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I really enjoy the challenge of photographing birds in flight and people seem to love seeing images like the one above. I am always asked how I capture these images and truth be told there is a certain level of skill involved. It is not all skill, the time of day, the equipment used and your camera settings are all equal components. I will explain how I make my images. Now I said, 'my images'. Others might have other ways of photographing these magnificent birds in flight. This is what works for me and what I teach people in my workshops. I think, if nothing else, using these tips will give you a strong foundation to enhance your skill level.
Unfortunately you will need certain equipment and that equipment will be expensive. It is just the price of doing business. I use all Nikon products. I am not saying Nikon is the only cameras or lens you should use. There are many great cameras and lens companies. Canon is one that comes to mind but there are others. My camera is a D300s and I have had it for about twelve years. The lens I used for all these images was a 80-400 VR (vibration reduction) with a variable aperture 4.5 - 5.6. This combination works great for the way I photograph.
A Great Egret Photographed in Saint Augustine, it was about to land on that limb. A Great Egret SoaringThese are the most elegant birds in my opinion. A Great Egret Flying, is so graceful A Great Egret Flying Overhead
This is the one area that I receive the most questions about, so for all of those who have asked, here are the answers.
MY ISO is always 200-400 when shooting in my favorite time which is early to mid morning. What is ISO? Okay, a fair question but if you have been shooting for a while and don't know, I would be shocked.
In very basic terms, ISO is the level of sensitivity of your camera to available light. The lower the ISO number, the less sensitive it is to the light, while a higher ISO number increases the sensitivity of your camera. The component within your camera that can change sensitivity is called “image sensor” or simply “sensor”. It is the most important (and most expensive) part of a camera and it is responsible for gathering light and transforming it into an image. With increased sensitivity, your camera sensor can capture images in low-light environments without having to use a flash. But higher sensitivity comes at an expense – it adds grain or “noise” to the pictures.
I try and always shoot the birds at 1/1200 up to whatever the light allows me at the lowest ISO.
You should increase the ISO when there is not enough light for the camera to be able to quickly capture an image. Anytime I shoot in really early morning (right after sunrise) or in cloudy weather, when the light is low, I push my ISO up to usually 800. You do need to worry about "noise" but there are many great Noise Reduction Programs out there including the Lightroom 5 and up. Many times the noise will come in the high contrast areas (under the bird's wing in the shadow area). As you gain experience you will learn what combination of ISO and F stop (aperture) works best for you. Your starting point should be to set the widest possible aperture (5.6) My reason for this setting is depth of field and allowing the most light to hit the camera sensor which will enable you to shoot at higher speeds (1/2000 sec). Most times when photographing a flying bird, I want a small depth of field. This will make the birds look sharper and pop off the page.
I could write many words on Exposure Mode but I won't. I am writing about birds in flight and my method. I use Aperture Priority 99.9% of the time, maybe more !!
Why Aperture Priority? Because in bird photography, we are often shooting in lower light with a longer lens. A longer lens will usually be slower (at least the ones most of us can afford). That means you need to keep your aperture set at its widest usable setting to gain speed.
Aperture-Priority mode is therefore the best setting for almost all bird photography because it lets you fix a wide aperture and have the camera set the shutter speed.
I know some will say that a pro should shoot in only 'Manual' That way I have total control. True, but it is much slower for most of us and that is one reason you bought your expensive camera for the computer and sensor to work for you.
Remember we said that shutter speed will be set by your expensive camera in Aperture-Priority? With that comes a warning. It is important to be aware of your shutter speed. There are limitations on the shutter speeds that you can use hand held with a long lens. A good rule of thumb is that you can only hand hold a lens at a shutter speed that's at least the inverse of the focal length; a 400 mm lens needs a shutter speed of at least 1/500 of a second, UNLESS !
What are you saying Jim? There is an unless? Pray tell what is it? What I consider is one of the most important advances in bird photography and even more important as I get older, Vibration Reduction. Remember I said my lens had a Vibration Reduction setting? It is unfortunate that image stabilized lenses often come at a premium because some photographers opt for the cheaper lens without image stabilization. Especially for telephoto lenses, your image stabilization will be absolutely vital to the success of your photography of birds in flight.
My workshops go into metering in more depth. Here I'll touch on it because it is important. Metering is how your camera determines what the correct Shutter speeds and Aperture should be, depending on the amount of light that goes into the camera and the sensitivity of the sensor. Back in the old days of photography, cameras were not equipped with a light 'meter' which is a sensor that measures the amount and intensity of light. Photographers had to use hand-held light meters to determine the optimal exposure. Obviously, because the work was shot on film, they could not preview or see the results immediately which is why they religiously relied on those light meters.
