I hit a bit of a gold mine at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge on the 14th of January. It was a foggy day and I was looking mostly for birds that were close by or big so the camera would have a fighting chance to catch focus. OK…. I try to see all the birds but I was paying attention to the ones that I felt I could actually photograph well. On my second lap around the 4 mile loop I noticed some pintails on the pond across from the Kiwa trail parking lot. Three pintails were circling on approach to land so I pulled over to watch. I’ve been having a bit of a conversation over on Google+ with Susan Wilkinson and her husband, Allen, about “birds in flight” photography and how challenging it can be. As another group of 4 pintails showed up and started circling I thought I should concentrate on technique and see if I could pull of a decent shot of the birds.
Let me define “decent” in my terms…. eye is sharp, background is clean or diffuse, light on the subject is defining. Since the birds are obviously in motion it is a common practice to slow the shutter speed so that wings will tend to blur. Therein begins the technique challenge. To shoot at a slow shutter speed and track the bird with a focus point on its eye/head, keep the horizon level and shoot properly exposed images as the light varies across the shot is NOT EASY. My friend Eric has deliberately worked hard at this and has produced some remarkable shots that convey motion so clearly yet you can still home in on a bird’s detail in the head. I still look at a business card left by my friend Gerry Ellis that shows an American bald eagle flying by. Again, great sense of blur in the bird’s body and wings and background but great clarity in the head and the all important eye. Panning technique takes practice to succeed. I’ve begun my lessons lately by going to the local pond and tracking everything from gulls to geese to ducks in order to get some real life experience. So far all I can say is that I need a LOT more practice.
At my level of photo skill I am really quite happy to get birds that are sharp against a decent background and in good light. At Ridgefield I was shooting at 1/800th second at f/5.6 using a 300mm lens with a 1.4x extender and with the camera body set to a DX crop mode to get a 630 mm equivalent focal length. I was really just trying to practice panning with the birds and shooting when the backgrounds looked decent. The fog really helped achieve the background but meant that most of the photos were shot at ISO 1600 or higher. The D800 can handle that if the exposure is proper. Underexposure gives more noise than I like to deal with. I know I can recover some detail in over-exposed images but I prefer to not have to do that if possible. The goal is really pretty simple to state… hit the exposure, maintain focus on the bird(s) and shoot when the background is good. “Easy peasey” as granddaughter Gina likes to say. Well, not so much.
In the past few days I’ve posted several photos of the Northern pintails that gave me many opportunities to learn through failure. The first one I posted was well received but not my favorite since the birds were not, in my opinion, separated enough from the background. My eye tends to have to hunt to see the birds in the image. The bird that is positioned against the sky works well for me but I lose track of the others. I’d give the photo a B- I like that there are no merged birds and that they are reasonably sharp. I think the background looks OK but I’d perfer less clutter and more diffusion. It’s always something….. I know, I know.
The next photo I posted was also well received and comes closer to my short-term goal.
Actually, I’d give this one a B+. The ducks are reasonably sharp and set off clearly against the background of nice, diffuse sky and trees. Thank you fog. I really think that some “grounding” of the photo by including the trees and ground vegetation really helps add to a photo. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of birds in flight phots where the bird(s) are set against a bald sky or, with luck, some clouds. I just think that images that have some sense of the ground in them have a higher visual impact. That is all a matter of personal taste, of course. The photo would have gotten a A if there was no overlap in the group of 4 ducks. Picky, I know.
The next photo I posted was again received well. I’d give it a solid C. Here the birds are sharp, have no mergers and their synchronous positions are wonderful and dynamic. I’m very grateful for the variety that the one hen adds to the shot since it gives the species a better representation in the photo. What I don’t like about the photo is the centered tree behind the birds. Again, it’s just me but I’d prefer the tree to be offset to a side (in this case to the right) and that the birds were not set against the tree. I understand that my color vision issues may be part of the problem and that for normal vision folks the birds may just pop right out. It’s a nice image but the tree/bird overlap drops the grade substantially.
Late last night I went back to the image collection to see what else was there that I could post for reaction. I came across a single image sitting in between several shots of birds on the water. Usually there are 3-7 images in a sequence as I shoot in burst mode while tracking the birds. I probably missed the image in my early postings simply because it was a solitary frame embedded in many other image files. When I looked at it critically I decided to go ahead and process it for posting. Yes, I give this one an A even though it violates some of my personal criteria for “keeper”.
As mentioned, I usually reject photos of bird groups when birds are overlapping. I just don’t care for “mergers”. In this case I can easily overlook that since all the heads are evident and the overall beautiful positioning of the birds with slight wing position variation adds a wonderful dynamic to the photo. The birds are nicely set against a non-competing background but there are sufficient trees and ground vegetation to add the context that is needed. The light on the birds is sweet. Again, I thank the fog for creating a nice, even and diffuse light source. So this one gets printed and hung above my desk to enjoy on those days when Ridgefield is not on the schedule. Maybe the next time I go there I’ll have more beautiful light and fog so I an practice creating blur while holding sharpness in critical areas. I’m fortunate to have the ability to pursue such a goal.