By Guest Blogger Maya Xu
During my introsem, I learned about the mechanics of a good photo, like the exposure triangle and the rule of thirds. But the photos I took were still painfully static, even the ones I snapped of hummingbirds - arguably the most dynamic little gems of the avian world. Not to mention, I constantly struggled with a photographer’s worst nightmare - having everything set up to take the perfect shot of a charismatic bird, only for my camera to focus on something else in the frame.
At the very beginning of Sebastian’s focusing workshop, he opened by saying, “Focusing - it’s kind of the bane of our existence as wildlife photographers.” He showed two photos of a gorgeous Iberian lynx, starting with one where the camera had focused on the rock in front of it. “It’s the most endangered cat in the world. And, um, I didn’t get the focus right”, Sebastian said with an ironic smile as all of us laughed in the background. “So we’re gonna go from this, the shots we’ve all taken, to this, getting the focus spot on.”
The sense of total relief that spread through the group, even on Zoom, was palpable. Oh my gosh. Even professional photographers have these issues. He gets us!
I was smiling at the beginning of the workshop and smiling until the end. I’d recently switched to a Canon R7 over spring break, and was still getting used to the slightly overwhelming amount of new settings. Sebastian ran us through tips of using the exposure triangle to improve focus, using single focus points and backbutton focus, the best times of day for prime-focusing light, and so much more from both mechanical and non-mechanical standpoints. I came away with an infinitely better understanding of my camera and much more confidence in my ability to take the crisp shots I’ve been working for.
The critiquing workshop the next day was a different format, with each person on the call getting around ten minutes for Sebastian to critique five of their photos. I was definitely a little nervous, especially after seeing everyone else’s beautiful shots. But Sebastian always said something that he liked about each photo he critiqued, and he gave lots of constructive criticism with a mix of mechanical and situational advice.
“What attracts you to each scene?” he asked me while manipulating my photos on his Lightroom screen. “Are you emphasizing the beauty of the bird, or an interesting behavior? What’s the story you want to tell?”
And ultimately, that’s the best way for all of us to help protect birds in the future. By making them come alive through meaningful storytelling, whether it’s verbal, on paper, or through a lens, we can show the world just how special they are and how much they’re worth saving. I’m so grateful to have received a scholarship to attend these workshops, and I’m super excited to take these new skills out into the field!
Maya Xu is a rising junior at Stanford University pursuing a biology degree in ecology and evolution. She is currently conducting an analysis of stable isotope and heavy metal compositions in the diets of the Hoover Tower peregrine falcons, and will co-instruct Stanford’s ornithology course in spring of 2024. She is a docent at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve and a birding fanatic who leads monthly bird surveys for the preserve’s riparian area.
Wingbeat is a blog where you can find the most recent stories about our science and outreach work. We'll also share guest posts from volunteers, donors, partners, and others in the avian science and conservation world. To be a guest writer, please contact email@example.com.