Troubleshooting 4 Tricky Photography Situations – What Would You Do?

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Recently on a road trip to Newfoundland, and a visit to Sable Island in Novia Scotia, I ran into a handful of tricky photography situations. Like you, I’m typically pretty well prepared. I know my gear and I have a good idea of how I want my final images to look. In some of these cases though, I was a little out of my depth. Have you ever felt that way? You thought you knew what you were doing but then when you were actually doing it, things didn’t go as planned?

Troubleshooting 4 Tricky Photography Situations - What Would You Do? - in Newfoundland

Bridge on the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland. Canon 5DIII with 24-105mm lens at 60mm, 1/125th, f/16, ISO 800, hand held, processed in Lightroom.

I’m going to tell you a little bit about four situations, my goals, my gear choices, and my oh-no-this-isn’t-going-the-way-I-thought-it-would moments. Then I’ll own up, show you some images and tell you if think I made the right choices or not. Of course, then I want YOU to share what you would have done in these same situations.

This was my gear list for the trip:

Situation #1 – Overcast day and a boat

On my first full day in Newfoundland, I scheduled a boat tour out of Bay Bulls to photograph Atlantic Puffins in the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, with a sidecar of Humpback and Minke whales as we ferried to and from the reserve. The boat was about 50 feet long and 22 feet wide, making it relatively stable for photography though with about 100 people on board, it was a bit crowded.

What would you do - overcast day - Troubleshooting 4 Tricky Photography Situations - What Would You Do?

The morning of the boat tour was overcast and foggy. Canon 5DIII with 24-105mm lens at 32mm, 1/180th, f/16, ISO 800, hand held, processed in Lightroom CC.

Skies were overcast so I pulled out my full frame body Canon 5DIII with 100-400mm lens. I didn’t worry about the 5DIII’s somewhat laggy shutter speed since I’m not the best at photographing birds in flight. I didn’t even plan to try it from a moving boat. Instead, I hoped to photograph some nice puffin behaviors in their nesting grounds as well as whales, if they cooperated by breaching or showing us their tails. At the last minute, I  tucked the 1.4x teleconverter into my bag.

Troubleshooting 4 Tricky Photography Situations - What Would You Do? - humpback whale

Canon 5DIII with 100-400mm lens plus 1.4x converter at 560mm, 1/6000th, f/8, ISO 2000, hand held, processed in Lightroom CC.

I can tell you the first huge mistake I made right off the bat. I didn’t take a motion sickness pill that morning. So, I spent most of the boat trip feeling rather green and taking deep meditative breaths while trying to shoot. Mistake number two, deep-breathing near a bird rookery. (I think you know what I mean).

Troubleshooting 4 Tricky Photography Situations - What Would You Do? - bird rookery

The wise choice around all these birds is to hold your breath or breathe through your mouth. Canon 5DIII with 100-400mm lens 1.4x converter at 140mm, 1/1500th, f/9.5, ISO 2000, hand held, processed in Lightroom CC.

The third mistake I made was leaving on my polarizing filter. Blown out spectral highlights are hard to fix in post-production so I almost always use a polarizer when shooting on or near water. However, the 1-stop loss of light was too much on the rocking boat. I removed the filter and shoved it in my pocket immediately.

Troubleshooting 4 Tricky Photography Situations What Would You Do - humpback whale tail

Canon 5DIII with 100-400mm lens 1.4x converter at 560mm, 1/6000th, f/8, ISO 2000, hand held, processed in Lightroom CC.

The fourth mistake I made was underestimating how far away we’d be from both the whales and birds. Barely 15 minutes into the trip I was digging out my teleconverter, and hunkering down to protect my gear while I connected the teleconverter between the lens and camera body. Thank goodness it was in my bag.

Troubleshooting 4 Tricky Photography Situations What would you do - puffins

Puffins are comical little birds! Canon 5DIII with 100-400mm 1.4x converter @ 560mm, 1/750th, f/9.5, ISO 2000, hand held, processed in Lightroom CC.

