We spent the weekend in St. Lucia, KZN, South Africa, where I shot my favourite bird portraits to date. Learn the thought process behind how I captured the shots, gear I used and editing choices that I made.
Camera Body: Nikon Z6ii
Accessories: FTZ Converter (2nd Gen)
Lens: Tamron 100-400mm f/4.5-6.3 Di VC USD (F-Mount)
Stability: Hand held
We were in a wonderful coastal town in South Africa, just three hours drive from my home. St. Lucia is known for it's wildlife, beaches and estuary. Tourists from around the world frequent the destination in search of hippos, crocodiles, a plethora of birds, whales and flora. I will be sharing and discussing a few of my favourite images from this trip.
As for where the hornbills were spotted and captured, it was an example of how fortunate we are in South Africa. We were on our way back from a morning of birding at the estuary (around the 'St. Lucia Game Reserve' point on the map below), when Leeanne spotted three Hornbills in the centre tree pictured below. I quickly pulled the car off the road and grabbed my camera (from my trusted sidekick who always has it at the ready whilst we drive 😆).
This is why I say that we South Africans are so fortunate. After being in a Game Reserve all morning, from 5am to 9am, I got my best shots that day in the middle of the town. Mind you, there are 'Beware of Hippos' signs all over the town, as they do tend to frequent the bars and restaurants at night when the estuary waters get boring. In fact, in 2012 when we last visited St. Lucia, we were met at the pool in our lodge, by a hippo calf and its mum, whilst we were on a night swim. Don't worry, they did not jump in with us.
The maps below show where these Hornbills were captured. The precise coordinates are shown in blue. The grouping of trees in the centre of the street view was where they were resting when I captured them.
My aim here is to talk you through my thought process. I believe that trying to copy the exact settings that someone else uses is useless. However, learning how to adapt your setting to the environment you are in is the key. You know, " ...teach a man to fish."
Almost all the shots were taken at 400mm, except the full body images that were shot at 300mm. ISO 400, f/9 and 1/800s remained constant throughout. Remember, I do not have a monster f/2.8 telephoto so there is compromise that has to be made to maintain centre sharpness. I also do not have the steadiest of hands thanks to some of the medication that I take, so even the 'elbows into sides' and 'press hard against the eyepiece' methods do not work for me fully. I am forced to up my shutter speed a bit. These static shots certainly did not need to be taken at 1/800s. At the same time though, I wanted enough speed to capture motion if the birds were to have taken off. I know I would not have gotten 100% sharpness across the bird, but at least I could have captured a sharp eye and face, with motion in the wings, which still would have been cool. Unfortunately the opportunity did not present. I lie, it did, but I messed it up 🤣.
I was on the ground shooting up into the middle to upper parts of the tree, but did not want to only capture the underside of the birds, so I stood a little away from the tree to angle my line of sight. Then there were the weather conditions. Unlike the Google Street View images above, it was 100% overcast. So, we had the natural diffusion of light by the clouds, but is was not a very thick grey layer so as much as the backlighting was not hard/harsh it was very bright and posed the risk of blowing out the highlights. I used spot metering on the birds, and judged the sky highlights by eye. I knew that I would darken out the background (within reason) in post.
Then there was the fact that I was shooting from the shaded underside of the trees against the strong backlight and these were darkish brown birds. Shadow/highlight management was important. In situations like this, I prefer to preserve the highlights and recover the shadows in post (within reason). It was also a time sensitive capture, the Hornbills were not going to be around forever, and we were on our way back to our family who were waiting for us to check out too. Didn't exactly have all day to wait for the perfect shot.
Shooting in the real world
The one thing that I always keep in mind about my photography, as compared to what I see on Youtube etc. is that I am not a full-time photographer. I have a wife, four year old daughter, her grandparents, work, my PhD research and life in general to balance. I seldom spend a whole day waiting for the perfect moment to capture images. This is the part a lot of the Youtubers who do this full-time leave out.
Let's take this past weekend for example. We arrived on Friday afternoon and left on Sunday. The purpose of the weekend away was to celebrate my father-in-laws birthday. I did not have time to scout locations and basically had 3-4 hours on Saturday and Sunday morning from 5am, seeing as I wake up at the butt-crack of dawn on most days anyway, to do my photography. I had not been to St. Lucia since 2012, so I tried to do as much up front research as possible. There is only so much one can achieve from online searches, Photopills and the Photographers Ephemeris though.
This is the reality for most of us part-time photographers and we have to adapt our photography to suite our lives. Learning to quickly analyse scenes to adjust settings is the best way to do that. We don't often go to destinations for the sake of photography alone, we take photos whilst we are at interesting places for some other primary reason.
