SKeysImages: Blog en-us (C) SKeysImages (SKeysImages) Thu, 12 Aug 2021 12:15:00 GMT Thu, 12 Aug 2021 12:15:00 GMT SKeysImages: Blog 87 120 Photographing Waterfowl Anyone who has tried to photograph waterfowl knows that it can be extremely frustrating. Ducks seem to have an amazing sense of their environment, the slightest movement or anything out of place can make them wary and force them away. While I too find photographing waterfowl to be very frustrating, I have some suggestions of ways to improve your odds of success. I will include several examples of my favorite images as they pertain to each of the techniques mentioned.


Camera equipment won't change much with your waterfowl set up. You will likely want the longest lens you have and possibly a teleconverter. You will want to get as low as possible to the water, which means having your lens fixed on a ground pod, supported on a tripod set up in the water, or shot handheld resting on the ground. I use each of these setups depending on my subjects and location. Finally, you will want to wear clothing that is water resistant if you're shooting along the shore.  You will get dirty and/or muddy.   You'll want insulated waders (in colder climates) if you're setting up in the water.  Since it's hard to get your face low to the viewfinder when you are in the water, a right angle viewfinder is invaluable and will help you sit up and still allow the lens to be lower to the water.

Camera settings are fairly straightforward, but as with most wildlife, you will want shutter speeds at or above 1/500 if possible. If you are are looking for flight shots or action shots, like the bird drying off or feeding, you will want shutter speeds a little higher, around 1/1000-2000. For action, you will probably want a little more light.

While photographing "tame" ducks may not feel like wildlife photography, it can often provide the best chances of success for many species. Ducks at local parks may be very used to human presence and will therefore not spook as easily. In these situations, you can get comfortable with the basics like lighting, perspective and environment.  It will also give you a chance to play around with your settings.


There is not any one set of lighting conditions that works best for waterfowl, but certainly golden hour will be advantageous in most cases. The first hour of light will showcase your subject and probably offer some nice warmth in the backgrounds. In the images below I will try to show how well golden hour can work for you. I will also show some images taken in overcast light. You will see that both of these lighting conditions can work, though lower light will push the camera gear a little harder. Lenses with a larger apertures and/or full frame bodies that can push higher ISO (both usually much more expensive) are really helpful in low light.


(above: Common Merganser in direct light)

(above: Common Loon in golden hour)

(above: Wood Duck in filtered light )

(above: Horned Grebe in overcast light)

Loon in the Morning (Common Loon)Loon in the Morning (Common Loon)

(above: Common Loon in heavily overcast light)

(White-cheeked Pintail)Pintail in Soft Lght (White-cheeked Pintail)

(above: White-cheeked Pintail in soft light )


Perspective may be one of the most critical parts of waterfowl photography. Like most wildlife photography, engagement is an important element in your final images. Engagement is often captured by seeing the subject on its plane and establishing eye contact. When your subject is on the water, this means you need to be on that same focal plane. 3-6" off the water is often ideal, and I am almost never over 12 inches above the water. This is one of the big challenges of photographing waterfowl. As mentioned before, your equipment needs to be set up down low, and you need to be able to sustain your position for a long period of time. I have often laid on a shoreline for an hour waiting for ducks, or been sitting in a river in waders for longer than an hour.   If you are in the water, be sure to protect your equipment including a stable tripod and body/lens covers.

In addition to the advantage of creating engagement, the low perspective will also have benefits for your backgrounds. I cover backgrounds in more depth in an earlier blog. Below are several examples of how low perspectives brought in beautiful backgrounds.  

Elevating your camera over one foot above the water will make your image include almost all in-focus water around your subject, since you are shooting down into it.  If you have beautiful color in your water, or great reflections, a slightly higher perspective can be used to feature the water more.  If you're really being creative and you want to go with a wider angle lens, elevation off the water may become less critical.  Even if you crop in a little, the wider field of view will still probably include a larger scene, like the Loon image below (the last image in the series), which was shot from just over a foot above the water.

(above: Horned Grebe with engaging eye and distant horizon)

(above: Common Goldenye, low perspective shows the eye and a color gradient in the background)

(above: Common Merganser, low perspective highlights the eye on the water)

(Green-winged Teal)(Green-winged Teal)

(above: Green-winged Teal with a far shoreline illuminated behind the subject)

(above: Common Loon, shot with a wide angle lens a foot or so over the water, allowing for a more scenic view)


With light and perspective achieved, the final element that adds to the finished image will be the environment.  With tight clean portraits, environment will not be a huge consideration. But tight portraits may not always be as engaging as images that include some habitat or pleasing environment. I mentioned that a low perspective will often allow the inclusion of distant shorelines. This is critical when choosing your locations. Try to find areas with pleasing colors in the background. Look at locations and times of the year when you might get color on the trees (Oct/Nov vs. Jan/Feb). There may be element like logs or branches that you can include in your composition. Or you may want to introduce elements like rain or snow to your image. No matter what you decide, the result will likely be enhanced with the inclusion of one or all of these factors. There's nothing wrong with a duck in good light at eye level on blue water, but some of the examples below show what you can do when you include more/varying environments. You can see from these that the inclusion of environment is much more compelling than just plain dull water.

Golden Fog (Canada Geese)Golden Fog (Canada Geese)

(above: Canada Geese and goslings in fog)

(above: Common Loon in mist, ice in the foreground)

Hooded in Fog (Black and White)Hooded in Fog (Black and White)SCOTT KEYS

(above: Hooded Mergansers in fog)

(above:  Wood Duck in snow)

(above: Common Goldeneye with soft reflections)


(above: Hooded Merganser with graffiti)


Most action with waterfowl consists of preening and drying off. While you can obviously photograph ducks in flight, I am not focusing this discussion on that topic because I feel it falls more into the concept of birds in flight. Below are some examples of birds captured during wing flaps or with water dripping off of them. Water coming off of the bird can add some drama to the overall result.

(above: Common Merganser with water drip) (above: Common Merganser with water dripping) Golden White Cheeks White-cheeked Pintail)Golden White Cheeks White-cheeked Pintail) (above: White-cheeked Pintail drying off) (above: Wood Duck drying off)


Waterfowl photography can be difficult but extremely rewarding when done right.  Below are a few of my personal favorites

(Wood Duck)Mood Lighting(Wood Duck)

(above: Wood Duck pair on leathery background)

(above: Common Loon and chick at sunrise)

Merlot (Hooded Merganser)Merlot (Hooded Merganser)SCOTT KEYS

(above: Hooded Merganser in red)



(SKeysImages) bird duck ducks photography waterfowl Tue, 05 Feb 2019 15:37:02 GMT
2018 Best by Month  2018 was a very productive year with a few trips and lots of local birds.  I was able to photograph and share well over 100 species on social media including 24 different species of warblers.  As a birder, I tallied 35 different warblers on the east coast, which is a great total for me.

As the year wound down, I shared my top 12 images on social media, with one favorite selected for each month. Below is a detail of each:

Jan - Rough-legged Hawk, Utah


Feb - Red-tailed Hawk with prey, Eastern PA

March - Black-necked Stilt, Arizona


April - Black-and-white Warbler, Eastern PA


May - Canada Warbler


June - Grasshopper Sparrow


July - Common Loon


August - Black Skimmer


September - Black-throated Green Warbler


October - Lincoln's Sparrow


November - Horned Grebe


December - Common Goldeneye


Hope you enjoyed my work in 2018, and I am looking forward to share a lot of images in 2019.  I will be visiting Texas in April and hopefully able to travel again in October.

As always, thank you for your support.  Feel free to send me a message or comment regarding your favorite image of mine from 2018!


(SKeysImages) 2018 avian best bird photography Sun, 06 Jan 2019 15:40:56 GMT
Fall Hawk Watch and Sharp-shinned Photo Study When I think of my bird photography, I break it down into 4 primary categories; Songbirds, Shorebirds, Waterfowl, and Raptors.  Of these, I believe birds of prey to be the most challenging of all.  There are many reasons for this.  As predators, these birds are extremely alert and have amazing vision.  Sneaking up on them just isn't going to happen.  These birds are also most active mid-day or evening and light is not always at its best.  This can often result in images taken in direct or harsh sun.  Another reason they can be tough, they are often in flight and overhead, so perspective is not always ideal.

While I appreciate the challenges of raptor photography, I also appreciate the art of hawk watching in general.  Because of the difficulties in attaining great shots, you really have to enjoy the process of hawk watching.  I will often spend 4-5 hours a day just looking at passing raptors, hoping one will fall into a zone that allows for great images.  But even when I fail to capture those moments, I enjoy the quiet of the mountain and the process of observing from a distance.   For those wanting to photograph migrating raptors, I have some advice.  First and most importantly is to be patient.  You must learn to love the process and invest time to make it work.  Also, learn about the spots that will offer you great vantage points and hopefully close looks.  A little research here goes a long way.

This fall, I spent my usual time at my local hawk watches.   This means 2-3 days a week for 5-8 weeks.  I am lucky to be just 10-20 miles from a few good places along the Kittatinny Ridge.  This is one of the top migration paths in the northeast and includes the historic and very popular Hawk Mountain.  

The species I was able to photograph this year were Broad-wing Hawks, Red-tailed Hawk, Merlin, Cooper's Hawk, and Sharp-shinned Hawks. 

