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Keeping it Low-key with the American Bittern

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

How I got this American Bittern shot and how you can recognize and shoot low-key images.

American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) on the hunt

F4, 1/1600th, ISO 100

As nature photographers, we often get fixated on our subjects that we forget about the fundamentals of photography— light, composition, framing and perspective. The first time I found an American Bittern, I was so ecstatic that I didn't let go of the shutter button. It was not until I opened the images on my computer that I realized they were plain and mediocre. The photos simply did not translate the same enthusiasm and experience I had in person.

Knowing what I know now, I would've paid more attention to the light, the environment and my camera settings more carefully. Creating an image that incorporates depth and emotion requires a photographer who is aware of direction and intensity of light.

A sharp but mediocre image F4, 1/125th, ISO 320

When I found this American Bittern, she was standing right up against the reeds in the marsh. The weather was foggy that morning and the light was very flat. I struggled with photographing this scene since I couldn't create the depth and composition I was looking for given the bird's position. The photo above reflects the actual scene from that day. The subject is large in the frame, details are sharp, but it's lacking any artistic touch.

Tip #1 - Be Patient and Work with the Light

Thankfully, the forecast predicted for a clear sunrise that morning, but the fog from the marsh was still blocking the sunlight. I was determined to capture a better photo and so I decided to stay with the Bittern until the sun broke though the mist.

My patience eventually paid off but it created strong highlights on the bird's feathers as shown below. The scene is brighter overall, but the photo still does not have a strong composition or creative element.

Direct lighting brings out rich textures and feather details on

the American Bittern but the image is still lacking artistic touch

F4, 1/1250th, ISO 1000

Tip #2 - Recognize large contrasts in lighting (dark shadows and strong highlights) for a low-key photo

A "low-key" photograph contains primarily dark tones and colours. This photo technique is achieved by increasing the shutter speed and decreasing your ISO until only the highlighted or illuminated sections of the image remain visible. What value should you choose for your shutter speed and ISO then? It depends— every photo opportunity is unique and you will have to experiment with your manual settings to determine the correct exposure.

For this Bittern photo, I started with the settings of 1/1250th and ISO 1000. To create a low-key look, I decreased my ISO to the base value of 100 and adjusted the shutter speed appropriately to 1/1000th. I kept the aperture wide open at F4.

The final image is a better reflection of the silent, secretive and stealthy nature of the American Bittern. The upright, attentive posture and the shadows on the bird's head casted by the reeds give an authentic portrayal of the bird's mysterious behaviour. The low-key style creates drama and mood to the photo while still illustrating the unique habitat the bird thrives in.

An image that reflects the silent, secretive and stealthy nature of the American Bittern;

achieved using a low-key image technique

F4, 1/1000th, ISO 100

Thanks very much for reading and following along. I hope you get an opportunity to use this low-key style next time you're out in the field. Please post below if you have any questions or comments. If you find this useful, I would greatly appreciate it if you share the blog with friends and family. Until next time, Happy birding! :) Kris


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