Today, every DSLR has an integrated light meter that automatically measures the reflected light and determines optimal exposure.
Matrix Metering or Evaluative Metering mode is the default metering mode on most DSLRs. It works similarly to the above example by dividing the entire frame into multiple 'zones' which are then all analyzed on individual basis for light and dark tones. One of the key factors (in addition to color, distance, subjects, highlights, etc) that affects matrix metering is where the camera point is focused. After reading information from all individual zones, the metering system looks at where you focused within the frame and marks it more important than all other zones. There are many other variables used in the equation which differ from manufacturer to manufacturer. Nikon, for example, also compares image data to a database of thousands of pictures for exposure calculation. I sometimes use Spot or Centered metering but will save that for another day.
Autofocus Mode: DSLRs normally let you choose between One Shot AF mode and a continuous or AI Servo mode. This mode locks on to the subject you focus on and continues to track the subject as long as the shutter is half pressed.
Since birds are normally moving continuously, you should use the second option most of the time. Exceptionally, you may want the additional control of the first mode, e.g. to enable you to fix your focus while recomposing your shot. Personally, I never use this option: for control over composition, I normally use alternative AF points.
In addition to using the central AF point, DSLRs typically let you select one of four or eight additional AF points distributed around your viewfinder. In bird photography, 99% of the time you should be focusing on the bird's eye. By using alternative AF points, you can do this whilst positioning the bird in the frame in such a way as to give a good composition. Frustratingly, camera manufacturers place the alternative AF points in the central portion of the field, and so this technique gives limited composition options. If you wanted, for example, to place the bird's eye at the extreme top-right of the image, you would need to revert to an alternative technique such as using the AF lock button (my preferred option), using One-shot AF or using manual focusing.
An additional focusing option built into DSLRs is the ability to make all AF points active so that, for example, a flying bird could be tracked by any AF point that you could manage to get on to it. This can be useful for birds flying in a featureless sky, but can be more trouble than it's worth if a bird is flying against a background of trees or sea, because the camera tends to focus on these rather than the bird. For this reason, I don't normally use this setting.
In Continuous or AI Servo mode, the camera will probably automatically select 'predictive AF', if this feature is available. This feature predicts where a moving subject will be at the exact point of exposure and focuses accordingly. If it's not set automatically, make sure you select this option.
Drive Mode; (very important)
In addition to taking a single exposure when you fully depress the shutter release, you will certainly have a continuous shooting mod. USE IT!!!
This is one of the reasons that I capture some of these amazing images with the wings frozen at angles you would not normally see. I see a bird approaching or about to leave its perch and I start shooting till it is out of range, sometimes bending my head backwards shooting straight up. I understand you will have more images to go through on your computer but your chances of stopping at one and being amazed is greater in my opinion. In the film days (if you don't know what film is ask your grandparents), it was expensive to buy film and process it. Now shoot away. All you're spending is time and if you do not enjoy it, you might want to stick with point and shoot cameras.
These next three images were all shot between 8:38- 47 sec. and 8:38-49 sec.
Great Blue Heron in Flighttaken at 8;38 49 seconds I would consider all of these keepers. If I tried shooting one at a time, I might have made one of these images.
All right. These are some of my tips for photographing birds in flight. I have used a 70-200 VR also which is a little cheaper but you will need to get closer to the bird. In post production, you can always crop. I will touch on that in another post. Let me know if you use these tips and how they worked for you.
The Roseate Spoonbill was a bird I did not know about before I moved to Florida and another great reason to move here. The Roseate is a bird that people mistake for a flamingo because of their bright pink color. You would think that its pink coloring would be its most distinctive characteristic but it is not.The most distinctive characteristic of the roseate spoonbill is its long spoon-shaped bill, as you can see in the image above that is one strange looking bill but highly efficient. Spoonbills consume a varied diet of small fish, amphibians, aquatic invertebrates, and some plant material. They feed in the early morning and evening hours by wading through shallow water with their bills partially submerged. As a Roseate Spoonbill walks it swings its head back and forth in a sideways motion. When the bird feels a prey item it snaps its bill closed, pulls the prey out of the water, and swallows it.
Other characteristics is its white head and chest and light pink wings with a darker pink fringe and very long pink legs. The roseate spoonbill is about two and a half feet in length with a wingspan of about four and a half feet. Both males and females have the same plumage and coloring. The male is slightly larger than the female and its bill is a little longer.
