Over the weekend (31st August – Sept 1st), My wife and I took our daughter and made for the South coast here in the UK. Namely, to West Bay in Bridport (in Dorset). West Bay was the first place in the UK that my wife and I went on holiday together around 4 years ago, we fell in love with it from the moment we got there and go back quite often each year. One day we plan to move there and make a home.
Seeing as the trip was a bit random and last minute, we hadn't really made plans to do anything when we were there. We just thought we’d wander around on the beach, enjoy the local tea rooms and take it all in. But, when we woke up on the Sunday morning my wife had the idea of going to Abbotsbury Swannery – a local swan sanctuary. Needless to say I was very much up for this. As you may know I've photographed swans plenty of times before and I was very keen to photograph them in a purpose-built sanctuary!
So, today I would like to share with you a few photographs I made on the day and talk about the challenges of shooting brilliant white subjects in harsh, bright sun light.
After you enter the swannery you have to walk a few hundred yards to get to the sanctuary. It’s a little odd as the shop and the car park are actually quite far away from the sanctuary itself. Once there you follow the signs and can walk various routes around the sanctuary. We made a bee-line straight for the area where all the swans were rather than choosing to go on one of the smaller walks around the sanctuary. I knew that the sanctuary had some 400 swans, but it’s not until you see them that you realise exactly how many 400 is.
As you can see here in this photograph, one of the first of the day, this swan seems perfectly relaxed and at ease, both with the hundreds of other swans around him and my presence there with the camera.
We were separated by a short, wooden fence. I’m sure the swans could walk beyond the fence if they wanted too – it’s more of a rail really that is just a little lower than waist height. I think they are there more or less to keep the visitors to the swannery away from the area where the swans bath in the sun, like this guy was here.
Speaking of sun – it was a scorching hot day. It was about 25 Degress celcius with no cloud cover at all. By this time it was around 11:15, so the sun was pretty high and very bright. Whilst this made the day enjoyable as it was mild, it made photographing perfectly white swans a little more of a challenge.
The first thing I noticed after a little chimping (constantly checking the LCD on the back) that my camera’s sensor had successfully done what it was programmed to do: turn everything to 18% grey. This was because the scene was mostly white, with the sun glistening off the bright water in the background. When I metered the scene (here I spot metered) the camera saw the white and instantly thought that it needed to darken things down a little. This grey and dull result was not what I wanted at all.
So, some exposure compensation was needed. I started by adding +1 stop, but I found even this wasn’t enough and that the whites still weren’t as white as they should have been, so, up to +2 stops of exposure compensation i went.
That gave the result you see here. Whites are white. I did have to use the shadow brush in LightRoom just a little to bring out some of the detail in the Swan’s black beak, but otherwise this is pretty much as-shot.
The next shot I made, and one that I’m really pleased with, is an extreme close up of another sleeping Swan. This time I’ve cropped it a little differently. I’ve placed the eye in the third and used the flowing lines of the swans’ neck as a leading line. This time the emphasis is on the great detail you can see in the swans feathers.
Shot at f/4 – the depth of field is still fairly shallow as the swan was only just about 1 metre away from me (1.5 at most) giving me a depth of field of about 14cm. Whilst this may seem like plenty, the swans are larger than you may think. In hindsight I should have stopped down to about f/11 to give me more like 40cm of depth of field to allow for more of the swan in focus.
Again, no cropping here and it’s pretty much as-shot albeit a little shadow. recovery in the black area and a slight push on the whites.
With this photograph, and the first one too, you can probably tell by looking at the shadows that the swans were between be and the sun. This made shooting in the harsh light even harder. If you do the same be sure to have your lens hood on to stop flare and also to stop the sun from washing out the image and creating an almost bleach-like look.
Just behind me, where I was photographing these two sleeping swans, were a few pens where some cygnets were being kept with their mothers. They were born some time in May this year so at this time they were between 4 – 5 months old. To me they were like over-grown children; despite being fairly large in size and looking quite well developed, they were definately a little more skittish and almost immature in comparison to the wonderfully white swans. They moved around far more, they moved far more quickly, they just seemed to have far more energy and to be less content to just relax and enjoy the sun like their larger, white elders were doing.
I came across this little guy next. I spotted him as he was continuously dunking his head under the water, looking for scraps I imagine. The reason he caught by eye though was because the sun was hitting the small water droplets that had formed on his head. I think it looks really cool:
Again, this is another shot where you can really make out the detail on the swans head, with the small water droplets sitting there being hit by the direct sun. This little swan was actually quite hard to capture as he just kept moving around and going back under water. It took a few attempts to get this photograph. The key was to train my camera on him as he came up from underneath the water and make a few frames before he went back under again. This method wasn’t the exact science I wanted it to be, but it did mean that when he came back up and he was looking towards me the water that had beaded up and was quickly dripping off of him was still there. Having waterproof feathers means that they remain dry, as you can see in this next photograph.
This little swan was over in the the recovery pen. I’m not sure quite what was wrong with him, but the information board said that the swans in this pen had injured themselves in some way. Looking at the pen the swans inside were all younger cygnets. Like I said above – they're all far more energetic and certainly a little more lively – I imagine this to be a contributing factor to them being more injury prone than the fully grown adults.
As I was saying: the swans all have a waterproof, oily-like membrane on their feathers that makes them waterproof. Whereas a dog or an animal with a coat would sort of soak up, or hold onto the water, water tends to roll off of swans instead. The same can be said for many birds that dwell in water, such as ducks. I guess that’s where the saying “Water off a ducks back” comes from.
When the Cygnets are dry though they tend to ‘fluff up’, just like this. When they look like this, for me, it’s a reminder that they are still only young. Like a little fluffy chick. Very cute
My wife and I are planning two more trips back to West Bay and Bridport this year before our son is born in December, but I also have one eye on a a trip in next May when the cygnets all hatch. If you think a 5 month old, grey fluffy cygnet is cute, wait until you see the newborns after a few hours. Adorable!
The last photograph I want to talk about today (there are more in the gallery below) is this one of this swan with what appears to be highlights in it’s hair. Like the David Bowie of the swan world:
There are a few things that I like about this particular shot, if i do say so myself: I managed to actually photograph the orange beak of the swan this time as it nestles into it;s own feathers, as it they were a large plush pillow. I also took off the 1.4 extender at this point and decided to shoot at f/2.8 to get an extremely narrow DOF and a dreamy look. Although i will admit I would have achieved a better shot at f/4 of f/5.8 to get all of the head in focus right down to about halfway on the beak, I love that the eye is perfectly in focus and that because they eye is a deep and brilliant black, it’s reflecting everything it see’s. I also quite like the way that the ‘hair’ on top of this swans head goes from out of focus gradually back into focus where it’s tack sharp.
For me, that’s all I wanted to talk about today: The exposure compensation was the key to getting these swans to remain vibrant and white and because I could get so close I feel I was able to get some lovely detail shots that I’m really pleased with. One last thing I’d say about my own work is that for the past 6 or so months now, more than ever, I’ve been getting the composition right in camera, which is something I’m really pleased about. Shooting on a crop sensor camera (18Mp Canon 7d) really does mean I’d rather not crop in post if I can help it – I want to keep all of the details in and not lose any of that information.
So, for now here are a few more shots from Abbotsbury Swannery in Dorset. A place I’ll certainly be going back to time and time again each time we’re in West Bay.
Please do leave a comment below and ask any questions you like about my settings, exposure compensation, gear or even the swannery. I’d gladly answer.
Enjoy your weekend. Good luck if you’re out shooting.