While "sharpies" constitute the bulk of my photography, Broad-winged Hawks are actually the most common sighting.  These birds move through in large numbers over a relatively short times span.  These social birds come in the middle of September and over a few days, there are thousands seen along the ridge.   This year I got to witness one strong morning flight that had almost 1,000 birds recorded by noon.  These birds are known as high soarers, using thermals to gain height and cruise at elevation.   For this reason, I have found them very challenging to photograph.  I shared one image from 2018 on social media and it can be seen below.  This bird flew a little lower and the light wispy clouds broke up the blue sky.  This adult bird is also showing some of his eye, which I often don't get to see when they are flying high overhead.  


Broad-wings belong to a family know as buteos, and the other buteos that frequent the ridge are Red-tailed and Red-shouldered.  Both of the later are late migrants and I did not have much luck with either.  Both were seen, but I only managed one photo of a Red-tailed that I liked, as it shows a nice topside look with a nice green background.


Falcons pass by the ridge regularly and include (from smallest to largest) American Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine.  We do not see many of them at close range, but occasionally one of these speedy birds will give us a close look.  This year, I only had one really close view of a Merlin, seen below popping up in front of the lookout.  I had a couple distant pictures of Kestrels this year, but nothing that I shared publicly. 


Sharp-shinned Hawks are the second most numerous raptor that I see on the ridge, and they offer the best looks.  This is usually because they are more curious and aggressive.  They will often make close runs past the look out to investigate or harass the owl decoy.  Below is a series of pictures captured this fall.  The majority of the birds are juveniles, identifiable by they streaky breast and more brown color.  The adult bird morph into birds with grayish top sides and more solid, rusty breasts.   Eyes on the these birds change from yellow to red as they mature.

(Above: Juvenile Sharp-shinned displaying streaky breast and yellow eye)


(Above: Sharp-shinned Hawk in the clouds)

(Above: Sharpie with wings in up and down position)

(Above:  This bird is in a stoop, wings tucked and gaining speed)


(Above: Topside views showing wing spread and tail pattern)


(Above: Sharp-shinned Hawk at dawn over fog and rising sun, a rare golden hour look)

(Above:  Adult Sharpies in the "bowl" allowing solid background with hints of fall color)


(Above: Juvenile bird displays its "bugeyes")

(Above:  An image I have wanted for a while, adult, head on, showing the beautiful red/orange eyes.)


(Above: My favorite image of the season puts this Sharpie right on the horizon, giving the approaching bird a sense of placement)


In, all I felt it was a good season of hawk watching.  I got some nice photos and spent lots of time relaxing in a stress free place that helps me to connect with nature.  I was fortunate to capture, not only raptors, but some nice migrating songbirds along the ridge as well.  While the process of photographing these migrating birds can be very tough at times, if you like the overall process, it can be exceptionally rewarding.


(SKeysImages) hawk hawk watch hawkwatch raptor sharp-shinned Thu, 06 Dec 2018 14:45:59 GMT
Birds in the Rain Over the last couple years, I have done more photography in the rain. I have done this in part because I continue to try to expand my portfolio and add images of birds in different and interesting habitats. In this blog, I wanted to share some thoughts about photographing in the rain. I will share a few images as well and explain situations and settings.

The first consideration for most people when shooting in wet conditions is the protection of their equipment. To that end, there are several ways to help keep your gear protected. The most obvious protection is a rain cover. These can be cheap plastic tubular shaped sleeves which can be purchased for $10 or less. In a pinch, people can use garbage bags. I have used these before when an unexpected shower hit. Other protective measures include a gamut of mid-priced and professional coverings that can cost up to several hundred dollars. Personally, I just always have a cheap rain sleeve available in my truck and it serves my needs.

When shooting in the rain, I also often shoot from the protection of my car, either right out the window or by popping the trunk of my Jeep and using it as a cover. Then I can stand under the raised trunk and have some freedom to move a bit. If I am out hiking in the rain, I work to be more careful to keep my camera body protected and make sure I am personally staying as dry as I can with good rainproof clothing.

Once the gear is protected and you are ready to photograph, there are some considerations to be made. Primarily what to shoot and what settings to use to best capture the environment. In the rain, birds will still move and feed, but my experience is that they are often less active, which can be frustrating. Keep in mind, with rain comes low light and this means you can shoot all day. So while they might be less active, you have a lot more time to find and photograph them. When selecting rain species, I will try to target species that are very reliable or find an area that might be more dense with birds.

I'll review the settings for images that have rain drops that actually show in the scene. I will specifically review shutter speeds to show how the rain drops themselves will look very different when different shutter speeds are used. As a general rule, I will stay between 1/100 - 1/400 of a second. Anything slower than 1/100 will make it almost impossible to to get a sharp image and anything faster than 1/400 will make the raindrops appear very small, more like dots than streaks. My sweet spot is around 1/250. One important factor to consider is that rain will likely create very low light conditions. This will often tax your camera body and force higher ISO (noise). Using a lens with a wide aperture (f2.8-f4.0) will help a lot. I own a 500mm f4.0, but will often use my 300mm f2.8 (wide open) in these low light conditions to help keep noise under control. The wider field of view means a smaller subject, which gives me a more environmental shot and shows more raindrops. Having a camera body that handles noise well will also be a big help. Even with slower shutter speeds, my ISO will often be over 1000. If you have a lens that has a minumum aperture of of 6.3, you may find your ISO as high as 3200 or more. Some full frame pro bodies can handle this noise really well, while lower-end crop bodies will likely struggle. Low light photography is much easier with better gear. 

The first series of images shows a few different species during a rain storm. The Dickcissels below show light drops from fine, misty-type rain. Editing these scenes helped bring out the faint drops. In the first image you get a sense of the natural environment with the bird clinging to a wet plant stem.

(Above: Dickcissel - 1/125, f4.0, ISO 500)

(Above: Dickcissel - 1/400, f4.0, ISO 1100)

The two Barn Swallow images below show two very different looks. In the top image, the bird is a bit smaller in the frame, and the rain is very evident. This was taken in pretty heavy rain and you really get the sense of this with the droplets obvious and abundant. The bird in the bottom image was much closer, and the rain drops appear longer. This is simply an effect of the closer distance.

(Above: Barnswallow - 1/250, f4.0, ISO 500)

(Above: Barnswallow - 1/200, f4.0, ISO 500)

The two images below are good examples of really slow shutter speeds. These are difficult to get sharp, but at shutter speeds of 1/100 of a second (or slower), the rain drops are very elongated. They really stand out, especially against the dark green background. One suggestion for all rain shots is to try to make sure you have a darker background. Having a light background or sky background will usually drown out the raindrops and cancel out the intended effect.

(Above: Indigo Bunting - 1/100, f4.0, ISO 320)

(Above: Magnolia Warbler - 1/60, f4.0, ISO 140)

** Note: these settings were not intentional. I was trying to shoot at 1/200 but accidentally rolled the shutter speed **

Sometimes I will shoot right after a rain storm ends. The birds generally become a little more active then, and the issues of working in the actual rainstorm are no longer present. In each of the images below, the wet leaves and drops of water add interest and contribute to the overall mood of the image.

(Above: Black-and-white Warbler - 1/250 f4.0, ISO 640)

(Above: Canada Warbler - 1/500, f2.8, ISO 800)

Nick Smeshko (262)893-9071

(Above: Northern Waterthrush - 1/400, f4.0, ISO 800)

Nick Smeshko (262)893-9071

(Above: Hooded Warbler - 1/500, f4.0, ISO 800)

The last thing I want to discuss with respect to rain is how wet conditions can make interesting images of the subjects themselves. Wet subjects can offer a different look to familiar species. Many times, wet subjects will shake off the water from their bodies, like the Dickcissel immediately below is doing. Remember, shooting slower shutter speeds will make sharpness difficult, and will show motion blur. This image is very interesting to me, as the head and eye are sharp but the fanning tail shows motion. When subjects look like they are about to shake off, I will always shoot a maximum burst of photos to get as many frames as possible, hoping to catch that one frame that offers the wow moment.

(Above: Dickcissel - 1/200, f4.0, ISO 1100)

(Above: Barred Owl -1/250, f4.0, ISO 500)


As you can see from these examples, shooting in the rain can provide a much different look for your images and can add diversity to your portfolio.  While there are several challenges to these wet and overcast conditions, I think the results are well worth the challenges.


(SKeysImages) avian bird photography rain Thu, 11 Oct 2018 13:30:53 GMT
The Grassland Birds of 2018 I spent some time recently with several species of grassland birds.  This blog will show a few of the species that I usually see in Pennsylvania.  The most prominent of these species was the Grasshopper Sparrow and I actually made several trips to capture them in various scenes with different light.  I was not able to get a really good image of an Eastern Meadowlark, which to me is one of the iconic grassland birds.  I was, however, able to get photos that I really like of two tougher species, the Bobolink and Dickcissel.  All of the birds featured were photographed this year.

I also included a couple of "fringe" species in this blog as they were birds hanging out in fields near the grasslands but probably not really birds that I would typically refer to for this habitat.  The miscellaneous birds included here are Indigo Bunting, Willow Flycatcher, and Barn Swallow.

This series was a lot of fun for me, I hope you enjoy the glimpse into my (slightly obsessive) world of birds photography.

