Knowing the limits of your photography gear

Recently I learned again the lesson of why knowing your gear is just as important as getting the best gear you can afford in the first place.

Three days ago about two hours before sunset I went to a spot at a lake that offered a good view of a small tree covered island where Great Egrets, Anhinga, Ibis and several other water birds come to roost in the evening. The island is far enough from the shore that I had to open the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary all the way to 600mm to get the shot I wanted. As I zoomed in I saw that atop one of the small trees was a male Great Egret that was in breeding plumage. I had never been able to get a photo of one during the breeding season and was very excited to have the opportunity to get some photos of the Great Egret in breeding season.

The sun was low in the sky and behind some clouds on the far side of the lake. Although the sun was on the opposite side of the birds as I, it was not directly behind the birds so as to backlight them. And, even though it was an hour before sunset the clouds and the angle of the light was creating low light situation for this distance of a shot. I had my Nikon D7100 set to the widest aperture I could get and I opened the ISO to 6400 (the maximum native ISO for my camera). I was using a tripod, but because I wanted to stay open to the opportunity of getting a bird coming in for a landing in the roost I did not have the ball head tightened down. Rather I had it at a point that I could keep my camera steady.  Using the camera on the tripod like this is something I do often.  I kept an eye on my shutter speed and it was about 1/640 or 1/500 most of the time.

When I got home I found the results I got using the settings and setup described above less than satisfactory. The combination of some camera shake, the movement of the birds, and the movement of leaves in a slight breeze resulted in photos that were blurred to various degrees on a majority of the photos I took that evening.

The next day I tried to think of changes I could make in order to increase the number of shoots worth keeping. While I could have improved my shots by tightening down my camera on the tripod that would only have helped with those photos that were blurred due to camera shake. I would still have to deal with the movement of the birds and leaves.  That led me to consider using the extending ISO settings of my camera.  This is something I had never done before. I had not been in a situation where I needed to go above ISO 6400. However, due to the distance from the subject and no way to get closer (as well as being extremely limited to shifting my position to get more light), I saw no option other than raising the ISO into the extended levels.

What I did was take test shots in the back yard using every extended ISO from 0.3EV + 6400 up to 2EV + 6400. Then I put the photos through my post processing software to see if I could get rid of the noise to a satisfactory level. The post processing software I use is DxO Photolab and Affinity Photo. I found that I could get rid of nearly all of the noise shooting with an ISO of 0.3EV + 6400 (the resulting ISO was about equal to 8063).

That evening I went back to the same spot to as the previous evening. The clouds and the angle of the light were near identical to the previous evening. Using the higher ISO level allowed me to get a shutter speed of 1/1000. And, the results were that I had shots of the Great Egret in breeding plumage I was happy with as well as a photo of a Great Egret landing with wings spread wide.

In the past I experimented with different aperture settings and shutter speeds in different situations. Now I am glad I took the time to experiment and see what I could get away with in relation to ISO settings with the hardware and software that I use.  I think spending as much time in the field answering the question “I wonder what the output will be if I try …” is just as important as the time spent in the field looking for that one great elusive shot. Because each time we try something new we extend our capabilities as photographers and when that one great elusive photo opportunity does present itself we are better prepared.

Guest post by ClickASnap user Marvin Reinhart

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