There we were in the metal junkyard in Chuchill, Canada. Then from nowhere a Merlin takes to the air cacking at a crow and chasing it out of the area. In June, that’s a sure sign they are nesting. Merlins are a funny little raptor, they tend to nest on the ground in the Arctic. I’ve seen Merlin for the last 30yrs but I’ve never had glass on one long enough to get better than what looks like a dust spot on the sensor. Here was an opportunity that even though less than ideal (shooting in a junkyard with the sun high overhead), it was better than what I had had, nothing. I had no shots in my conventional or digital files of Merlin.
The last 12 month, the #2 question I’ve been asked has changed. It was, “What’s the best f/stop?” but now it’s “How do I get better?” We have known units of measure, inch, ounce, miles per hours, kilowatts, but there is no known unit of measure for … better. If you can’t get a photo sharp, than just getting sharp images is better. If you can’t get “proper” exposure, than just getting a good exposure is better. If you’ve never photographed a subject before, having images of that subject that are sharp, exposed well and recognizable, are better. But once you get past these basic stepping stones in photography, how do you measure better? How do work towards being better from what YOU think could be better? Seriously, what’s better? I’ve asked some folks when they were shooting if what they were doing was making the photo better. The overwhelming response was, “I think so” but when they looked at their images they said, “I don’t know if they are better.” Hard to know without some unit of measure.
In the realm of wildlife photography, one measure of better is bigger. A bigger subject in the frame must be better. The Merlin is in the top frame but you can’t see it. The middle frame, you can see it but the trunks on the left isn’t helping. There is no doubt there’s a Merlin in the bottom frame. But what is better between the three? What might seem odd to you, these images are arranged in the order I like the best to least, the top my favorite and the bottom the least. Yes, I’m stacking the deck here but I want to make a point that hopefully will make you think. All three images were taken with the D4 / 800AFS w/TC-25e (effective 1000f7.1) so the increase in size comes from my feet, not glass. And better, what’s the measure for me, here, with these three images? Personally, sharp and good exposure aren’t a measure for better, it comes from story telling. In these three images, the top images tells more about the biology of the Merlin and therefore a story. No bigger than your basic jay, when they don’t want to be seen, they aren’t going to be seen. Could I get “better” images?” Not from this opportunity but perhaps in the future. What would make the next images better? For me, better story telling. Ultimately, I would like to have an image like I’ve seen from others, a Merlin on a branch in a spotlight of sun with a dead bird in its grasp. Hey, a guy can dream, right? And perhaps that should be our measure for better. Rather than some technical unit, some other’s idea of better, perhaps our “better” should come from our dreams. It’s doesn’t answer the question, but perhaps you might think about the question in a different light. What is better?”