Last night I spent several hours photographing the 2019 super blood wolf moon. I was lucky to have perfectly clear skies and a warm evening to shoot this amazing phenomenon.
Your camera needs to be locked down on a very sturdy tripod and head as the slightest shake will result in a blurred image due to the huge distance you are shooting over – Some 238,900 miles! Either lock up the mirror on your camera and use the self timer, or use an electronic cable release, or even both.
I started with the full moon around 9.30 pm. Focus on the moon, take a couple of shots to check your focus is spot on and then turn autofocus off , you don’t want the camera to be trying to re-focus for each shot.
Shooting a full moon in a black sky can often completely fool your cameras meter into overexposing the image rendering the moon as a bright white blob in the sky. You can get away with surprisingly high shutter speeds. I start with a test exposure of 1/100th @ f8, ISO 400 – and after a couple of tests just upped the ISO to 500 and felt I was spot on. I set this manually on the camera.
I continued to shoot an image every 10 minutes each time checking my exposure. As the moon moved into the earth’s shadow it darkened, meaning I had to continually adjust the manual exposure set on the camera. First I lengthened the shutter speed, then opened the aperture, and finally as the moon moved into the red phase I also upped the ISO.
I didn’t worry too much about exactly where the moon was in my frame as my intention was to crop each image to make the sequence shot found at the end of this post.
The image below was shot at 1/320 sec. @ f8 at ISO 800
As the eclipse begins to turn into the blood moon I need to continue to increase my exposure. For the next image I am at 0.2 sec, f8 ISO 1600
Finally for the full blood moon my exposure has become 1/4 sec, f 4.5 ISO 2500
All images were shot with a Nikon 500mm f4 lens on a Gitzo tripod and Arca Swiss ball head.
Finally, for a bit of fun, here is a full sequence of 20 images stitched together in Photoshop representing a time frame of three hours
First, let’s be clear, I no longer use Lightroom. ( See https://peterllewellyn.com/new-workflow/)
However, I did use Lightroom for many years and, as it’s still the most popular program for handling RAW files, I include it here for comparison
Imaging software 2018, what each program does.
Photoshop has been around as long as digital photography has existed and is the best known of all digital image manipulation programs. Indeed the very word ‘Photoshopped’ has entered the vocabulary to mean a digitally altered photo, even if Photoshop itself was not even involved.
Adobe Photoshop has greatly expanded from it’s original target of photographers and is now used by, graphic designers, publisher, architects and animation studies to name but a few.
Basically, for photographers, Photoshop is a high-end, pixel level editor, and is still often the primary editor used. Indeed many photographers still only use Photoshop for digital editing.
Lightroom, or to give it it’s latest name, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom CC, is both an image editor, and a digital management system. The very fact that Photoshop is now included in the naming convention is a strong clue that many of Photoshop’s primary functions are included in Lightroom.
As far as digital editing is concerned Lightroom is a non-destructive editor, meaning that no pixel level changes are made to your actual files, changes being stored as simple, editable text files (sidecar files) alongside each image, whereas Photoshop is a pixel based editor where changes are embedded in the file as soon as you hit ‘save’. In fact Lightroom has no save button at all. Edits are kept automatically as you make them.
Capture One 11
Capture One is Phase One’s answer to Lightroom. In the early days of digital I was a user of Apple Aperture. When this was discontinued I was forced to adopt Lightroom as, at the time, there was no real alternative.
Lightroom and Capture One offer many of the same tools. The two programs differ mainly in the user interface and some of the more advanced features.
Frankly it is the initial processing of RAW files that I personally find superior to Lightroom that is the main reason I use Capture One. This is followed by the interface which is more akin to the Aperture look. I dislike Lightroom modular approach and find switching form one module to another in the middle of working to be drag. Now, in Capture One 11 we have layers, even less images go to Photoshop.
However, both programs still do a fine job of processing RAW images. (You are using RAW as your format I hope!) It is really a matter of personal preference. As a matter of interest opening a RAW image in Photoshop or Lightroom uses the same engine, Adobe Camera Raw.
