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The Good Old “Fight-up”

If there was a single bird that I could’ve identified in the past as being my nemesis bird – a subject that I had tried with and had little to no success – it’d be the male Silver-beaked Tanager. Quite a common species around Trinidad, these moody tanagers have taunted me for many years. Ever since the first time I laid eyes on my first specimen at Asa Wright Nature Centre, I was hooked. I was shooting with my first camera, a Canon Powershot SX20, but the image was burned in my memory – a red plumage deeper than the ocean, and a bill that shone brighter than the full moon on a clear night.

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After that first sighting in 2010, the next time I tried photographing this bird was two years later. Better gear, and I was also experimenting for the first time with using artificial light. I had always been a strong proponent of natural light for nature shots, but I was beginning to understand that sometimes (i.e. within the darkness of the forest) a source of artificial light may be helpful (necessary). Looking at it now, in 2018, I’m completely mortified by the result, but somehow me in 2012 felt that it was fine, and kept the image. Just look at that horrid steel-eye!

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Later that same year I began to manage my application of artificial light a lot better. And then there was a five year hiatus from any decent image of this bird. Females were photographed, yes, but they are significantly easier.

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These are dark birds, and the males seemed to enjoy staying within the shadows of the forest. Exposure is well, complicated. The deep colours of the plumage call for a huge overexposure, while the bright silver bill calls for the exact opposite. It’s just as easy to render the bird as black and have the bill properly exposed as it is to get some rich reds in the plumage only to have a gleaming splotch in place of a lower mandible.

Fast forward to 2017, and I almost nailed it after five years of nothing. I ranted about this image in a blog post here.

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Finally, I made a clear image of this bird. The perch was gorgeous, the bird’s pose was perfect, and the background was textured where it needed to be. Unfortunately, the rich red I was hoping for was nowhere to be found. Even though I had pushed the limits of stabilizing my rig, shooting at 1/30th of a second, that still wasn’t enough to pull in the colour I wanted. What was wrong? I learned a valuable lesson that day – the type of light was critical.

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Spending lots of time at a local eco resort where the birds were commonplace helped me immensely on this journey. I was able to sit at my balcony and wait for the birds to arrive at a bromeliad that was producing flowers of its fancy. Over the course of the year, I had tons of opportunities to conquer this mountain of a bird – but not before I learned another lesson.

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Somehow, my focus always seemed to drop off when the bird was in a preferred position. It’d only work when the bird was facing me head on, not the most pleasing of sights.

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I had many chances with the bird on the same perch, under different lighting conditions, but there always was a problem. Eventually, I changed my focus mode within the camera, and started to be able to pick up just enough contrast for my autofocus system to kick into gear.

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Finally, later on in 2017, I made my first decent image. Well, the light was just as perfect as it could be. The bird’s pose was also on point. But there was this myriad of twigs in the background that really detracted from my short lived victory. But progress!

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I continued pressing on, I remember making this image in rapidly fading light – just to test my method to maximize contrast detection within the camera. I finally felt as though I was ready.

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No more than a few weeks later, I was presented with this situation. Proud of myself but irritated by the giant blob of light.

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But I was empowered. I finally felt like the goal was visible, and no longer a thought or some sort of far-fetched dream. It was quite literally, getting closer. I had to orient my camera vertically to fit the whole bird within the frame from the veranda of Asa Wright, in lovely overcast light with a light rain falling. But it was too tight a composition for my liking, and furthermore I felt as if my background could’ve been better.

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Knowing birds’ vocalizations is one of the best tools a birder or bird photographer should hold dear. Breathless after walking uphill, the nearby calls of Silver-beaked Tanagers made me instantly stop and look up. Almost directly in front of me, feeding on flowers without a care in the world, was my target. I followed this bird as it fed, finally nailing my shot in not-so-perfect light of my nemesis on a lovely perch with a lovely pose.

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And this is where I’m currently at on my journey. Closer, but as non-linear as art itself is, the further I feel from my ultimate goal. I’m happy with my final (for now) image in this series, rain is the perfect element to add to any image, the pose works, and I had to execute a healthy crop to obtain the composition I wanted – as the bird’s tail was clipped in the original file. There’s always something right?

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What have I learned over these long years with a single bird? Silver-beaked Tanagers are rather unsightly if they look directly at you, they supposedly deliver a mean bite (second hand information from a bird bander) and there is a plethora of external and internal conditions that all need to fall into the exact right place in order for the result to be perfect. Is it likely to happen? Probably not. But it should never stop anyone from trying. I’ll proudly continue to fight up! Also, thanks for making it this far, enduring so many pictures of the same bird.