More on Learning About Light, Height, Head Angle, Rear Focus, and Selecting the Right AF Settings … « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

More on Learning About Light, Height, Head Angle, Rear Focus, and Selecting the Right AF Settings ...

What’s Up?

I am putting the finishing touches on this blog post while at the gate for my flight home on Thursday afternoon, Islip to Orlando. Had a nice visit with my Mom and with my younger daughter and two with Dr. Dan Holland at True Sports Care in Nesconset.

Great Galapagos IPT News

With two folks signed up for the August 2017 Galapagos trip there is now just one opening for a single male on the world’s greatest photographic trip to the archipelago, almost surely my last. I could squeeze in a desperate couple …

The Learning Never Stops …

In the recent Using Tv Mode to Attain a Minimum Shutter Speed. ISO Quiz, and Pushing the Limits … blog post here, nobody has yet come up with the ISO that I used for the hummer image. Are the guesses too high? Too low? Who knows? Do consider chiming in. In addition, there have been lots of comments on the use of Manual mode with Auto ISO and EC …

Gear Questions and Advice

Too many folks attending BAA IPTs and dozens of folks whom I see in the field, and on BPN, are–out of ignorance–using the wrong gear, especially when it comes to tripods and more especially, tripod heads… Please know that I am always glad to answer your gear questions via e-mail.

The Streak: 440

Today’s blog post marks a totally insane, irrational, illogical, preposterous, absurd, completely ridiculous, unfathomable, silly, incomprehensible, what’s wrong with this guy?, makes-no-sense, 440 days in a row with a new educational blog post. As always–and folks have been doing a really great for a long time now–please remember to use our B&H links for your major gear purchases. For best results use one of our many product-specific links; after clicking on one of those you can continue shopping with all subsequent purchases invisibly tracked to BAA. Your doing so is always greatly appreciated. Please remember: web orders only. And please remember also that if you are shopping for items that we carry in the BAA Online Store (as noted in red at the close of this post below) we would of course appreciate your business.

This image was created at La Jolla, CA with the Induro GIT 304L/Mongoose M3.6-mountedCanon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lens, the Canon Extender EF 1.4X III, and my favorite bird photography camera, the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. ISO 800. Evaluative metering +2 stops as framed: 1/400 sec. at f/7.1 in Manual mode. AWB.

Center AF point/AI Servo Expand/Rear Focus AF on the bird’s eye and re-compose. Click here to see the latest version of the Rear Focus Tutorial. Click on the image to see a larger version.

FocusTune/LensAlign Micro Adjustment: +2

Image #1: high key Black Turnstone

About Light …

Image #1 was made in heavy overcast conditions. Image #2 was made at 9:30am on a sunny day, but there were light clouds softening the light so the shadows were faint. Compare with Image #1 in the first Learning About Light blog post here. In that image, the sun was out at full strength on a blue sky day. At 10:30am.

Which Light is Better?

Do you prefer the light in Image #1 or the light in Image #2? Either way, please let us know why.

Your Favorite

Which of today’s featured image is the strongest? Whether you like #1 or #2 best, let us know why you made your choice.

Height …

I was seated comfortably on a foot-high rock shelf when this bird came to rest. But getting low is not always the best choice; you actually need to look and think. Before I even made a single image I knew that I needed to get up and shoot with the lens about four feet up. Why?

Rear Focus and Re-Compose Question

Why was it pretty much imperative to be on a tripod for the creation of Image #1?

This image was created at La Jolla, CA with the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens, the Canon Extender EF 1.4X III (at 560mm) with my very favorite bird photography camera body, the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. ISO 800. Evaluative metering +1/3 stop: 1/400 sec. at f/9 in Manual mode. AWB.

LensAlign/FocusTune micro-adjustment: +5.

Center AF point/AI Servo/Expand/Shutter button AF. The selected AF point fell nicely on the side of the bird’s lower breast, pretty much on the same plane as the bird’s eye. Selection of the AF point, choice of the AF Area Selection Mode, and placement of the selected point — all as determined by the photographer in milliseconds — are instrumental when it comes to creating consistently sharp images. Well, not really milliseconds. Click on the image to enjoy a larger version.