Which Program to use when
If you shoot RAW format images then I highly recommend you use Lightroom or Capture One as your primary editor. In fact many of my edits are done solely in Capture One and never get opened in Photoshop. You gain the advantage of non-destructive editing and photo organization at the same time. Lightroom is relatively easy to learn, Capture one a little steeper learning curve, and to use the full feature set of Photoshop plan on spending a lot of time in front of the screen.
However Photoshop does offer numerous features not available in Lightroom or Capture one (yet!)
Advanced retouching is more effectively achieved in Photoshop than either LR or C1. Both offer the ability to output an editable image as a TIFF or PSD to be manipulated in PS then, as soon as you hit save, that new version is imported back into the LR or C1 catalog. In fact, removing blemishes, massive amounts or sensor dust and the like is my main use for Photoshop.
It would be impossible to effectively remove the small branches between the Vermillion Flycatcher and the Hummingbird using Lightroom or Capture One. If you are into compositing images, producing HDR, or Panoramas then Photoshop is still the best tool for the job.
My personal workflow
All my images go through the same process:
Download into Photomechanic for initial sorting, captioning, keywording and renaming
Images are moved to primary storage drive
Images are imported into Capture One 11 and processed
Final images are output for intended use
As promised in an earlier blog I will detail my Photomechanic process shortly. I am waiting for the new 64bit version, Photomechanic 6, to appear, which is promised by the end of the year. This will bring databasing to Photomechanic which may well change my workflow.
People regularly ask me what is my favourite lens, and what lens do I use for this or that subject? The answer may not be a simple one. While the ‘best’ lens for a close-up or macro photo would undoubtedly be my Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f2.8. Yet, it’s entirely the wrong lens if it’s sitting at home in the equipment cupboard when I suddenly come across a macro-type subject.
This is precisely what happened a couple of days ago when I went for a hike up in the Sierra de San Juan Cosala above my home in Jalisco Mexico. At this time of year the region is beginning to see the return of the migratory bird species. So there I am, out with my 500mm AF-S ED VR f4, a tripod, and a couple of converters in my pocket and not much else .
Setting up to photograph an Ash-throated Flycatcher I was standing in some small acacia trees when I noticed a large bug at the top of the bush that I had never seen before. So suddenly the ‘best’ lens to get a shot turned out to be the only lens I had with me.
Nikon D4s, 500mm AF-S ED VR f4 +TC-14 converter, (effective 700mm), 1/1000th at f8 ISO 800
Solving the problem
The minimum focussing distance of this lens is 4m not ideal for the subject but, what many don’t realize is, that by adding a converter you will increase the size of the subject (by the magnification factor of the converter) but the minimum focussing distance does not alter. You do however suffer a bit of light loss, 1 full stop with the TC-14 and 1 and a third with the TC-17. In this case I added the TC-17, increasing the focal length of the 500mm to 850mm. This gave me a plenty of a large enough view of the bugs which were around 1.5in in length.
Nikon D4s, 500mm AF-S ED VR f4 +TC-17 converter, (effective 850mm), 1/500th at f8 ISO 800
Isubsequently found a pair of the bugs, which I identified later as Giant Mesquite Bugs mating at the top of another acacia bush.
Nikon D4s, 500mm AF-S ED VR f4 +TC-17 converter, (effective 850mm), 1/500th at f8 ISO 800
I would have also been well served to have had a set of extension tubes with me which would have allowed me to substantially decrease the minimum focussing distance but they too were in the equipment cupboard.
So – the lesson is the best lens for a shot is the one you have with you, just find a way to make it work.
To view more wildlife and nature images enter keywords in the search box below
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How many copies of your precious images do you have, and, where are they located? All photographers should have a sound backup strategy for their images.
My biggest fear as a professional photographer is that a catastrophe of some description would result in the loss of a lifetime of work. So, over they years I have developed a backup, backup, backup strategy. That’s right, at any moment in time my images are always in at least three locations.
I was told by a computer technician many years ago to work on the principal that every hard drive in the world is going to fail, sooner or later. Over the years I have had several hard drives completely fail so, if that drive was the only location for my images it would truly have been a disaster.
Since beginning to work in digital format I have been through several different backup strategies including copying images to floppy disks (remember those!) Iomega drives, and CDs and DVDs. As the price of hard drives has dropped my backup strategy has evolved to be based around a hard drive system.
