Tuesday 12 January 2021

Some thoughts on Composition

 Using Negative Space

The use of negative space is often overlooked in bird photography. The technique can be a very powerful storytelling tool, working in subtle ways to draw the viewer into the frame.
 It’s not uncommon when photographing with long lenses to crowd the subject within the frame. What might be appropriate for submissions to a bird guide and magazines etc may not always the best way communicate one's vision.

Below is an example of a close-up used in a popular bird guide of Pacific Northwest birds. 


The Close-up

Least Sandpiper


Telling a Story

 Although a close-up image could be technically perfect, it may often lack context, not all situations call for close-up treatment. Many of my seasoned birding friends (some really well seasoned) tell me they prefer to see at least some background information that gives the subject matter a sense of place that include clues to habitat and other information. Photographs depicting some or all of those criteria can be one of the most difficult forms of bird photography. Most photographs posted on social media lack this important factor. 

How about the image below. The Band-tailed Pigeons are clearly identified and so are ripening Red Elderberries the birds are feeding on. There's the story right there. A close-up may have worked too but it wouldn't have shown a flock feeding. Just as an aside, I also shot a close-up, a horizontal as well a vertical shot for a possible magazine cover.
 Did the image hold your attention for more than three or four seconds, if so then consider the image successful. 
If the photographer can transport the viewer albeit just for a brief moment, that's all the maker of the image can hope for, especially nowadays when thanks to social media and non-stop streaming services we are all on image overload.


Band-tailed Pigeons feeding on Red Elderberry


Using Negative Space

Unlike the painter who begins with a blank canvas, the bird photographer often has to deal the opposite. Messy backgrounds, branches in front of the subject, awkward backgrounds and a host of other challenges. The photographer needs to bring order to the composition. Using negative space is one such technique.

Recently on a visit to Surrey’s Blackie Spit I was drawn to the strange colour to the water. At first I thought it was an algae bloom but on closer inspection it turned out to be a torrent of duckweed that had been released from farmers ditches following days of rain. A flock of thirty plus American Coots were feeding on the floating carpet of weeds. I had never seen so many coots in one place. I alsomade some close-up shots of Common Loons chowing down on crabs. None of those shots really worked out very well.

I then I noticed a Great Blue Heron hunting in the thick carpet of duckweed. I knew from experience that this is something I might never witness again. An opportunity not to be missed. I placed the heron using the Golden Ratio of the frame to act as a visual anchor. The difference in tones draws the eye creating tension with the frame, the heron then becomes the centre of interest.

Using my 24mm-3000mm Nikon P1000 I had the option of many different compositions, something that shooting with a fixed prime 500mm or 600mm lens would have never be been possible. The 200mm-500mm on my D500 could have worked but it would still have been too restrictive compositionally. I could have zoomed in but I already have numerous images of herons flying or feeding and some great shots of their courtship rituals. I decided to use negative space to render my vision. The light was soft, the sun barely penetrating the clouds, the colours muted. I decided to meter off the bright mudflats and underexpose, causing the heron to be silhouetted. I made sure the bird was looking in to the frame from left to right, a ploy to entice the viewer to wander around the image and then back to the heron. The technique works so well because in Western culture we are accustomed to read from left to right, placing the heron in the bottom left encourages the viewer’s eye to naturally roam around the image as if reading a book.

"Its never too late to be composed"
John Gordon
BC, Canada

The Golden Ratio, also sometimes called the Fibonacci Spiral. It is the result of when you do some complex maths on a rectangle to the tune of: a/b = (a+b)/a = 1.61803398875. 

Theres no need to memorize this, you can find the overlays everywhere on the Internet to download and paste over your images, as well as being built in (but very well hidden) in Lightroom. 

To access this spiral, press R to get your cropping function open, then cycle through the available overlays with O until you find the spiral. Turning it around is done by pressing Shift + O. There are eight variations to it.

Saturday 2 January 2021

Something to Crow About or How not to take oneself seriously.