The roseate spoonbill nests in colonies. Males and females pair off for the breeding season and build a nest together. They build large nests of sticks lined with grass and leaves. The nests are built in trees. The female spoonbill lays two to four eggs. Both the female and the male incubate the eggs. The chicks hatch in about three weeks and fledge in around 35 to 42 days. Both the male and female feed the chicks until they are about eight weeks old. Young roseate spoonbills have white feathers with a slight pink tinge on the wings. They don't reach maturity until they are three years old. A great place to see them up close is at the St.Augustine's Alligator Farm. They have a rookery and during the months from March through August many of the great birds we see in Florida, including the Spoonbill can be seen there as they fly in and out building their nest, hatching their eggs and feeding the chicks till they are ready to fly off. There is an admission fee but if you are a Nature photographer or just want to see these birds up close it is well worth the cost. But you can also see them in many areas of Florida and in many communities or wetlands
This image was taken at a pond in my community in Port Saint Lucie about a mile walk from my house.
The roseate spoonbill can be found on the coasts of Texas, Louisiana and southern Florida. It is also found in the tropics and in Central and South America. If you live anywhere in these areas, they live in mangrove swamps, tidal ponds, saltwater lagoons and other areas with brackish water, go and look for them. They will not disappoint, as you can see in these images.
One of the many great things about living in Florida is the amazing variety of birds. If you're a nature photographer, it's even more so. I had seen some of these wonderful creatures but not all of them. Today, I am starting a series of photo essays that I hope will inform my readers with pertinent information plus our images of these beautiful birds.
Today we will start with, in my opinion the most elegant, of the birds of Florida. The elegant Great Egret is a dazzling sight in many a North American wetland. Slightly smaller and more svelte than a Great Blue Heron, these are still large birds with impressive wingspans. They hunt in classic heron fashion, standing immobile or wading through wetlands to capture fish with a deadly jab of their yellow bill. Great Egrets were hunted nearly to extinction for their plumes in the late nineteenth century, sparking conservation movements and some of the first laws to protect birds.
Great Egrets are tall, long-legged wading birds with long, S-curved necks and long, dagger-like bills.
In flight, the long neck is tucked in and the legs extend far beyond the tip of the short tail. All feathers on Great Egrets are white. Their bills are yellowish-orange and the legs black.
Great Egrets wade in shallow water (both fresh and salt) to hunt fish, frogs, and other small aquatic animals. They typically stand still and watch for unsuspecting prey to pass by. Then, with startling speed, the egrets strike with a jab of their long neck and bill.
You’ll find Great Egrets in both freshwater and saltwater habitats. They are colonial nesters, typically placing stick nests high in trees, often on islands that are isolated from mammalian predators such as raccoons.
A FEW FUN FACTS;
The Great Egret is the symbol of the National Audubon Society, one of the oldest environmental organizations in North America. Audubon was founded to protect birds from being killed for their feathers.
The oldest known Great Egret was 22 years, 10 months old and was banded in Ohio.
The pristinely white Great Egret gets even more dressed up for the breeding season. A patch of skin on its face turns neon green, and long plumes grow from its back. Called aigrettes, those plumes were the bane of egrets in the late nineteenth century, when such adornments were prized for ladies’ hats.
Great Egrets fly slowly but powerfully. With just two wingbeats per second, their cruising speed is around 25 miles an hour.
Not all young that hatch survive the nestling period. Aggression among nestlings is common and large chicks frequently kill their smaller siblings. This behavior, known as siblicide, is not uncommon among birds such as hawks, owls and herons and is often a result of poor breeding conditions in a given year.
These birds are smaller than a Great Blue Heron but larger than a Snowy Egret.
I hope you enjoyed reading about these wonderfully elegant birds and seeing our images of them. They can be seen all around Florida and especially in our area of the Treasure Coast. In fact I think they are part of the treasure!!
“Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.”
“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.
If I said these words to many people, including (the 'PURIST Photographers'), they would say I was cheating, that my images were not 'honest'. They might have that opinion of me BUT I didn't say these words. The great Ansel Adams, the man most photographers consider the best landscape photographer of all time, did say them. Ansel is considered by most photography scholars to be a great photographer and a Master Printer. He would spend the whole day in the darkroom working on a single image. He would dodge and burn all his prints and would use an enlarger to crop around the edges of his prints. Am I saying that I feel any image manipulation is alright? Nope, at least not for me. I will extract something out of my images but would not, as an example, add a elephant to a beautiful river scene. Do I object anyone else doing that? Yes, unless they tell the viewer upfront. Is this me doing one thing but saying another? I do not think so. You may but that's okay.
RAW shooters: The RAW format is actually what your camera sees. It creates a big file with all the required raw information, untouched, and delivers it to you for your processing pleasure. I would guess that almost all professional photographers shoot in RAW.
