An Impossible Shoot

The following series of images are of a Common Black Hawk (Buteogallus anthracinus).  So why do I call this an impossible shoot?  Where do I begin?  First, the location.  We were about halfway through our boat ride, on the Ria Celestun, and deep in the Mangrove Swamp that is part of the excursion.  This Mangrove Swamp, which we’ve visited before, is very dense and dark.  Our guest, we’ll call her Sarah, spotted this Black Hawk in the black shadows in the black foliage.  Don’t ask me how.  So there I am, standing in a small rocking boat, trying to keep my balance and footing, and not get pitched overboard with my camera gear.  Did I mention that there are Croc’s down here (and I don’t mean the brightly-colored, funny little rubber sandals everyone seems to wear Mexico these days).  I mean the kind that eat you.  Sarah and I saw one later deeper in the swamp (and we had seen one earlier).  So, challenge number one:  The Location.

Challenge number two:  The Lighting.  As mentioned, it was dark contrasty lighting full of deep shadows and blown highlights (dappled comes to mind).  It’s best, in this jungle-type environment, to use a flash if possible, but then you run the risk of scaring the wildlife (and I didn’t have my flash with Better Beamer flash extender with me on this trip).

Challenge number three:  The Subject.  The subject was a BLACK colored bird.  It is very hard to properly expose for either a white bird, or in this case a black bird.  On the white birds you always risk blowing out the highlights, and on the black birds you run the opposite risk of losing detail in the shadows.

Challenge number four:  The Time.  This bird was not going to sit still for very long.

I had my camera (Canon EOS 5D Mk2) set on Shutter Priority with Auto ISO and Partial Metering (metering on the black bird).  I was shooting Neutral (no in-camera adjustments) in Raw.  Using a single AF-point, I braced myself in the rocking boat and started to shoot. My shutter speeds ranged from 1/640s to 1/1300s (about as slow as I could shoot given the unstable platform conditions and my 400mm lens).  These shutter speeds resulted in ISO’s from 1600 to 3200 (depending on the location of the subject) and apertures of f/5.6 and f/6.3.

The images required a lot of post-edit work in Canon’s DPP Raw Converter and Photoshop Elements 10.  The final results, though not great, are marginally acceptable.  They look okay for web use, and about three of the images would print large.  Viewed at 100% digital noise intrudes in the shadow areas on the images shot at ISO 3200, but those shot at ISO 1600 are acceptable.  Not my best work all-in-all, but I did manage to capture the subject in spite of some really significant shooting challenges.  Sometimes just getting the shot is enough.  I hope that you enjoy the images, especially knowing a little about what it took to get them.  And thank you Sarah for the great spot, I would never have seen this guy on my own.


Common Black Hawk – 400mm, 1/640s @ f/6.3 ISO 3200


Common Black Hawk – 400mm, 1/640s @ f/5.6 ISO 2500


Common Black Hawk – 400mm, 1/640s @ f/6.3 ISO 1600


Common Black Hawk – 400mm, 1/1300s @ f/6.3 ISO 3200


Common Black Hawk – 400mm, 1/1300s @ f/5.6 ISO 3200


9 responses to “An Impossible Shoot

  1. Wow! Pretty darn good considering all the challenges! I enjoyed reading the text and being careful not to scroll too far down and see the photos until I had read it all because it built up the suspense. I especially like the last image. Bravo Steve!

    • Thanks Doris. I almost didn’t post these, but I thought (after some reflection) that it made for an interesting story. And, sometimes, even though you can’t make money with a shot, it’s still nice to have a record of a wildlife sighting. And each experience is a ‘learning’ experience. Bottom line, they are beautiful creatures for sure. I always like your comments, because you’re a photographer and you can appreciate that it’s not always easy. Take care my friend.

  2. I enjoyed the narrative as much as the photos! Do I see a photographer in a red shirt reflected in the Hawk’s eye in the first photo, or is that my imagination?

  3. Hi Stephen, those images are not to bad considering the lousy light you had to deal with. It would have made all the differance in the world it you had your beamer with you.

  4. Wow, Stephen! Congratulations!
    Hey, how do we contact Joel? We loved his book! And exactly where is that cafe you go to in the morning? My mom and I would like to show up and share the experience with you some time. I’m leaving in 3 days for 3 months. Will you guys still be around in August?
    Aline and Cata (J
    James’ mom and sister)

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