Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

February 2007

Tip of the Month

Framing a Telephoto against a desert sunrise

A traditional view of snow geese descending is a fairly straightforward exposure, and presents no
worry about injuring your eyes. However it's a different story when you're looking straight into
a fireball sunrise with a 500mm telephoto lens. Read on how to be safe!

Please Note: Photographing the sun can damage your eyes. This tip is not meant to promote or encourage such photography
but is offered as a possible work-around to prevent such injury. You are forewarned.

Recently we had the pleasure of co-leading a NANPA (North American Nature Photography Association) field trip to the Salton Sea in southern California, an activity held in conjunction with NANPA's annual conference. Our focus, for the field trip, was snow geese, and we filmed birds at both sunrise and sunset … which leads to this month's tip.

Our morning shoot was aimed directly east towards the rising sun. In the first light of dawn geese periodically lifted from a nearby pond, offering silhouettes against the increasingly brightening sky. Metering for pre-sunrise skies is easy, as we simply meter the bright orange sky and overexpose by about one stop. This accomplishes two things:
1. Since meters read for middle tone or gray, purposefully over-exposing by one stop restores a sense of brightness to the sky, rather than the rather dull, mid-tone sky we'd otherwise have.
2. Over-exposing also pushes the histogram to the right, which maximizes the amount of data in the scene.

The image on the left is the original, corrected as best I could in the RAW converter. Center, the histogram, and you'll note that it is
clipped at both ends. Neither clipping issue concerns me for a web image, but the white clipping could be an issue in printing. The
image on the right was tweaked in Photoshop, using three layers, the Multiply blend mode, a selection, a mask, and the paint bucket
to give that burned out sun some color. We teach all of these techniques in our Photoshop courses, by the way!

Although the exposure changes slightly as the minutes pass, as the sun creeps higher and higher toward the horizon line, metering and composing remains fairly simply, since the bright sky isn't painful, or dangerous, to look at. However, once the sun crests the horizon the situation changes dramatically, especially in the humidity-free atmosphere of southern California.

As the sun climbs higher into the sky the exposure changes rather dramatically, requiring either shutting down the aperture or using a faster shutter speed, or both, to keep the proper exposure. Looking through your viewfinder to do so can be dangerous, especially if you're using a long telephoto (most of the field trip participants were using 500mm lenses) as the bright sun, if in the field of view, is magnified and aimed straight into your eye.

We were shooting geese as they rose from their overnight roosting pond, and we wanted to frame the geese against the sky and the rising sun. Obviously, the sun created a major problem, as a bright sun magnified through a telephoto lens can do serious damage to your eyes. At the very least, you'll see spots for several minutes until, no doubt, your mind adjusts for the ruined rods and cones you've just destroyed and fills in the visual gap, removing the spot.

Here's how we handle this problem, not just for snow geese at the Salton Sea but also for sunrises, or sunsets, virtually anywhere when we're using a telephoto. We use the camera's LCD monitor to frame the image, and expose based upon that view. To do so, we first 'roughly' frame the scene with our eye to the viewfinder, but keeping the sun out of the image. After taking our eye from the viewfinder we move the camera/lens into the approximate position where the sun will be inside the frame.

You can have a pretty good idea that the sun is indeed in the frame if you simply hold your hand a few inches from the viewfinder. As you move the camera - I am assuming you are using a tripod, of course! - a bright rectangle will appear on your hand when the sun is framed. This is a trick used by folks wishing to align a solar-eclipse viewing box, by the way.

We use a Wimberley Gimbal head when we're using our telephotos, so it is extremely easy to position our lens in this way. Since the horizon line, and the framing, can be set via the up/down action of the head, all we need do is rotate the pan action to place the sun within the frame. You could accomplish the same thing with a ballhead, provided the ballhead has a pan feature. In that case, position the rig for the horizon, lock the ball, and then rotate, on axis, via the pan feature.