I have been fighting with myself about focus modes lately. In my landscape shots, it's easy. Always manual focus. Bird photography is a newer passion for me so I am still finding my feet. As a result, I have tinkered with the various autofocus modes. To be honest, I have settled on manual focus most of the time even for bird photography, moving and static. There are a few reasons:
The camera getting confused with the subject and surrounding objects.
Trusting that the camera has the exact point in focus that I want.
Caveat: I am using focus peaking, and know that I am fortunate to have this to help me.
I also just like having full control over everything my camera is doing. My camera never leaves manual mode, and I stopped using auto ISO as well. I also try to take as few shots as possible to get the shot I want. I don't like hosing a hundred shots then having to go home and go through all of them.
I knew I wanted sharp focus on the eyes and surrounds, and was not too concerned about anything else really. I also wanted the background to be out of focus as much as I could, to achieve separation.
I hate editing. Absolutely hate it. I think it is mainly because I am a perfectionist and over-thinker. I cannot stop trying to 'better' the image and end up messing it up. So I try my hardest to do as much work as I can in-camera. For example, many people say grad ND filters can be essentially done in post (to some extent) and staking/bracketing gives us much less to do in-camera. I agree to some extent, but I try to leave as little to post as possible.
"You can't polish a turd."
I also prefer not to use auto-bracketing and automatic focus stacking. Again, I would rather take each exposure with specific intentional settings, than allow the camera to space them out by a predetermined number of stops.
Above: Final edited portraits (left) and RAW images with Adobe Standard profile in LrC
I do sometimes use photoshop, more on landscapes if I need to do very precise blending, or want to save on CPU load. With nature images like these, I want to have punch in the image but maintain as true to life appearance as I can, whilst maintaining the appeal to the eye. Its also more about the story, emotion and character of the animal, that is conveyed. I apply the 'no manipulation' rules set out by PSSA.
I feel we have become a society brainwashed by social media into believing that 'good' images are bright, cool toned, heavily saturated and high contrast. My editing style is not geared toward social media so I go for warmer, truer to life images that accentuate colours without being oversaturated. I also tend to be light-handed on contrast, which does not seem to always sit well with judges, but I prefer this.
I am working on a calibrated monitor (Huawei Mateview SE) that I picked up for ZAR 2200 (USD 116) and had calibrated with a Datacolor Spyder. I reference against my Macbook Air M1 screen that was also calibrated.
All my editing was done in Lightroom Classic this time around.
Critical in portraits. You can see from the RAWs that I was limited by the focal length range on my lens, and the Z6ii sensor is 24MP full frame. So I had to manage the noise, knowing that I was going to crop in quite a bit. I went for centre eye placement but close to or above the upper third. I wanted to fill the frame, have their eyes piercing the viewer, whilst maintaining enough headroom.
In the second image I left a bit more headroom to portray the tilting of the head from its upright position.
A lot of tutorials say not to adjust globally too much. I say ok, but take that with a pinch of salt. I think that global adjustments help to maintain coherence in the image. Local adjustments, if too extreme, can make the image look odd, I feel.
Colour profile: Camera Portrait
Exposure: Up slightly, I had underexposed IC for the sky
Contrast: Up, to balance exposure increase
Shadows and Whites: Increased to recover shadows and create punch in the image
Very small additions to Dehaze, Texture and Clarity (+2 to +4)
Desaturated to balance boosts made in masks
Local adjustments (masks):
Eye mask - Bring out those eyes to draw the viewer in, but don't over do it. it can stand out too much if you do. Remember, coherent image.
Area around the eye - Recovered shadow detail. In the second image, the shadow side was obviously dark because of the tilt of the head, I recovered a little and just brought out the shine of the eye a little.
Adaptive Filter: Portrait (Vibrant) - Makes the subject stand out, but reduced the highlights and saturation (globally).
Inverted Adaptive Filter: Portrait (Vibrant) - Duplicated above filter and darkened the background to create separation.
Beak - I wanted to make the details stand out. The serrations where teeth would be, the yellow edges on the orange, and the contrasting ridges as you near the distinctive yellow strip by the eye. I had to reduce the shine on the beak in the second image significantly, it was just to bright and attention stealing for an out-of-focus part.
Distractions - In the upper image, the branch at the bottom stood out too much so I darkened it. Cropping it out tightened the frame too much.
The focus in these images was on the character of the birds. It was anger that needed to come across. Unfortunately for the Hornbills, I don't think their beaks leave much choice, but the eyes, body language and positioning of the head tells a story. The distinctive features of the species needed to be highlighted. The choice to focus on the eyes and beak ridges showed detail and intention. Look at those eyelashes too! In the second image, the focus on the eyes were prioritised over the beak and body.
Feel free to message me if you have questions or would like to discuss something in my or one of your images. I am no expert, but perhaps a different point of view would add value to your photographic journey. I would appreciate learning from you too!
Until next time.
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