Break the rules

There are lots of photography ‘rules’ regularly parroted, as if breaking one would have the flashing lights of the photo police soon appearing in your viewfinder. Golden hour light directly over your shoulder, head angle three degrees toward you, remember the rule of thirds or it’ll be a night in the cell for you! To confuse the budding nature photographer a bit more we have the other side saying “be different, break the rules”. However, while some are really just handy guides, many of the rules are based on solid foundations buried deep in the human psyche, and ignoring them entirely often leads to a pile of photographs that are just not nice to look at. Knowing a bit about why the rules work, and when and how to bend them can open new photographic opportunities.

Curlew sandpiper
Curlew sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea) at a high tide roost on the Manukau Harbour. Taken with a Canon 50D, EF600/4 and 1.4x TC, 1/400 s at f10, ISO 200.

I’m constantly trying to remind myself to keep my mind open, try bending, maybe even fracturing a rule or two. To get this photo of a curlew sandpiper I had to break a rule. It was New Years day 2010 and I had been taken to a site on the Manukau Harbour by some very kind local birders and photographers hoping for rare migrant shorebirds. General wisdom is that it is best to photograph birds (and a lot more) in the rare light at the edges of the day, and there are good reasons for this rule—when the sun gets high it tends to produce deep harsh shadows across a birds body, and that obscures details and just doesn’t look good. However, high tides at this site don’t coincide very well with sunrise or sunset, so by the time the birds were pushed onto the roosts the sun was nearly as high as it gets. I’d never got this close to curlew sandpipers before, so I wasn’t going to give up easily. If I was going to get any photos I would have to work around that rule. A bit of fill flash can be a good way to reduce the contrast in situations like this. Another trick is to wait for a passing cloud, if there are any, to cover the sun and act as a giant diffuser. In this instance I had birds walking onto bright white shells which gave me a beautiful big reflector. You can hardly tell the sun was so high and fierce, but the sunburn on the back of my legs didn’t let me forget for a few days. There are many instances where natural reflectors like this can help illuminate the underside of a bird, such as when one flies low over bright sand, breaking waves or the wake of a boat. Look for these often fleeting opportunities and you might be able to lift a photo to the next level.

I wasn’t expecting much from this day, but I ended up with quite a few shots I’m pleased with. This one appeals because the act of walking brings it to life a bit more. I was very low, and the background far away, so I was able to stop down to ensure as much of the bird and its distinctive bill were in focus without the background becoming distracting.