Image #2: Black Turnstone

Head Angle

Head angle is dependent on the bird’s posture and on the orientation of the bird’s body to the imaging sensor — aka the back of the camera. When the the bird facing us there are two very good head angles: staring straight down the lens barrel and looking 90 degrees to one side or the other, in other words, perfectly parallel to the imaging sensor. Again. For me, the head angle with image #1 is perfect.

When the bird is parallel to the imaging sensor, the very best head angle is usually when the bird’s head is turned one to three degrees toward us. I prefer that by far to having the bird’s head perfectly parallel to the back of the camera, again, when the bird is parallel to the back of the camera.

The best way to learn about head angle is to visit the Head Angle Fine Points thread on BirdPhotographers.Net by clicking here. It is a long post so grab some pretzels and a beer (or a healthier snack) if you really want to learn.

Selecting the Right AF Settings

As not everyone reads the educational image captions — a very big mistake as far as I am concerned BTW — I have cut and pasted this from the caption for Image #2:

Selection of the AF point, choice of the AF Area Selection Mode, and placement of the selected point — all as determined by the photographer in milliseconds — are instrumental when it comes to creating consistently sharp images. Well, not really milliseconds.

To start, I am constantly changing the location of my selected AF point. And by that I mean a lot, often every few seconds as the subject is moving or changing its position (as with preening pelicans for sure). I generally choose my AF Area Selection mode based on the situation, but may change is as the situation changes. One of the things that I love about the last few generations of Canon camera bodies is that you can set one AF point along with an AF Area Selection mode when working horizontally, and another AF point with the same or a different AF Area Selection mode when working vertically. As long as you have enabled the AF Point Orientation item on the menu the system will know whether you are working horizontally or vertically and remember the AF setting.

You select the AF point and the AF Area Selection mode based on your educated guess as to where on the subject you will be placing the selected AF point.

If you simply set and use the center AF point for all of your bird photography you have a lot to work on.


DeSoto in spring is rife with tame and attractive birds. From upper left clockwise to center: breeding plumage Dunlin, dark morph breeding plumage Reddish Egret displaying, breeding plumage Laughing Gull/front end vertical portrait, breeding plumage Laughing Gull with prey item, Laughing Gull on head of Brown Pelican, screaming Royal Tern in breeding plumage, Royal Terns/pre-copulatory stand, Laughing Gulls copulating, breeding plumage Laughing Gull/tight horizontal portrait, Sandwich Tern with fish, and a really rare one, White-rumped Sandpiper in breeding plumage, photographed at DeSoto in early May.

Fort DeSoto Spring IPT/April 19-22, 2017. (meet & greet at 2pm on Wednesday April 19 followed by an afternoon session) through the full day on Saturday April 22. 3 1/2 DAYs: $1599. Limit 10. To save your spot, please call and put down a non-refundable deposit of $499.00.

I will be offering small group (Limit 3) Photoshop sessions on Sunday afternoon and Monday morning if necessary. Details on that TBA.

Fort DeSoto is one of the rare locations that might offer great bird photography 365 days a year. It shines in spring. There will Lots of tame birds including breeding plumage Laughing Gull and Royal and Sandwich Terns. With luck, we will get to photograph all of these species courting and copulating. There will be American Oystercatcher and Marbled Godwit plus sandpipers and plovers, some in full breeding plumage. Black-bellied Plover and Red Knot in stunning breeding plumage are possible. There will be lots of wading birds including Great and Snowy Egrets, both color morphs of Reddish Egret, Great Blue, Tricolored and Little Blue Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, and killer breeding plumage White Ibis. Roseate Spoonbill and Wood Stork are possible and likely. We should have lots of good flight photography with the gulls and terns and with Brown Pelican. Nesting Least Tern and nesting Wilson’s Plover are possible.

We will, weather permitting, enjoy 7 shooting sessions. As above, our first afternoon session will follow the meet and greet at 2pm on Wednesday April 19. For the next three days we will have two daily photo sessions. We will be on the beach early and usually be at lunch (included) by 11am. We will have three indoor sessions. At one we will review my images–folks learn a ton watching me choose my keepers and deletes–why keep this one and delete that one? The second will be a review of your images so that I can quickly learn where you need help. For those who bring their laptops to lunch I’d be glad to take a peek at an image or three. Day three will be a Photoshop session during which we will review my complete workflow and process an image or two in Photoshop after converting them in DPP. Afternoon sessions will generally run from 4:30pm till sunset. We photograph until sunset on the last day, Saturday, April 22. Please note that this is a get-your-feet and get-your-butt wet and sandy IPT. And that you can actually do the whole IPT with a 300 f/2.8L IS, a 400 f/4 ID DO lens with both TCs, or the equivalent Nikon gear. I will surely be using my 500 II as my big glass and have my 100-400 II on my shoulder.


