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Warblings — Slight of Hand (of Man) (full story)


Settings: Nikkor 600mm f/4 AF-S I lens, 2X Nikon SB-800 flashes, ƒ8@1/250 sec., ISO 400

Sometimes bird life can present itself in odd and less-than-photogenic locations. The purist will ignore an opportunity where the hand of man is present in an image. Man-made objects don’t tend to fit into a portfolio of classical natural history avian photographs. However, the undesirable aspects of the urban bird portrait can be mitigated with some clever lighting tricks, lens choices and some understanding of the biology that motivates these creatures.

Barn swallow couple on the porch

The male and female barn swallows presented themselves regularly on this exterior ornament located just beneath the mud nest they were building in the upper corner of a porch. The ambient lighting was weak and the background, although plausibly earth-toned, betrayed natural rendering through lens blur because of the horizontal lines of the aluminum siding. Even wide open at ƒ4, the 600mm lens still couldn’t mask the tell-tale uniformity of hand-of-man. Upon further inspection and pondering, I realized the horizontal stripes weren’t the result of the aluminum siding itself, but rather the shadows it cast onto its neighbour below. Solving this problem was a matter of a single flash inside a soft box casting light from below onto the aluminum to cancel out the shadows and eliminate the horizontal lines. Once flash was introduced, it became necessary to follow through with artificial lighting on the birds as well. A second flash inside a homemade soft box was hung from the ceiling of the porch. Both flashes were triggered remotely to achieve a somewhat acceptable rendition of the couple; albeit the unnatural perch remained.

The great horned owl on the farm

Although modifying the landowner’s porch by removing the ornament and replacing it with a natural perch wasn’t an option, I did have the opportunity to experiment with the “proxy perch” concept later on the same property. The great horned owl activity was quite audible every night during that spring on the farm. Calling in an owl was so remarkably easy that one didn’t even need a recorded call; any reasonable effort at producing the sound vocally would often bring one in. Inevitably and invariably, the owls would land on one of three highest vantage points in the area, all of which were man-made. The curious owls would land


Settings: Nikkor 600mm f/4 AF-S I lens, 2X Nikon
SB-800 flashes, ƒ4@1/250 sec., ISO 400

on either the apex of the barn roof, the top of a diesel fuel tank or on top of a silo. The 80’ tall diesel tank had some plumbing at the top, constituting the highest point on the tank. Employing cable ties and duct tape, I attached a photogenic perch to the plumbing, making sure it could support the weight and landing impact of such a heavy bird. Lighting this situation was difficult, since the flashes needed to be local to the bird, given the huge distance between myself and the subject. But the obvious arrangement of placing the flashes higher than the bird wouldn’t work since that would represent a new, higher position and hence encourage the owl to land on the flashes instead of the perch. I decided to light from beneath with two flashes pointing upwards from each side. Although atypical, I figured a nocturnal photograph of an owl might be the only case where one might get away with “spooky, flashlight-under-the-chin” lighting.

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