Time’s a Changin

The technology of photography has been changing since its advent back in the mid 19th century.  It goes on today.

I have mentioned before that I used to teach photography through field workshops and group slide shows.  That began in 1992 and continued off and on well into the 2,ooos.  I bounced back and forth between teaching advanced techniques to experienced photographers and teaching the basics to new photographers.  I enjoyed teaching new photographers the most but at times there was nothing like bringing an experienced photographer his/her first action bird images.  It was in fact, sort of a specialty of mine. When I began teaching bird action, all of the big fast (400mm f2.8, 500mm f4, 600mm f4, 800mm 5.6 etc.) lenses were manual focus, and there was no VR/IS.

I will state without a doubt that there are amateur photographers today, who produce more spectacular and technically amazing wildlife action photos than photography’s biggest superstars were doing, just six years ago.  This of course is equipment driven for the most part.  The ability to have flexibility with ISO speeds, and edit imagery with computer software made early digital photography an automatic advance over film in many respects.  In the early age of digital there were however still many of the auto focus systems that were slow and easily confused.  Digital noise made using too high of an ISO prohibitive.   Small (for then) megapixel sizes made cropping a marginally good decision.  Today, amazing auto focus systems, improved sensors with superior resolution, VR/IS, and huge mega pixels mean that unless you have current technology, competing in the photo market will be a very hit and miss proposition.  Nixon’s D800/D800E has just come out in 36 megapixel form.  Your D3x and it’s meager 24 mp, is already obsolete.  Camera/lens/software technology tends to move forward for a while, and then remain static for a while.  I believe we are in a period of time where the race is on.  The super megapixel factor is more important in wildlife photography than other types of nature photography.  The same can be said for having the best auto focus systems and VR/IS.

When I taught workshops, I taught the principles of exposure.  What it actually meant from a technical and artistic stand point.  I always figured that other teachers could show you how to set your camera, I would teach what it meant when you did.  If I were teaching action birds today, we would be begin with by turning off your camera’s auto focus.  Your VR/IS would also not be used in the beginning of our lessons.  There are many tricks to action photography and learning them first, and then adding the bells and whistles afterwards, will always keep you one good step ahead of the competition.

All of the pictures below were made with a Nikon 500mm f4 (wonderful glass) lens.  They were also made without auto focus or VR/IS.  Every image was made with some sort of support.  Most were created while using a sturdy tripod but some were made from the window of my car, using a sofa throw pillow for support.  Others were made with that same pillow on either the roof or hood of my car.

One of the easiest ways to make great flight shots of birds is to find a perch (nest?) that it will leave and return to on a regular basis.  Focus on the nest.  Shoot images with the nest out of the picture frame, but while the bird is parallel to that nest.  This will keep your subject in focus, even with a wide aperture (f4-f7.1).  That wide aperture will then allow you a fast shutter speed even with a low ISO.  Also search out birds that are either perched on something, or standing on the ground, as they will eventually fly.  Be ready by having your focus already on the bird.  When the bird lifts off, begin shooting.

Many nice flight shots begin with portraits.  I was making some nice portraits of this Rough-legged hawk, but I was thinking of flight the whole time.  I focused on the bird, recomposed my image to remove the bird and tree from the picture frame.   My composition was in the direction the bird was looking.  I watched the bird with my non focus eye and when the hawk first defecated (lightening its load)  and then it spread its wings, I began firing.  This is a crop but was shot as a vertical right from the beginning.  Vertical action does take some practice. Auto focus would have worked here as the bird was sitting atop the tree, with no confusing branches between the bird and the camera.

This shot of a Cormorant leaving a wetland perch, demonstrates better than the hawk, how focusing on a bird, and firing just before it leaves will present you with an in focus picture.

Making pictures as birds return to a perch (nest) can make for good shots as well.  Here Mr. Osprey returns with the Mrs. waiting for him.

Most birds who spend time on the ground will show some form of action sooner or later.  This male Sandhill Crane is in a courtship dance for the benefit of his mate.  This is a very easy manual focus subject as I just focused, and clicked the shutter as it danced.  This scene is more confusing than the first two and at times even good auto focus systems can struggle to find the right part of the picture to focus on.  They can also have trouble understanding the right depth that your preferred subject is in.  In other words it might focus on some of the foliage. You can move focus point around within the picture frame with many autofocus systems.  Even with the proper adjustment they can miss the mark with a scene like this. This is a good reason to always remain good at manual focus. 

New auto focusing systems continue to get better, and the most significant gain is in the ability to track the focus of an animal that is coming towards you. I find that almost impossible to accomplish on a consistent basis when I am focusing manually. The male Common Goldeneye that you see below was standing on the ice, and being harassed by gulls.  I knew it would not be long before he would take to the air. I pre-focused on a spot several feet in front of the bird and hit the shutter button just as it began to take flight.  We are always a split second behind in catching the action. The answer is to shoot a split second ahead of time. Many years of photographing auto racing (most before auto focus) taught me how to time that.  Depending on the race I was covering, those cars were traveling from 50mph to 300mph (drag racing).  At some tracks the cars were within 10 feet of me.  Of course my reflexes were many years faster in those days.