DeSoto in spring is rife with tame and attractive birds. From upper left clockwise to center: Laughing Gull in flight, adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, copulating Sandwich Terns, Roseate Spoonbill, Great Egret with reflection, Short-billed Dowitcher in breeding plumage, American Oystercatcher, breeding plumage Royal Tern, white morph Reddish Egret, and Snowy Egret marsh habitat shot.

What You Will Learn

You will learn to approach free and wild birds without disturbing them, to understand and predict bird behavior, to identify many species of shorebirds, to spot the good situations, to understand the effects of sky and wind conditions on bird photography, to choose the best perspective, to see and understand the light, to get the right exposure every time after making a single test exposure, and to design pleasing images by mastering your camera’s AF system. And you will learn how and why to work in Manual mode (even if you are scared of it).

The group will be staying at the Red Roof Inn, St. Petersburg: 4999 34th St. North, St Petersburg, FL 33714. The place is clean and quite inexpensive. Please e-mail for room block information. And please call Jim or Jennifer at 863-692-0906 to register. All will need to purchase an Annual Pass early on Tuesday afternoon so that we can enter the park at 6am and be in position for sunrise opportunities. The cost is $75, Seniors $55. Tight carpools will be needed and will reduce the per person Annual Pass costs. The cost of three lunches is included. Breakfasts are grab what you can on the go, and dinners are also on your own due to the fact that we will usually be getting back to the hotel at about 9pm. Non-photographer spouses, friends, or companions are welcome for $100/day, $350 for the whole IPT.

BIRDS AS ART Fort DeSoto In-the-Field Meet-up Workshop (ITFW): $99

Fort DeSoto Spring In-the-Field Cheap Meet-up Workshop (ITFW) on the morning of April 22, 2017: $99

Join me on the morning of April 22, 2017 for 3-hours of photographic instruction at Fort DeSoto Park. Beginners are welcome. Lenses of 300mm or longer are recommended but even those with 70-200s should get to make some nice images. Teleconverters are always a plus.

You will learn the basics of digital exposure and image design, autofocus basics, and how to get close to free and wild birds. We should get to photograph a variety of wading birds, shorebirds, terns, and gulls. This inexpensive morning workshop is designed to give folks a taste of the level and the quality of instruction that is provided on BIRDS AS ART Instructional Photo-tours. I hope to meet you there.

To register please call Jim or Jennifer during weekday business hours with a credit card in hand to pay the nominal registration fee. Your registration fee is non-refundable. You will receive a short e-mail with instructions, gear advice, and meeting place one week before the event.

Please Remember to use my Affiliate Links and to Visit the New BAA Online Store 🙂

To show your appreciation for my continuing efforts here, we ask, as always, that you get in the habit of using my B&H affiliate links on the right side of the blog for all of your photo and electronics purchases. Please check the availability of all photographic accessories in the New BIRDS AS ART Online Store, especially the Mongoose M3.6 tripod head, Wimberley lens plates, Delkin flash cards and accessories, and LensCoat stuff.

As always, we sell only what I have used, have tested, and can depend on. We will not sell you junk. We know what you need to make creating great images easy and fun. And please remember that I am always glad to answer your gear questions via e-mail.

I would of course appreciate your using our B&H affiliate links for all of your major gear, video, and electronic purchases. For the photographic stuff mentioned in the paragraph above, and for everything else in the new store, we, meaning BAA, would of course greatly appreciate your business. Here is a huge thank you to the many who have been using our links on a regular basis and those who will be visiting the New BIRDS AS ART Online Store as well.


Be sure to like and follow BAA on Facebook by clicking on the logo link upper right. Tanks a stack.


In all blog posts and Bulletins, feel free to e-mail or to leave a comment regarding any typos or errors. Just be right :).

