Normally when I’m photographing birds I pack it in when the sun gets too high in the sky because light becomes harsh and contrasty, shadows extreme and catch lights more difficult to get. I sometimes photograph later in the day during winter when the sun stays so much lower in the sky but in summer I tend to quit about 10 am. Since I’m typically out there at dawn, by then I’ve had quite a few hours of shooting. And with raptors in particular there’s an additional reason for photographing when the sun is low in the sky - it’s called the brow ridge.
Sometimes when I’m on camping trips I push the limits of light angle and time by shooting later in the day and take my chances because bird photography is the main reason I’m there and it may be months before I’m in the area again. That’s exactly what happened with this adult Swainson’s Hawk in Montana’s Centennial Valley nine days ago.
1/1600, f/6.3. ISO 500, Canon 7D, Canon EF500mm f/4L IS II USM, not baited, set up or called in
This hawk was close, it had prey and I liked the background (though the image is a little tight at bottom). But it was 10:52 in the morning so the light was harsh which is particularly noticeable in the deep shadows of the wing primaries and the brights on the front of the lower legs. In processing I brought those brights down as much as I reasonably could but they’re still not ideal.
But the biggest problem I had with this bird was trying to get a catch light. I took quite a few photos of the hawk but because the sun was so high in the sky the eye was shaded and in most of those shots there was no light in the eye when the bird was looking my way so I deleted them. The only thing that saved me with this image was the fact that the hawk momentarily looked up into the sky at another bird which provided a proper angle for some light in the eye.
This is even a bigger problem with raptors than it is with other species because of their brow ridge above the eye.
Raptors have a heavy, bony ridge above the eye called the brow ridge that helps to protect their eye from injury, especially when they go after prey in brush or other vegetation. It also acts as a built-in baseball cap since it helps to shade their eyes from the sun and that’s exactly what often prevents catch lights in photographs taken during mid-day. The brow ridge is also what gives raptors that scowling expression that makes them look so fierce.
If you look closely at this highly cropped version of the previous image you’ll see that I came very close to not getting a catch light, even with the head tilted toward the sun. Because of the brow ridge the upper part of the relatively flat iris inside the eye is shaded but due to the convex bulge on the shiny cornea on the outside of the eye where the catch light is produced the cornea still had light on it (barely) so I got the sun’s reflection. Without the head-tilt I likely wouldn’t have.
In previous posts I’ve covered the importance of catch lights in bird photography. Without them, viewers perceive the eye to be flat and lifeless. Most serious bird photographers typically delete bird images without light in the eye, as do I unless the image demonstrates some interesting behavior or there’s some other reason to keep the photo.
All this may be much ado about nothing for some but it’s of primary importance to bird photographers…
Note: It was a question about catch lights in the comments on this post from Jorge H. Oliveira that prompted me to do a post on this subject. Thanks, Jorge!