Sunny Sunday Morning Duck Exposure Primer « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Sunny Sunday Morning Duck Exposure Primer

[Not a valid template]

This drake Wood Duck was photographed on the San Diego IPT with the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS lens and the EOS-1D Mark IV. ISO 400. Evaluative metering -1/3 stop: 1/1600 sec. at f/7.1 in early morning light.

Sunny Sunday Morning Duck Exposure Primer

With all due respect to the folks who teach that working in Manual exposure mode is always best and that “real pros” work only in Manual mode, they are dead wrong. While lying down flat in wet grass and mud while photographing ducks yesterday morning, I worked exclusively in Av mode and was able to quickly dial in exposure compensation with the thumb wheel. When a drake Wood Duck swam by, I simply dialed in -1/3 stop of exposure compensation knowing that I would create an image with the highlights pushed well to the right of the histogram. With tiny areas of bright white I knew that there was a danger of blowing the whites if I worked at the metered exposure.

[Not a valid template]

This drake Gadwall was photographed on the San Diego IPT with the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS lens and the EOS-1D Mark IV. ISO 400. Evaluative metering +1/3 stop: 1/800 sec. at f/7.1 in early morning light.

With no whites to guard against I added a bit of light to make sure that the detail in the dark patch at the rear of the bird was properly exposed. It’s always the same: expose to the right.

[Not a valid template]

This drake Ring-necked Duck was photographed on the San Diego IPT with the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS lens and the EOS-1D Mark IV. ISO 400. Evaluative metering -2/3 stop: 1/1600 sec. at f/7.1 in very early morning light.

With the large dark head and breast influencing the meter towards over-exposure a quick check of the histogram revealed that -1/3 stop exposure still yielded significant white blinkies. So I dialed in -2/3 stops and was good to go.

[Not a valid template]

This hen Mallard was photographed on the San Diego IPT with the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS lens and the EOS-1D Mark IV. ISO 400. Evaluative metering +1/3 stop: 1/1250 sec. at f/7.1 in early morning light.

With a subject that averages to a middle tone against a light blue background +1/3 stop was the way to go.

[Not a valid template]

This drake American Wigeon was also 🙂 photographed on the San Diego IPT with the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS lens and the EOS-1D Mark IV. ISO 400. Evaluative metering +1/3 stop: 1/1250 sec. at f/9 in early morning light.

Here I got lucky…. I was at +1/3 stop when I saw this bird dipping its breast in the lake, a sure sign that a flap was to follow. I followed a few basic rules: 1-Even though I would have preferred to be at the metered exposure, i.e., 0 exposure compensation, I focused and made a series of images. 2- 1-Even though I realized that working at 800mm there was very little chance that I would be able to fit the bird in the frame, I focused and made a series of images.

So I was lucky that with the big white belly in the preceding frame and the white wing patch influencing the meter towards under-exposure that there were no hot white pixels. And I was luck to fit the forward flap in the frame. (I did crop from the rear.) With digital it is best to make the image and let the chips fall where they might. I did just that here and was handsomely rewarded.

Do let me know which of the five images is your favorite. And why.

If my comments on exposure above leave you scratching your head the very least that you can do for yourself is get yourself a copy of The Art of Bird Photography II (916 pages on CD only) and study the “Exposure Simplified” section. If you already have a copy and were confused, you need to pop the CD into your computer and start studying. And if you would like to master exposure theory so that you completely understand everything above, get yourself a copy of the original The Art of Bird Photography (soft cover) and study the Exposure chapter. Best news: you can save $10 by purchasing the two-book bundle here.

Lastly, to learn the ins and outs of the location that I visited to photograph these great ducks as well as everything that you wanted to know about photographing the California race of Brown Pelican in full breeding plumage in San Diego, get yourself a copy of our San Diego Site Guide by scrolling down here. A BAA site guide is the next best thing to being on an IPT.

Shopper’s Guide

Below is a list of the gear that I used to create the images above. Thanks a stack to all who have used the Shopper’s Guide links to purchase their gear as a thank you for all the free information that we bring you on the Blog and in the Bulletins.

Canon 800mm f/5.L IS lens Right now this is my all time favorite super-telephoto lens.
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV professional digital camera body And this is the very best professional digital camera body that I have ever used.

And from the BAA On-line Store:

Gitzo 3530 LS Tripod This one will last you a lifetime.
Mongoose M3.6 Tripod Head Right now this is the best tripod head around for use with lenses that weigh less than 9 pounds. For heavier lenses, check out the Wimberley V2 head.
Double Bubble Level You will find one in my camera’s hot shoe whenever I am not using flash.
Delkin 32gb e-Film Pro Compact Flash Card Fast and dependable.

If you are considering the purchase of a major piece of photographic gear be it a new camera, a long lens, a tripod or a head, or some accessories be sure to check out our complete Shopper’s Guide.

15 comments to Sunny Sunday Morning Duck Exposure Primer

  • Jim Crabb

    I am always delighted to find a blog, note or BAA notice from you in my email. Each is major lesson for me in some aspect of digital photography and I can hardly wait to put the new knowledge into field practice. This current selection of ducks is over the top!

