I thought I’d share a few of my observations about various aspects of the photographic experience involving birds during my time in Florida.
On the morning of my second day in the Everglades I made my way to the Anhinga Trail. The trail, in the Royal Palm section of the park, consists of a series of paved walkways and wooden boardwalks that provide excellent access to a wetland area. With that access comes close proximity to many nesting and wading birds who are entirely acclimated to the presence of people.
On this excursion, while I got plenty of decent images of numerous bird species (and alligators), I found myself frustrated by a function on my camera. Due to the subject matter I typically shoot, I almost never use autofocus, but with my photographic pursuit on this morning centering on wildlife, I clicked my lens and camera over to autofocus. The default AF setup for most cameras–including mine–is for autofocus to recalibrate on a given sensor spot when the shutter button is depressed halfway. I found this to be extremely annoying. I would move the active sensor to a spot that would allow me to focus on a specific point (a bird’s eye, for instance), then recompose the image…but when I would depress the shutter, the camera would refocus on whatever subject the sensor now included. Unless that was on the same focal plane as the eye, that was a problem. I worked around this issue that morning, but it was very, very annoying. What I wanted was for my plane of focus to remain in place after I had determined it, whether I recomposed or not. I knew this was possible, by several means. Now I had to figure out how to implement it.
When the light became harsh, I sat down and messed around with my camera’s menus. I had heard people talk about back button autofocus before, but as someone who all but never used autofocus at all, I paid little attention. But I took a look at the back of the camera, saw the placement of the AF-ON button (the “back button” that can be used to control autofocus activation) and placed my hand on the right side of the camera. With my right index finger placed on the shutter button the thumb on my right hand sat right on the AF-ON button. This could work!
I then dug into the shooting menu on the camera, found the option for setting the AF-ON button and changed the AF configuration so that autofocus would be acquired only when the AF-ON button was depressed. The shutter button would no longer be used to acquire AF. I did some quick experimenting–on static subjects–because I thought there would be a learning curve. That curve lasted about 30 seconds; I took to it like a duck to water and retained those settings for the rest of the trip…and beyond. (The settings, after all, will have no impact when I use manual focus.) This made it infinitely easier to use autofocus the way I wanted to. I found it easier to work than using the AF-L (autofocus lock) button approach.
With this method it was a simple matter to acquire autofocus where I wanted it and quickly recompose…or re-acquire as needed. The key here, obviously, is the separation of the autofocus and shutter tripping functions. There may be times when having them attached to the same single trigger makes sense, but this wasn’t one of those times. I was truly impressed at how easy it was to adapt to the new configuration. It was as though I had always been operating the camera this way and it made the experience of photographing birds far more pleasurable.
Birds in Flight
Before this trip I had never attempted to photograph birds in flight, let alone succeeded. I thought it would be difficult…and it was. But it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. Perhaps that assessment is a function of just how problematic I thought photographing birds in flight was.
With birds flying around all over the place I had some sporadic opportunities to get my feet wet, so to speak. And I managed to get a few decent images. It’s worth noting that the birds I was photographing were–mostly–on the large size (as birds go) and that I was usually able to get closer to them, given the venue, than might otherwise be the case. (There were some exceptions.) Both of these facts certainly made the exercise easier than it otherwise would be. But, after a brief attempt to photograph birds in flight–wood storks mostly–at Paurotis Pond in the Everglades when most of the would-be subjects were too far away to photograph effectively with a 400 mm lens, I had my first extended foray with birds in flight when I drove down into the Florida Keys on my third full day on location. The subjects, in this case, were brown pelicans, first on Lower Metecumbe Key and later at Bahia Honda State Park.
I was fascinated by the pelicans, particularly their hovering and diving, but from a purely photographic perspective, these large seabirds frequently flew close enough to my position to make it viable to take pictures. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the longer I spent with the pelicans the better I understood their in-flight patterns, making it easier for me to predict their movements and, thus, produce usable images.
There were some more opportunities to photograph birds in flight, back in the Everglades and at Riverbend Park in Palm Beach County later in the trip and I got some decent images in both places. I found my camera/lens combination–far from ideal, on both counts, for action photography–to be quite robust given the light and subject matter I was working with. This is a function, I think, of just how good modern photographic equipment has become. While optimal gear is certainly available, by no means does even a birds-in-flight neophyte like myself need the very best to obtain highly usable images (from a technical standpoint at least).
Handholding the Camera
I made reference to this aspect of things at the end of my last post. Longtime readers of this blog know that I’m a relentless advocate of the use of a tripod for landscape (and closeup) photography. But birds–particularly birds in flight–are another story. While more than half of the images of birds not in flight that I made on this trip were tripod-aided, literally none of the birds in flight images were. That’s right, I handheld every single one of those birds in flight shots. Using a traditional ballhead for this sort of photography is simply an exercise in frustration. (Believe me, I know. I tried it.) Many experienced, dedicated avian photographers use long, heavy prime lenses on a tripod with the aid of a gimbal head, but I don’t use exotic prime lenses or have a gimbal head (not being a dedicated avian photographer)….so, I handheld.
Again, this is something of a tribute to the viability of modern photographic equipment. I turned the vibration reduction feature on my 80-400 lens on, moved the ISO up to the point where I could consistently get a shutter speed of 1/2000 of a second (or better) and went to work. And, while I came up with plenty of trash, I got my share of usable images as well. In fact, considering my lack of experience, I arguably got more than my share of usable images.
There certainly is an element of freedom that comes with not being attached to a tripod and without being able to handhold I wouldn’t have even attempted to photograph birds in flight. And still…when I was photographing birds that were perched in trees, on the ground or in the water I felt much more comfortable with the camera mounted. I think it’s fair to say that you can expect that I won’t be foregoing my tripod any more in the future than I have in the past.
The experience of photographing birds was an enjoyable one. I could see myself doing it again at some point. But my main passion–including this trip–remains the landscape. Birds (and alligators) were a nice temporary diversion and it was interesting to see some other forms of wildlife that I didn’t photograph for one reason or another: manatees, crocodiles and sea turtles, among other creatures. And don’t think I’ve gotten a swelled head; while I think that most of these images are quite adequate, I’m no more of a wildlife photographer than I was before I took this trip. I’m a slightly more experienced person who occasionally is fortunate enough to have wildlife pose for me, nothing more.
I’m a landscape photographer; it’s what gets me out in the field, when I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity. Even in Florida, it was my primary focus. And I’ll turn directly to the landscape experience on this trip in my next entry.
Note: if you’d like to see more of my images of birds from Floirida, please visit this gallery portal on my website and click on the appropriate sub-gallery link.