Everyone, amateur or professional, should follow a photographers backup strategy. Although below you will find a belt and braces method please adapt this to suit your own needs.
My backup strategy.
Images are copied from the camera memory card to the internal drive on my laptop, using Photomechanic’s ingest dialogue. IMPORTANT NOTE: Do not format your card at this point, your images are not yet safe. Format your memory cards only when they are in at least two location. You never know when a disaster is going to strike.
I proceed with culling images and then caption and keyword the keepers
Images are copied to my primary office storage device known as Images-Main. If I am travelling and have no access to my main drive files are immediately copied to a separate portable drive. Do not keep this drive in the same location as your computer. If one gets lost or stolen you will at least have a backup available of the images you have already taken. Immediately I return to the office the portable is copied to Images-Main
Although not directly a part of my backup strategy at this point the images are imported in Capture One 11 ready for further processing and preparation for various uses including submitting to my Agencies, putting on the web site, and my Instagram account. However, once images are processed the very best are uploaded to my Photoshelter account, which is certainly a part of my backup strategy
At 9.00am every day, seven days a week, the main drive is cloned onto an identical second drive called Images-1. To accomplish this I using a small utility, ChronoSync (available for Mac only)
Every Monday the drive Images-1 is removed from the office and switched for another identical drive, Images-2. Not only is the drive removed from the office it’s removed from my house and stored in a secure location
Next Monday Images-2 is switched back for images-1 and so on
Replacing hard drives
When my three drives are nearing capacity they are retired and three identical new drives replace them. This happens around every 18 months to two years and until now it has been easy to simply replace with larger capacity drives. With 10 TB stand alone external drives now available this equals a huge amount of storage. I do not use a RAID system. Remember RAID is not a backup specially if it get stolen or irreparably damaged in a home or office catastrophe!
To re-cap, at any given moment in time all my images are on the drive Images-main. Additionally all images are on an identical cloned drive, Images-1 or Images-2. Whichever of Images-1 or -2 is not currently connected to the office system is stored in a location away from my office to mitigate a total disaster such as fire, flood or theft. At the very worst I can only completely lose a week’s worth of work. Although this would be difficult to accept it would not be the end of a lifetimes images.
Finally, all my first pick images are also uploaded to my Photoshelter account, which means they are safely stored in the cloud and can therefore also be recovered from there, with the added benefit that images are also available for my website galleries and clients.
I highly recommend Photoshelter as your cloud storage method. Photoshelter is built just for photographers rather than a ‘catch-all’ cloud storage method.
To receive a 14 day free trial and a $15 credit on your first Photoshelter subscription click here
Over 100 endangered fin whales have already been killed this year. – Help stop this senseless slaughter of our largest marine mammals, that are still being hunted in defiance of the 1986 International Whaling Commission’s moratorium. Join the stop Iceland whaling campaign.
Let’s promote eco-tourism to view these magnificent animals over the whale meat trade. The majority of Icelandic whale meat is exported to Japan, the leader in commercial whaling despite it’s contention that it is only killing whales for ‘scientific’ purposes. Much of this meat is then not consumed for years, remaining in frozen lockers. Surely this alone indicates that there is no demand for this product.
Many people have great difficulty getting the correct exposure for all or mostly white birds, such as snowy egrets. It is vitally important to ensure that you retain detail in the brightest area of the feathers. If these areas are ‘blown out’ no amount of work in post processing will help. It is all to easy, if relying on any automatic exposure mode, to overexpose your subject.
Any automatic exposure mode is going to inevitably result in an incorrect exposure. Your camera meter will try and render your subject an 18% grey. You need to ensure that whites are actually rendered white.
It is essential to understand how to read your histogram to ensure you achieve the correct exposure.
Below the histogram for this image
Note that to correctly expose the bird, I have ensured that the brightest whites (the right end of the histogram) are well to the right but not actually touching the right hand edge. If the histogram goes right to the edge, or, even worse is blocked up against the edge then you have overexposed the image.
Do not rely on a visual inspection of the image on the back of your camera – it will not give a true representation of the actual exposure, especially if you are shooting in RAW – which you should be!