  • Artie,
    It looks like you had a very productive morning. My favorite is the Wigeon, mainly because of the flap action and the angle of the bird to the frame. Also, Wigeons and Pintails are at the top of my list of favorite waterfowl. 🙂

    Runner up is the Gadwall, but I wish the white speculum was more visible.

  • Nancy Hazen

    Artie, I was looking forward to seeing your photos from SD. It looks like you may have been in one of my favorite places to shoot, but I have to say my pics never turn out like this. I’m working on it though. All of your photos are great, buy my absolute favorite is the Ring-necked duck. I love the pose, & the lighting. I often get a greenish cast when I shoot them. I’ve read your first book and will be working through the second.

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Nancy, Good to see you here. Be sure to see today’s Bulletin for lots of great unpublished San Diego images. Thanks for your purchases. To get rid of your color casts, add Digital Basics to your collection.

  • Justine Carson

    My favorite is the Wigeon wing-flap; all the great detail in the wing feathers plus the nice head angle make this the winner for me. Also like the male Wood Duck, because they are just gorgeous birds.

    In your equipment list you have the Gitzo tripod and the Mongoose head; so does this mean that’s what you were using “while lying flat in wet grass and mud” — tripod legs all the way out? Just wondering if you ever use a ground pod of any kind.

  • Thx for the tips. I also prefer useing Av in these situations. As long as you know when and how much comp. to add and subtract, and you do it quickly enough, it usually works well.

    Loved that ring-necked shot…..the head-on poses always appeal to me more than the field-guide ones. I am trying to do more and more of those this winter.

  • Two favorites—
    1- The ring-necked has a very striking head pattern and is level with the viewer, making a great connection between viewer and duck. Beautiful reflections in the water. Out of focus backgrnd makes the head stand out in 3D.
    2- Widgeon has great behavior. I always like to see water drops on the feathers. Also, level with the bird gives connection between viewer and duck. Bill has just enough separation from wing to show it’s best. And again, the out of focus backgrnd makes the head stand out in 3D. Water color is beautiful. I even like the shadows from the wings. Did the sun, being just a bit from the NE corner of the photo, give the white feathers more detail than if the sun had been directly on the bird?

  • Bob Abela

    The American Wigeon is my favorite of the bunch. It’s the action that draws me into the image. The Ring-Necked Duck is a close second as I like the frontal view and nice contrast.

  • Ken Stinnett

    Ring-necked, Wigeon,Ring-necked, Wigeon–that orangy-eyed drake RNDU is a fantastic, captivating duck portrait, and the AMWI, the ‘conductor’ really blew me away! , Exposures on both perfect–seems like yoU were in the tub with them—-

  • Alan Lillich

    (Got home less than an hour ago and what’s the first thing to do …) I’m a complete sucker for wigeon flaps, and this one is almost perfect. Great body pose and wing position, the primaries are well separated, the bill is clear, some of the color in the back of the wing is showing (don’t know the feather names). My only wish for total perfection is maybe a tiny clockwise rotation of the bird to light the back of the head and see that wing color better. Although I suspect that would diminish the wings and some of the sense of contact – so maybe this is perfect. The Ring-neck is a close second, perfect head-on and the ring is fully shown.

  • Really hard to pick and choose between these! … don’t think I can between the Ring-necked and the Wigeon. The facial expression and the pose just make them stand out images. The exposure in all of the images was perfect. Yep, it’s time to pop that CD in the computer, again, as well as reading the 7D manual, again. Thanks for sharing your wonderful images and knowledge.

  • The Ring-necked and the American Wigeon are my favorites.

    The Ring-necked because of the head-on pose and eye contact with excellent super low angle. (the other poses are more typical, not as interesting) There’s also a very light shade of orange in the water that compliments those awesome orange eyes. Good exposure, as you were able to get a lot of detail in the blacks while not blowing the whites, which is difficult.(Just checked histogram on it) BG is great as it compliments, but doesn’t distract, and placing the subject to the left of center makes for a more interesting and pleasing comp.

    The American Widgeon, because first of all they are awesome looking ducks! The fully-extended wing-flap pose is outstanding and you captured both wings with nice detail, even in the shadowed areas of the under-wing. The wing shadow across the white body is light enough so there is still good detail and it doesn’t distract from image. Good HA, eye-contact, and seperation of wing and bill. There is just the slightest blur on the far wing feather tips to give a sense of motion.

    – Brendan Dozier

  • M. Bruce

    What can I say – That Widgen shot stopped me in my tracks!!!! If there is perfection that it. And I enjoyed reading what was on your mind as you made the shot. I just bought a 7D and can’t wait for it to put me through my paces.

  • Monte Brown


    They are all great, very sharp and perfect exposure. The ring neck duck is great example gettin low with big glass, almost looks like you were in the water with him. The slight frontal wake combined with the overall tonal composition make the gadwall a very soothing image.

    Monte Brown

  • Great photos Artie. I enjoyed them very much. San Diego is a great place for getting a wide range of duck photos. I shoot in AV more than in any other mode.