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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Taking Flight

Miguel Lasa may be a physician by training, but he’s a top wildlife photographer by avocation

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Keep an eye out for nonaction moments, too. This is one of Lasa’s most popular shots. It looks like this snowy owl is laughing, but it’s actually screaming a warning at the photographer.
While all D-SLRs have wide-area, multiple-point AF systems, most bird photographers use single-point AF for flight shots. “I use the center AF point for most flight shots,” says Lasa. “If I know which way the bird will go, I sometimes use one of the other AF points to suit that particular composition.”

Autofocusing is quicker with single-point AF, and often the central AF point is the most sensitive. “The most important thing is to keep the active AF point on the bird,” he stresses. “And that isn’t easy—it takes lots of practice.”

Like many bird pros, Lasa uses a gimbaled head on his tripod, allowing for smooth panning to track moving subjects.

Of course, Lasa uses continuous AF for flight shots. His pro cameras and lenses allow him to set things, so pressing a button on the lens sets single-shot AF for birds at rest. When he senses the bird is about to move, he lets go of the button and is back in continuous AF.

Lasa points out that his EOS-1D Mark III (like many newer pro models) has a special setting telling the camera how to behave regarding the background, i.e., how long it should wait before focusing on the background should you let the AF point move off the bird. “If the AF moves to the background, lift your finger off the button and start over again,” he advises. “The camera won’t quickly regain focus otherwise.”

To nail exposures in tricky situations, Lasa uses the histogram display. “Each time I set up, I take a shot and check the histogram. I make any necessary exposure adjustments, and I’m ready when the action starts.” Lasa likes his histograms to stretch 80% to 90% of the way to the right end, but not all the way, to avoid blown-out highlights (a frequent problem with white and partly white birds).

Lasa sets his cameras’ evaluative (multisegment) metering with up to +2 stops of exposure compensation in snow or overcast lighting and rarely more than +1 stop in bright sun. But he points out that each camera’s metering system is different, so it pays to test yours to see how it works. Learn your meter, use exposure compensation as needed, and always check the histogram of a test shot before the real action begins.

While he doesn’t use flash for snow shots because all that white nicely fills in shadows naturally, Lasa sometimes uses fill-flash in summer to lighten shadows and separate the bird from the background. A flash extender (such as the Tory Lepp Project-A-Flash or Walt Anderson Better Beamer) uses a Fresnel screen to concentrate the flash beam, narrowing its angle but extending its range—perfect for super-telephoto work. Many D-SLRs and accessory flash units let you adjust the flash-to-ambient light ratio. Lasa recommends experimenting with this until you get a balance that looks natural. Shots that look flash-lit are seldom very good.


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