I May be Smart, but the Camera is FAST

This image is not critically sharp, but it is the sharpest of its sequence. I had trouble keeping the focus sensor on the bird as it zipped past me.

I don’t carry a camera all the time. I’m not an artist who might be struck by inspiration at any moment.  Sure, if I rounded a bend on the trail and came upon a badger, a bear, a skunk, and a raccoon playing poker, I’d regret having left the camera in the car, but I’d survive the missed opportunity, if not the bear on a losing streak. I take my assignments seriously, but I engage in personal photography for fun and practice.

Hordes of photographers descend on the Bolsa Chica Wetlands every morning and evening, when the marshes, channels and magnificent wildlife are bathed in golden light. My wife and I arrived on a bright, sunny midday just to take a walk, so I considered leaving the camera in the car. But then I decided there’s no such thing as too much practice photographing moving subjects, so I attached the 70-200 f2.8 zoom and exercised my craft along with my legs.

A flying egret presents challenges for focus tracking and exposure.

Midday light usually means high contrast, so I dialed in -.7 stops of exposure compensation to protect against blown-out highlights. Even so, bright sun on Snowy Egrets will tend to overexpose in matrix metering, so I chose the center-weighted meter option. Even with center-weighted metering and minus two-thirds exposure compensation, highlights were slightly overexposed in most of the day’s shots. Expecting this, I shot everything in RAW, which helped me recover some of the highlight detail.

Cute and high contrast. To keep highlight detail without losing the rich, dark colors, I exposed a little bit hot and shot in RAW, hoping I could tone down the highlights and gently lift the shadows without compromising the image quality.

Exposure is less challenging when your subjects dress in mid-tones. This is a Reddish Egret.

Focus tracking proved to be the other big challenge of the day.  Early on, I kept pressing my nose against the camera’s focus selector, accidentally changing the focus point as I tried to track moving birds. Then, I tried locking the focus point in the center of the frame, where most of the metering was going on, and learned how tricky it can be to keep a flying bird’s eye in the precise center of the frame.

If the big white rectangle is good enough for Moose Peterson, it's good enough for me. Being left-eyed, my nose presses against the circular multi-function dial above the focus-mode selector, which can be very exasperating if the selector is unlocked.

Toward the end of the day, I remembered a tip from Moose Peterson, one of America’s top wildlife photographers, and, if I’m not mistaken, the guy I used to buy gear from at Del’s Cameras in Santa Barbara. For moving subjects against simple backgrounds, Moose recommends Nikon’s “auto-area” focus mode, known to many of us as “drunk mode” or “waiter mode,” and known to Ken Rockwell as “the big white rectangle setting.” In this mode, the camera selects the focus point. Moose says the bias is toward closest subject.  That’s not always the bird’s eye, of course, but the big white rectangle did a better job than I did keeping fast moving subjects in focus.

I remembered Moose's tip a little late in the day, but my final three shots relied on the "big white rectangle," and they are all in focus, despite being in different parts of the frame.

I can usually outthink the camera when evaluating exposure – after all, the camera doesn’t know how I WANT the picture to look – but there’s no question that the camera’s focusing reactions are faster than mine. Over time, we’re learning to work together as a team.

Even with a relatively "busy" background, the auto-area focus mode should select the subject in the foreground. I hope to test this further in the very near future, as it could make a huge difference when tracking a lone dancer on stage.

2 Comments

Filed under Camera Settings, Nature Photography, Post Processing

2 responses to “I May be Smart, but the Camera is FAST

  1. Myrna Cambianica

    great tips … did you hand hold? camera/lens i mean not wife’s

    going to see if i have that big white rectangle on my nikon … there is something called 3 D tracking under auto focus area mode … know anything about that??

    • All hand held, with VR turned off.

      3D focus mode is different. In that setting, you focus on something and the camera tries to keep that in focus as you or the subject move. I’ve only gotten good results with a large subject against a very simple background.

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