Side-lit Swainson’s Hawk

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The preferred lighting source for most nature photography is sunlight coming from behind the photographer on a line that points directly to the subject.  In that circumstance the subject of the photograph tends to be evenly illuminated, minimizing the risk that parts of the image will be over- or underexposed. Side lighting, in which sunlight is at right angles to the subject, and back lighting, where the sun is behind the subject and shining in the photographer’s face, pose problems which are sometimes impossible to overcome.  Side-lit subjects tend to have areas that are heavily over- or underexposed, sometimes multiple areas in the same image.  Back-lit subjects tend to come out as silhouettes unless the photographer overexposes the background.  Sometimes with a back-lit subject one must overexpose the background so much in order to capture the subject that the background turns totally white.

The other day, while driving on a rural road, I saw a Swainson’s Hawk perching on a pecan tree.  It was strongly side-lit.  I took a gamble, hoping that the image would work.  I was pleasantly surprised by the result.

In guessing at an exposure setting I managed to find one that didn’t totally wash out the hawk’s side-lit right shoulder and belly.  I also got lucky in that I did not underexpose the remainder of the image so badly that the bird was rendered as a silhouette.

I’m pleased with this picture because it’s different.  It literally shows a side of this bird that,  normally, I wouldn’t try to depict.  I’m also pleased because it tested my skills as a photographer and I managed to use those skills to salvage a decent result.  Anyone can take a picture in perfect lighting.  Taking a useable picture in bad lighting is a real ego booster.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f6.3 @ 1/1250.  I shot this image with two full stops of exposure compensation above the camera’s metered setting.  If I’d used the metered setting the sky would have come out a strong blue but the bird would have been just a dark silhouette.  If I’d compensated more than two stops the shadowed part of the bird would have come out lighter and with more detail, but the sky would have turned white and the bird’s right side would have been so badly overexposed that it would have been unsalvageable.


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