Something to Crow About 

The Crow is purely a fun endeavour, a challenge open to birders who have the time and inclination to tick at least two-hundred and fifty different species of birds in the Lower Mainland in any one year. There is no winner per se and the trophy is shared equally among all those who crack the two-fifty mark. There is of course one person who will see more birds than any other and to them goes the highest perch. 
More info than you will ever need about the Crow can be found at the end of this blog. A big thanks goes to Carlo Giovanella who came up with the novel idea few years ago. Many of us have enjoyed the chase and made 2020 that more sufferable.

California Scrub Jay/Delta

I had had two unsuccessful flaps at the Crow in 2018 (243) and 2019 (244) and for whatever reasons those last few birds always proved elusive having flown the coop before I arrived. I really wanted to try one last time. One last flutter I suppose, even if I would have to wing it.

 My other 2020 resolution was to create one or more eBird lists every day of 2020. That would prove to be an interesting but much easier endeavour. 

Red-eye Vireo/Campbell Valley Park

When I embarked on the quest in the previous years I had always made it little more challenging by periodically taking off for the UK or Mexico. When 2020 began, little did we know how the rest of the year would turn out. No international travel, birding with masks, social distancing, who could have predicted that.

As mentioned the history of The Crow is to try and tick 250 or more different species of birds in the Lower Mainland in any one calendar year. I say try because it can take a certain amount of dedication, determination and a fair amount of luck. Add to that the cost of gas, the outrageous carbon footprint and  the most important part of the equation, blessings from spouses. The latter being the most delicate to negotiate but that subject deserves a whole column on its own.

Black-billed Magpie/Iona Regional Park

Each and every birder who embarks on this somewhat madcap adventure faces different challenges. An unattached individual who can bird any time may possibly have an edge. A student may have classes, homework or have to rely on an understanding parent or public transport. The retiree may have all the time in the world, each and every birder is different. Sadly, I've even met a couple of female birders who were afraid to bird on their own, something us of the male persuasion never really take into consideration.

House Wren/Aldergrove

These days finding birds has never been easier. Digital networks including eBird, the BC Rare Bird (RBA) alert and regular texts from fellow birders all helped us all find birds. These and other great resources have helped everyone involved. 

That said, a few have tossed around the idea that the benchmark for the Crow should now be 260 which is fine except that wasn't the original intent. Perhaps 260 is the new 250, only another year will tell. This year a dozen birders have reached the 250 mark, more I think than ever before, a number have even surpassed 260. 

Bush Tit/Boundary Bay

Could it be that the every birder was grounded due to Covid-19 or was it just a great year for birds? One experienced birder  thought that some of the birds normally seen only in the Spring returned again in the Fall too, especially fortuitous for those who missed them first time round. That doesn't always happen. 
My Big Year (261) brought me a number of new Metro Vancouver birds which was an added bonus. 

New Year's Day

Bird #1

I began the year on New Year's Day with a 10 min drive to a small pond in the Cloverdale Fairgrounds where a female Redhead (below) had taken up residence. By the end of the day and without too much effort I had ticked forty-eight species. Amazingly one year later the Redhead is back at the same location, perhaps the same bird.

At the end of January I had a tally of one hundred and twenty-one species. 
Great fun ticking new birds everyday. Taking part in a couple of Christmas bird counts helped as they were hardcore eight-hour birding days with expert birders.

Brewers Sparrow/Iona

As the weather warmed and the first seriousness of Covid-19 began to sink in, waves of new species were arriving. Some like the Yellow-rumped Warbler already had young. I saw one adult carry food to the nest. I heard a Cassin's Vireo singing on Burnaby Mountain. I was kind of chuffed to find a bird by its song, I then tracked it to a branch and photographed it.

Cassin's Vireo/Burnaby Mountain

 I managed to get a number of friends on the bird before it moved on. I had John Neville's CD of BC bird songs to thank for that, The CD was a constant companion in my cars sound system.

Townsend's Warbler/Joe Brown Park Surrey

In May I had a Western Tanager in my garden which was species #200 for the year and a new yard bird. I downed a Corona beer to celebrate.

A Western Tanager hawks an insect in my backyard.

See how the bird tucks its wings in as it snatches the insect. Avian aerodynamics in action.

