The Portrait

Seeing likeness in a portrait is to recognize the craftsman in the artist. Finding soul is to discover the artist in the craftsman.
     Bernard Poulin

As in many places in the world, western Montana's weather has been broken this winter of 2016. Last winter (2014/15) we had lots of snow from a week before Christmas until about mid-January. Then the snow ended and the year continued extremely dry, with no mountain snowpack to feed the streams and rivers through the summer, which presents problems those in the eastern U.S., with their torrential rains and flooding, can only imagine.

This winter started the same as last, and when the snow continued to fall through the end of January I had hope this winter would be more normal, despite predictions that a very strong El Niño would shut off the flow of moisture to the northern Rockies. Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened. Here in the Mission Valley, and throughout most of western Montana, there's been no accumulating snow in February. In fact, according to my little weather station, there've been only five days this month that didn't exceed 40°F (4° C) for a high temperature, and two of those days were 39°.

Despite the best efforts of several lovely, sunny and warm days, it's not been a pretty February here. Lacking snow cover, everything is brown except for the gray things. Windy days have brought storms of falling needles from the Ponderosa pines, the predominant trees here, which are suffering greatly from the recent drought years. Finding photography subjects, even finding motivation to look for them, have been fruitless endevours.

But There Are Birds!

Chickadee on a snowy day, Montana, U.S.

Chickadee on a snowy day.

Even my most curmudgeonly friend, who won't be named here, is cheered, as much as he ever is, by the sight of chickadees flitting to and from the bird feeder. These friendly little birds can brighten any winter's day. They are maddeningly difficult to photograph, as the little busybodies sit still for nanoseconds before launching to their next task. But there are lots of them to make up for that. At this time of year we also have abundant nuthatches (both white- and red-breasted, and sometimes the less common pigmy), little downy woodpeckers, the larger hairy woodpecker, flickers, magpies, Stellars jays, Clark's nutcrackers, and the big pileated woodpecker. We'll also see random numbers of what Pat Jamieson, Outdoor Recreation Manager at the nearby National Bison Range, calls “LBJs”, or Little Brown Jobs, those hard-for-many-of-us to identify creepers, sparrows, and more obscure little birds.

On a recent morning, as I watched all this traffic at our feeders, the two pairs of pileated woodpeckers that nest nearby appeared, their pointed red heads blazing in the morning sun. Wouldn't it be cool, I thought, to capture a tack-sharp portrait of one of these birds, in this great light? Just head and shoulders, more or less filling the frame, with any background being completely soft and pure? I'm not a fan of photographic “projects”, so I'm not making this one, but it sounded like a fun way to do something creative and potentially lovely on these otherwise blah no-longer-winter but not-yet-spring days. With that idea in my head, I set about determining the set-up, and then spending the time, during those hours of nice light, getting the pictures.

Feeder Fodder

The location and setup for bird portraits

The location and setup for bird portraits, with a red-breasted nuthatch on the feeder.

The setup is simple, as my overall kit is simple: park the tripod on my deck, six to eight feet (1.8-2.4m) from the feeder, attach the 100-400mm zoom plus 1.4x teleconverter to the camera, compose and prefocus, and then wait. I composed so the edge of the feeder just barely intrudes into the frame. This feeder is a wire basket. Birds perch anywhere along its corners and sides. I pre-focused on the sunward side and waited for a bird to arrive. I then refocused and fired off a few frames in high-speed mode, which is six frames per second on my Canon EOS 5D MkIII.

With a focal length of 560mm and the distance to the subject of just a few feet, depth of field, even at small apertures, is nonexistent. I'm shooting at ISO 640 so I have reasonable shutter speeds. Given that I'm doing it in late-morning sun, this is working out well enough.

The smaller birds are very energetic, moving constantly, making it very challenging to get well-focused captures. I get the critical eye in focus but the tip of the bill is soft thanks to that minimal depth of field. The six fps frame rate helps capture lots of movement; if I stick with it long enough odds are I'll get something in which the overall subject is sharp. Quantity to get quality, or something.

The larger birds, while perhaps moving around a bit less, are almost without exception very timid. The slightest movement, even my fingers squeezing the cable release, is enough to send the flickers and pileateds flying. I've yet to capture anything worth keeping. The answer may be to hang a simple tarp or other curtain to act as a blind. TBD whether that becomes necessary.

When it Works, it Works

Red-breasted nuthatch portrait, Lake County, Montana, U.S.

Red-breasted nuthatch portrait.

I've had only a few days of good light since I started this effort, and so far I have three photos I can call “keepers”. I've thrown away several hundred frames to get those, but given the time and effort expended so far, I think that's pretty good. “Run and gun” is contrary to my usual slow and methodical technique, but given the subjects' active behavior, it seems the best approach.

When I process these images, the first task in my workflow is cropping. Not surprisingly, many of the captures include the edge of the feeder. Such things in the frame may work for London's Tate Modern or MoMA, but I'm not trying to make photos of modern sculpture, so the feeder gets cropped out. With the focal length I can throw at the task, and even at only six feet away, the smaller birds fill only a fraction of the frame, leaving lots of soft background to be cropped. In the end I decided to crop these images square, which I've always found an interesting format in which to work. So far I've made a couple of prints to fit mat openings of eight by eight inches. For the smaller birds the resulting portraits are larger than life-size.

Even after this dreary February gives way to whatever happens in March and beyond I'll keep working on this. I hope to make nice photos of the common birds, large and small, that visit our backyard. Most will be suitable for small prints; perhaps some, especially of the larger birds, could be printed somewhat larger, but the goal is the portrait, a high-quality capture cropped, either in-camera or in post-capture processing, into close-up head-and-shoulder pictures of those birds that brightened a decidedly non-wintry winter.

February, 2016

All products and brand names mentioned are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective owners.