In the end, I recovered from my motion sickness (and I didn’t vomit from the odiferous bird smell). A common murre (bird) did have the temerity to hit me in the head as it flew off the rookery but it didn’t poop on me (much, anyway). Ultimately, I was only moderately happy with my images – mostly because of the super flat light.

Have you photographed from boats before? Would you have made the same choices? Do you have any suggestions for anyone that will be shooting in a similar situation?

Situation #2 – Adjusting exposure for fog

In Cape Saint Mary’s, Newfoundland, there is a renowned ecological reserve for seabirds, many of them Northern Gannets, which are white. The reserve is supposed to be stunningly beautiful. I can’t actually confirm if it was beautiful or not. Both times I visited, the fog was so thick that the visibility was terrible.

Troubleshooting 4 Tricky Photography Situations -St Mary's fog

The famous “spire” is almost completely obscured by fog. Canon 5DIII with 24-105mm at 24mm, 1/350th, f/13, ISO 640, hand held, processed in Lightroom CC.

Photographing in heavy fog is a problem because your camera’s exposure meter reads the white fog as grayer than it is in reality. To get a properly exposed image, you need to systematically check your histogram as you shoot. Pushing your histogram to the right, towards the white end of the histogram’s range, can give you a more realistic exposure.

What Would you do - histogram

In this histogram, you can see that the recorded data for the image falls short of the white point (right side). It also falls short of the black point (left side) but that can easily be adjusted in post-production. Whites aren’t so easy to adjust because when you brighten an image, you also add noise.

However, if you push your exposure too far to the right, you can blow out the highlights, creating patches of white with no recoverable detail recorded in the file. I increased my exposure compensation in 1/3-stop increments until it was almost 2-stops above my camera’s recommended exposure.

Troubleshooting 4 Tricky Photography Situations - blown highlights

Here you can see that the histogram climbs up the right edge indicating blown-out (unrecoverable) whites and highlights.

At 1 and 2/3rds-stops above the recommended exposure, the histogram still didn’t touch the right side, meaning no true whites were being recorded in the image. At two full stops above, the histogram crawled up the right side – indicating blown highlights. I decided that shooting at 1.66 stops above was the better choice.

Troubleshooting 4 Tricky Photography Situations - target histogram

It’s a subtle difference but the histogram I was looking for would have looked like this – just touching the right side but not crawling up it.

I said I’d own up to my mistakes, right? That choice was probably the wrong one. All the RAW files from that shoot look very flat and I only salvaged a few in post-production. I wish I’d experimented more with lowering my ISO to evaluate how that affected the exposure. If I’d lowered my ISO, I could possibly have increased my exposure compensation by two full stops without blowing out the highlights.

Later in my trip, completely frustrated by fog and exposure, I played with ISO values and – oddly – it did seem to help. With a lower ISO, I could increase my exposure compensation while limiting the number of blown highlights.

The moral of the story here is to think outside of the box. Don’t get stuck on what you think are the right settings. In situations like fog, change all your settings frequently to produce multiple files that are both under- and over-exposed and give yourself a better chance of having a RAW file that will give you the final images you were looking for.

What would you do - RAW gannets

Here’s a straight out of camera RAW file so that you can see exactly what I mean by “flat.” Canon 7DII with 100-400mm at 400mm, 1/800th, f/10, ISO 640, exposure compensation +1 2/3rd stops, hand held.

Troubleshooting 4 Tricky Photography Situations - processed gannets

Here’s the same image processed in Lightroom CC. You can see I had a little fun with it to give it some oomph. Lavender birds are way more fun than pea soup fog birds!

Note that the RAW file could have been pushed far more but personally, I felt that produced unattractive results. With extreme increases of Clarity, Contrast, and Dehaze, the birds did become crisper but it was still obvious that the image was captured on a very foggy day. The heavy processing didn’t make the image look anything like an image taken on a clear day. 

Have you photographed birds or wildlife in pea soup fog? Would you have made the same choice? Any other suggestions for the dPS community?

