In December, 2018 the WGNSS Nature Photography Group met at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary with hopes of making some memorable images of our giant white residents that spend their winters here. Trumpeter and Tundra Swans will spend their evenings at roost in the bodies of water at RMBS and will then typically leave to forage in surrounding agricultural fields, picking up the wasted grain from harvest.
A good strategy for placing yourself in the most appropriate position for making photographs of these birds is to pay attention to the direction of the sun. If the birds are found in Ellis Bay during the golden hours of morning light (during winter in St. Louis, this can be up to three hours after sunrise), then getting close to the shore with the sun behind you can produce some satisfactory results. Try getting closer to the ground and shooting the birds from a low angle. This will give your photographs an eye-to-eye perspective that is a much more intimate view into the birds’ world. Shooting at low angles will also tend to provide a more pleasing, out-of-focus background to your subject that will cause the bird to appear to be larger than life. We photographed both species of swan as they lounged in Ellis Bay for the first couple hours of the morning. Can you pick which is the Tundra and which is the Trumpeter Swan in these first two images?
We then moved on to another place within the refuge that the Swans can often be found on winter mornings. At Heron Pond, these birds are typically too far away from the observation areas to get closeup photographs while roosting. However, the patient photographer on the ready can often be rewarded by standing and waiting around. During this morning, the Swans were a tad tardy in lifting out of Heron Pond, so our group was in the right place at the right time. Getting proper positioning with the angle of the sun is a bit more difficult here in the morning but is still critical. We placed ourselves in the best places available on this busy morning and took advantage of the swans as they left the pond, which often flew right over our heads.
Photographing these mostly bright-white birds on a bright sunny day is not necessarily simple. While on the ground or the waters of the bay, it is common to have the camera’s light meter expose for the darker and more prominent background. This will often lead to the white feathers of the birds being overexposed. Remember to check the histogram of your camera and use the “blinkies” while reviewing your images to ensure you are not clipping your whites. If this is the case, make the proper adjustments to your exposure. Saving your whites may result in your blacks and shadows being bunched up at the other end of the histogram. Since the big white bird is your subject of concern, this should be nothing to worry about.
Changing directions and the angle of sunlight are challenging for proper exposure. Get as close as you can in the field – much can be recovered in post-processing.
Shooting these large birds in flight presents a different set of challenges. Although these birds move relatively slower than most other birds during flight, the photographer will still want a relatively fast shutter speed. This is particularly true the closer you are to your subject. I recommend no slower than 1/1000 of a second. Start at this setting and increase shutter speed if you notice blurring or softness to your image due to subject movement. As these birds get closer during flight, they will naturally fill more of your frame, thereby increasing the number of pixels seeing the bright white values. This can often lead to a case of the camera’s meter overcompensating, thereby causing an underexposed image. In this case, the birds may come out looking grey instead of white and the black colorations of their feet and faces will be much too dark and lack sufficient details.
In the above image, a swan can be seen with a significantly crooked neck. I typically see one or two birds with this condition every season. I do not know how it affects the birds or what their ultimate fates may be.
In the case of constant sunny skies, fully manual exposure settings are most called for. Here I will present a good starting point for setting the exposure for capturing swans in flight. Shutter speed – As I mentioned earlier, start with a minimum of 1/1000 sec. This may likely be too slow to capture a sharp image, depending on what position the bird’s wings were captured. Often, shutter speeds of up to 1/2500 sec or higher might be necessary. Aperture – This will depend on how close you are to the swan. Remember, these are large birds and when shooting at a profile there is a lot of distance from wingtip to wingtip. If the bird is significantly close, or if you have multiple birds in the frame, you will be unlikely to capture the entire subject(s) in critical focus if shooting wide open. I recommend no wider than ƒ/5.6 – you may need to stop down significantly smaller. However, always remember that getting the animal’s eye in sharp focus is critical. Many images will work fine if other parts of the bird are not in critical focus. ISO – Remembering that photography is a compromise, shooting at a fast shutter speed and smaller apertures might require that a higher ISO value be needed to obtain the proper exposure. Several latest digital camera models have a useful “auto ISO” setting. I know, technically this is not fully manual, but ISO does not necessarily have the input it once did. Know the highest ISO setting for your camera that you are comfortable with and don’t be afraid to shoot there. This will vary by camera model and by the photographer’s taste.
Here is a photo of “crooked neck” as it flew directly over my head. In cases like this a telephoto-zoom lens is really beneficial for capturing birds in flight.
The majority of this material was originally published in Nature Notes (The Journal of the Webster Groves Nature Study Society) February 2019, Vol. 91, No. 2.