Northern harrier: golden hour color cast

Published: 09/21/2020

About a month ago I came across a young Northern harrier -- one of my all time favorite birds, and one of the most frustrating to photograph. They are erratic flyers and they rarely make good eye contact. But....they are beautiful birds and maybe I like the challenge :). Anyway, I came across one and got an image I was / am pretty pleased with! A few days later however, I realized that it wasn't just one, but rather a group of young juveniles. First year juveniles are often called "YAS" birds -- "young and stupid" -- they aren't as skittish and often have no fear at all and will walk up or fly much closer to you than their adult counterparts. I've never encountered a YAS Harrier as they didn't breed in my area of NJ -- so this was a good find. Over the next week or so, I spent 2-3 sessions with these birds capturing them flying around and starting to chase each other. They didn't pay me really any attention, but were frequently in photographic range. It goes without saying that these images were unbaited and the raptors were just behaving however they wanted.

Most of these images were straight forward to edit -- they were generally taken in rich, albeit starting to get low, evening or morning light which lit up their plumage beautifully. 

One image in particular through was challenging to edit -- something was just "off". The bird had a rockstar pose, the light was great, and the details were there. But it just looked a little wrong and I kept revisiting it. In the end, I realized it was a case of a subtle color cast.

A color cast, according to wikipedia, is: "a tint of a particular color, usually unwanted, that evenly affects a photographic image in whole or in part." Check out the before and after below to see what I mean. The "before" initially looked like night light (which it was), but it had an almost "caked on" appearance. It was just *too* rich. Backing off the temperature significantly from the Nikon Auto White Balance produced the "after" image -- a much more natural looking frame with more detail revealed. I often encounter color casts, but usually in low light where the image is too cold or too purple. I rarely get a color cast in beautiful golden hour light, so I didn't recognize it initially. A good lesson to keep an open mind while editing and not let the camera make too many decisions for you!

And the final edit on its own:

I actually held off editing this photo for a month or so -- I couldn't figure out why it looked "off" (hence the subject of this blog post) and how to best crop it given how much of the action is center right, but the upper wing is actually not super far from the left side, and a square crop felt kinda weird. But in the end, I really like this image. The couple sessions I had with these juveniles while they were still in their "young and stupid" phase were awesome and I produced some of my favorite harrier frames to date. 

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