24 comments to More on Learning About Light, Height, Head Angle, Rear Focus, and Selecting the Right AF Settings …

  • avatar Jim Amato

    Image one previous post and Image two this post are my choices.
    The starkness of the non chosen images have the birds appear “on top” the scene, as not part of the scene. The birds in image two, previous and image one this post, seem to float. both those images present the birds in a clear sharp, nicely exposed presentation, however in a superimposed visual scene.
    I prefer the context of the scene with the subject.

  • avatar Warren H

    As for your question “Before I even made a single image I knew that I needed to get up and shoot with the lens about four feet up. Why?” – I agree with what others have said, you needed to be a little higher to not block or cut off the view of the feet with the foreground rock/ledge.

    As for “Why was it pretty much imperative to be on a tripod for the creation of Image #1?” – You were working with low light. You had already bumped the ISO to 800 and were only at 1/400 shutter speed. With 700 mm focal length, it would be difficult for anyone to get consistently sharp images hand holding.

    These are interesting images to choose between because they are very different to me. As much as I love the colors and angled line in Image 2, I would choose the simplicity of Image 1. Don’t get me wrong, its not simple to create #1. A simple image with few distracting elements is the goal of a well crafted image.

    Thanks for sharing and inspiring!

  • Hi Arthur,
    Firstly I find your work amazing and very inspiring. In regard to the blog post, I like the simplicity and the intimacy that the eye contact gives image #1. There is something about the head angle in image #2 that bugs me, but I like the fact that it reveals some of the habitat. For me image #1 is the winner. Sitting down for image #1 would have been a bad idea because the black turnstone is right on the waters edge, I think I can see water in the very bottom of the frame. Finally, I would like to thank you for being such an inspirational teacher, I am 13 years old and really just beginning at my photography (recently I received a commended at the RSPCA Young Photographer Awards 2016) and your videos and blog posts have taught me a lot.
    Thanks Again,

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Thank you Jake! And YAW. You have a 24 year head start on me so I expect you to accomplish great things if you decide that you really do love bird photography. Where do you live?


  • avatar David Policansky

    Artie: I love both images; I’d be proud to call either of them mine. Picking one over the other is too Solomonic for me…. 🙂 If you were any lower for image 1, the rock in the foreground, which already is borderline distracting, would block the bird’s feet, and maybe more if you got even lower. As for shadows in image 2, to my eye the lowest dark feathers seem to cast shadows on the bird’s white breast, the bird’s body seems to cast a shadow on the top of its left leg, and the rightmost toe of its right foot seems to cast a shadow on the rock. I wasn’t there–you were–but for some reason, those really do look like shadows to my eye. Apparently to Chris’s eye as well. Would you look at the image and at least see if you can see and explain what’s misleading us?

  • avatar Monte Brown


    Both images are awesome, initially # 2 was my favorite, after studying them in more detail #1 is the winner. When one imagines the ever changing water level and water action around the feet of the bird, it tells a great story. Although the head angle is square to the camera, my personal preference is to have the head pointed a few degrees toward the camera. Guessing the height was necessary to be able to focus above the moving water and keep the birds feet in focus when the water receded around the birds feet?

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Hi Monte, Good to see you here. The rock was high and dry at the time the image was made (though the rocks were wet from previous waves). For the facing you pose (in #1) I love it as presented though a few degrees towards us would not have ruined the image. What would have happened to the feet if I had stayed seated (i.e., lower)?

      later and love, artie

  • avatar Kevin Hice

    Good morning Artie
    I like image II the best . I prefer the richer colors in the background blues, green even the browns. I just prefer richer colors over the drab in drab background in #1. Sure image two the head angle isn’t perfect but close enough. This image shows more of the bird’s body and with the raised leg shows some action which I prefer. More detail overall at f9 especially in the legs.I personally like early or late light just makes the colors accentuate more. I find myself not going out on cloudy days. Just don’t seem to get the photos I prefer. I know probably losing some good opportunities.Image one you had to stand to keep from cutting off the birds leg because of the rock formation being a little higher in the sitting position.

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Hi Kevin,

      The head angle is #2 is absolutely perfect for me, turned about 2 degrees toward us. Don’t be confused on the d-o-f; both image were stopped down only 1/3 stop from wide open–image #2 was made with the 1.4X TC, image #1 was not …

      If I did not go out on cloudy days I’d be missing 3/4 of my best images so you might want to re-consider or at least give it a try :9)

      Good on the feet.


