For my new blog I would like to introduce a segment, hopefully a weekly one, called “The Story Behind the Image”. In it I will share the situation, my thought process, anecdotes, and tips and tricks in the making of the featured image. It should be fun, and also allows me to revisit some personal favorites of mine – and some new ones too.
The first one is of a male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker seemingly proudly displaying its work of art. The tree it is perched on is an old Poplar that was slowly dying and falling over, hence the tilt. It was located at my folks’ log home on four acres of woods in “cottage country” in Val-des-monts (about 30 minutes north of Ottawa, on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River). I had noticed the typical sapsucker drill-hole patterns on the tree created by this species on a few previous exploratory walks, but mostly unused. On one particular visit with the family I saw that a pair of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were frequenting the tree quite often and regularly to feed on the accumulated sap or any insect trapped within it in those holes. Only problem is that those holes were a good twenty feet up – much too steep for the type of images I hope and strive for. Why? Because I like to be at eye level as much as possible with my subjects, usually resulting in better intimacy and connection with them.
My first instinct was to climb another tree, but none of them had low enough branches to safely start the climb, or sturdy enough branches to support me, or keep me in a comfortable enough position for any amount of sustained time. My best bet was to use a 16 foot ladder that was just oh-so conveniently lying around outside the home from an outdoor handy-man job my dad had finished just prior. I brought the ladder over and braced it solidly to an adjacent tree, climbed up to the next-to-highest rung (gear in hand), and turned to face the poplar tree with my back leaning squarely on the tree the ladder was resting against. First came a Red Squirrel licking the sap, then a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, countless bees and wasps, even a White-breasted Nuthatch came in to feed on trapped ants. Of course the sapsuckers did play a trick on me as I waited well over an hour before them showing up, first the female. She posed OK but not perfect for photography – perching on the far side of the trunk with only her head and chest showing. Then a few minutes later the beautiful male sapsucker’s turn and boy did he not disappoint! Perching in the very spot I was hoping for, and feeding for a few minutes (which is an eternity for bird photography). Every few seconds it gave the ideal pose at just the right angle (and with the all important good head angle!), and with me perched up there high on the ladder I was at the very eye-level I was planning to be at.
For the image to be successful there were a few points to consider. First I had to give myself a point of view with no distracting elements entering the frame (such as stray branches or leaves). That meant looking carefully in the viewfinder and switching my position until all was clear. I knew ahead of time that vertical composition would be best, so I had the camera setup that way ahead of time. Pre-determining the proper exposure by performing a test or two on the tree trunk to be at the ready. Pre-focusing on the perch so that when the subjects comes in it is easy to find and quick to place the focus point on the face. These sound like basic things to do, and they are, but when it becomes second nature it is incredible how invaluable saving those precious seconds before the action arrives can be!
Here is my favorite of the session, and the featured image of my first “Story Behind the Image” series:
What a great opening shot for your new feature. At 72, my tree climbing days are over so I’ll need lower perched birds. I used a 7D with the old 100-400mm until just recently and never came close to the sharpness of your photo. I upgraded to a 7D II recently so we’ll keep trying to achieve that quality.
Hi Terry, thank you! I hope I am still photographing birds at 72…that will give me another 31 years under my belt 🙂 Setups with low perches around bird feeders are fun. I loved the 7D, and also recently upgraded to the 7DII. Quite impressed with it so far. Still love my good old 100-400 too.
Very nice photo and great behind the picture story and your thought process. Thanks
Hi Richard, thanks for taking the time to read it and adding a comment. Much appreciated!