the quail dove to be the star of the show, so the farthest leaf out in the background did not need to be tack sharp. And of course stopping down further would have exacerbated the shutter speed problem. Sticking with f/8, I then played around with ISO and shutter speed to arrive at a happy medium. Taking my ISO to 1250 gave me a shutter speed of 1/80. A little faster shutter speed would have been better but that would have meant taking the ISO even higher and introducing more noise. Removing the polarizing filter would have granted me 2 stops of additional light, but the wet tropical leaves would have looked awful. One of the cardinal rules of rainforest photography is that you will always have to make choices that involve trade-offs. This situation was no different; f/8 gave me just enough depth of field, 1/80 was just fast enough, and ISO 1250 was just clean enough!
Below is one of my favorite shots from the session. In all, I had over 200 photos of these doves! The flashes did not bother them at all, and they ate and ate throughout the afternoon while triggering my camera and flashes. I was busy in another area working on some images of hummingbirds with a fisheye lens. Men too can multi-task on occasion :-)
I hope you've enjoyed this behind the scenes look at how to approach a daytime camera trap wildlife photo. Every situation will be different so I urge you not to look at this as a recipe. One of the most important skills for any photographer is to have a good understanding of basic photographic concepts and how they can be applied to help you get the shot you want!