A RAW image is seriously an ugly image. The colors are bland and lack contrast and saturation.
A RAW image is equivalent to a negative. It needs to be processed to make the true picture appear. The difference is that the darkroom has been replaced by a software on a computer. It takes less space and does the same thing without the chemical fumes.
I will now try and walk you through my Post Processing Steps for one image. It could and most likely would change for another image.
The picture above is a RAW file that I have imported into Lightroom 5. You can see it is not a very attractive image.
This next picture, made from a Raw file, has been processed it in Lightroom's Develop module. You can see some of the adjustments I have made in the right panel and also on the left in the history section. I am not going over each adjustment individually because quite frankly, it wouldn't be much help to you unless you were working on this same image. You can see that I adjusted almost every slider in the basic section on the right including cropping to a 8X10 size image. By doing so, I eliminated the twig in the bottom of the picture (not the only way I could have taken it out). In the history section, you can see that I adjusted the Camera Profile Section. I always adjust that section for every image.
To get a more JPEG-like starting place for your raw image, here's what to do; Go to the develop module and scroll down to the Camera Calibration panel. There's a Profile pop-up menu near the top of this panel where you'll find a number of profiles based on your camera's make and model (It reads the image file's embedded EXIF data to find this). Not all camera brands or models are supported but most recent Nikon and Canon DSLRs are along with some Pentax, Sony, Olympus, Leica and Kodak models. (Lightroom is adding more each year) These profiles mimic camera profiles you could have applied in-camera (but are ignored when you shoot in RAW). The default profile is Adobe Standard which looks pretty average, if you ask me. (THIS LAST PARAGRAPH IS TAKEN FROM SCOTT KELBY's LIGHTROOM 4 BOOK) Scott's books are a must read for new Lightroom users, in my opinion)
I use one of the profiles in this image called the Camera Landscape profile. When I am photographing nature or landscapes, I always use this profile. Try it once and I think you will make it a 'must do' adjustment. You can see a major improvement in the image already but I am not through.
By the way, a little suggestion from me when your using LR 4 or 5. The Noise Reduction Section is fantastic. I no longer use a third party program to reduce noise because that's how good it is. The Sharpening Section though really improved over previous editions of LR is not my first choice for most images. I feel that Photoshop's Smart Sharpening is far superior.
If you look in the basic section, you can see a Highlight slider and a Shadow slider which is basically a way to dodge or burn your images. Ansel would have loved these sliders, to a point. The sliders Dodge and Burn globally, which means they address the whole image not just a part. With some other tools in LR , PS and third party products, you can do spot adjustments. I'll mention one of these coming up. But now onto Photoshop, which I travel to by right clicking my mouse and picking export to Photoshop.
We are now in the Photoshop editor. I will extract some small things that bother me using a combination of the spot healing brush and content aware tool. In this image, it was some of the dark spots of dirt. From here, I will then export the image into a third party filter named Color Efex Pro 4 by Nik Filters (this is my go to digital filter).
The filter I use the most is the Tonal Contrast Filter which has four settings. The Fine Setting or Standard Setting are my usual choices depending on the image. The other filter that I use in almost every image is the Darken/Lighten Center filter. With this, I have more control over which small sections I want to burn or dodge. It's a great tool. I think Ansel would be using it today.
After I am finished in Nik, I travel back to PS where usually all I have left is sharpening in the Smart Sharpen Tool. In this Screen Shot, you can see my settings for this and most landscape or nature images. I am not saying this is the only setting or the best one. It's just mine.
At this point, I would move back to LR to do a final check on the image. If satisfied, I would export it to one of my external drives.
I would like to make a few final points. The title of this post includes the words 'MY Post Processing Steps'. In NO way am I stating that this is the best or the singular method and you need to follow from point to point. I am just saying it's my way and it's an answer to questions people have asked about how I post process and what tools I use.
If you follow my post, you may have noticed that I do not call my images, pictures. The reason for this is that I feel what comes out of the camera is indeed a picture. But it's not until I work on it, making it the best I can, that produces the final product. In my mind, then, it's an image!!
With our move down to Florida from New Hampshire, we have driven back and forth eight or nine times. On almost every trip, we have stayed in Savannah for at least one night and one of the reasons for our visits is Vic's On The River. Vic's a really great restaurant located on East Bay Street near City Hall with the entrance located on Factors Walk. There is also an entrance at 15 East River Street where you take the elevator up to the fourth floor where the main dining room is located.
What do we like about Vic's? Pretty much everything including the decor, the location on the banks of the Savannah River, delicious food with a southern attitude and great service. The bar is a wonderful place to either enjoy your meal or have a cocktail made by Angie. As an aside, you have to love a place that calls itself a bar not a lounge.
