Little bee-eater (Merops pusillus) perched on reed stem, Lower Zambezi National Park
Caption: Little bee-eater (Merops pusillus) perched on a broken reed stem near the banks of the Zambezi River, Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia.

Camera: Canon EOS 1D Mk II; Lens: Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 USM; Focal Length: 400mm; Shutter speed: 1/500; Aperture: f/5.6; ISO: 800.

Additional Info: The chief characteristics of these attractive and brigthly colored bee-eaters are their small size, yellow throat, orange-buff underparts and squarish tail. Often found in pairs or groups near rivers and open areas in woodland or thornveld, they’ll usually be seen perching on low branches from where they hawk.

The above photo was taken from a flat-bottomed boat under the control of a skilled helmsman who was able to take us close to the small bee-eaters and kingfishers that frequent the reeds fringing the main river and many side channels.

Although the helmsman was able to control the drift of the boat to some degree with the motor, the current in the main Zambezi channel is strong, so one is never stationary but always moving, making it awkward to frame and focus the small birds.

For this reason I set the camera’s focus to AI Servo mode to track the subject towards which we were drifting. Using a “pro” camera body like the Canon 1D Mk II, plus the fast focusing Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 lens, gave me confidence that the camera would be able to lock onto the subject and keep it in focus.

The light wasn’t good, so I had to set ISO to 800 to ensure a fast shutter speed (1/500), particularly as the 400mm f/5.6 lens isn’t image-stabilized.

I didn’t take a tripod on this trip because of weight restrictions on the small aircraft that flies visitors into the park. However, I did pack my Manfrotto tripod’s center column and head which I usually attach via a Manfrotto column clamp to the arm-rest of the seat when in a game drive vehicle.

On the boat, I found I could use this same set-up to steady the camera and lens by attaching the clamp to the wooden arm rest of a camp chair – see picture below. This, though not as effective as a tripod, at least allowed me to keep the camera and lens reasonably stable, albeit from a moving platform.

Camera support photographing from boat

For more about combating camera shake when photographing wildlife, see this guest post I wrote, Camera shake, resulting in blurred photos.

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