Monday, May 14, 2012

My secret tip: Get LOW!

1/640 | f/5.6 | ISO 320 | 700 mm
Ok, getting low isn't really a secret, but it sure is a tip that can help you get better shorebird images. Read on to get all the details ...

Below is an image of a lesser yellowlegs taken with the lens at human-eye level. Nothing wrong with it, but it just doesn't make the cut for me. For the shot shown above, I took the camera off of the tripod and laid down on the sand. 

Getting at eye-level with the subject does a couple of things. First, it allows you to get a different perspective than what the human eye normally sees. This translates into a fresh look of the subject, which can lead to an attractive image. More importantly, getting low (or at subject eye-level) gives you that silky smooth, out-of-focus background - it gives the subject separation from the background. Why does this happen? Before we can answer this, we need to understand what factors affect the rendition of the background. 

The first factor is the aperture. As photographers, we know that an image shot at f/2.8 will result in a shallower depth of field than an image shot at f/8. However, not many photographers realize the importance of a simple relationship: the ratio of distances between the camera/subject and subject/background. To clarify, let's take a look at a quick schematic:

First, lets define two distances:
     d1 = distance between the camera and the subject
     d2 = distance between the subject and the background

Ideally, to get a smooth background, you want d1 to be much smaller than d2 (d1/d2 << 1). So, when in the field, the first step I take is to get as close as possible to the subject (decrease d1). Then, I get in a position so that the distance between the subject and the background is a maximum (increase d2). The best way to do the latter is to get at eye level with the subject. 

The main thing to take away here is that you don't need to shoot at f/2.8 to get the nice background. In fact, the first image in this post was taken at f/5.6! I have no doubt that I could have shot it at f/16 and achieved an almost identical background. 

So just remember to lay down next time you go out shooting. If the action slows down, you can always take a nap :)

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