There is certainly more than one way to achieve a correct exposure. The two that I generally employ are:
Use Aperture priority automatic, check the histogram on the back of the camera and then dial in + or – exposure to bring the histogram to the required levels. I generally find that a value of +2/3 EV is close to correct on my Nikon bodies.
Take an image, check the histogram, then set exposure manually.
Method one works when there is a constantly changing light or I am shooting in several different directions because of movement of the birds.
Method two is employed when the light is remaining constant and I am consistency shooting in the same direction and the birds movements are causing the subject to appear at different sizes in the frame.
To aid in quickly visualizing hot spots, i.e. overexposed areas, turn on the highlight exposure warning if your camera has this setting, otherwise known as the ‘blinkies’. Overexposed areas will then be highlighted and flash on and off giving a clear indication of areas that retain no detail.
A couple of nights ago I was treated to a huge electrical storm over Lake Chapala, Mexico. No rain, no thunder, just lightning. This went on for well over an hour presenting a great opportunity to capture some dramatic lightning images.
First however, a word of warning, if you are venturing out to shoot lightning pictures remember that lightning is dangerous. Stay inside a building or vehicle and definitely stay away from tall trees, water, and any other tall object that can act as a conductor. All the images in this article were taken from the covered deck of my home, around 600′ above the lake.
To successfully shoot lightning images you need a camera that can be set to manual exposure, and a sturdy tripod and preferably a cable release. You are going to be using long shutter speeds so it is essential that there is no movement whatsoever of the camera. Lens choice will depend on the location of the storm but generally wider angle lenses will work best.
Nikon D3s, 24-70mm f2.8 lens @ 35mm, 10 sec at f8 set manually, Gitzo carbon fibre tripod with Arca Swiss ball head
Set up your camera and lens on the tripod and focus manually to infinity. It’s best to turn autofocus off so the lens does not hunt for a focus point in the dark. . You need to include some foreground elements to add interest and in the shot above I am fortunate to have the village of San Juan Cosala with it’s lights. This did however present a slightly tricky lighting balance as too long an exposure would simply blow out the lights of the village into one big glare.
You need to experiment with your exposures – the shutter needs to be open long enough to capture one of more bolts of lightning. Take lots of shots, some will work and some won’t and it is, to a great extent a matter of luck. Vary your exposures until you find one that works. Review images on the LCD screen as lightning varies tremendously in the level of brightness.
It is also, to some extent, possible to anticipate the next bolts of lightning as there are often fairly regular intervals between strikes. But, your shutter must already be open when lightning occurs, if you try and take the image as you see the lightning you will be too late.
Nikon D3s, 24-70mm f2.8 lens @ 48 mm, 3 sec at f2.8 set manually, ISO 200. Gitzo carbon fibre tripod with Arca Swiss ball head. This image shows both cloud to cloud lightning and bolt lightning
Long exposures inevitably mean an increase in the noise in the image file. My Nikon camera have built-in processing for long exposure noise reduction. This captures a ‘dark frame’ using the same exposure as the original image immediately after the original is captures. The camera software then uses this dark frame to find and remove ‘hot pixels from the original. Very technical, but it works. If you have it turn it on! The downside is that if for example you are shooting a 30 second exposure the processing takes another 30 seconds during which you cannot take another image.
I have used the Nik filters software package to enhance some images since it was a $150 package. It is in fact, the only image processing plugin that I use in addition to my regular workflow software, Capture One Pro 11 and Adobe Photoshop.
The package was acquired by Google in 2012 who made it free but then subsequently abandoned any further development in 2017. The ultimate effect of this was that as Photoshop and Lightroom were updated, incompatibilities started to creep in, leading to software crashes and general instability, much to the concern of regular users.
I had all but given up hope of continuing to use the Nik filters collection suite when suddenly, imaging software company DxO announced they had acquired Nik and had produced a major update. This resulted in full compatibility with Photoshop, Lightroom and Apple OS operating system.
Nik is no longer free, with DxO charging just $69 for this very powerful product – (was on offer for $50 until July 1). Actually great value considering you get a total of seven creative plugins – most of which I use at different times.
Analog Efex Pro
Create a range of effects emulating both creative wet darkroom techniques and/or the look produced by various camera and film combinations. The least used of the plugins in my personal situation.
