By Scott Bourne
I love photographing birds and learning more about them. I’ve had lots of chances to photograph birds in all conditions. On a trip to Florida this February, I went out on an expedition hoping for an opportunity to shoot something very different. This time, I wanted to show another side of the birds I was photographing near the water. They have a dream-like quality that I wanted to recreate in a photograph.
I went to Estero Lagoon on Fort Myers Beach at twilight to try to capture this quality. I decided to experiment with bird photography in a way I never had before. I wanted to shoot near dusk using flash.
I set up my Nikon D3 with the Sigma 300-800 and a SB-900 connected to the camera via sync cord. I racked the big zoom all the way out to 800mm so I could isolate a few birds. There was one problem – no birds. After waiting about an hour, I packed up my gear and headed back to the hotel determined to try again the next night.
The next day was even better since the water was calmer. This time there were birds – too many of them in fact. It took me a while to find a pair that was still enough to photograph.
I had to wait for it to get dark enough to capture a black sky and a white reflection. I could accomplish this in manual mode by simply adjusting the shutter speed in combination with the flash on manual at full power. (Shutter speed controls ambient light in manual flash mode – aperture controls exposure.) But in my mind, I wanted the scene to be as natural as possible, so I waited. And luckily, so did the birds. They stayed in nearly the same spot for more than 20 minutes. I had discovered as I spent time photographing birds in Florida that they were plentiful and seemed tamer and used to people. They didn’t startle as easily as birds I’d photographed in other regions of the country, so it was easier to photograph them.
As I was getting ready to shoot it dawned on me, though, that the flash might spook the birds. I decided I had better get it right the first time since the next morning I was flying home to Washington State.
I set my ISO to 400 and my aperture to f/6.7. I set the SB-900 to i-TTL but turned off the automatic balance function. With the balance function on, the SB-900 tries to get a perfect mix of flash and ambient light. For the shot I had in mind, that wouldn’t work. I had the camera on a tripod and used my free left hand to get the flash off the camera. I gauged the exposure using the scientific “eyeball” technique.
As the color seeped out of the scene, it hit me that this would be a cool monochrome shot. On the fly, I had to re-think everything to make sure this would work. But I could tell that black and white was going to be the way to go for this shot.
Color would highlight the breeding plumage of the bird, but in black and white you’d focus on the bird’s faces. Color captures beauty, black and white focuses on the mood of a scene.
I moved my camera position to get a bit closer to the bird. I moved slowly to avoid spooking or disturbing him. Because this bird had been amazingly tame, I had no trouble selecting my final spot.
I made sure all my gear was set, double-checked that my flash and camera were set the way I wanted them, and then I let go with a single shot from the D3. I half expected the bird to flush but he was completely unphased. It turns out that birds rarely react to flash photography, but since I hadn’t tried using flash in a similar situation, I didn’t know this. The bird gave me three more minutes before flying off into the night, and that was more than I needed to get my shot.
Back at the hotel I loaded the image into Aperture and confirmed a successful shot. I had captured the dream-like quality I had imagined and felt while birdwatching at twilight. My flash technique, though previously unproven, worked as I had hoped.
In post, I converted the image from color to black and white using Nik Silver Efex Pro. Even though the scene was nearly monochromatic, there was a hint of color that I had to remove.
As I worked on this image, it became clear to me where the inspiration for the black and white image came from. I never dream in color.