As summer set in there were fewer and fewer new ticks. One August day I had a Franklin's Gull and Wilson's Phalarope, both in the pouring rain. In late August I dipped on a Chestnut-side Warbler at Colony Farm, twice I dipped on a Stilt Sandpiper at Reifel and then a Northern Waterthrush in Stanley Park. Very little to show for all the driving. Between Aug 10 and Aug 16 I found one of my six target birds. The following week I dipped again on everything. Things started to look up in September and by the end of the month I was at 247 species and everyone was egging me on. Even my old photographer friends who thought I had gone completely mad wanted to know how the list was going.

American Redstart/Catbird Slough

The next bird was to be the most unusual and controversial as it was a first for Vancouver or least as recent records go. Had I been on my own that day I wouldn't have have been able to count it. Raymond Ng and I were chatting at the first bench at Brunswick Point. He was going out to photograph the Ash-throated Flycatcher (246) and I was biking back to my car. Neither of us were birding, just chatting and catching up. Raymond suddenly pointed out a large bird flying close-by, almost over my shoulders. Long-tailed Jaeger (247) Raymond shouted. My camera was in my backpack, the bird too close for Raymond's 800mm. We were stunned, rooted to the spot, the moment was over in seconds. Both of us pride ourselves at being sometime photographers but neither of us could react in time except to see the bird fly off toward the ocean. Really too bad we didn't get pictures but we were able to describe the bird well. Below is what I wrote on eBird.  

Large streamlined white pelagic type bird with black cap and white/cream coloured breast. Solid black underneath the wings, no white whatsoever ruling out PAJA. Trailing long feathers, not sure of exact length. Witnessed by myself and Raymond Ng. Fly-over from 20 metres directly above us. Heading toward the ocean from the farmers fields. Great views, could even see the catchlight in the eye but neither of us could get our cameras on the bird.

Ash-throated Flycatcher/Brunswick Point

My sole contribution to the Metro Vancouver Big Year pool was the Curlew Sandpiper I found on a visit to  Reifel Aug 8 2020. I was a great birthday present, a new Canada bird and another Metro Vancouver tick.                                                    

                                                           See Finding a good bird

Curlew Sandpiper/Reifel

It wasn't until middle of Oct that I ticked a Palm Warbler found by Rob Lyske at Maplewood Flats (248) and the same day a Northern Mockingbird (NOMO) at Iona (249) The secretive NOMO counted, even if it was just a glimpse. A view is all most listers need although a good long look is the preferred outcome. As it turned out there was never any need to rush, the NOMO is still there weeks later, even being trapped in the banding mist nets. One thing I did learn about the listing game was to strike when the iron was hot, as soon as a new bird turned up it was in the car and off on another twitch. Unfortunately no car pooling this year. It became second nature to drop all plans at moment's notice. 

Once my wife was onboard, my disappearing acts became much more accepted, even applauded. The only condition was to bring home a Wendy's Frosty and only if I found a new year bird, that started around the Pectoral Sandpiper bird (214) so you can see, quite a few frozen treats were consumed.

Cassin's Auklet/Stanley Park

After the NOMO it left just one bird to go. I was more than happy that when after three years of trying I eventually saw my #250 bird when I photographed a Clarke's Grebe at the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal on Oct 14. Like most birders I found the bird from an online source. On reflection and back in September when I was racking up the kilometres and when I still needed ten more birds and I really thought my Big Year might never happen. 

Pine Grosbeak/Maplewood


There wasn't even time for a little celebration when young birder Sage found a Cassin's Auklet in Stanley Park's Cold Harbour. What an amazing find, a pelagic so close to the city. All the regular listers were there, even for many of them it was a first for Vancouver. That was #251 for me. I also had also made sure I had covered two potentially difficult birds to identify in getting a second Sharp-shinned Hawk at Reifel and a second Eared Grebe at Iona. 

 I couldn't have done the big Year it on my own.  A special thanks go out to Mel of the BC Rare Bird Alert for being so diligent in getting out the word out and to all the other birders who have shared their sightings with the rest of us in the birding community.

"It's never too late to attempt a Big Year"
John Gordon
B.C. Canada