Color Efex Pro
This is the filter I use most. It includes options for color corrections, retouching, extracting fine detail and contrast corrections. In my opinion this filter, along with Viveza and Sharpener is worth the price alone.
In this image I have added two filter effects to the original image. First I have selected color extractor followed by a Pro-contrast adjustment. As this is a regular combination for me I have also saved this setting as a ‘Recipe’ that I can quickly add to other images. As I still want to ensure the bird stands out from the background I have set a control point for each filter and adjusted the circle to just encompass the bird leaving the background pixels unaffected.
Please note that the image sliders are not working in the latest version of WordPress. We are working on a fix for this.
Use the slider to see before and after using filter
CAUTION – This filter is extremely powerful and it’s very easy to overdue it’s use creating an artificial look to your image. The effect should be subtle!
Silver Efex Pro
Now, the only method I use to convert images to black-and-white. A huge range of controls available including presets emulating the effects of traditional camera filters for mono photography, tonal and contrast corrections, and dynamic range adjustments. In fact just about everything I could previously achieve in a traditional wet process darkroom but with a great deal more control.
Use the slider to see before and after using filter
For this conversion I first chose the High Contrast preset that added some refinements of my own by increasing the brightness slightly and reducing the contrast.
Need to selectively adjust color or tone in just a part of your images? Achieve enhancements exactly where you need them which blend beautifully with the rest of the image without creating complicated masks. Achieved using Upoint technology (see below) which is also available to apply selective adjustments to other filters within the suite.
I used two control points, one to lighten the spider and one to brighten the white background. The whole process took less that one minute without having to mask a single thing.
Use the slider to see before and after using filter
HDR Efex Pro
Create a range of HDR (High Dynamic Range) effects, adjusting tonality, opening shadows and enhancing saturation. I usually run through the presets to find the one that most closely resembles the effect I am seeking and then make adjustments to fine tune the image.
Use the slider to see before and after using filter
I opened the image in HDR Efex and quickly scanned through the pre-sets before choosing Graduated 1 HDR Efex can also be used to combine several images taken at different exposures into an HDR iage
Whilst Photoshop and Capture One have some fine sharpening tools in my opinion this filter is far superior. First, you have the ability to pre-select sharpening based on the final use of the image – inkjet printer, screen, continuous tone printer etc. Further, you can easily apply selective sharpening to different parts of the image.
The best noise reduction package I have found. Dfine has built-in profiles, customized to different cameras and ISO settings, which applies the reduction only to noise elements of the file so that details are not lost. Although modern cameras are themselves, extremely good at reducing noise at high ISO settings I find myself often using Dfine on older images shot with older, less adept cameras.
My usual workflow when using the Nik suite is the following – note that of course not every stage of this flow is used on every image, it depends entirely on the image at hand and the desired final effect.
Apply noise reduction – never user Dfine after final sharpening of an image as you may soften the sharpening effect you are aiming for
Control specific areas of the image that need contrast or brightness adjustments using Viveza
Apply tonal and detail enhancements in Color Efex Pro (Note this is actually the starting point for many of my images)
Convert to black and white if desired using Silver Efex Pro
Sharpen the image for the desired output using Sharpener Pro – I only use this step when an image is being prepared for final output and sharpening is applied according to the use of the image. Always size your image before applying sharpening as different degrees of sharpen are required for different output sizes, even of the same image.
On occasions when I want to produce an HDR image I will use HDR Efex Pro immediately after using Dfine (if noise reduction is necessary.)
Upoint technology uses selection points to select and modify a specific part of your image. As you click on a specific point the ‘masking effect’ will automatically select similar colours within the selected area (see the sliders on the tarantula image) The first slider controls the size of the circle of influence, with lower sliders creating the desired effects
Using Nik with Capture One 11
Although the Nik collection is designed to integrate with Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom you may know that I have recently moved from Lightroom to Capture One Pro 11 as my primary Raw conversion and databasing program – see https://peterllewellyn.com/new-workflow/
It is in fact extremely easy to ’round trip’ an image from Capture One into the Nik filters and save back to a new version in Capture One. Simple select File/Edit with (or right click the thumbnail and select Edit with) and a pop-up window asks what program you wish to use for your editing. Select the desired Nik filter and afterwards save your image which will automatically be added to the Capture One catalog.
