January 17, 2014
Yesterday I took a morning stroll to my neighborhood pond to see what I could find. I was lucky enough to get some close-up pictures of a red-shouldered hawk. The hawk just sat there on a limb for about 10 minutes and posed for me. When I got home I probably had 50 similar pictures of the hawk to choose from. What criteria did I use to select the one I ultimately shared? Here are three of the candidates. Which of the images below would you select to share on social media?
Here are the things I look for when I’m selecting pictures in Lightroom.
1) Sharpness – It’s got to be sharp–particularly the eyes. If not, you might as well delete it. All three of the images posted are pretty sharp. I do a few things to maximize my chances for getting a sharp image when shooting wildlife. First I try to keep the shutter speed above 1/1000s if possible. Most of the time I am shooting at approximately 600mm FF equivalent. I love the fact that my Panasonic 100-300 lens is small and I can shoot handheld. This gives a lot of flexibility in the field. A tripod can help, but if the animal is moving a tripod won’t do anything for you. I’ll tradeoff ISO for shutter speed in most instances. The above images were shot at ISO 800 and 1/2500s. If you shoot the Olympus E-M1, you should remember that the default setting on the camera disables image stabilization when in C-AF mode. I change this setting. It slows down the frame rate slightly, but I always prefer to have IS, even with fast shutter speeds.
A second thing that helps with apparent sharpness is to get as close as possible. The early shots I had of the hawk were at a fair distance. I kept moving a step or two closer and then waiting. I didn’t want to spook the hawk. Eventually I was pretty darn close. Again, if I had been moving a large camera and lens on a tripod to get closer, the bird would have probably flown away much sooner.
Next, I put an autofocus sensor directly on the eye. I’ll crop for framing if necessary, but I try to keep an AF sensor on the eye. Depending on the AF mode and the camera, the AF sensor may not put the eye exactly where you want it. I think you’ll be better off with the eye on the sensor and a slight crop than trying to focus on another part of the body. You can also let the camera AF and then recompose if you are using a single AF mode, but often wildlife shots are with a Continuous AF mode and that makes it imperative that you keep the sensor on the eye.
Finally, I’ll back off the max settings of my zoom lens if possible. Although my Panasonic lens will zoom to 300mm, I try to come back slightly from the maximum if I can. In this case, the shots are at 280mm. Most lenses are slightly sharper at less than maximum zoom and less than maximum aperture. The above shots were at max aperture (5.5) due to the early morning light. If I had been a bit more on my toes, I probably would have stopped down just a bit.
2) Catchlights – I’m always looking for a catchlight in the animal’s eye. You’ll notice that Image 1 is perfectly nice, but there is no catchlight in the eye — into the trash it goes. Generally, you’ll need to have the sun behind you to get a good catchlight. I try to position myself so that I can have that catchlight in the eye when I press the shutter. Even so, hawks can turn their heads almost completely around, so I had to wait for a good head position on this one to get the shot I wanted.
3) Minimizing Distracting Elements – The choice between Images 2 and 3 is close. The thing that makes the difference for me is the placement of the branch behind the head in Image 2. I find that branch behind the head to be distracting. Moreover, in Image 3 the branches of the tree frame the bird perfectly. The bird hasn’t moved its feet one bit. The only difference is the position of the head. Image 3 was my ultimate selection.
Learning to critically evaluate your work is a difficult task. However, if you look at every element of your picture once you get back to your computer, you’ll learn to take better pictures in the field and learn to select the pictures that will have maximum impact for your audience.