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on Jun 17, 2014 in Wildlife Photography

What’s the Subject?

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“What’s the subject?” This is a question I’ve been asking photographers when helping them for the past three decades. Normally, this question has to do with the visual story we’re trying to tell, the technical issues we’re trying to concur and the finishing being done in post. The subject controls everything we do as photographers, from where we stand to lens we select to it’s success in grabbing the viewers imagination. Knowing what the subject is when it comes to bird photography takes on an additional meaning that I think is just as important. I offer up this example of what I’m talking about right here.

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Now I’ve slightly manipulated my point here because you’re seeing the birds in the final photo. But to get to this point in the photograph, the majority of the time we see the off in the distance (they are smaller than a tennis ball). It’s from a distance we make the call whether we’re going to work a particular subject and with that decided, how we’re go about getting close physically to make the shot. What’s the subject or in this case the bird species, takes on a whole new meaning and importance when put in this context even though we’re still talking photography.

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On the beaches of Florida you can find a number of Plover species, two from a distance are pretty similar, the Semi Palmated Plover and Wilson’s Plover. When they are holding still and have their head cocked as you see in the top two photos, they are incredibly similar. But once they go profile to you as you see in the lower two photos, the differences in the two species is quite clear at a distance. The bill lengths and shape of the two species is very distinctive at a distance. This is especially true when not looking through bins or you long lens (as normal, I was lying flat on the sand shooting with the D4s / 800mm on the Panning Plate.)

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Why does any of this matter? It might not depending where you are in your photography. Both are great birds! The Semi Palmated Plover though is very common, being found throughout North America. The Wilson’s Plover on the other hand is anything but common. The Wilson’s being “rare” in some sense when I have the option of two species makes it the one I will focus in on because in theory, the Semi Palmated is easier to photograph elsewhere later on. Now in answering the question “What’s the Subject” knowing the species can make the difference of getting that rare shot. When it comes to just these two species, besides the bill there is one other thing that tells them apart, their biology! The Semi Palmated spends its time chasing sand flies, so it’s always on the move. The Wilson’s Plover eats small sand crabs. It freezes in one place watching them and then darts to catch its prey. One is always on the move the other is not. While “What’s the subject” is important to the photograph’s success, asking that question when it comes to birds, might just help you know which species is going to be the subject.