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Solstice Swan

Good light and a good setting can make an overlooked subject stand out.

December 21, 2017 Winter Solstice Birds

I'm prejudiced when it comes to Mute Swans. They're majestic, classic, photogenic birds. They are undisturbed by most human presence. They calmly glide up and down the nearby river all year long except when it freezes over in midwinter. You could say they are perfect photographic subjects. But they don't belong here. And I've never had the desire to photograph them because of that.

Yet today I couldn't help myself. I made photographs of Mute Swans. Lots of photographs. And I'm glad I did.

Mute Swan on calm river.

Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) are non-native birds that were imported from Europe in the mid-1800s. They were placed in city parks, botanic gardens, zoos and private estates -- mostly in the emerging cities of the Northeastern US -- to adorn those new spaces and lend them an air of Continental sophistication. Ya' know, dey really classed up da' joint.

It wasn't long before they escaped, bred unchecked and naturalized themselves in urban and wild places in the Northeast, the coastal South and the Midwest, too. Along the way, Mute Swans have run native waterfowl off of their nests and out of their habitats. They overgraze wetland plants. They chastise -- and sometimes harm -- humans who come too close to their nests or their young. And they've expanded their range along the Great Lakes, on to the Pacific Northwest. Everywhere they go, they're trouble. Beautiful, well-loved trouble.

Scientists are finding ways to reduce the growing number of Mute Swans before they do irreversible damage to native bird populations and the places where they feed and nest. But as biologists work to remove them, the public cries foul -- or fowl! Mute Swan eradication programs are never the topic of civilized discussion.

For now, I let go of my save-the-planet ethics and I try to make pretty pictures of swans. I came to the river to photograph trees. It's a rare, blue-sky December day and I want to see tree trunks and bare limbs against the clear winter sky. I compose bony sycamores and arching cottonwoods against a field of blue. But a pair of swans cruises back and forth in front of me. The light gets lower and warmer. I can't keep my eyes off of them. Soon I give in and my attention goes from the wild blue yonder to the deep blue river. The next hour is all about graceful birds on rippled water. The good light and the right surroundings made them too good to pass up.

For years, I've deliberately avoided the Mute Swans as subjects. My bias against them as beautiful invaders stopped me from giving them a serious thought. Now my thoughts are full of them. As I head back to the car, I can't get the swans out of my head. And a twisted Christmas carol spins between my ears in an endless loop -- "two swans a-swimming!"

See more Mute Swan images and one of the American sycamore in the Recent Work gallery.

MAKING THE PHOTOGRAPH (Techniques for Photographing Birds)

SUBJECT: Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) on river.

LOCATION: St. Joseph River, northern Indiana

CONDITIONS: Clear, calm, fair; 40 degrees F

EQUIPMENT and SETTINGS: Nikon D810, Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 @400mm, Really Right Stuff ball head, Gitzo tripod; Aperture Priority exposure mode, Matrix metering, Auto focus using the AF back button, Continuous High shutter mode .

EXPOSURE: 1/1000 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 800, Exposure Compensation of +1.0 (plus one stop)

Mute Swans are gleaming, statuesque, fairy-tale birds that are the picture of civility and culture. But once you get to know them, you'll find they're equal parts beauty and bad manners. They are aggressive, non-native birds that, by no choice of their own, have grown into a problem since their introduction to the US about 125 years ago. They came to the New World like other Europeans and capitalized on the inviting environments available to them everywhere. That they are trouble isn't their fault. They are doing what Mute Swans do -- making a life for themselves and their offspring called cygnets. That it's at a cost to native birds and wetlands is the inescapable concern.

After my time with them along the river, I've had a change of heart. I've been photographing Midwestern wetlands lately and the Mute Swan is part of the story. So the next time I see one along a waterway, I'll try to make more images of it that tell that story, as unhappy as it is.

For the Mute Swan in the photograph above, I quickly changed lenses from a wide-angle zoom for making compositions of winter trees to a long zoom. I moved to a place along the river bank where the sun was playing up stream, side lighting the swans. I chose a fast ISO 800, the fastest I felt comfortable with on the D810 camera. Faster ISOs can build up noise.

One quick click of the shutter gave me an exposure reading on the histogram. I adjusted the aperture wide open to f/5.6, so I'd get the fastest shutter speeds as the Aperture Priority mode made the appropriate adjustments when the compositions changed. Slower than 1/500 sec would be too slow for a sharp image of the birds bobbing on moving water. Faster would be better. According to the histogram, I could add more light for a correct exposure, so I dialed in a +1.0 (one additional stop) on the Exposure Compensation control. That would record the white swan as lighter than a medium tone, but not extremely white to where it would lose feather details.

I switched the shutter mode to Continuous High. Now one press of the shutter button clicked off frames quickly, catching the action when it was good. I kept the ball head loose enough to pivot freely while both my hands were on the camera and lens. One hand cradled the zoom ring and adjusted the composition. With the other hand on the body, I could press the shutter button with my forefinger when the time was right. My thumb was on the Auto Focus back button. When I depressed it, the auto focus kept changing to keep sharpness where I aimed the AF sensor. When I let go, the focus locked. This is a custom function I've set on all my cameras and I use it regularly with great success.

Now I could make photographs without always checking the settings. My attention was on compositions of one or both swans on the watery background. In the composition above, I put the swan almost centered in the frame. I liked how it felt calm, relaxed and peaceful without the tension of movement off-centering can suggest. The center-frame placement is complemented by the concentric ripples around the bird and those rings made by water dripping from its bill. Occasional checks of the histogram showed I was getting good enough exposures until the sun disappeared behind the trees on the far shore.

Then I stood and watched the pair paddle around each other as they dipped and dabbled for aquatic plants growing in the shallows. I realized I had a change of heart about Mute Swans as I photographed them. I'd still like not to have these swans loose in the wild. But I felt a benevolent twinge when the warm light on a cold day showed me a beauty in them I'd overlooked until today.

See more Mute Swan photos and one of the American sycamore in the Recent Work gallery.

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