After my convoluted and twisting blog about photography, here is one devoted to helping all of us take better photos: Learn from our mistakes! Yesterday, while visiting a rancher friend in the Bridgeport area about access for photography, he mentioned that “the owls were nesting” — Great horned owls in the cottonwoods behind the house and barn owls on several of the rocky faces in the nearby hills and canyons. Within minutes of concluding our visit, I drove to the nearby rocky bluffs, finding two different, well-used small holes, each with a resident owl. Perhaps a breeding pair, the female in the larger opening where I’ve photographed young owls (thinking they were great horned owls (another embarassing story that we won’t go into right now) and the male in the smaller opening about 15-yards to the east. I didn’t check my camera’s settings and was completely unprepared for the adult owl’s next move. I tried to approach carefully, staying a modest distance to avoid startling the owl. It (he?) seemed content to remain in the protection of the rocky den so I raised the camera to take a photo into the opening of the dark, shaded owl inside. Eye to the camera, I caught a somewhat surprising guest in the viewfinder, the owl jumping directly into the lens. Well it looked that way!
Anyway, the camera and I missed critical focus on the face of the owl, my camera was set to “S” or single focus, and to “S” for shutter preferred exposures. And the shutter speed was set at 1/125th of a second, not nearly fast enough to arrest the fast moving bird. I wouldn’t ever make an excuse that a motor drive firing at 5 to 8 frames a second makes the photographer’s job easier — year’s ago, Kodak and Fuji film manufacturers loved high speed motor drives.
If I’d given any thought to the situation, I’d set the camera to it’s fastest drive speed (approximately 5 frames a second), but more importantly, the camera’s auto focus function to “C” or continuous — don’t know if my camera and older Minolta 200mm f2.8 lens, with a TC or tele-extender 1.4X could have kept focus on the approaching owl, but I would have at least been much better prepared. Another nice thing about digital, I could have increased the sensor’s ISO (what oldtimer’s like myself still call ASA) allowing me to use a much higher shutter speed for the light conditions.
Treat your missed photo opportunities as a learning situation — you’d think I’d know that after all these years. I too often find a suitable subject, bring the camera to eye and quickly snap the photo, only to see that the shutter speed was mistakenly set to 1/15th of a second. I normally use the shutter preferred automatic setting for exposures of wildlife — the post processing later on provides some ability to correct for an errant exposure and opportunities to photograph wildlife won’t give us time to make a test exposure and get everything set before the action commences. If I’m photographing fleet pronghorn antelope with a longer telephoto lens, I’d try to select a shutter speed like 1/750th of a second. Photographing a landscape with both close and distant subject matter, I’d perhaps set the shutter speed to 1/60th of a second, to increase depth-of-field (we’ll try to explain DOF in a future blog).
It might make sense now to mention using tripods. I need to use a tripod more often and readily admit to finding unsharp, but well-exposed files on the camera’s CF memory card. But camera manufacturers have somewhat helped the situation for photographers hand holding their cameras, even a slower shutter speeds. “IS” or internal stabilization — either in the camera body or the lens — is a very useful feature that many of the newer cameras and lenses possess. Stabilization can help the photographer holding the camera at slower shutter speeds for the light conditions but certainly won’t be able to help stop subject motion, so there is a time and a place for tripods, or even a “monopod”, a single-legged tripod, if you will. A bag of wheat or a sandbag is often very useful as well.
Anyway, if there is something obvious in your photograph that needs improvement, make a mental note and be better prepared next time when an owl jumps directly into your viewfinder!