Saturday Evening Post #125 : Simples

Front light is one of our most basic light forms.

Nicéphore Niépce used it for his first ‘heliograph’ made in 1826 or 27.  An 8 hour or more exposure taken through an upstairs window of his Burgundy estate.

Front light was the staple light of George Eastman’s Kodak. The small aperture and low sensitivity meant that bright light was indeed the order of the day.

The (in)Famous “Sunny Sixteen Rule” relies on bright sunshine—a couple of hours after sunup and before sundown— to give correct exposure.

I admit to still using a variation of the Sunny Sixteen, when I shoot in M for Manual on the D500. Normally I use ISO400, and f/5.6 on the 500mm PF with a shutter speed of 1/2500-for white birds 1/3200.  The good old Reciprocity Rule at work before your very eyes.

My dear old Mum’s favourite photo-adage, “Keep the sun over your left shoulder dear”, is just another variation on that theme.

Front Light in sunny daylight gives beginners several advantages:
The subject is evenly lit.
No heavy shadows to spoil the colours. The shadows fall away behind the subject.
Colours are rich and expressive.
Metering is easy, or just the Sunny 16.
The form and shape are lost in a flat looking surface.
A uplifting, bright mood is established.

And of course a couple of disadvantages:
Lack of Drama (most times)
Lack of form and shape because of the loss of shadows
Hard for subject not to squint as they peer toward the bright light.
Birds tend to look away for the same reason, and perhaps because it’s easier to see prey in the bird’s front light.

So on any given day in the field, my first choice is Mum’s Rule. But of course it depends on the mood I want.
Light coming from behind the subject robs us of rich colour and often detail.

So it is not without consequence that EE and I were out at the Western Treatment Plant on a sunny afternoon.

We found the Black Kite sitting conspicuously on a branch high on a tree near the roadway.
We slowed and stopped, the light was coming from behind the bird and the most we really could see was a shape in shadow.

I glanced in the rear view mirror and several cars were coming up behind us. We had stopped well off the road, so there was plenty of room to pass.  To my surprise, they too stopped, several cameras with people attached got out, some cameras stayed in the cars with the windows wound down.  A few shutter clicks, and quick ‘chimp’ at the results, and the vehicles moved on looking for something else to record.

I didn’t have to see the results to know they had a black, Black Kite. All shadow, no detail.
After the dust settled and with the bird still in good view, we moved up the roadway about 75m, and the Kite was now in “full front, sunlight”, dial in the sunny 16, and increase the shutter speed slightly to keep the highlights in the feathers, wait, wait, wait for a head turn, there is the eye catchlight. Click. Job done.

I know in the field, the excitement of seeing a bird is more than enough to make a record shot. I’ve got half a disk-drive full of them.  But getting the best colour, or mood or feel takes a few moment to consider the vision that I have of the results, and then making the necessary steps to work to achieve that.

Do I always use front light?  No, is the loud reply. But it is my light of choice if I am after those rich feather colours and details



PS: For Nikon Users Only. Canon and Sony users, move along-nothing to see here. 🙂
Over on ArtfromSience web site, Ed Dozier has an interesting test series on the Auto Focus on the D500, D850, D6.  His methods and conclusion bring some interesting thoughts to the accuracy and how to get the best out of it, of the Nikon AF system. Hope it helps.
Optimizing Autofocus Efficiency in Nikons



8 thoughts on “Saturday Evening Post #125 : Simples

  1. I agree David, front light is important for bird photos to describe the bird’s features well. I am often having to lighten areas of a frame to give the true representation of the subject, as much of bird photography identifies and distinguishes features of the bird, but often true also are those captures where the light is highlighting the face or profile in a way which gives true individual character to that particular picture giving it a more unique and valuable property. Interesting history shared on the art of capturing light and the images it produces.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Ashley, it is hard to generalise when it comes to photographic technique things. There are some old favourites that no matter how often the technology changes, they still apply. front lighting being such an offering.
      I still work hard to create character and sense of place for the birds, and while those are my main vision criteria, often times I’ll fall back to the simple rather than the deeply expressive.
      What hurts sometimes is the ‘hit and miss, make the shot and move on’ style i see all to often in the field.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Indeed, I see many people taking the ‘record’ shot, and I will do the same myself if it looks like the bird will fly before I can get into a better position. Having done that I will then move to the position I want to use the light, hoping that said bird is still in situ. It behoves us all to consider the light, when we can, in order to get the best results, sometimes the move is only a metre or two, sometimes considerable distance.
    Re the Sneydes Kites, the nest is in one of the trees you often park the car under and they seem to be using the tall trees further west, on the southern side of the road as the staging/feeding point. I guess we hadn’t sighted them as we hadn’t been around as much or at the right time. I number of times I had heard the call of the juvenile(s), at least two, perhaps a third. I just got lucky yesterday when I was able to watch where Bronson flew to, and then Belle came in as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. G,day David,
      It is that little simple move that I guess I’m talking about. Ok to blog about it, but in the field of course thing change. Just depends on how much grace the bird will offer.

      We stopped at Snyedes on the way out this morning. Saw two juveniles. They are pretty well advanced it seems and quite the regular aeronauts. Bronson was playing shepherd up and down the roadway and across the paddock, but we didn’t see him feed.
      Mostly they were by the gate midway along the road, just near the channel.

      Good find mate


  3. I also agree with your views on light direction and I’ve enjoyed reading the stories accompanying them. Still, as I am in my experimenting phase, I do change my position a lot, if the situation allows. Sometimes I am nicely surprised with the against the light shots (but, for the record, rarely if they are also against the skies ;-). Your Black Kite image illustrates all the advantages of the front light shooting perfectly.
    Now to the very interesting link on the Nikon AF settings: it gives some special insight indeed and although I will stick to shutter release AF (as once recommended by you for D500) and keep my button for tracking the birds in flight (again, as once recommended) I have changed the settings of blocked shot AF response to “Delayed” and subject motion to “Steady”. I’ll see how I go…
    Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. G’day Adam,
    Ahh, yes, and your use of rim-lighting and that rich result of deep shadow surrounds and fine detail on the edges, is well, legendary. Keep it up.
    I should do a contre-jour page one day as well. I love it as it is one of my most enjoyed theatrical style lights.
    The article and the information from Ed Dozier, is well supported by his clever experiments. It shows something practical which often is missing from the talking head No-it-all selfstyled web influencers.
    i mostly choose to use off the shutter activation as my old arthritic thumb has trouble being the centre of interest. However, I am going to give it a bit more of a try. I have never seen much difference from Erratic to Steady in most of my own work.
    After all this time, I still think the older style ‘lock on’ is more reliable, but then it doesn’t react as quickly.
    The D500 works for me, and is my ‘game-changer’ when it comes to ‘eye-recognition’, but then it might be the subjects I choose. 🙂
    Trust the trip to Halls Gap and beyond was both enjoyable and profitable.


  5. Such a beautiful example of the use of light spilling over the bird. Like Dave, I tend to take an “insurance” shot when I see a bird, but then try for the better angle in terms of light or sticks in the way or whatever. It’s such a bonus when the subject humours me and is prepared to wait for me to try to get it right!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Eleanor,
      I reckon a lot of ‘insurance’ shots get made. Most of mine never get further than sitting on the harddrive, but they, like insurance, are always there.
      It is one of the reasons many shoot so much multi-burst, even of a bird on a stick.
      Every so often, we are graced by a bird with a fine sense of purpose and as Jon Young describes it so well, “we have an attitude of connection and respectful conduct.” I am sure then we are able to make portraits, not insurance shots. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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