Songbirds in flight

One of my favourite activities in recent years has been trying to photograph songbirds in flight. Prior to this fall, almost 100% of my time has been spent trying to photograph "reverse migrants" at the tip of Point Pelee during the peak of spring migration. Long story short - it's really hard, and opportunities are sporadic at best. During the fall of 2017, I spent some time working on ways to improve the volume of opportunities, the number of sharp images and ways to improve image quality when rapidly firing at these little guys. By the end of the fall migration, I was seeing significant improvement and wanted to post a few images and share some changes in technique. 

I think the most important adjustments (beyond finding cooperative birds) has been related to my gear. I used to shoot with the Version 1 Canon 600mm (F4) IS lens. Simply put, it was too heavy to capture quality images of flying songbirds. At that time, I found more success through use of the 300 mm F2.8 lens. The focus was lightning fast, but there wasn't enough reach to get 99% of the birds... Then along came the 600 mm IS V2 lens!  

The reduction in weight helped a LOT, but what helps even more is that the lens is BALANCED. The old version had a significant piece of glass near the very end of the lens - so any hand-holding produced this odd leverage effect making it seem 2-3 x heavier than the new version II. It blows the two previously mentioned lenses out of the water for this type of shooting. Not much more can be said about it!

Next up are settings. There are a few critical items that have helped significantly: 

1. I have ALL (~60) focal points turned ON
2. Limit my focal range (on the lens) 
3. Internal camera settings: Fast to focus, rapid adjustments, yet slow to "refresh" focus
4. Internal camera settings: set highly to FOCUS over shot priority

The last point seems to be particularly effective. The camera WILL NOT shoot unless it confirms focus. This is BAD NEWS bears if you want a quick shot of a rarity, but great for locking focus and greatly increasing the likelihood of the first shot being sharp. Rapid and constant small focus adjustments following the first shot increase the odds of subsequent shots being in focus; however the "slow to refresh" focus means that if (when) you lose focus, it will try to re-find focus from it's current position longer before re-trying the entire focal range (when your camera aimlessly tracks focus from the minimum distance to infinity and back).

 So what does it all mean? When a bird flies past, I can spend 100% of my time trying to get the damn bird in the centre of the frame - and the camera is primed to do everything else... I can literally hold the shutter down, and it won't take the shot until something comes in focus. On a clear day, the only thing to focus on is the bird! So by late fall, I was getting comfortable with this approach and the images were starting to happen... Unfortunately there were only "late fall" birds left, so the goal is to not forget everything come Spring 2018!

Drama in the Skies

And by "in the skies" I mean: dramatic skies. Perhaps this is a sign of my lack of creativity... But my favourite days of shooting (and subsequent photographs) are those where the light conditions are atypically good. With exceptional light, which is generally outside of my control, practically any passing bird creates a better photo opportunity than the combined opportunities presented on an "average" day. 

The images in this post were made during a ~35 minute window on Oct 17, 2017. All manner of birds were flying under stormy skies, with breaks in the cloud providing irregular bursts of light. Songbirds were generally flying the "wrong" direction (away from the light), but ducks were crossing at 90 degrees and provided the most opportunities (albeit somewhat distantly). 

In an extreme case of luck, an adult Bald Eagle (as shown in the title card and below) came cruising along quite close, and did NOT notice I was present until I had my camera ready! And managed to do an odd yet interesting evasive roll while I had it in focus. AND managed to conduct said roll while sunlit, in front of a sunlit cloud background, at a suitable light angle... No real planning involved, other than lots of previous practice (regardless of light conditions) which might have helped nail the final shots. 



Watching it get dark, during the day

After careful consideration and a moderate amount of planning, we were off to Missouri (with our fingers crossed). The 2017 Great American Eclipse was the final destination, with several natural areas on deck in between. Goal #1 was to experience the greatest of celestial events first hand, but inevitably I spent more time looking at it through the viewfinder than I did with my own eyes. 

Concern was thick in the air as a dense overcast spread down from the north. The eclipse had officially begun, but the clouds built until we could no longer see the sun... A patch of blue sky to the SE was enough to pack everything up and move 15km or so closer to the opening... Our solar glasses revealed the sun to be >50% covered! Thankfully the reduction in solar radiation resulted in decreasing cloud cover, and we enjoyed the awe-inspiring show through little more than a hazy humid sky. 

Photos can't do it justice, and neither will my words. It is an event that must be experienced first hand! The temperature went from sweltering, to pleasant... The world went eerily quiet... Darkness came much swifter than I expected, as a sunset-esque glow appeared on the horizon. And as soon as totality was over, birds and bugs emerged as if it were the dawn. 

Shooting Rainbows out... outside....

Wanted to write a quick post & share two recent images - taken from the end of my driveway... Not a typical bird-photography location, but you've got to take your bird+rainbow chances whenever & wherever you get them!

It was an odd shoot, in that I had maybe ~3-5 minutes to get my camera, get outside & find birds - as the light was fading fast. It was a "sunset rainbow" - so vivid colours, but less light to work with... Swallows were numerous and a cooperative Red-winged Blackbird gave me some chances. I'll spare the details, but I wanted to quickly go over some of the things I noted - while sharing the two best images I was able to make. Given the limited chances to shoot with a rainbow, I thought these notes may be of use in the future! (To you, or me, or whoever!)

- Just finding a bird to fly in front is a challenge
- Then you need to get a suitable pose from said-bird
- the intensity of the rainbow may change (for your camera settings) without being readily obvious as you frantically search for birds. Keep an eye on your settings
- the red-end of the spectrum offers more light than the blue end... Not much you can do about it... I ended up exposing for the reds & therefore the blue/magenta end is harder to see
- one side of the arc is darker than the other... so you'll end up with some over-exposed and some under-exposed shots as the bird passees.... Shooting in RAW will help tidy them up & increase your chances of getting a shot
- speaking of RAW, the camera doesn't seem to understand the colour temperature as readily as other situations - so be prepared to tweak when you're back on the computer... 
- the arc of the rainbow changes your perspective (ie it can be horizontal or vertical depending on where your bird passes)... Makes composition a challenge... 

Overall it was a ton of fun! I can't wait to give it a try next time... 

San Diego Trip - La Jolla

La Jolla!!!!!!!! (la hoya - not la joe-la)... Famed bird photography destination  - the place where you can photograph pacific Brown Pelicans with their beautiful red throat-pouches.... It's everything you've already heard from a photography perspective. I went several times, and Pelicans definitely stole the show - although I  never really had any truly spectacular lighting conditions, there were endless opportunities to be creative. More pelicans:

Whenever I needed a Pelican-break, it was easy to switch over to Gulls or displaying Cormorants (99% Brandt's).


Two of my visits had "high" high tides, so I spent some time on the shorebirds scattered around the rocky shoreline. It is my understanding that there are better rock-piper locations in San Diego, but I was quite happy with my images from La Jolla and ended up skipping more established hotspots for these species. (They weren't terribly tame, but a 600mm and a bit of patience did the trick). 

One last element of the site (that I was able to take advantage of) is the age-old adage of "high volumes of people = tame birds" (unless they're hunters). I spent some time along the coastal trail which runs north of the "traditional Pelican spot" and was rewarded with some of my most obliging opportunities with common species in the area. Check it out: 

Final Rundown:

The good: everything

The bad: not much

The ugly: nothing

I wanted to write these posts to highlight some of the "other" locations I visited in San Diego. La Jolla is thee place to go, so I don't have much to add. I highly recommend it!