Category Archives: Swans

Photo of Black Swan in Michigan

Photographing Black Swans -Spot Metering in High Contrast Scenes

Black Swans Wintering in Michigan

Black Swans are native to Australia, but shipped around the world because they are popular birds for zoological gardens and private bird collections. Exotic enthusiast often clip the primary flight feathers at the end of the wings. This is done, of course, to keep the bird from flying away. Since an exotic bird is not in its natural environment, keeping it safe and away from harmful predators and the elements often requires that the owners restrict its flight. This was no doubt the case for the Black Swans I came across in SW Michigan. These wild, but captive swans are beautiful and ornately situated in a well stocked pond with gazebo, on private property.

Keeping captured, ornamental birds is not something I would do, but I was glad to have the opportunity to photograph them.

Photographing High Contrast Scenes

When I looked at the black swans swimming in open water through my viewfinder, I was presented with a high contrast scene. In the forefront, there was brightly lit snow and ice. In the background, depending on the swans’ movements, there was either bright, white snow, or dark brown tree roots and dirt. I took a couple test shots and found that the camera’s light meter (set to Evaluative Metering) was having difficulty getting an accurate light reading.

Evaluative Metering v Spot Metering

Evaluative metering on DSLR cameras measures the light reflecting off the whole scene in the viewfinder to determine exposure settings. When using this metering mode to photograph the swans, the light meter was being over-influenced by the brightness in the foreground and background. It was a good opportunity to try out my camera’s spot metering function. NOTE: I usually keep my camera set on evaluative metering mode because EM is considered to be the most reliable of the automatic exposure settings. For more information on evaluative metering mode, see this post.

When to Use Spot Metering

When lighting conditions are such that you think the light meter should take a meter reading from a designated “spot” in the viewfinder rather than the whole scene, set the camera to spot metering. Spot metering gives you more control over exposure by allowing you to choose a small, center spot (approx 1%- 5% of the viewfinder) on which your camera will calculate the light for exposure and set the exposure values. This gives you the ability to meter only the bird- or a small part of the bird, depending on how close you are to your subject.

Photo of Black Swan in Icy Waters
Close up of Black Swan Against a Wooded Background – Icy Water in the Foreground
ISO 1600; f/7.1; 1/1250 Second
Photo of Two Black Swans
2 Black Swans Swimming in Icy Water.
ISO 2000; f/9.0; 1/1250 Second

Don’t Confuse Spot Metering With Spot Focusing

For way too long, I confused the spot metering function with spot focusing. These are two completely different functions often used together, but not necessarily. Spot focusing allows the photographer to set one very small spot in the scene on which the lens will focus.

Spot focusing gives the photographer much more maneuverability than spot metering because the focus spot does not have to be locked in the center of the viewfinder. On my camera, spot metering is restricted to the center, and spot focusing can be set in a wide variety of off center locations.

Give Spot Metering a Try

Spot metering is another one of those camera settings that is often ignored by bird photographers because there are so many other things to think about when the action is at its peak and time is short. Experimenting with the spot metering function is a very good way to better understand how your camera calculates exposure. Light, after all, is what photography is all about.


Photograph of Swans on Lake during Golden Hour

Photographing Swans During the Golden Hour

Understanding Natural Light in Photography

I wanted to try another early morning shoot. Early morning means being on site with tripod setup before the sun rises. I allowed plenty of setup time and brought a flashlight.My previous experiences with early morning photography focused on photographing birds perched on branches with blurred foliage in the background.

I set up my equipment in the darkness and pointed my camera toward the lake, where I had an unobstructed view of the pre dawn horizon. My goal was to photograph waterbirds during the golden hour.

Golden Hour of Photography
Swans on the Lake at the Early Morning “Golden Hour”

The Golden Hour of Natural Light Photography

The “golden hour” refers to the light in the first hour of the day right before and shortly after the sun rises and last hour of the day right before and shortly after the sun goes down. This light is referred to as magical because it is rare. It does not appear with every sunrise and sunset and certainly doesn’t last a whole hour.

You will know you’ve experienced the golden hour because the scene will be bathed in saturated colors and a golden glow. The diffused light and long shadows will bring out the details in your subjects. If you can position yourself and your camera so this light hits your scene at an angle, you can add depth and texture to your photos.

Photographers’ Tools

There are many phone apps out there that are basically sunrise/sunset calculators for any location, so you can pre plan your photo shoot to determine optimal times for the best lighting. Some of these apps also include  how and where exactly the sun (and moon) will be in the sky for any time of day for any location on earth.

These tools have no way of gauging if the light will be magical or not. In fact, there’s a very good chance that after your early morning scramble to be at the right place at the right time, the light will be flat, dull and uninspiring.

Photographing Swans on the Lake

The camera sees light differently than the human eye. When I focused my lens on the swans on this particular morning, I saw the steam coming off the water. I did not see the soft, luminous golden hues that add so much to this photo. The sun was not visible, but its rays were low on the horizon. The humidity that morning was heavy and probably had a hand in dispersing the light rays.

When I got back home and loaded the digital files into my post processing software (Lightroom), I could see that I had approximately 6-8 minutes worth of photographs taken during this golden setting. (NOTE: Even within this 6-8 minute window of great light, the light changed minute by minute.) Before that time, the photos were dark and shadowy. After that time, the light became more directional and contrasty. The magic was gone.

Planning and Practice to Better Understand the Impact of Light

The biggest factor that can make or break a photo is the quality, intensity and angle of light. With natural light, you can create mood and emotion in your photos.

Photographers must learn to recognize what constitutes bad, good and great lighting in their photographs. Is the light pleasing? Does it evoke an emotional response? What is it about that photo that makes you want to look at it again and again?

Good photography is about light. It takes lots of planning and perseverance, and lots and lots of practice. And sometimes you have to be out every single day and just keep hoping that you and your camera will capture all the potential the golden hour has to offer.