The easiest way to photograph birds that are already in flight, is to either catch a bird that hovers, like a Rough-legged hawk or a Northern Harrier or even a Hummingbird, or a bird riding into wind currents.  When it is windy, situate yourself with the wind at or near your back and you will catch frontal or three-quarter shots of birds while they sort of hang in mid-air. They will also land and take off headed into the wind giving you more opportunities.  If you have ever flown (in a plane) you know that we humans have borrowed this technique from the birds. I live near a large lake and I have found that gulls are masters at hanging in those wind currents.  If you can find yourself an elevated spot to shoot from, sometimes you can make those close flight shots from almost eye level.

The oldest and most common form of bird flight photography, is not necessarily the easiest.  Panning from left to right or the reverse, is both the most difficult and the easiest way to make pictures of flying birds.  The trick is to leave yourself some room.  The closer the bird/birds are to you, the less time you have to pan.  Of course distant birds are more difficult to make an accurate auto or manual focus.   That is because there is less detail for the camera or your eyes to focus on.  I always taught people how to start with very distant birds and work their way closer.  You might say that mid range birds produce the best results. Of course if you produce a sharp and in focus bird, you can then crop when you get home.

The Brown Pelican image is a substantial crop.  It was just sharp enough to handle this crop.  This image was made at 400 ISO with a 6 mega pixel camera. Any additional cropping would have produced far too much noise in the open areas of water.  I started my pan when this bird was only a tiny speck far down the gulf inlet.  I clicked when it was almost straight in front of me, but a good distance out in the water.  As usual I tripped the shutter a fraction of a second before the bird arrived at the spot where I wanted to photograph it.

The Bald Eagles you see below were a little bit closer to me than the Pelican, and I had a much shorter distance to complete a successful pan.

This group of White Pelicans is barely a crop. They were swimming at the edge of the marsh and they were a good distance to my right.  I could see they were thinking about flying.  I panned from that distant spot all the way until they were right in front of me.  I focused ahead (remember it was manual focus) of them and when they almost got to the position where I wanted the picture to take place, I clicked the shutter button and then held it down (still panning) until they were almost out of sight to my left.  I had five good frames, all only requiring a small crop.

The latest generation of auto focus is fast enough to keep up when panning a bird that is very close.  That is good because manually focusing a camera while panning a bird that is up close is difficult to say the least.  They cross your viewing area so fast that you have to think almost instinctively. Good light does help you to visually latch onto some detail. The two birds below were both too close to include the entire bird in the picture frame.  Both are pans although the gull was just beginning a mid-air stop.  That split second of hovering allowed me to manually focus the lens and make a tack sharp photo. The Red-tailed Hawk like the gull, was flying at the minimum focusing distance of my 500mm lens.  I was in my car which further limited both my view and my space to pan.  Great light and a bird with a lot of natural contrast made it possible for me to get this very, very close bird in focus for one single sharp image.

Technology will march on an I would think that is just as it should be.  My biggest fear is that the casual hobbyist and the beginning professional will not be able to keep up. That is not a new fear.  There are pictures submitted to Earth Images on Flickr every day that are better than those above.  They are better than anything that John Shaw, Art Wolfe or Joe MacDonald made during their best of times with earlier equipment.  To stay at the top of the game will certainly require a six or seven thousand dollar investment every couple of years. I am almost glad that I no longer have to try to keep up.  When all things are equal, and everyone has similar equipment, it will still be the craftsman and the artists that produce the work that we marvel at.  It is nice that some things never change.

After all of these years I still love looking at other people’s pictures and reading about photography. I am interested whether the photos and writings are from 1860 or yesterday. Still I must admit that I am growing weary of sharing pictures from days gone by.  They often feel like old news, much like the photographer who made them.  One day at a time I guess.

One of my loves that I rarely talk about is music.  I have no talent, only an appreciation for a wide variety of musical genres.  One of my favorite things is to listen to singer-songwriters perform their own writings.  I stumbled across (an obscure station) a program called Songwriter’s Showcase with Jimmy Lloyd.  It was on in the wee hours and Lloyd shows us the talents of two separate artists who are performing in the New York area.  He follows each performance with a conversation with each, and then performs himself.  Some of you may want to check a station near you.

Speaking of singers, the world lost another one yesterday.  Forty eight year old Whitney Houston is no longer with us.  One of the greatest song stylists of the 1990s was yet another of a long list of talented people who knew not how to limit their excesses and live with and enjoy the fortune and glory that their live’s brought them.  Often too many enablers (like with Elvis and Michael?) riding on their coattails.  Not willing to tell them the truth for fear that the “gravy train” would end.  Such a waste.

“Fame and tranquility can never be bedfellows.” Michael de Montaigne

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3 Responses to Time’s a Changin

  1. Nice pics. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Pingback: Camera Basics Aperture | My Camera Corner

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