When you think you have the sun in the frame, snap a picture. Check the LCD monitor and adjust accordingly. As the sun rises the exposure will change, but you can fine tune that exposure as well by simply consulting the LCD monitor.

For the snow geese, we shot clouds of geese rising skyward, and some returning as well, by simply watching the sky with our naked eyes, and snapping a shot when we thought birds were within the frame. To achieve sharp focus on the birds I first focused on flocks of birds that flying by, near the sun but without having the sun in my field of view. At the distances involved 1/1000th sec. was sufficiently fast to freeze the birds, so I had plenty of depth of field when I set the ISO to 400.

One final trick. Looking at a sunrise in the desert, even naked eye, can be dangerous, so to protect my eyes I extended my arm and raised my thumb as an effective sun-block. My thumb blocked the sun but still gave me a great view of the surrounding sky so that I could snap images whenever I thought geese were within the frame. Sure, I missed some shots, but not many, and even more importantly, I didn't risk any damage to my eyes!

Our Past Photo Tips of the Month:


ProShow Gold
Digital Slide Program

Workflow and Workload -
You Can Keep Ahead

  New Lens Covers for
Long Lenses

 Action Wildlife Photography Camera Settings

 Bring along a Point N Shoot

 Liquids in your Levels -
TSA Warnings!

 Effective Cloning in Adobe CS2

 The Helicon Focus Filter Revisited

 Action Wildlife Photography Camera Settings

 Keep Your Head Up
 The Best All-Around Lens

 The Pond-A Must-See shooting Location in southern Arizona

 DIGITAL- Digital Birding

 DIGITAL -Shoot for the Future

 DIGITAL-Shoot for the Future, Part II

 Capture 1's Most Useful Features

maximizing depth of field digitally

  Backing Up Your Digital Files - you'll need more than you think

 DIGITAL Photographing scenes with extreme exposure values

 NPN- Nature Photography Network - a digital forum for nature photography

 Digital Pro Image Management Software

 Watch Your Backgrounds
The potential of composites or shooting in RAW format

 A Great Website for Information - the Singapore Nature Photography Society

 Save Your Equipment from Crashing!

 The L-Bracket, the ultimate camera bumper

At the Pulse of Life
by Fritz Polking

 Carry Your Gear!

 Shooting in Inclement Weather

 Carry-on Luggage for small commuter flights

 Visual Echos Tele-Flash for the 580EX Flash

 Ask Questions
Before You Go

 Seize the Moment!

Geared Focusing Rail for Macro Work 

 Protecting your long lens from SAND, the pleasures of beach photography

 How do we protect our gear from dust, and carry our gear when on safari

 The Ultimate Flash Bracket
Padding Your Wimberley
Tripod Head

  Specular highlights and the flashing frog
 Using TTL flash with Hummingbirds  Testing your Flash's Aim
Maximum Depth of Field and Hyperfocal Distance - they're not the same thing!  If you see it, it's too late -- a lesson in anticipation  How do you shoot the Moon?
  Low level tripod work  A great depth of field guide  Wimberley 400 and 600mm IS plate

 Sigma's 120-300mm F2.8 APO HSM zoom lens

 Using The Wimberley Gimbal head with a camera body

 Sigma's 120-300 f2.8 APO
zoom telephoto lens

 Custom Function 4-1 for Nikon and Canon shooters

 Sighting in a very, very long lens
 The Nature Photography Network - a super website for images and information
  Take a Workshop First   Luck, what is it?  Don't take in baby wild animals

  Airline Carry-On Luggage -Let your concerns be heard!

 Disconnect -- travel precautions

Photograph America Newsletter
 Wildlife Portraiture

 Obey the Rules
The Ti Chi Stalk
Photographing Critically Endangered Sites Bushnell Night Vision Optics  Adobe Photoshop 7 for $300

 The Sibley Bird Guides

 Removing Cactus Spines

 Drying out boots with newspaper

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