Photo Story: Behind The Scenes of "Muriwai Beach" by Paul Kettel

"Muriwai Beach" by Paul Kettel

Our member, Auckland-based landscape and wildlife photographer Paul Kettel is sharing the story behind one of his amazing photos and a few tips for fellow photographers.

Where was the photo taken?

Muriwai Beach, Auckland

Where did the idea come from?

This image was taken on a recent Saturday evening trip out to Auckland’s Muriwai Beach to coincide with golden hour.

The Muriwai Gannet colony gives great access to birds via the walkways and viewing platforms. Getting close to this bird was very easy as it was sitting a couple of meters behind a walkway fence. They are pretty ambivalent to people and just get on with the daily business of gannet life. I do love to try and capture different behaviours of wildlife and always find the preening of birds interesting but difficult to capture. This particular gannet was in very good condition with clean whites and deep yellow plumage. All I really needed to do was wait for the perfect moment when feathers were ruffled and the gannet had his/her eye open. This can be tricky as they tend to close their eyes when preening.

The golden light just got warmer and warmer with little cloud around to diffuse the light. This gave a pretty hard side lighting on the bird. On wildlife subjects such as gannets this can cause some pretty tricky exposure problems to work through if you rely on automated camera settings. This frame was shot on the D850 with a 300mm f4 PF lens. Exposure was 1/2000th sec at f7.1 at ISO 560 with the camera in full manual mode. With the constant light it was pretty straight forward to dial in the exposure manually, but it needed care to ensure the bright whites of the bird’s feathers didn’t blow out and overexpose. The need for a high shutter speed was to counter for the rapid preening movements of the bird’s head, a slower shutter speed would have led to a blurry image. A slightly stopped down f stop gave me a little bit more depth of field for focus on the eye, which is the most important part of any wildlife image. It also allowed for more detail of the plumage to be retained. A reasonably low ISO gave me enough dynamic range that I knew I could pull out shadow detail when post processing.

What was happening behind the scenes that we do not see?

The colony is both noisy and very smelly. Overall, it is a bit of a sensory assault on the system, which I absolutely love! On this evening it was pretty calm, but when it’s windy and scores of birds are flying it’s one of the best places to be as a wildlife photographer. The light wind that was blowing directly onshore does accelerate over the colony so there was quite a bit of sand in the air at the particular spot I was shooting. This can be a hassle for both body (eyes) and equipment. To get low and at the same eye level as the bird I needed to lie on the sandy path and shoot through a fence. This was pretty uncomfortable but when I get into the “zone” I find I forget about what is going on with the body pain and just get the shots. People were walking around / past me and yes, I do get some weird looks. I’m slowly getting used becoming less self-conscious in more crowded locations like Muriwai and just getting on with it.

Any tips you could share with other members regarding similar types of shots?

Firstly, this type of image can be made with any DSLR or Mirrorless camera and moderate length telephoto lens (200 to 300mm). Muriwai provides access to the bird life that really negates the need for high end wildlife equipment. It’s nice to have and use but not an absolute requirement.

Secondly, don’t shoot a place once. I’ve been shooting out at Muriwai for years, learning how it works in different sorts of light and weather conditions. Spending time just watching the birds does teach you to pick up patterns of behaviour that you can start to look and plan for. It makes getting images easier when you know your subject (a cliché, but true!).

And maybe lastly, but most importantly for wildlife, get low. Really low. Low gets you down to eye level with roosting birds and enables you to create images that enter the world they inhabit and really connect to the viewer.

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