By Bob Ryan
Of all the areas of expertise that define great photography, using the light is the one that has the ability to take the ordinary to the extraordinary.
With some genres we can plan and wait for the light to come to us. For others a more opportunistic approach is necessary. Good technique in controlling exposure and accurate focusing are critical. With wildlife, for example, catching dynamic action and aspects of natural behaviour are challenging enough, but ensuring that the image is well lit adds a new dimension to the problem.
When shooting wildlife I opt for aperture priority. ‘Keep the ISO low’ is still good advice – most modern cameras can go to ISO1600 or more and still produce low noise images. The problem comes with loss of colour quality and so I still regard ISO400 as my working maximum. I then adjust aperture to manage the depth of field and achieve the shutter speed I need. For other work I use ‘manual’, which gives me control of aperture, shutter speed and ISO of course.
Managing exposure manually requires intensive practice. The object is to take an image which exploits the camera’s dynamic range to the full with no ‘blinkies’ and no blocked shadows. With full mastery of the exposure problem – anticipating the light is the next step. But it’s easy to get caught out.
I had been shooting some landscape shots early in the pre-dawn light when I spotted a heron swooping over some reed beds. The light was brilliant in patches and the big bird was circling as it looked for a place to land to do some fishing. What caught my eye was the light on the bird’s plumage. The direction I had been shooting had been illuminated with bright patches of light and at f13 I had been getting 1/1000th of a second. As the bird wheeled through the sky I could see brilliant flashes of light on its plumage, so I dialled in some extra speed.
I wasn’t aware of the changes I made to the camera’s settings – it was only when I downloaded the image that the camera’s metadata told me what I had done. This is something you’ll discover for yourself if you practise using the EPF method described in The Master Photographer. Your non-conscious response to problems works faster than you can think, and it’s hard, if not impossible to recall what you’ve done. Your non-conscious also puts all the elements of your ‘hard-wired’ expertise together in a way that best balances your photographic ‘recipe’. This is a trick your conscious mind working through the steps cannot achieve.
So, I had a shot of a heron I was not expecting. No matter what genre you choose to work in, catching birds in flight is a great exercise. Whether it’s a wag-tail at a bird feeder or a swan touching down on a lake it’s great fun and easy to do. Never let an opportunity to do something really difficult pass you by. Average photographers do what’s easy; master photographers do what’s hard.