The building was built in 1859 and houses more than just Vic's. There is a store and a hotel among other businesses.
The building's history is pretty interesting as described in this section on their web site.
In 1858, John Stoddard had this building commissioned to be designed and built by the famous New York architect, John Norris. He was one of three major architects in Savannah at the time, along with William Jay and Charles B. Clusky. Some of John Norris’ Savannah works include the Andrew Low House, the Cotton Exchange, the Mercer House, and the Meldrim-Green House. Completed in 1859, this building was originally used as a warehouse and later housed Steven Shipping Company. The lower floors were known as John Stoddard’s Lower Range and the top floors as John Stoddard’s Upper Range.
During the War Between The States, General Sherman’s lesser officers used this building’s empty offices for housing and planning space. Our main dining room showcases a map that was hand-drawn by Union soldiers detailing Sherman’s march from Tennessee through Georgia. The map was originally found in 1901 during a renovation of the building. Workers were removing the old finish and noticed lines drawn on the wall. A small portion of the map was preserved, while the rest was covered due to damage and wear.
The upscale elegance of Vic's with the warm colored walls, the high ceilings and beautiful dark wood floors adds to a truly lovely night. Plus the views of the river right outside their windows, with ships moving right by or below, is really fantastic.
To all this add a baby grand piano being played all night and you have a very romantic venue.
There is also an outdoor patio if you would like to eat there. To be honest most nights when we have been there, the heat and humidity made our decision to eat inside very easy.
Let's be honest. We do not eat at a restaurant because of the ambiance unless the food is its equal. At Vic's the food actually surpasses the ambiance. From the appetizers to the after dinner cocktails everything is a treat.
My favorite appetizer is the BEST Fried Green Tomatoes I have ever eaten and I have eaten my share. They are served with a tomato chutney and goat cheese. (Does goat cheese ever NOT go with anything?) The beautiful presentation shows a lightly golden coating that is fried to perfection, not greasy or hard but just perfect.
Phyllis had the baked oysters made with melted leeks, fennel and country ham plus a parmesan cheese granite's which she shared. It was simply delicious! The taste of the sea blends so well with the sweetness of the leeks and ham on your tongue. It was a really wonderful beginning to our meal.
A dinner salad was included and was really refreshing. Those corn bread croutons were a nice touch.
I had a glass of pinot grigio and Phyllis a glass of merlot. They have a great wine list with a good selection of wines by the glass.
Phyllis and I do not usually eat biscuits served in restaurants because of the high fat content. This night we forgot to tell the waiter not to bring them to our table, a big mistake. There they sat these three beautiful light clouds of heaven with a marmalade spread. We decided without speaking to just try a little taste of one. If you have been married as many years as we have you might know what that means. You do not speak about it but continue your conversation while breaking off a small piece and dipping it in the sweet marmalade. If you do not speak about it, somehow it is not so bad, plus you're only going to try a small piece. Oh sure, just a small piece of one!!
Let's move on to the main course, quickly.
I ordered the seafood pilau; grilled sea scallops, shrimp, Verlasso salmon, Sapelo Island steamed clams with seasonal vegetable basmati rice.
What is a 'purloo'? I would call it a kind of a paella. The seafood was all fresh and delicious and the rice was a favorable compliment to the seafood. All the different seafoods were cooked to perfection and seasoned perfectly. It was definitely a meal I would order on our next trip.
Phyllis ordered a pork belly, scallops and risotto dinner with an apple slaw. The pork belly was cooked to perfection and went well with the scallops. The risotto was delicious and to be honest if the dinner includes risotto, there is a better than even chance it will be Phyllis's dinner!!
We were too full to have dessert, blame that on those biscuits! Phyllis went out to the bar while I paid the bill, a good idea if you are looking to sit at the bar which is usually full. When I went out to join Phyllis, she had the one empty chair. I had room to stand next to her and within minutes the couple next to Phyllis left and we both had seats.
The bartender, who we had met on previous trips, is Angie. She is a really great. She always has a smile on her face, she remembers you even after months of not seeing you and knows your drink: a real old fashion bartender. Well, at least she mixes a great old fashioned, my drink and Phyllis likes cosmos.
After a few cocktails we were on our way to the Hampton Inn which is located right across the street. Another great thing about Vic's is the amount of good hotels within walking distance.
If you are ever in Savannah Georgia and you're looking for a restaurant with great food, service and live piano music, head on over to Vic's. Oh, don't forget the bar and Angie. Tell her we said hello and try her old fashioned with extra cherry water.