The Grassland Birds:


To me, the Meadowlark is the iconic grassland bird.  Below, an Eastern Meadowlark perches in a farm field in eastern PA.  These bird have decreased in numbers in the state over the past few decades, mostly due to habitat loss.


This bird has been tough to me to photograph locally.  I was able to find one in a freshly cut farm field, but wasn't thrilled with the light.  In order to get some in better light, I ended up going south to Delaware at sunrise, where there was a large protected grassland and a nice number of birds.  


Dickcissels have become very rare in eastern PA.  I am lucky that each year, a small population returns to a farm area not far from my house.  I watched this bird (below) sing on a wire and drop occasionally to feed in an oat field below the wire.  Once seeing the pattern, it was easy to get some nice close looks.  These pictures were taken from my car.  With light clouds on the horizon, you can see some magenta tones mixed with the soft golden light.  The last of the three images, shows a female, buried deeper in the field.

Grasshopper Sparrow:

I have a hotspot for these birds near my house and spent many days with them trying to achieve different looks.  In the series below, you can see silhouettes, backlit shots, and a variety portraits at golden hour.

Field Sparrow:

Another sparrow that I saw a lot of in July was the Field Sparrow.  My favorite was the action shot of one feeding on insects in thistle.  Once I saw the behavior, I focused on the thistle and waited for him to reach in and feed.  Another good example of observing behavior and anticipating action shot.

Song Sparrow:

A common species that I wanted to include in this series.  Here composed on a thorny vine, framed by some thistle, followed by a tight side-lit portrait.

The Fringe Species:

Indigo Bunting:

I love the colors on this bird and background in the first image.  These male buntings can range in color from a light aqua to a deep blue depending on the individual and breeding status. The second picture shows the blue bird on a yellow ground (sunflowers) that makes for a nice combination of complimentary colors.

Barn Swallow:

I set a challenge for myself one evening by trying to photography swallows in the rain, in flight.  At slow shutter speeds 1/200-1/500, this is a real task.  I took hundreds of frames and finally managed to get a few that showed sharper heads and gave a sense of motion in the rain and wings.

Willow Flycatcher:

While not usually thought of as a grassland species, this Willow Flycatcher in eastern PA, was adjacent to the grasslands that I was working, and he presented so nicely, I had to get him involved here.  These two images were taken on different days and in different conditions.  The top was taken during golden hour and the bottom pictures was taken on an overcast, rainy day.

(SKeysImages) bird dickcissel grassland photography sparrow Wed, 25 Jul 2018 11:46:22 GMT
Spring Warblers 2018

I had a solid spring with warblers, and I wanted to share a few of my favorite images. Each year, I see about 30 or so species of warblers and I am able to photograph 20-25 that I feel are worthy of sharing. I will try to limit this blog to the top couple of each species photographed.

Of the breeding birds in PA, I missed a couple that I hope to pick up a few more of these breeding species in summer or during fall migration. Two species that are usually fairly easy for me are Yellow Warblers and Worm-eating Warblers.Surprisingly, I did not photograph either of these well this year. The following species were all seen but not photographed well, as they are much fewer in numbers and less cooperative: Yellow-throated, Blackburnian, Northern Waterthrush, Prothonotary, and my current nemesis, Nashville.  Kentucky is a tough bird in my area, and I did not see one this year.

I did not have luck with true migrants. These birds move through quickly and glimpses of them often involve watching them feed frantically to support their long flights. Their frequent tree top feeding makes pictures much more difficult.  The migrants can sometimes be picked up in fall migration, but the plumage is often different and sometimes more dull. The migrants I hope to photograph in fall include Bay-breasted (seen in spring), Blackpoll (seen in spring, tiny breeding population in PA), Cape May (seen in spring), Wilsons (not seen), and two very difficult species that I have never seen in PA: Connecticut and Orange-crowned.

This year I shared 22 species of the 29 that I saw.  Here they are listed alphabetically:

(Above: American Redstart, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Black-and-white Warbler, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Black-and-white Warbler, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Black-and-white Warbler, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Black-and-white Warbler, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Black-throated Warbler, Sullivan Co. PA)

(Above: Black-throated Green Warbler, Luzernce Co. PA)

(Above: Black-throated Green Warbler, Luzernce Co. PA)

(Above: Blue-winged Warbler, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Canada Warbler, Luzernce Co. PA)

(Above: Canada Warbler, Luzernce Co. PA)

(Above: Canada Warbler, Luzernce Co. PA)

(Above: Cerulean Warbler Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Chestnut-sided Warbler Northampton Co. PA)

(Above: Chestnut-sided Warbler Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Chestnut-sided Warbler Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Common Yellowthroat, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Golden-winged Warbler,  Monroe Co. PA)

(Above: Hooded Warbler, Northampton Co. PA)

(Above: Louisiana Waterthrush, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Louisiana Waterthrush, Lehigh Co. PA)

Magnolia Warbler in the rain. (Above: Magnolia Warbler, Northampton Co. PA)

(Above: Mourning Warbler, Northern PA)

(Above: Mourning Warbler, Northern PA)

(Above: Mourning Warbler, Northern PA)

(Above: Norhten Parula, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Norhten Parula, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Ovenbird, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Palm Warbler, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Pine Warbler, Atlantic Co. NJ)

(Above: Pine Warbler, Atlantic Co. NJ)

(Above: Prairie Warbler, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Prairie Warbler, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Prairie Warbler, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Yellow-rumped Warbler, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Yellow-rumped Warbler, Lehigh Co. PA)


(SKeysImages) avian background backgrounds. bird photography warblers Mon, 25 Jun 2018 11:18:48 GMT
Different Light, Different Birds Most people understand that light is the foundation of all photography. When I think about avian photography, I am always very conscious of light and how the available light will play into my photography at any given moment.  In this blog, I am going to discuss the relationship between available light and my preferred subjects in various lighting conditions.  I have broken down light in to 4 available categories: Blue hour, golden hour, overcast and direct sun.

Before Sunrise - Blue Hour

In the pre-dawn light, interesting things occur.  For example, the skies will often show blues, purples and pinks that are not available at any other time.  However these extremely low light conditions are very difficult to manage.  Shooting at this time requires the use of very slow shutter speed and much higher ISO.  The species to think about are slow movers.  You won't get many action images at this time.  I don't do much owl photography, but these can be captured (hopefully with super slow shutter and not flash).  I know many owl photographers that are shooting at shutter speeds measures in the seconds, not fractions of seconds.  If owls are not your interest or if you have a tough time finding them, you can also capture wading birds, who are often very still, or any larger perched bird (raptor).  Another strategy is to shoot back into the predawn sun to get silhouettes.  Below are some example of low light, pre-dawn birds.  Very occasionally, you may have enough light for some flight shots liket he Tern below, but usually the sun would need to be close to rising and you would likely still have some motion blur.

Blue Hour (Forster'sTern)Blue Hour (Forster'sTern)

Calling (Osprey)Calling (Osprey)

Majestic MorningMajestic Morning

Golden Hour 

Most photographers are well aware of the benefits of golden hour, that time period during sunrise and sunset where the sun is just a few degrees over the horizon. With the sun in this position, the quality of light changes as certain wavelengths are filtered out by the atmosphere and the remaining light is softer and has golden tones. The term golden hour, however, is a little misleading, as the period of time that the sun offers these benefits can vary greatly based on season and distance from the equator.  In the northeast U.S.,for example, this time frame is generally less than 40 minutes for most of the year.  I did an older blog specifically about golden hour and how quickly the light changes.  Click here for the link to Golden Hour and "Harsh" Light.


While almost all subjects photograph well at sunrise or sunset, there are some that I prefer over others.  Shorebirds and waterfowl are my favorite subjects for golden hour.  Often in spring, I will look at the weather forecast and if conditions are sunny, I will head to the beach or wetland areas for peeps or waders. In addition to how great the subjects look, I think there is an emotional component to shooting birds near the water.  It may just be me, but sunrise at the beach just feels special. One warning about shorebirds however.  As great as birds look at sunrise on the beach, they look pretty mediocre once the sun gets stronger and harsher.  The conditions tend to change so fast, that if you can't find them quickly, or have trouble getting a great shot, you may invest in a long trip only to return home with mediocre images. For this reason, it may be a good idea to explore sunset. This allows you time to scout and find areas and subjects before light is at its peak and then continue to shoot them as the light gets better and better.

Below are examples of different subjects that help illustrate the appeal of golden hour. 

Feather (Oystercatcher)Feather (Oystercatcher)

Majestic (Tri-colored Heron)Majestic (Tri-colored Heron)

Stoic (Snowy Egret)Stoic (Snowy Egret)

(Green-winged Teal)(Green-winged Teal)

Singing to the Mountains (Worm-eating Warbler)Singing to the Mountains (Worm-eating Warbler)

At the Lookout (Black-and-white Warbler)At the Lookout (Black-and-white Warbler)



If the golden hour in spring takes me to the shore, overcast light, even clouds and rain, generally draws me to the woods. For several reasons, overcast light is generally my preferred lighting for songbirds.  

The practical reason that overcast lighting works well for songbirds, especially during migrations, is that it allows you to shoot for several hours and get pleasing images. Finding cooperative warblers, for example, can be very tough, so diffused light will simply give you more time. When shooting birds in stronger, direct light, you are often dealing with shadows from leaves and branches. Direct sun on these features is very unflattering and you will often have "hot spots" and shadows that are deal breakers for good quality pictures.  Indirect, overcast or filtered light will soften or eliminate shadows and hot spots, but in addition it will also tend to make the greens more vibrant.  