Situation #3 – Photographing in the rain

One lucky evening the fog didn’t blanket Sable Island like it usually did. The ship was anchored just a kilometer away, so I jumped into the waiting Zodiac to cruise around the island’s shoreline. In the best of circumstances, as you cruise you can see wild horses running along the beach, colonies of seals happily snoozing and seals cavorting around you in the ocean.

Troubleshooting 4 Tricky Photography Situations - Zodiac

While this was taken earlier in the day, it gives you an idea of the logistics of shooting from a Zodiac boat. Many people never even pulled out their gear while on the water.

While there was no fog on that evening, it was still overcast. The wind and swell were also high. Salty sea spray was a significant gear hazard. Even though my camera was protected with a rain cover, I was nervous. It wouldn’t be easy shooting but there were three shots I wanted to capture:

  1. Seals playing in the water around the boat.
  2. Sleeping seals piled en-mass on the beach.
  3. Wild horses on the beach, with the dunes as a backdrop behind them.

Twenty minutes into our shoreline cruise, the skies darkened and it started to rain. We continued to cruise but I tucked my camera away in the dry sack and just enjoyed the curious seals popping up around the boat. Before putting the camera away, I hadn’t checked off any of the three images I wanted but my gear stayed safe and I really enjoyed watching the seals.

What would you do - seal on beach

Before I put my gear away, this was the sort of image I was getting. Canon 7DII with 100-400 II plus 1.4x III @ 560mm, 1/1250th, f/8, ISO 1250, hand held (in a small rocking boat), processed in Lightroom CC.

Ultimately, I captured two of three of the shots I wanted on another day but I’m curious, what would you have done? Have you ever photographed wildlife from a Zodiac? Would you have put your camera away once it started to rain? Or just kept shooting during this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?

Situation #4 – Photographing far away wildlife

On one of my last hikes on Sable Island, I assembled what I call my “long combination” of the Canon 7D Mark II and 100-400mm with the 1.4x teleconverter. As much as I wanted to use my full frame Canon 5D Mark III, I just wasn’t able to get close enough to the horses on this trip. I needed the maximum focal length I could garner.

Here’s the focal length math:

  • Multiply your focal length by the 1.4x teleconverter. For example, 400mm multiplied by 1.4 x equals and effective focal length of 560mm.
  • Multiplied again by the 1.6 crop factor of the 7DII, the effective focal length increases to 896mm.
Troubleshooting 4 Tricky Photography Situations - Sable Island Stallion

The lone horse I saw after hours of hiking. Canon 7D II with 100-400mm II plus 1.4x III @ 560mm, 1/500th, f/9, ISO 500, hand held, processed in Lightroom CC.

Ultimately, did I make the right decision with my gear? After hours of hiking, I only saw one wild horse. Considering that, I was darn glad not to be carrying two camera bodies with multiple heavy lenses.

What would you do - seal portrait

Tenacity pays off! Even though it wasn’t the animal I was looking to photograph that day, I’m delighted with this seal portrait. Canon 7D II with 100-400mm II plus 1.4x III @ 368mm, 1/250th, f/8, ISO 400, hand held, processed in Lightroom CC.

On the way back to the Zodiac pick-up point at the beach though, I sighted a huge colony of seals. A ridge of sand actually obscured the hundreds of seals that were nearest to me until I was on the brink of being too close to them. I dropped to my knees and photographed them like a mad woman. The light was bright enough, if not soft and golden. And those shots of seals I wanted to get from the Zodiac cruise earlier in the trip? I captured them during this hike instead.

What would you do - seal on beach

Canon 7D II with 100-400mm II plus 1.4x III @ 560mm, 1/640th, f/8, ISO 400, hand held, processed in Lightroom CC.

Conclusion

What would you have done? Take a look at my gear list (top of article). Would you have chosen the same gear? Or carried multiple cameras and lenses? Would you have headed back after hours of hiking and seeing only one horse? Or just kept hiking in hopes of seeing more?

Thanks for playing along today. Please take a minute to post a comment about a tricky photography situation you’ve encountered so that we can all learn from each other’s mistakes – and successes!

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