Trumpeter Swans... A Success Story & a Lesson about Light

When I moved to Minnesota in 1990, every trumpeter swan I saw was sporting a little extra gear. Looking through a pair of 10X binoculars, you might have been able to read the large red and black numbers on a neck band. These birds were a rare siting, and nearly every one bore some kind of tag or band. 

By the mid 20th century, the trumpeter swan population crashed as a result of poorly regulated hunting, development, and lead poisoning. Fortunately, the diminishing populations were acknowledged before it was too late. Today, trumpeter swans are a protected species throughout their range, and they are making a comeback in the lower 48.

Relying on the stock of swans that continued to thrive in Alaska and Canada, the trumpeter was reintroduced to the slow moving rivers and lakes of the Midwest. Today, it is even possible to find migrating and non-migrating swans occupying open waters during a Minnesota winter.  

All of the swans pictured here were captured along the Mississippi River during January 2010. A program of regular feeding by citizens living along the river has created an unprecedented opportunity to see and photograph these majestic fliers during bitter winter days. 

Trumpeter swans are large white birds and capturing them with a camera might appear to be a simple task. In fact, although their bodies make for a large target, their rapid flight and bright white plumage can even challenge good photographers using sophisticated gear. 

In the days when we were all shooting slide film, the professional community learned how to expose for whites, blacks, and contrast. While the digital revolution has had some definite benefits, it has left many photographers with little knowledge about light how a camera “sees” it.

In general, the camera meter attempts to make all exposures neutral. This neutral exposure is standardized to “18% gray.” For a reference, 18% gray is approximated by the color of the following TEXT. As a result, your meter tells your camera to make blacks lighter (gray) and whites darker (gray). When photographing white or black subjects, the thinking photographer needs to take their camera off “autopilot!”

To achieve beautiful whites that preserve detail, “add light.” Specifically, set your camera to manual exposure or use exposure compensation with your “Auto” setting to add light. 
Adding light does not mean using a flash! Adding light refers to adjusting your shutter to a slower speed or using a wider (larger) aperture than the camera recommends. 

For example: If your camera is set to “evaluative” (Canon) or “matrix” (Nikon) metering and the meter suggests that correct exposure is 1/250 and f/5.6, you can add light by changing your shutter to 1/125 or aperture to f/4. Doing both adds two “stops” of light, while making a single change adds only one stop. Too much light will result in over-exposure and loss of detail while too little light will result in under-exposure and muddy shadows. 

For the above image, I looked at my evaluative meter’s suggestion and added one stop of light by adjusting my aperture from f/5.6 to f/4. Doing this allowed me to preserve my fast shutter and reduce the chance of capturing blurred wings. 

More on exposure, shutter speeds, apertures, and birds-in-flight in the future. For now remember the following... “A Light to White!”

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