The challenge with shooting overcast, is the light.  With no sun coming through the clouds, there will be very little light available.  This puts more demands on your body and lens.  I am not going to go into a deep dive on this subject, but will cover it in another blog on low light, songbird photography.

The examples below show some birds captured in lower light conditions.  The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher shown below is an interesting image, because while it was taken several hours after sunrise, the atmosphere had lots of fog. Some sun was coming through, but it was incredibly diffused and created almost ideal lighting conditions for this time of day.  I also included a few overcast images captured in rain and snow.  While rain really pushes the limits of many bodies and lenses, the reflective nature of snow covered ground may actually help provide more light and therefore ease the burden on the equipment.

On a Swingset (Ruby-crowned Kinglet)On a Swingset (Ruby-crowned Kinglet)SCOTT KEYS

Song (Black-throated Green)Song (Black-throated Green)SCOTT KEYS

Careful Steps (Ovenbird)Careful Steps (Ovenbird)

Pintail in Soft Lght (White-cheeked Pintail)Pintail in Soft Lght (White-cheeked Pintail)

Loon in the Morning (Common Loon)Loon in the Morning (Common Loon)

Horizon Hunter (Northern Harrier)Horizon Hunter (Northern Harrier)

Direct Sun

While Direct Sun is generally the least aesthetically pleasing of the light discussed, it does come with some benefits.  Since camera sensors crave light, having lots of it means you can shoot with lower ISO and faster shutter speeds. So in direct sun, I am usually thinking action!  I consider subjects like birds in flight or birds fishing or bathing.  With shutter speeds of 1/2000 or even faster, it is easy to freeze action, feathers, water droplets, etc.  Lower ISO also means less noise in your finished product.

In direct sun you can also get some interesting high contrast images.  I included a few below that show you what you can do when you get light on the subject and expose for the lightest part of the subject.  Especially if the background is in shade, you can get dramatic, high contrast images, with very dark backgrounds.

Here are some example of birds shot in direct sun.  While the sun is certainly stronger here, I will say I try to avoid direct overhead sun at all costs.  Overhead sun will cast shadows straight down and this becomes very difficult to work with.

Frozen (Snowy Egret)Frozen (Snowy Egret)

Tippy Toe (Sanderling)Tippy Toe (Sanderling)

Banking in the Clouds (Merlin)Banking in the Clouds (Merlin)SCOTT KEYS

Eyeing the Prize (Sharp-shinned Hawk)Eyeing the Prize (Sharp-shinned Hawk)


IsolatedIsolatedSCOTT KEYS






(SKeysImages) Sat, 09 Jun 2018 23:57:18 GMT
Bird and Backgrounds Part IV - Seasons The last part of this series on backgrounds is all about utilizing the current time of year to maximize your images. For this, I will share more examples of ways to utilize your seasonal background, starting with everyone's favorite time of year: spring.

With warmer temperatures and new growth, spring is an incredible time of year to photograph. Not only are many birds migrating through central and northern parts of the country, colors in these areas are popping and background can be really interesting. Leaves are just starting to show, so photographing between March and May can mean a little less of the full green trees. However, buds and flowers are going to offer vibrance that you may not get at any other time of the year.
I have included some of my favorite spring backgrounds from the last couple of years below.


Summer has me thinking of a few colors. The first color that comes to mind is green. For most of the country, leaves are filling up the forests. Greens will dominate your backgrounds and you will often have nice solid canvases for your birds. The problem with leaves is they also create shadows. For this reason, I often like shooting on overcast days. This will mean some tweaks to settings (higher ISO and slower shutter and hopefully you have a large aperture lens available), but the results can be very pleasing. 
The other colors that come to mind are the colors of the beach: soft blues and light beiges that are offered by sandy shores. While the entire country may not have access to shores of the ocean or lakes, many along the coasts have an opportunity to include shorelines in their compositions. Since many of these photographs will incorporate shorebirds, be sure to think about perspective and how to include these colors in your overall image.  Remember, changing perspectives will allow you to include different elements in your background.  Getting low with shorebirds will often introduce water and sky.  Adding these to your photos will incorporate the blues of the beaches instead of just the sand and ground colors.


Fall brings change and these changes can create amazing opportunity. With leaves changing, your subjects now have oranges, yellows and reds behind them, mixed with the remaining greens of summer. Photographers and outdoor enthusiast relish this time of year. Even without wildlife present, the views can be stunning in the northern half of the country. When photographing at this time of year, I take into consideration available species and fall migration. Raptor have many flyways in the U.S. If you are lucky enough to be on these flyways, you can find spots to include birds in flight with dramatic backgrounds. Songbirds also migrate, so instead of featuring them in the woods, I will often try to get them along the edges of wooded areas, where I might get more color involved. A lot of my fall photography is done in the mountains of PA, where the elevation opens up your views and brings in lots of color. A note about photography at a hawk watch (which is my primary destination). When you are located at a hawk watch, you will have to enjoy the entire process. It will not always make for close views to photograph, so it helps if you enjoy the process of finding and identifying remote birds, with the hope of getting some nice close photos.  Some hawk watches tend to offer better looks than others, so if you are planning on shooting migrating raptors in fall, do your homework and talk to the experts. They can help you find out when and where you may have the best odds for good pictures, with wind and temperature also being key factors. 
A final autumn target can also be early arriving waterfowl. Colorful trees will reflect in the water and can create dramatic scenes. 




Winter is sometimes thought of as the dead season. Colors are largely gone but this doesn't mean you can’t maximize what is available. Your location and conditions are going to largely dictate what your background will look like. Browns can be used to add mood and a feeling of texture. Dead grasses will often glow in the light, especially during golden hour. Snow can add lot of interest to a photo, with a plain white background that might make an image simple and artistic. Evergreens are called ever-green for a reason, so finding conifers may also allow for the inclusion of color. 


(SKeysImages) Wed, 28 Mar 2018 13:26:49 GMT
Backgrounds - Part III, Different Birds, Different Backgrounds One factor that I always keep in mind is what type of bird will I be photographing.  This allows me to be prepared with the right equipment and sometimes the appropriate attire. For this discussion on backgrounds, I am going to focus on how the subject sometimes influences your background.  We will look at four categories: Perched birds, waterfowl, birds on the ground, and birds in flight.


When shooting perched birds, such as warblers or songbirds, we often get focused completely on the subject and fail to see what is beyond it. After all, who knows how long it will stay put? If you become too focused on chasing the birds, you may not always get images that are pleasing overall.  When shooting song birds, I try to find locations that will offer isolated perches and may even place a few in areas with interesting backdrops.  I look for areas that offer separation from the perch to background of more than 10 feet, as discussed in my prior article. Backgrounds that are too close to the subject will often be in focus and create distracting elements.  It is also important to get on the same plane as the subject, as close to eye level as possible, so you are not shooting up or down at it. 

Some tips and tricks for songbirds:

  • Find elevation.  Since songbirds are often overhead, try to find location that has trees growing below you.  I often shoot on the sides of small hills or mountains.  There may be some trails and roads that go along the hillside.  Use this to your advantage.  
  • Know your species.   Knowing which birds prefer low, thick vegetation versus taller trees will allow you to set up in areas appropriately.  Developing a network of birding friends or using ebird to determine which species are around can also be very helpful.
  • Find breaks in the trees.  For greater separation in background, try to find areas that have openings along the woods.   One of my best spots to photograph is along powerline cuts.  Often these cuts go right in the middle of forests.  Birds foraging along the edge of these cuts don't have anywhere high to perch, so they will often drop down lower to the only perches available. 
  • Don't be afraid to use your car.   I'm guessing over half of my songbirds are actually shot from the car.  The car works as a blind and if you have great spots, sometimes the birds will land very near the road or parking lot.  You will need to give it some time for birds to get comfortable.  They will often disperse when you pull up only to return 10-15 minutes later. 
  • Practice at feeders.  This will allow you to place some perches and basically choose your set up.  For beginners, feeder birds are a great way to practice learning your camera while allowing you to have great control over your environment, including perches and backgrounds. 

Below are some examples of perched birds and the thinking behind the shot.  

A Chickadee perched on holly (below) at relatively close range has warm light and distant branches.  This will often create nice patterns behind the subject.  If the branches are too sparse the white areas will be larger and less pleasing.   If the branches are too close they become in focus and are less flattering. Chickadee on Holly (Chickadee)Chickadee on Holly (Chickadee)chickadee


Perched birds are not limited to songbirds.  Below a male Northern Harrier rests on a low fence allowing an eye level look that includes dark trees behind the bird and a snow covered ground below.  A higher perch would not have allowed this, so locating potential perches or observing behavior of a bird can be helpful to set up these looks.  A note about snow: it will reflect available light which fills shadows and give more ambient light to the camera's sensor.  It's also a lot of fun!  SkeysImages, Scott Keys, wildlife, bird, Raptor, bird of preyReprieve (Northern Harrier)


With perched birds you can generally be about 10 degrees above or below the birds and still get looks that are considered "eye-level."  In this image, I was slightly above the bird but there is still a sense of eye contact.  In this specific picture, I moved slightly to get a different colored stone in the background.  Most of other images include some greens, but moving just a few feet gave me this earthy tone behind the bird that I thought complimented the Cerulean Warbler's signature blue. Cerulean (Cerulean Warbler)Cerulean (Cerulean Warbler)



This section covering ground birds will primarily include shorebirds, but there are many species that forage low including sparrows, robins, larks and buntings.

