The Roving Photographer

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For the Birds

Wildlife photography is difficult, and bird photography, as a subset, is certainly no exception.  As promised, I went out Saturday morning amid dense fog to see how I’d do.  It was challenging, to say the least.

In the fog, I was shooting the 50D+Sigma 70-200mm+2x teleconverter, which gave me f/5.6, ISO 1600, and about 1/320.  If you’re aware of the inverse rule for long-lens shooting, then you know that 1/320 is not quite fast enough to even guarantee shake-free shots.  (For those who aren’t aware, the rule states that for the best chance of negating camera shake, shoot at the inverse of your focal length – ie: 200mm requires at least 1/200 sec.)

ISO 1600 is too noisy for my taste in any situation that doesn’t involve lots of strobe power.  For critters with complex color patterns, moving at high speed, it was unacceptable.  Even if I could have pushed the shutter speed high enough and still maintained quality, it’s almost impossible to track a flying bird with a long lens.  The field of view is only a few degrees, and it is very easy to lose track of the subject.  The few in-flight shots I got were a combination of luck, and a method I refer to as “spray and pray” – essentially holding the shutter down in high-speed burst mode.

So Saturday was was a bit of a bust.  Even the few shots of stationary birds that came out suffered from noise and chromatic abberation, compliments of the teleconverter.  A note on these: a teleconverter is a good cheap way to double the range of your lenses, but at a price – in this case a price that made most of the photos worthless.

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Sunday morning I was at it again, with better results.  The sun was out, which meant that I was able to shoot f/4, ISO 250, and something like 1/500.  I left the teleconverter off most of the time, instead working to get within 200mm range.  Fortunately, the birds live next to a parking lot and are somewhat used to human activity; on several occasions I was able to stand very close and shoot.

That’s the other problem with birds – they are really very small.  Or they’re large, like the heron I found later, but it is impossible to get close to them.  Either way, they represent a small percentage of the frame – too small to crop in tightly and retain any quality.  So either you get physically close, or you invest in a 600mm f/4 like the pros.

At any rate, I’m much more pleased with Sunday’s photos, especially the shots of the tree swallow (which some birdbrain misidentified as a kingfisher in the last post…) and of the heron.  The heron was actually a happy accident; I saw him out in the pond as I was starting home.  I pulled the car to the side of the road and shot through the open rear passenger-side window, both with and without the teleconverter (which does perform better in good sunlight than in fog).

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Will I keep working on bird photography?  Absolutely.  It’s rewarding because of the challenges involved.  What are my reccomendations?  Unless you have good light, don’t bother.  Either get a long lens – 300mm at the barest minimum – or setup a blind and be prepared to wait.  An IS telephoto or a monopod will make life much easier.  Be prepared to discard 95% of what you shoot.  And finally, if you’re easily frustrated, stick with shooting flowers.

Brent Pennington

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