Photographing birds is not easy. It requires a good amount of patience, luck and skill… and having the right equipment helps too. This particular shot would have never happened if I hadn’t first used my ears. It was early in the morning… the time when hungry birds have just woken up, and are most active – looking for food to start their day. I heard some loud persistent peeps, and took a look.
Two American Dipper chicks were waiting on a rotten log on the shore of the Deschutes River. An adult was fetching insect larvae out of the rushing waters, returning with a new bug every few minutes. It seemed the chicks had bottomless stomachs. I figured the parent would make at least a few more trips. So, I thought I’d see what I could get.
I quickly put on my 100mm-400mm zoom lens – with the lens hood on (I mostly use the lens hood for protection – to prevent bumping the glass against something). For most bird photography, it takes all the reach you can get, so I extended the lens out to 400mm and kept it there.
I knew that I’d need a pretty fast shutter speed. 1/400 second or faster if possible. First I flipped the camera to Aperture priority and moved the lens to wide-open (in this case f5.6) to let the most light in as possible. I pointed the camera at a few things near the scene and looked at the auto-metering the camera was giving me. When you’re zoomed-in this tight, metering can be all over the map. If you move a few feet one way or the other, the camera will meter on a dark log or the bright rapids… the difference in shutter speed can vary a ton. In this case, varying anywhere from 1/10 of a second to 1/100. So, I picked something in the middle of the range… f5.6 & 1/25 of a second.
I then switched the camera to Manual exposure, and dialed-in these same settings – f5.6 & 1/25 second. Now, I didn’t have to worry about the camera metering changing the exposure and messing up my shots. Of course, 1/25 of a second was way too slow. These quick little birds would be nothing but gray blurry blobs at 1/25 of a second. My camera was set at ISO=100. I had to bump up the ISO sensitivity to get a faster shutter speed. It was time to count clicks.
I clicked the knob that controls the shutter speed to something much faster… say 1/400 second. Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click… 12 clicks. Each click of a knob represented changing my exposure by 1/3 of a stop of light. After 12 clicks, I was at 1/400. While it helps to know how many stops you’re clicking through, in the field, you often don’t have time to do the calculations. It’s a heck of a lot easier and faster to count clicks. You don’t have to know any math to do this. If you can count, you can do it.
Before I adjusted anything, I had a good exposure. Now, I was “12 clicks off”. I needed to make up for all that clicking. So, I started clicking away on my ISO to compensate… click, click, click (now I was at ISO 200), click click click, (ISO 400), click, click, click (ISO 800), click click click (ISO 1600). That’s 12 clicks. I was back at a good exposure, and now I had the shutter speed I needed. ISO1600 will be a little more grainy, but grainy is better than blurry!
One more quick item was to make sure my focus was set for the center point. This way I’d know what I was focusing on. If you leave your autofocus to pick whatever point it wants, it’ll invariably pick the wrong point… and you’ll get a very crisp image of a log with some blurry birds in the background. At 400mm & f5.6, with a subject ~20ft away, the depth of field is very shallow – maybe half an inch at most. There just isn’t any room for focus error.
This whole business of changing the lens, and getting the shutter speed I needed (and making sure that switches like the autofocus and image stabilizer were flipped correctly) took about a minute, max. I simply had to ignore the birds while I did this. There’s no point in skipping any of this. There’s no point in shooting before you’re ready to shoot. I don’t care how good the scene is. If your camera isn’t adjusted correctly, the results are going to suck. Further to that point… you simply have to know this stuff to get a shot like this. If you’re relying on your camera’s automated controls to do the work, you’re going to be disappointed again and again.
So, now I had a camera ready for action. It was time for the patience and luck.
The chicks were moving up and down the log. Sometimes they’d go out of view, and other times they’d come very close. With the noise and movement of the water, they were fairly oblivious to me. It helped that some low bushes partially obscured my body. My first goal was to just get “something”… getting something is always better than waiting and getting nothing. So, I stood where I was and snapped a few shots of the chicks. I checked the histogram on the shot to make sure my exposure was still good. If it wasn’t, maybe I could click the ISO up or down a couple clicks to compensate.
I decided it was better to stay where I was rather than risking large movements and chasing the whole family off. My next goal was to get “something a little better”. I waited for the parent to return with some food, and tried to get a more expressive shot. The results weren’t bad, but I didn’t really like the background I was getting. The chicks were on the side of the log, so that the wood was immediately behind them. With this setup, I wasn’t getting much blur to the background, and not much contrast between the dark gray birds and the dark brown wood. I crouched down in hopes that the birds would jump up on the top of the log. Crouching down also enabled me to hide a bit and get a little closer to the action – which is always helpful in bird photography.
The whole family moved to the other side of the log for the next couple bugs. I was getting a little frustrated, but understood the value of patience. The birds moved fast, and I had to be ready. Before I knew it – bam. There was the parent with a juicy bug, and two chicks on top of the log with gaping red mouths. I nailed the focus on the chick and immediately snapped off a series of shots. The whole scene lasted maybe 5 seconds at most.
There are some things I wish I could fix with this shot. The blurry branch above the center chick is a little distracting, and it’d help if the birds had a little catch light in their eyes (that little sparkle that quite often comes from a flash). But, I didn’t have a flash with me, and I couldn’t direct the birds where to go. So, I can’t really complain. There’s a lot more that I like about the shot – all the birds are in nearly the same focal plane. Their feet show some action, the bright red mouths of the chicks are a great contrast with the otherwise drab colors, and the texture of the log is nice, the surface of the log makes a nice diagonal line, the lighting is smooth and indirect, and the whole thing tells a story. I’ll take it!