The biggest factor I consider when shooting along the ground is perspective.  As with almost all images, I am trying to get on the same plane as the subject.  With ground birds, this is even more critical if you want to get a nice out of focus background.  If you shoot from above the subject, pointing down, you will get the ground in the background.  Not only is the ground generally displeasing, but it is also very close to the bird.  In order to get a distant out of focus background, the lens will need to be low, and not just low, really low.   I have seen people set up for shorebirds using tripods and even flattened out they are still a foot or more above the ground.   As a guideline, I am lower than one foot when shooting these subjects.   For shorebirds, I usually shoot hand held and lay the lens on my hand.  I may also use a groundpod (homemade with frying pan with a tilt head) at times.  Below is an example of a typical position for shorebirds.  

If you are able to get low enough, you can get some very interesting backgrounds.  A difference of 1 foot lower can make a background that would otherwise be a couple feet behind the bird, change to a background that is hundreds of feet, even miles behind the bird. (See my prior blog on persepective,

Below are a few images of of shorebirds and ground foragers that illustrate this.

The Piping Plover below demonstrates some of the advantages of low angle shorebirds.  The gradient in the blues in a combination of the dark blue water against he light blue sky.  In general, I really like these gradients in the background.


Taken from a shoreline position, the Dunlin below stands out nicely against the green grass marshes. (Dunlin)(Dunlin)


Getting right on the ground for this Vesper Sparrow included an interesting out of focus foreground element.  The resulting image now has 3 colors associated with the environment, all composed in thirds of the frame. Nick Smeshko (262)893-9071


The approach to water fowl is very similar to ground birds.  In general, I am looking to get less than 12 inches from the water.  This can present several challenges, so I thought I would discuss the waterfowl section more on set up and approach.

In order to get really low, with ducks and the like, you will need to do one of two things.  You can find a shallow bank, hopefully with concealment opportunities, and wait patiently for them to come past.  If you use this technique, you can also use a blanket or a make shift blind to help.  In my experience, most ducks are extremely skittish if they are wild and they will not tolerate much, if any, movement.  This is why being patient and still is critical to your success.  The second approach is to get in the water with a tripod set up ultra low.  Doing this will require waders and sometimes the use of a right-angle view finder.  Being in the water seems to be the best approach for getting birds close.  When submerged and still, I often have shorebirds or waterfowl within minimum focus.  When in the water I generally use a camo-type netting draped over my head and lens.  Ducks are super sensitive to any movement and I have noticed a difference when my head is so concealed vs. when it is not concealed.

The Hooded Merganser below was taken from a shoreline position that had a shallow slope and good vegetation for concealment. 


The Ring-necked Duck below was shot in the water with a tripod/waders set up.  This bird literally swam right at the camera and paid no attention to my presence.



When photographing birds in flight, there are a few different considerations.  In general, perspective is more forgiving.  So while with other species, I like to be +/- 10 degrees of the subjects plane, with birds in flight, I may be outside of that range and still get pleasing images.  This is due to a few factors.  For example, a bird in the air may twist or bank.  Even though it is over your head a bit, when it banks it will often appear to be in the same plane or even below you.  

My consideration for backgrounds with birds in flight are primarily around including color and/or horizons to break up solid sky.  As a rule, plain blue sky is not appealing.  So how do we get a bird in the air with a background with color?   To accomplish this you need to think about elevation.  Shooting raptors from a cliff or mountain, for example, will offer a perspective that may include a land based canvas.  If you are on flat land, think about ways to get the birds with something behind them, for example, hills and mountains my be included behind the bird.

I have included a few examples to show different birds in flight with different backgrounds, at different angles.

The Sharp-shinned Hawk (below) is well below me, but this angle shows a different look.  It captures the top side of the bird as it banks and the forest below creates a nice green backdrop. Topside (Sharp-shinned Hawk)Topside (Sharp-shinned Hawk)SCOTT KEYS


For the Snow Geese (below) I saw them taking off and landing in a small flock during golden hour.  I moved up onto a little hill so that I could get them at eye level in flight.  Doing this assured that they weren't over my head and allowed me to capture some of the other geese below to break up the background and give a sense of context to their arrivals and departures. (Snow Geese)(Snow Geese)


This last example of a bird in flight shows a bird that is actually above me but banking hard.  This action allows for a topside view, even when the bird is above you.  Again, birds in flight can be forgiving this way.  The point I want to illustrate here is also that the inclusion of something as simple as a cloud can improve an otherwise totally blue background.  While this is not a dramatic element, it does help the overall image become more complete. Banking in the Clouds (Merlin)Banking in the Clouds (Merlin)SCOTT KEYS

(SKeysImages) avian backgrounds. bird photography Wed, 07 Feb 2018 00:15:09 GMT
Backgrounds for Birds - Part II, Distance Distance 

Another topic I want to cover regarding backgrounds is distance. Changing the distance from the subject to background and/or distance between the lens and subject will alter and can often enhance your overall scene. In general, when photographing birds I like there to be as much distance between my subject and the background as possible.  The closer the subject is to the background, the more in focus those background elements will appear and those elements can create distractions in your overall image.  Backgrounds do not need to be completely solid to be pleasing. In fact, there are times when I really like out of focus leaves and branches because they can create interesting patterns that often look like paintings. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that the closer you are to your subject, the closer the lens will focus and the more out of focus the background will be. For example, a bird 10 feet away with a backdrop 10 feet behind the bird will produce a much different look than a bird 5 feet away with a backdrop 10 feet behind it, even though the distance from subject to background has not changed.  When the point of focus changes, it will also change the way the background appears, so there are two variables at play: distance from lens to subject and the distance from subject to the background.  

Following are some controlled examples that show the effect of distances on background. (Crop sensor body, 300 2.8 lens shot at f/4)

The subject below is 6 feet away from the fence rails behind it.  It remains 6 feet away as I change my distance from the subject (moving back).  I start at minimum focus on my 300 2.8 lens which is also 6 feet.   On the left image, I am the same distance from subject as it is to the background and notice you can't really even see the rails behind the bird.  In the middle image I have moved back to 12 feet and you can see that the rails are coming into focus.  On the right image, I was 18 feet from the subject. The rails are now very obvious and quite distracting. Keep in mind that in all of these images, the distance between the subject and background remained the same and only my distance to the subject changed.

ABOVE: Background on all at 6 ft.

BELOW: Background is all at 12 ft. For the set of images above, I placed the subject 12 feet away from the rails and followed the same pattern.  Left, I am 6 feet away, Middle -12, right -18.  You can see similar results, but notice the background is slightly more out of focus being twice as far away.

The point I hope to illustrate here is that both distance to subject and distance to background affect how the background appears in your images, whether it be more in focus, or smooth and nicely blurred.



There are several advantages to so-called "fast" lenses.  This basically means that the maximum opening of the lens is larger.  This creates bigger, heavier glass, but has some huge benefits. In addition to faster autofocus and better low light performance, it also allows the backgrounds to become more out of focus when shot "wide open" or at the lowest possible f-stop.

In the examples below, the subject was shot at 12 feet with 12 feet also separating the subject from the background.  The only variable is now aperture.  Each image represents a 1 stop change in aperture.  The left image was shot wide open at f/2.8 and notice the the rails are out of focus and less noticeable.  By the time we get to the image on the right, we are shooting f/11 and the rails are much more obvious.  

It should be noted that while shooting at a lower f-stop will give you more pleasing background, it will also give you a narrower focal plane and will cause less of your subject to be in focus.  This is an important concept that should be considered when choosing your settings.  If the background is really far away, I am more likely to select an aperture of f/5.6+.  If the background is closer to the subject, I will shoot with the lowest f-stop possible.  90% of my images of birds are shot at f/4.

ABOVE: The images at f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f.8, f/11


Some Things to Consider

As a general rule, I try to think about the type of shot that I am going to achieve and what I am hoping to create in both subject and environment.  If I am taking a tighter portrait, I will always try to get as close as possible to the subject, especially if the background elements are close to it.  I have even gone to shorter lenses that allow me to get closer (closer minimum focus) and therefore get the background more out of focus.  Doing so will change the sticks and leaves in the background from distracting elements to pleasing colors and patterns. In the image below, I am capturing a Vireo in an dense environment.  By getting very clse (or allowing it to come close to me) the backgrounds becomes an interesting pattern.  Had I been further away, I would have cropped more to get the same composition and the branches would have been more in focus. White-eyed VireoWhite-eyed Vireo

(Above:  White-eyed Vireo shot with 500mm f/4 @f/4, 15 feet)

If I am composing a shot that is more environmental, the subject is probably going to be further away.   In this situation is it very important to carefully consider the background and the distance from subject to background.   In the example below, we have a Northern Shoveler that was probably 80+ feet away.   In order to make sure the overall scene is pleasing, I had to make sure the background was very distant.  In this case, the background is a tall stretch of reeds that was probably several hundred feet behind the bird.  This allowed a pleasing out of focus canvas.  If I had shot the same subject with the reeds 20-50 feet behind the subject, they would have been more in focus and competed with the bird for the viewer's attention.

