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Birds Archives

Whitefronted Bee-Eater Looking Up

Whitefronted bee-eater (Merops bullockoides) perched on a thorn tree

Caption: Whitefronted bee-eater (Merops bullockoides) looks upwards while perched on a thorn tree branch, Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia

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

See previous blog post, Little Bee-Eater Perched on Reed Stem, for more about photographing small birds from a boat on the Zambezi River.

Little Bee-Eater Perched on Reed Stem

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.

Egrets in Flight Using Slow Shutter Speed

Egret in flight, motion blur

Egret in flight using slow shutter speed

Caption: Egrets in flight against dark background using slow shutter speed for motion-blur effect, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

Camera: Canon EOS 1D Mark II; Lens: Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM; Shutter speed: 1/25; Aperture: f/5.6; ISO: 400.

A couple more photographs experimenting with slow shutter speeds while photographing birds in flight, this time against a dark background. I’m sure these photographs will not be to everyone’s taste as they’re “all fuzzy and blurry”. But there’re plenty of wonderfully sharp images of birds on the wing, specially where the subject is something as mundane as a cattle egret, so for me it’s more fun trying to portray them differently, particularly as there’s no telling exactly how the pictures will turn out.

Egret in Flight

Cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) in flight

Caption: Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) in flight using slow shutter speed for motion blur effect, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

Camera: Canon EOS 1D Mark II; Lens: Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM; Shutter spee: 1/60; Aperture: f/5.6; ISO: 400; Exp Comp: +1 stop.

I recently acquired a Canon EOS 1D Mk II. This is an old model DSLR that first appeared in 2004. It only has an 8-megapixel sensor and the rear screen is the size of a postage stamp.

But it can shoot eight frames a second, is fast focusing, and rugged enough to use in hand-to-hand combat.

Many years ago, long before digital, I owned a professional Canon EOS 1 35mm film camera that I used for Press work. Since those days, all my Canon digital bodies (from 300D to 450D) — while marvels of technology — have nevertheless felt like toys, leaving me hankering for a “pro” camera.

Now I’ve got one and I love it, even though in digital camera terms it’s something of a dinosaur and not nearly as easy to use as my 450D.

I also now have a Canon 400mm f/5.6 telephoto lens — no zoom, no image stabilizer, slow maximum aperture, but it’s compact, light, and fast focusing.

Bird photographers rate this lens highly for birds in flight (BIF) photography, a specialized field that I have no illusions of trying to master as this stage in life.

But I wanted to try out the 1D Mk II’s auto focusing with the 400mm lens, so a couple of days ago went down to a small dam near where I live, hoping to photograph the egrets and ibises that fly in to roost in the lone remaining tree that’s escaped the developers’ chainsaws.

Unfortunately I got there after sunset and the light was already too low for fast shutter speeds, even at 1600 ISO. After a few attempts trying to shoot in these conditions, I switched to 400 ISO and decided instead to have some fun by shooting at slow shutter speeds and panning. I hand-held the camera and tried following the birds as they flew overhead.

Needless to say, virtually all the photos are hopelessly blurred from both subject movement and camera shake, although there are one or two that appeal to me because they look a bit like abstract paintings.

The photo above is one of the few where the body of the bird is reasonably sharp, while the flapping wings have simply morphed into dabs of darker color. Below is an abstract of sacred ibises (Threskiornis aethiopicus) in flight, identifiable by the long, curved bill. Shutter speed here was only 1/8 sec.

Sacred ibises in flight

Hamerkop in Silhouette

Hamerkop in silhouette

Caption: Hamerkop (Scopus umbretta) in silhouette against cloudy sky, Weenen Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

Photographing birds against a bright sky often confuses a camera’s light meter. In most cases the bird only fills part of the frame, with the sky dominating, so the meter is easily fooled — it tells the camera to expose for the bright sky, not for the bird. The result is a subject that’s badly under-exposed, too dark and, at worst, merely a silhouette.

You can get around this by using spot-metering, or exposure compensation where you tell the camera to over expose by one or more stops. This will make the subject lighter and bring out the detail. The sky will be over-exposed with blown out highlights, but that’s fine — it’s not the subject of your photo.

In the above example, the hamerkop was perched on a branch above me against a bright, lightly overcast sky. However the hamerkop has such a distinctive outline that I didn’t bother trying to adjust the exposure, opting instead to photograph it as a sihouette, particularly as the shape of the branches provides additional interest.

The photograph below was taken from the same position, but has been cropped to show more of the bird, particularly the outstretched leg and foot detail as it walks along the branch.

Hamerkop walking along branch, in silhouette

Camera: Canon EOS 1D Mk II; Lens: Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 USM; Focal Length: 400mm; Shutter speed: 1/5000; Aperture: f/5.6; ISO: 400.

See Hamerkop Pair for more about this bird with its distinctive, hammer-shaped head.

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