Bay Journal

Want to take some really cool photos?

Warm light, clear air offer opportunities not found rest of the year

  • By David Harp on January 01, 2013
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Fire & Ice: Like embers from a fire, ice chunks thrown onto thin ice by a passing skiff glow from the low angle of a winter’s morning sun. This photo was taken using a slight underexposure from the camera’s default meter reading. (Dave Harp)

Along the shores of Chesapeake Bay, winter holds more promise for great photography than any other time of the year. The low angle of the sun provides warm light and distinct shadows throughout most of the day and the air is crisp and clear, unlike hazy, thick summer air.

The winter-brown marsh grasses, especially the spartina varieties and needlerush, reflect that warm light on a sunny day and offer a nice contrast to the blue sky. On a windless day, that contrast is even more arresting when the edge grasses are reflected in the water. These elements alone can make some very nice photographs, but add the panoply of migrating waterfowl, and those opportunities are almost limitless. If Mother Nature offers snow and ice, all the better.

The best places to photograph wintering waterfowl are areas where they congregate in large numbers, like refuges with a food supply nearby or places where people are feeding them.

Tundra swans, my very favorite avian subject, are extraordinarily skittish. The best photos I've ever shot of them were on a cove on Tilghman Island, where a man had fed them so frequently that they'd pitch in when they heard the sound of corn hitting the water's surface. He was there on a snowy day in February and waited for me to set up a tripod and a 400mm telephoto lens before tossing the corn. The snowy scene of swans pitching in, their large white bodies against the dark, tree-lined shoreline was one of those opportunities that's not easy to replicate and, in fact, I never have.

Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and others near my home on Maryland's Eastern Shore are excellent places to view and photograph wintering waterfowl. (See "Winter birders flock to Maryland's Eastern Shore" on page 4.)

On a sunny day, you really must get out early (a half hour before sunrise until an hour or two afterward) or late in the afternoon when they're most active. During these times, the white bodies of swans and snow geese take on the color of the low sun and their features are very distinct. During the high sun part of the day they become overexposed blobs in a high contrast scene that no camera — film or digital — can capture. Cloudy, and especially snowy days, allow for lower contrast situations and a longer shooting period.

The winter landscape can be recorded with just about any camera — from point-and-shoot and cell phone to high end SLR. Just keep in mind the rule of thirds and tic-tac-toe grid and avoid placing the most important element in the landscape in the middle of the frame.

Whether roosting or in flight, birds require more sophisticated cameras with longer telephoto lenses, generally a tripod or monopod, and relatively high shutter speeds to freeze the action. Keep in mind that telephoto lenses accentuate both camera motion and subject movement, so high shutter speeds are essential if you want sharp photos. This may also require higher ISO or sensitivity settings to allow the higher shooting speed.

Those pre-dawn and late afternoon windows for good light can also be the coldest times of the winter day, so proper attire is essential for good photos. So much of the process of landscape and wildlife photography dictates that you wait patiently for the sun to be just so on your subject or for the flock of snow geese to take flight before the sun sets. If you're so cold you can't feel your fingers or toes, then good photos take a back seat to comfort and your brain won't concentrate on what's in your viewfinder. Multiple layers of fleece and wool, warm gloves and boots, an outer layer that's wind and waterproof and a good, warm hat will allow you to concentrate on making those exceptional photographs.

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About David Harp

Dave Harp is a photographer living in Cambridge, MD, who specializes in capturing images of the Chesapeake Bay.

Read more articles by David Harp

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