  • avatar Chris

    My favorite is image 1. Probably a personal preference – liked the composition, head position and cleaner background. For lighting, image 1 again. Again, just a personal preference as image 2 brought in more contrast. To the question about why the height, I took the question to be referring to image 2. If so, as I looked at the shadows coming off the primary feathers of the wing, a lower position of the camera would have brought more shadows into the image. If you were referring to image 1, it was needed to capture the feet (however, it looks like image 1 was taken from a lower position than image 2.

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Thanks for commenting.

      With a bit of a thin cloud over the sun in #2 I am not seeing any shadows at all in image #2. If there had been any shadows you comment on getting lower would still not make any sense to me …

      respectfully, artie

  • avatar Brad

    Because the rock in front of the bird would have took away his feet in image 1

  • avatar Tony Zielinski

    Hi Artie,
    I much prefer image #1: i like the composition better, and the brown bird against a very light background. I cannot say if the light is better or not… i just prefer it.
    I believe you had to get higher on that first photo, else the object (ground? rock?) in the foreground that is out-of-focus would have blocked view of the birds feet. Additionally there may have been background elements you were trying to exclude (horizon, etc) by getting higher.
    Take care

  • avatar Elinor Osborn

    #1 is my favorite. I like the almost eye level view and the head angle to the side. If the head had been straight on I wouldn’t have liked it. Probably you raised your rig because there appears to be a higher slope of sand in front of the bird’s feet which would have hidden the feet from a lower angle.

  • avatar Mike Cristina

    Hi Artie,

    Re: Auto ISO. I leave my 1DX and 100-400 on Auto-ISO, wide open, Shutter speed 400, EC+2/3. (Some cameras won’t allow EC in Auto-ISO). Then if I have to pick it up quickly, while driving or walking, I know the exposure will be close to correct. I prefer the control over both aperture and speed, letting the camera choose the ISO.

    Mike in CT

    P.S. I see Todd’s off to Tanzania for a month. Lucky him!

  • avatar Kerry Morris

    Looks like you could not be seated to get image #1 because the bird is on a rock and you would have been shooting up at the bird or perhaps the rock would block the lower half of the bird.
    Kneeling down, or standing and bending you were able to get the straight on image of the bird as you did.
    Choosing between the two images is a bit of a challenge. I really like the position and framing of the bird in image 1. I like that it is over more to the left and the head is turned right. I like that it’s a straight on look of the body. While the head and bill is sharp, the breast and feet are not as sharp.
    Image 2 is razor sharp all around. The movement of the bird and the blurred, colorful background add interest. I like the head angle too.
    I think, however, image 1 is my favorite. I agree with Ron – it looks like fine art. Image #1 is more intimate as well. I am a huge fan of the tight shots. I don’t mind leaving things out to get that ultra tight close up.

  • avatar Garrick

    Both images are very nice like image #2 the best better contrast colors are richer seems sharper because of the pop in the colors and contrast

  • Looks like there would’ve been some foreground issues with Image #1 had you stayed seated. Also focus & recompose using AI Servo needs a tripod to avoid any drop off in focus due to forward/backward movement as you recomposed. I honestly can’t pick between the two, both forms of lighting appeal to me greatly. Two keepers for sure.

  • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

    All good below but nobody is saying why staying seated would have been a bad plan for Image #1 …


  • avatar Ron Fullelove

    Hi Artie,
    I like the light in image 2 better as it brings a little vibrance into the feather colours.
    For me, image 1 is the strongest image by far, it might not have the same quality of light as image 2 but it has a better POV, better head angle and better background. Image 1 looks like fine art. I’m guessing that you needed to use a tripod for image 1 due to the amount of recomposition required.
    What would have been really interesting to see, is image 1 with both qualities of light.
    Take care,

  • avatar Cheri

    For me, it’s a toss up between the 2 images. Both are great . Love the head angle, overall pose and clean background in image #1. The lighting in image #2 really makes the colors pop, and the raised foot showing motion. As far as your height and position, I imagine you placed yourself and your rig where you could get the most favorable background. And the 5DmIV does rock at flight photography….