“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, …”
This post was supposed to be about Short-eared Owls, not about the embodiment of a symbolic metaphor for never-ending remembrance.
THE PLAN WAS…
Early yesterday morning as I saw that there was going to be a break in the storms, I thought it would be a great chance to photograph Short-eared Owls at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, near Los Banos. I thought the odds were stacked in my favor given the previous night’s tempest and their crepuscular propensities. I thought for certain there would be several out early enough in the evening to photograph in decent light.
Crepuscular is derived from Latin crepusculum (“twilight”)
I am a firm believer that luck is mostly preparation meeting opportunity. As I was heading out the door, my sister-in-law Julissa commented about the stormy weather. My response was , “it’s all about having clouds in the sky. They can turn a mediocre photo into an outstanding composition!”
I pulled in to the refuge a little before 3:00 PM and sure enough, there were lots of clouds. Large, foreboding nimbostratus clouds with drifting rain sheets were visible in the eastern sky with more coming in from the west.
I initially took the Waterfowl Tour Route, heading first northeast and then circling around clock-wise. My plan was to head around to the Sousa Marsh first and then hit the Tule Elk Route closer to sunset. The sun would intermittently illuminate the landscape with an ominous, almost stygian cloud backdrops.
As I approached the Sousa Marsh at the extreme south east portion of the tour route, the clouds continued to add their own story to the beautiful wildlife narrative, which now also included Tundra Swans.
Well over a hundred of these long-necked, magnificent white birds were scattered around the wetlands. Against such a dramatic, dark background these birds practically glowed and proved to be a challenge to capture digitally.
I completed the Waterfowl Tour Route and decided to take a drive around the Tule Elk Route, as I still had some time to kill before sundown approached. As I drove around this route, the clouds again continually changed in appearance and brightness, at times darkening, and at other times, absolutely glowing as with some inner power or force.
I was able to spot the herd of Tule Elk, which appeared to be settling down for the evening.
After completing that first loop around the Tule Elk Route, I decided to make a second loop and to head north along the route to parking lot 1, again earnestly searching for Short-eared Owls. This time, as I started the Tule Elk Route, there was a Raven cawing and croaking quite vociferously from the top of one of the giant posts on the Tule Elk enclosure fence line. Black-colored birds against light clouds can be tricky to photograph because feather details get lost. This is frustrating because through binoculars, the rods in our eyes have the ability to define much more detail than a camera can.
I used my car as a mobile blind, and the Raven was not at all bothered by my slow approach. Experience has taught me to bracket my shots, allowing variations in the exposures to hopefully find the best combination of shutter speed and aperture.
According to Wikipedia In photography, bracketing is the general technique of taking several shots of the same subject using different camera settings. Bracketing is useful and often recommended in situations that make it difficult to obtain a satisfactory image with a single shot, especially when a small variation in exposure parameters has a comparatively large effect on the resulting image.
I ended up taking over 60 shots of this obliging corvid. Looking at the images through the LCD panel on the back of my camera, I was NOT hopeful of a happy ending to this opportunity. The edges seemed sharp, but there was little detail in the feathers and around the face and eyes. Sharpness and detail around the face and eyes are very important to a quality bird image.
After my apparent lack of success with the Raven, I headed back north again, slowly driving through the grassland route, searching for a low-flying Asio flammeus (Short-eared Owl) and continuing to marvel at the changing clouds. One of my last shots was this colorful sunset.
Though I was unsuccessful in my effort to find and photograph the owl, this turned out to be an enjoyable jaunt through some marvelous scenery and cloud formations.
AND NOW, THE REST OF THE STORY…
Most bird photographers will admit that the home-processing of photos is as much (or more…) fun as the actual shoot is. As is my custom, I preview every image using a simple photo viewing application, where I zoom in to see if there is good subject placement and sufficient detail and sharpness to warrant an import into Adobe Lightroom. As I mentioned before, a camera does not have the ability to record the details that we can see with our eyes.
AUDUBON The Dos and Don’ts of Editing Bird Photos
End up with the best image possible—without compromising its integrity.
My job, using Lightroom, is to make the image appear as similar as possible to what I could see with my eyes. I never add to or remove any content from my images (sometimes called photoshoping); rather, I enhance or reduce the highlights or shadows to bring out detail. I may adjust the contrast or add a smidge of vibrance to give an image a little more pop. It may be necessary to apply some luminance adjustments to reduce the amount of pixilation that can occur in low light. The last step of my photographic process is to make sure the subject is where I want it and that the horizon is level. This is done by a simple cropping and rotation.
Just as Ansel Adams was the master of the subtleties of negative development and photograph exposure, today’s photographers use processing tools to produce their masterpieces.
So I chose one of the images that looked like might have potential and looked at it using the Windows Photos app, and it looked exactly like this.
After a little cropping, adjustment of highlights and shadows, some honing of contrast and exposure with a fine-tuning of luminence, my image turned into this.
So once again, even though my hunt for the owls turned out to be fruitless, I ended up with a matchless experience in nature and found that Ravens are as entertaining as owls. Well, almost.