Fall Shoveler (Northern Shoveler)Fall Shoveler (Northern Shoveler) (Above: Northern Shoveler, 500mm f/4 @ f/4, 80 feet)


More Examples of Various Backgrounds

Here are some more example of pleasing backgrounds achieved by being conscious of distance and "seeing through the subject."  For each image, I will give a brief explanation about the conditions and thought process.

The Eastern Bluebird, pictured below, shows what distance can do to a background when there are horizontal elements behind the subject.  The background here consists of some grass and a row of dark trees.  At several hundred feet, the area where the grass and trees meet starts to turn into a gradient.  I use distant horizons often in my backgrounds and I find these gradients very pleasing.

skeysimges, "scott keys", "eastern bluebird", bluebird, perch, fench, soft, bird, photographyWinter Blues (Eastern Bluebird)An Eastern Bluebird poses in soft light.
Lehigh Co. PA


Raptors on perches, like the American Kestrel below, are often seen against blue skies.  Moving into a favorable position placed this bird against a very distant mountain, allowing some of the mixed patterns to be present.   Kestrel Perched (American Kestrel)Kestrel Perched (American Kestrel)SCOTT KEYS

The Black-throated Green Warbler, below, is a good example of how being super close will melt away your background.  This image was taken at minimum focus on a 300mm f2/8 lens (about 6 feet).  This is not easy to do and you will  need to set up on a spot and be ready.  Knowing patterns and behaviors is really helpful in the field.  You can also use this set up near feeders, where birds will use nearby perches to "wait their turn."  Because the lens is focusing so close, all other background elements become out-of-focus.  Even though they are not very distant, they still disappear.  Being this close also allows you to get incredible detail on the subject. Profile (Black-throated Green)Profile (Black-throated Green)SCOTT KEYS


(SKeysImages) avian background bird photography Thu, 11 Jan 2018 14:59:29 GMT
Backgrounds for Birds - Part I When I talk to people about bird photography there are always a few key points.  Once a beginner has a good understanding of basic photography principals such as exposure and a basic understanding of how their camera operates, I encourage them to focus on a few foundations that can quickly elevate their images.  First and most important is light.  I always start with the basics of light, composition, and perspective.  Once the basics are understood, I like to approach images from a more holistic standpoint and focus on moving beyond the subject and start to think more about the environment.  To this extent, I wanted to focus this blog specifically on backgrounds.   I am going to approach this in four parts.  The first part will look at backgrounds as an overview and how light, color and distance affect the overall images.   The second series will deal with distance and aperture.  Part III will be about specific positions of birds relative to the backgrounds: perched birds, low angle birds, and birds in flight.   Finally, I will look at how seasonality plays into the environment and how to maximize the impact of your images as the seasons change.

Below are some bullet points that show what I think of when considering any background.  Each bullet point will later be expanded on with examples.

-Light  Like anything else in photography, your backgrounds will be determined by the strength and warmth of the available light.  As the photographer you may be able to use these to your advantage to produce pleasing or interesting backgrounds.  Golden hour, blue hour and overcast lighting can all create some great backgrounds while shooting in harsh direct, light is not favorable for pleasing backgrounds, as the light will often catch leaves or sticks and create hot spots.

- Color  I will discuss this more in the seasonal conversation, but in general backgrounds that are more solid or have interesting patterns are preferred to those that might have large breaks of sky or patches of white and blue included.  Most bird photographers agree that solid blue skies or white backgrounds are not ideal.

-"Seeing through the bird." I use this term a lot and am referring to the moment we are capturing our scenes.  Sometimes we get so locked on to the subject or the action that we forget about the image as a whole.  I challenge myself to think past the subject and see the whole scene as a total.  When setting up for a shot I am always trying to find areas that will include pleasing backgrounds.  Over the last few years, I have learned to chase birds less, and set up on locations more, hoping they come to me.  You will have fewer images taken, but the ones you get will be so much better.


The foundation of all photography is light and this is always a consideration when I pick a day to photograph.  Below are examples of different lighting and the effect the lighting has on the overall image and background.

Blue hour can make for interesting colors, especially if including skies in your background.  I often take the approach if treating blue hour photography as a landscape with a bird in it.   

In the image below we have a Least Tern that was photographed before sunrise.  You can see that there is lower light available and the subject does not pop like it would in golden hour.  When shooting before dawn, you can take the approach of shooting back lit or front lit and get pleasing and interesting results, but notice the inclusion of sky.  Without the sky, what is this image?   

In the next blue hour example we have a Common Tern from a different date and location.  You can see the powerful pinks and purples in the background that were created by a large cloud (pink) against a darker pre-dawn sky (purple)   If this same image had been shot during the day with a solid blue sky, I would have found it uneventful and not worthy of sharing. Blue Hour (Forster'sTern)Blue Hour (Forster'sTern)


As a general rule, golden hour never fails.  No matter the direction of the light, you always have a chance in golden hour.  My favorite subjects in golden hour (assuming direct sun) are shorebirds and waterfowl.  Songbirds and raptors are also wonderful, but based on habitat they are sometimes harder to find in open locations.  Any species that you can isolate in the open is great for golden hour photography.

Shooting waterfowl in golden hour is great and the examples below show you the warm colors brought out in the marsh grasses behind the subject.  This is also where perspective becomes so important.  Sometimes creating a great image isn't about just a great subject in great light.  A total image sees beyond the subject.  When setting up for the shot below, I actually picked my background first, then waited for ducks to move into that area.  Note in these examples the light is hitting the far shoreline and adding vibrant colors to the grasses.  Again, in order to achieve this, you will need to be shooting ultra low angle (to be discussed more in part II).

(Green-winged Teal)(Green-winged Teal)

Here is an example of a songbird in golden hour.  This works for a few reasons.  The bird is isolated and exposed to the light.  While Black-throated Blue Warblers are often in thicker wooded areas, this bird was on the edge of a parking lot in an area that allowed the first light to come up.  I noticed him in a tree with some nice perches and got excited about the possibilities.  The rows of trees behind the subject were further back so I knew I had great separation.  You can see the gold tones not only reflected on the subject, but you can also see the nice soft warm tones that enter the background.

This final image shot at golden hour helps introduce a topic that we will explore a little more later: depth.  This Black-crowned Night Heron shot at dawn shows an almost pure solid background.  This is achieved by huge separation between the subject and the marshes behind it.  At several hundred feet, the backgrounds just disappear into a canvas of soft green.  Had I set up a little lower, I would have included some sky in the image, which may or may not have worked.  In this case, I wanted a solid green backdrop and adjusted my perspective to make sure that's what the final product included.  This is also a good example of "seeing through the subject."  My first position did not include this solid green background and while the subject looked the same, I kept moving laterally  until I found a spot with the framing branches to the left and a solid background behind.


More golden hour backgrounds: Fall Shoveler (Northern Shoveler)Fall Shoveler (Northern Shoveler)

skeysimges, bird photography, scott keys, avian photography, warblers, warbler, nature, outdoorsAt the Lookout (Black-and-white Warbler)

Golden White Cheeks White-cheeked Pintail)Golden White Cheeks White-cheeked Pintail)


Overcast light may not seem appealing to everyone, but it is actually one of my favorite conditions to shoot in, especially when shooting songbirds. For one, it allows me to shoot longer.  Rather than just an hour in the morning, I have several hours of usable light and that gives me more time to locate those pesky warblers.  When shooting in overcast conditions, you will minimize hot spots in your backgrounds and your greens will become dark and rich.

In the example below, a black-and-white Warbler sings on an isolated perch.  I chose this area because there were several perches around and nice separation in the background.  While this was several hours after sunrise, the overcast skies allowed soft light to be used.  You can see how rich the background color is on this scene and the monochromatic, patterned bird really pops on the solid rich background.  This juxstaposition between subject and background has made this one of my favorite warbler images to date. Black and White Profile (Balck-and-white Warbler)Black and White Profile (Balck-and-white Warbler)

I am including a few other examples here of songbirds captured in overcast conditions with backgrounds that I liked.  Note the various shades of background colors that don't show any bright reflections from direct light.  Song (Black-throated Green)Song (Black-throated Green)SCOTT KEYS

Chestnut Framed (Chestnut-sided Warbler)Chestnut Framed (Chestnut-sided Warbler)Nick Smeshko (262)893-9071

Singing Throat (Black-throated Green Warbler)Singing Throat (Black-throated Green Warbler)


The last examples about light that I wanted to share deal with more direct light and how you can achieve some interesting shots under these conditions.  When I talk about direct light, I want to be clear that the light should have some direction to it.  Direct overhead light is tough to deal with for almost all bird photography.  Think about light maybe 2-3 hours after sunrise that is not overhead, but much stronger than the soft golden hour light that we all covet so much.  When shooting in direct light you can get some interesting results.  I like finding areas were the subject may be in light, but the background may be in shade.  When doing this, you have to be careful to expose properly for the subject.  If the subject is white or a lighter color, and you expose for the whites on that bird, you will see that the backgrounds become underexposed offering huge contrast which really helps to give a sense of isolation. 

