Saturday, February 16, 2019

Post #152 - Some recent shorebird flight work with some shooting suggestions

Man, it feels like it might never stop raining here in the Bay Area! We certainly need it, but the constantly cloudy skies have really put the kibosh on photography for the first six weeks of the year. Sun really helps bring out the subtle colors of the shorebirds and waterfowl on which my local photography relies, so I rarely bother shooting in flat light knowing the results won't rival those captured in warm light. I've managed sporadic results, and I am going to use this post to share a few of those with you. All of these shots came from San Mateo County.

But first! There are still 3 spots left on the Colombia Photo-Birding Extravaganza I'm leading for Alvaro's Adventures in June. Don't be scared off by the 'photo' designation. This is a traditional birding tour; we've just included a few photographically productive areas in addition to the pure birding spots. Here is a gallery of Colombian birds to motivate you! Please contact me at if interested. 

Let's start with this Western Sandpiper, an ironically flat light frame. Though the frame lacks the color and contrast a sunny day would have imbued, the eye-level view, and feather detail, and fully swept wings kept this frame from the editing room floor. When shooting in flat light, understand you'll have to push the ISO to keep you shutter speed up. For speedy birds like these, I'm looking for a shutter of 1/3200 or faster.

Western Sandpiper - Calidris mauri
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 1000

Next up is this winter plumage Short-billed Dowitcher. The sun really brings out the color on the water and bird but creates a concurrent problem not visible in this shot: shadows. Shadows are always a problem with sun but can be minimized by shooting lens-level birds (i.e not overhead) in the two hours after sunrise and before sunset. As beautiful as wings are, they perpetrate shadows in proportion to their extension above or below the body plane, and there's no real way to combat them other than to shoot through them; you have to crack off enough frames to get one where the wings are extended in exactly the right way. Flat wings rarely cast shadows but generally make for the least interesting frames (at least in profile), so keep that in mind. 

Short-billed Dowitcher - Limnodromus griseus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Of all flight shots, bank frames are among the most prized. Not only do they show both wings in full extension, but they are hard to capture because they require the photographer to track the bird into the turn and through the often erratic banking action. Most of my bank shots are fortuitous; the bird just happens to wheel while I'm tracking it. The best way to get bank shots is therefore to master tracking, a task easier said than done when wielding large lenses. For this Willet, I actually raised my lens high above my head as the bird flew past my position. That sudden movement caused him to alter his course, and I was fast enough bring the lens down, square him up in the viewfinder, and crack off a few frames while he wheeled. The birds will bank spontaneously, but it's nice to motivate a bank so you know when it's going to happen. 

Willet - Tringa semipalmata
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/4000 at f/7.1, ISO 640

OK, I'll close with this Black-bellied Plover, admittedly from the end of 2018. I've mentioned shooting at eye-level before but it cannot be overstated. Every shot in this post is at least 50% preparation, and finding ways to meet birds at eye-level is the single most important consideration in my pre-shot routine. Shooting eye-level birds makes obtaining direct eye contact easier, and eye contact facilitates engagement between subject and viewer once the shot hits the computer screen. 

Black-bellied Plover - Pluvialis squatarola
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/5000 at f/4, ISO 320

So there's what I've been up between raindrops. The tides are perfect this week (only happens 3 out of every 14 days), so hopefully I'll be able to do some damage if the sun comes out. Still looking for that elusive Red Knot flight frame!

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