In the example below, a Common Merganser is captured in more direct sun but the background is not.  By exposing for the white breast, the bird really stands out. SCOTT KEYS

On this Eagle image, the same theory applies.  Exposing for the white head made the rest of the background, which was in shade, become almost black.  The strong contrast makes this a more powerful image, especially when you look at the powerful pose that this bird of prey is demonstrating. IsolatedIsolatedSCOTT KEYS



More Examples of Light and Background

The Kinglet below is shot in late morning, when the sun is getting stronger.  However, shooting this back lit allows the light to soften through the leaves while providing a nice rim light on the bird.
Ethereal (Ruby-crowned Kinglet)Ethereal (Ruby-crowned Kinglet)SCOTT KEYS


Finding a wet area on the rocks behind the bird brings in specular highlights from the reflections in the morning sun. Glistening (Harlequin Duck)Glistening (Harlequin Duck)


I hope this was helpful in seeing how different light can be used to create different types of scenes, in the next part of this discussion, we will take a look at how distance and aperture affect your backgrounds.  

(SKeysImages) avian background bird photography Thu, 07 Dec 2017 14:02:39 GMT
Dodging and Burning for Birds A topic that I thought might be of interest to people that are starting to edit birds would be how to punch up an image using very simple dodge and burn techniques.   In simple terms, dodging is brightening or raising the exposure of a specific area of an image, while burning is lowering the exposure in a selected area of an image.   

When looking at many avian images, we see some that can be a little flat or might have distracting elements in them.  My guideline for editing is to burn down parts of the image that I want to de-emphasize and to dodge areas that I would like to emphasize.  Simply, I am trying to direct the viewers focus by lightening some areas and darkening others. 

I follow some general principals when editing birds

1- darken area along the tail side, behind the bird and below

2- brighten areas leading to the head, which creates a visual lead into the subject

3- selectively dodge the eye and also possibly burn areas of the eye to add contrast where needed.  Sometimes this may also extend to the areas like the bill or wings.

Before providing a visual example, know that there are a few ways to accomplish this.  I am going to link a couple videos that show different techniques, including one by my friend Ray Hennessy.  He uses a similar approach to mine by using simple "curve adjustment layers" in Photoshop.  His link is below to a super simple explanation of curves adjustment to dodge and burn:

Super Simple Tutorial Using Curves Layers

I would personally recommend using separate layers for each dodge and burn effect.  This allows you to fine tune each separately later on by adjusting the strength of each using "opacity."  At the end of the article, there will be another YouTube link that will show a practical application.

Now on to a real example.   I took a portrait of a Black-throated Green Warbler (BTGW) the other day and when editing, I used a technique that is pretty typical for me and I thought this would make a nice example.

Here is the original image after I did a few minor corrections in Adobe RAW (same adjustments that would have been made in Lightroom): In the image above, I want to just bring the bring the focus to the head a little more and with some modest adjustments, I think we can do that.

The image below shows the areas that I am looking to adjust.  The light lines represent areas that I consider dodging and the darker lines are areas that I would consider burning.  Once these large areas are done, I will go back and look at the eye and any other areas that I want to highlight.

First we add the burn, again long the bottom and behind the bird, areas we want to de-emphasize.  Also at this time if there are any bright spots (sun hitting leaves, etc.) I would go to those areas and burn them.  Sometimes will do 2 burn layers in PS, one for global burning, and one for bright spots.  Below is a side by side of how this looks before and after with just the burn applied.  The image starts looking a little underexposed from the original, but we can fix some of that and we are going to raise exposure on the head in the next step.  One thing I want to do is bring the focus up from the bright area on the bottom edge to the top area near the head.   I also tried to burn down a few areas on the branch since there are "hot spots" from the sun.  Some people might even want to burn these areas a little more.

Next we will do a general lightening near the head.  Again, for me, this is a "curves adjustment layer" and I just paint in the area near the head as desired.  I can then control this layer independently and if feels like too much, I can use the opacity slider on this layer to dial it back.

Once the general dodge/burn is done, I will now look for details to highlight or areas where I could juxtapose this to add contrast.  Below is where I will highlight the eyes.   You can play around with this a lot on your own to see what you like but in general I go in tighter and dodge the top edge of the eye and the bottom edge, following the curve of the iris only.  I don't lighten the pupil area and leave that black.  I also see an area on the wing bars that I would like to make lighter and some highlights on the bill.

Below is the side by side of both images with the initial dodge/burn and shows the difference in just the specific areas that we highlighted: eye, bill, wing bars.  I think the head and eye are now the primary focus and you can see the color of the iris.  As a note, sometimes I will select the eyes and add a little specific saturation using adjustment layers, just like we did with curves adjustment.

Here is a larger version of the finished product.  Are your eyes drawn more the head and eye now?

When you look at this finished version next to the original, you can see the difference.  The original was a nice clean portrait with good details and a nice pose.  There aren't any major issues with it, but the finished version to me is more complete and pulls attention to the area of focus better.  This entire process can literally be done in minutes and tweaked to your desire.  When doing this there can be a tendency to become heavy handed on the effects and you can lose the natural look.  When I am done, I will always toggle back and forth from the original image so see if I went too far.  Often I will dial back the effects, which again are all controlled independently on separate layers and can pull modified using opacity slider on each layer.  This gives you a lot of control at the end if you have adjustments that you want to make later.

I hope you found this helpful and now have a little better understanding of how very simple techniques can be used to enhance a photo and make it more appealing.  Sometimes these techniques can be used to help cover up blemishes in a photo, or create super dramatic scenes by really going over the top with the effect.  Normally I just use it in moderation to bring out some accents and ensure that the focus is where I want it to be. 

 Here are some other before and after images, good luck as you experiment on your own!

Above: Slight dodging on head area, burn the bright spot by legs, add pop to eyes

Above:  Just bringing out the eye with a little burn along the edge, very typical edit.

Above: Burned the bottom and to the right slightly, trying to get more contrast and drama out of the image.  While subtle, I think it works and makes a difference in the overall final image.

Above:  Trying to make this portrait a little more dramatic by burning more than typical, keeping the eye contrast with some fine dodge and burn on the iris itself since it is so large and prominent.

Above:  In this image, I removed the branch in photoshop, but otherwise this a very typical edit for me.  I burned the bottom and left areas behind the bird and added some directional "light" leading to the head.

Above:  Burn the brighter log (often wood may get bright) and add the standard dodge/burn areas.  Note when doing this you can create some 'banding."  This is a common issue that can happen when working with smooth backgrounds.  It will be up to the person editing to determine if this is too problematic.  There are some ways to minimize this is photoshop as well.

If you would like to watch a super simple tutorial on this technique, I made a YouTube video that can be viewed here:

Dodge/Burn Real Application






(SKeysImages) bird burn dodge editing photoshop simple Thu, 14 Sep 2017 14:00:45 GMT
Using Light - Golden Hour and "Harsh" Light We often comment on lighting in images and the dreaded term “harsh light” starts to come in to play.  Even with nice images that have a pretty subject, nice backgrounds, and sharp focus, the results can be unfavorable when the light is not just right.   To demonstrate this, I put together an example of how light can quickly change in the morning.  Below are several images taken a couple weeks ago at a shoot at a wetlands in South Jersey.   I will take you through the progression by explaining a little bit about the lighting and what I was looking for at the time.   The sun came up at approximated 6 am.  I was on site and set up at 5:45.  Here is a sampling of the images that I captured chronologically

(1) This image was taken before the sun came up (blue hour).  You can see the sky has not turned to yellow and has lots of purples and blues.  Here I am thinking about soft portraits; wide open (for me f/4)  Slower shutter (1/100-250) and higher ISO (1000-2000) as there is not much light to use, moving subjects are tough, but results are different and interesting.  I am shooting a D500 crop sensor, a Full Frame body might be able to handle even higher ISO and get that shutter a little faster.  At 1/250 and below you are not going to get sharp images of anything moving much, but here the egrets are holding still preparing to fish

(2) A set of Dunlin just as the sun breaks the horizon.  Very soft light and not much of it.  I am shooting at 1/250, f/4, ISO 1000 for this image.

(3) 6:10ish, True golden hour, the sun has just come over the horizon and things are golden and glowing.  There is still not a ton of light but the shutter can become a little faster(1/500-1000), still wide open,  ISO probably at 800-1000 for a while.

(4)  6:20ish more light but still ideal golden hour.  Notice this white bird now glows, nothing is blown out and there are nice details.  Here I'm shooting 1/500, f/4, ISO 200. I wanted a super clean image and he was very still so I lowered shutter and ISO.

(5) 6:30 I found these in a more shaded area, the light is softer as it is in some shadow. I love this light, it is one of my favorite pics of the year.   1/640, f/4, ISO 800

(6) By 6:40 the light is changing significantly, the golden tones are already leaving.   The Dowitcher is still in good light, but it is getting stronger.  1/1000, f/4, ISO 500

(7)  At 7:15 I noticed the light was strong, so I stopped portraits and went for action, with Snowy Egrets fishing.  Here the light is strong but still usable for fast shutter freezing, 1/5000, f/4, ISO 400.   Notice the significant difference in the last 45 minutes.  I went from equivalent shutter speeds of ~1/500 to 1/5000 on the same white birds in under an hour. 

By 7:30, I noticed the light was getting harsh.  I check a few images on the back of the camera and felt like I had a great morning and I was losing the light.  I could have stayed and tried for more action but the whites on the egrets in the area would become hard to deal with and the sweet portrait light was really over.   90 minutes after arriving, I was done.  Not because I was out of time, I was out of light.

I am using this to show the drastic difference when shooting in direct sun with little or no atmosphere.   Often people say, I was out in the morning and assume that this means the light must be good, but in certain conditions, you can really only maximize direct sun for 30-45 minutes before it starts to become harsh.  After that, think about ways to capture action, or change the environment completely.  Sometimes in direct sun, I will shoot along the edge of the forest for an hour and then move inside to where there may be complete shade.   There are times when we meet for a shoot at sunrise on a sunny day and get exceptional images.  We are wrapped up by 8 am and recapping the shoot in the parking lot or more likely planning breakfast when we notice other photographers just showing up.  To me, what’s the point of investing your valuable time and purchasing expensive gear just to shoot in bad light?  Images taken with an entry level wildlife set up would be much more appealing at golden hour as compared to images taken with $20k worth of professional gear taken in direct sun at 10 am.  

I hope you found this helpful.  Ray and I host a Wildlife Photography Critique group on Facebook which is where this topic comes up often.  You can see my full gallery at  and no it's not all in perfect light, but I continue to try!

(SKeysImages) Thu, 20 Jul 2017 19:00:18 GMT
Perspective and Low-angle Avian Photography There are many aspects to creating visually appealing images including subject, light, action, technical aspects, and the environment.  Another important aspect that is often overlooked by beginning and intermediate photographers is perspective.  

As a specialist in avian photography, I wanted to take a look at this and provide some visual examples to help illustrate how perspective can sometimes drastically change your results.  In my personal efforts, 90% of all foraging birds, shorebirds, or waterfowl is taken from a perspective of 12 inches from the ground or lower if possible.  I hope this example helps to demonstrate why I like that approach.  Each picture was taken with a 500mm on a crop sensor at f/4 to achieve minimum depth of field, with shutter speed of 1/800 and ISO 400.

To start, I will show a controlled subject, a small ornamental rooster from my kitchen (supposedly good luck).  It is about 7 inches tall.  The examples below were all taken within a few minutes so the only thing that changed was my position relative to the ground.  I did not change the distance to the subject.   The images were then cropped so that in each the eye was in the center of the image vertically and on the top "third" horizontally. 

The first image here was taken from a standing position. I am 6 feet tall.

Image 1 - 18 feet away standing

This perspective is common with beginning photographers, seeing a subject they like and shooting down at it.  This angle, however, can be very unflattering.  When shooting down the distance between your subject and the background is closer.   This adds more elements that are "in-focus."  Often the ground (or water) is not as flattering, especially when its murky water, grass, mud, or plain sand.  Shooting down will show the ground elements, mostly in focus.

As we move to a squatting or kneeling position, you can already see a difference in the way the environment is presented.

Example 2 - 18 feet, squatting

From the squatting position, about 3 feet above the ground, a few positive things have happened, the grass in the foreground has started to blur, and even more evident is the grass in the background.  Now we have created much greater separation from the head of the subject to the grass.  While we are still seeing the ground, it is now a couple feet behind the rooster, and it is out of focus.  This contrast between the in-focus head and the out-of-focus grass creates a pop that makes the rooster start to stand out.

To demonstrate how these angles affect depth in the image, I created a very simple chart that shows angles and distance.  This is not in any way completely accurate, if you are a mathematician, please do not email me with the flaws in the chart.  This illustration, however, may help you visualize the angles that are involved.  On this grid, each block represents 1 foot.  The example puts the subject about 15 feet away and starts with the top angle at 6 feet, about the same as our original image.  This, again, is a simple chart that does not account for the different lens length, field of view, etc.   


The first angle from 6 feet puts the background only a foot or so.  As we move down to 3 feet the angle becomes more shallow and a straight line puts the background a couple feet back.  This change looks minor, but when shot at lower apertures, it already does a good job at creating depth, as we saw in the example above.   The bottom 2 lines, represent much shallower angles and you can see the background really starts to drop off exponentially until you are shooting on a flat angle with has virtually no ground elements in the background at all.

The picture below was captured at about 1 foot off the ground.

Example 3 - 18 feet, 1 foot above ground

As we move to just a foot off the ground, we see results similar to the crouch, but more separation has occurred and the foreground out-of-focus grasses start to actually pop up into the "bird," and there is only a thin sliver of grass left in focus.

The last angle shown below is flat.  In fact here, the eye of the rooster may even be an inch or two above the lens.  

Example 4 - 18 feet, flat angle to subject


Here is where things get drastically different.  At a flat, ultra-low angle, the grass is gone, save for the blurred foreground and a few blades of grass popping up in the same plane as the rooster.  The big difference in this last picture, is the background.  We no longer see the grass behind the bird but we are now showing the distant shrubs, which are only about 15 feet behind the bird, but completely out of focus.  When shooting like this you will often get a completely different color in the background which really helps break up the scene.  Sometimes these breaks will even occur near lines of "thirds, " which may be pleasing for composition.  Where there is no solid background behind the bird, you may get horizons, bodies of water, or if you are really creative, a sunrise or sunset.

Here are the 4 images from highest to lowest together for comparison.

TIPS FOR LOW ANGLE:  A few things that you may want to try when shooting this technique.  

  • Dress accordingly as you will be laying down a lot, often in sand (if you're lucky), mud, grass, and all sorts of foul wildlife habitat.  Consider a yoga mat to lay down if you will be in one spot for a while.  Bring a change of clothes (I always have 2 complete sets of clothing in my trunk along with towels and a backup pair of shoes).
  • Your neck is going to get stiff very quickly so there are a few things that can help.  You can purchase a "right angle" viewfinder that allows you to look down and keep you from bending your neck.  This is a huge help, but might take some time to get used to.  Its good for slow moving ducks but harder for tracking little plovers scurrying around.  You can also try laying sideways.  I shoot like this most of the time, where I am more on my side and my neck seems to hold up better.
  • Look through the subject.  I use this phrase a lot and it's meant to make the photographer think about what is behind the subject.  On stationary subjects you will have time to change positions move up or down a couple inches, left/right a few feet.  As demonstrated before, a few inches can make a difference about what is shown behind your subject in the background and those small changes in elevation can greatly affect your final product.

Below are a few images that were shot with very low angles to illustrate real life examples of what can be achieved.  Good luck with your efforts!

At this low angle, this Semi-palmated Plover really shows the action of pulling the worm from the sand.  This persepctive feels intimate and gives a great sense of being close to whats happening.  It also allows the elongated worm to show better.

Getting low, here the lens is laying on my hand in the sand, allows the background to include some sky.  This breaks up the solid sand that would be showing if I was just a few inches higher.  Another cool impact of this low angle, is seeing the space between the foot and the sand, which is much more obvious when viewed from this perspective.

With larger wading birds, you don't have to be as low.  In this image, I moved from a low position to a sitting position, shooting with the camera lens balanced on my knee.  Keeping level with the birds eye was my main focus.  This also allowed me to capture the tall grasses in the back.   This was one of my favorite overall images of 2017 .

This example shows a foreground blur that composes the bottom third of the image.  The key element for me here was the sky.  The sun was just coming up and the sky still had blue and purple tones that I wanted to include.  The Oystercatcher was actually a little above me on a small dune, so I could get the sand, the bird and the sky all in one picture.

I wanted to be sure to include the green mossy rocks as part of this background, so I got super low to catch this Oystercatcher in a small pool near the jetty.  Had I been a foot higher, I would have lost the rocks and only gotten the shallow blue pool.   I think getting both the pool and the rocks created a better product.

Gaining low perspective on waterfowl is challenging and rewarding.  This was taken laying on the shore of a pond.  When I saw the ducks I noticed this great golden color in the background, which was created by dead grasses in the morning sun.  Getting flat of the ground allowed me to get the background in the frame.  Had I shot this higher all of those colors would be missed except what might have been seen in the water reflection.

The low angle on this White-cheeked Pintail (Aruba) created a very shallow area of water in focus.  The water ends at the grasses and creates a horizontal line at about the 1/3 mark from the bottom.   I personally like including these breaks in backgrounds.  Because he is drying off, the head of the duck is not up in the greens and yellows.  A  higher perspective would likely, but the head in the water, not the grasses.

The water here was not gorgeous by any means and getting low minimizes it's impact and pulls in some other neutral colors from the side of the creek.

Foraging birds are not always in the open like this.  Getting on the ground here gives a very different and intimate feel to these Vesper Sparrows.  This bird is on the other side of a gravel road.  Shooting down at an angle would bring in that very bland element and make it look like a bird on the road.   Changing to really low (actually an inch or two below the bird as he in on the slightly elevated road) allowed 2 layers of backgrounds to come in to play.  There are golds from a burnt field that lead into a tree line on the horizon.  Getting this low will get some super out-of-focus elements that can bleed into the subject, so you will have to determine if this bothers you or not.  For me seeing the three layers evenly broken up created a more interesting image and the blurred bottom of the bird lead into the in-focus head which also worked for me.

Guest Submission by Ray Hennessy  - By getting incredibly low in a shallow pool of water I was able to include the sun in the frame as this Laughing Gull took off. It was on a small sand bar no more then a few inches out of the water but that was enough for me to get below the bird. 

(SKeysImages) Thu, 20 Jul 2017 13:11:04 GMT