The downside of this method is that you have to re-open the image and save it multiple times if using more than one filter
If I intend to use more than one of the Nik filters it is much more convenient to open the image in Photoshop then use the multiple filters in sequence before saving a single time.
Generally my ‘how to’ articles have concentrated on obtaining the sharpest images possible. That’s great, up-to-a-point, as the majority of my published images need to fit exactly that criteria. But, after you have captured all the usual images of your subject showing it in all it’s pin sharp glory, it’s time to look beyond the norm and start getting more creative.
In a follow-on from my previous blog where I started to look at the similarities between sports and wildlife photography, the techniques used for movement blurs in both subjects are identical.
Movement blur is simply allowing your camera shutter to remain open long enough to allow movement of your subject (or of the camera) to register on the sensor.
Nikon D3s, 16mm f2.8 fisheye lens hand held, 1/6oth @ f8 ISO 640 Note that by keeping the nearest cyclist centred in frame he remains quite sharp while all the other competitors are blurred
Let’s look at some of the methods to induce that sense of movement into your still images.
Creative blurs using long exposure with subject moving
There are effectively two methods you can use with a long exposure technique, keeping the camera still while the subject moves, or moving the camera (panning) whilst keeping the subject centred in the frame – or you can combine the two.
Nikon D3 with 80-200mm f 2.8 lens @ 80mm hand held, 1/30th sec @ f22 ISO 200 – Here I have used both a slow shutter speed and a panning action. The slow shutter produced the movement in the subject, the panning the movement in the background
This is perhaps the most common technique to induce deliberate blur where the photographer choses a shutter speed sufficient to render a recognizable subject but, at the same time, the shutter is open long enough for movement to register on the image. The trick is in choosing what stutter speed to use and for this you need first to assess how quickly your subject is moving. Obviously a formula one race car move quicker than a galloping horse which in turn is quicker than grass stems being blown in the wind.
Nikon D3, 200-400mm f4 lens @ 360mm, 1/125th sec @ f16, ISO 200 In this image I have used a relatively fast shutter speed but the foreground blur imparts a great sense of movement. This was shot through a vehicle window whilst travelling at around 50 mph (80 kph)! The Pronghorn is renowned as the fastest land animal in the Americas.
If you are using a long shutter speed to capture movement, for example moving water, it is absolutely essential to lock the camera down on a solid tripod. The long exposure will exacerbate any camera movement. To ensure there is no camera shake it is best to either use a cable release or to lock the mirror up and use the camera’s self timer to trigger the shot.
Nikon D3, 20-35mm f2.8 @ 35mm, 1/15 sec @ f22 ISO 100. Gitzo carbon fibre tripod, Arca Swiss ball head
What shutter speed?
So, what shutter speed do you need to create motion blur – the answer is ‘it depends’. If the speed is too short you still end up freezing the subject or it has minimal blur which just doesn’t work well. If too long then the subject itself becomes too blurry to be recognizable for what it is. Other factors will also come into play such as the angle your subject is moving. Is it toward you , diagonal, away etc. each of which causes a different apparent speed of motion. Are you, the photographer standing still or are you moving i.e. in a vehicle?
Note that, the further away you are from your subject, the easier it is to pan and follow, keeping the subject in the same location in the viewfinder. The plain fact is you need to experiment a little for each subject you shoot – exactly what that little screen on the back of the camera is for!
However here are some starting points:
Birds in flight to create some wing blur – 1/125 sec
Panned action for cars, cyclists, and animals at full gallop – 1/30 sec
Sports action featuring people, basketball, athletes etc. 1/60 sec
Remember that these are just indicators, you will still need to experiment for yourself.
I am not including star trails etc as this is a whole other subject. Similarly I am not going into rear curtain flash – I will again write about this in a separate article.
Long exposure while moving the camera
The second common method of creating movement blur is when the subject is still (or relatively so) but you deliberately move the camera during the exposure.
Nikon D3, 105mm f2.8 Micro lens, 1/8sec @ f32, ISO 100. Here I have used a twisting motion to rotate the camera and lens whilst taking the photo. Note how the fish near the centre are rendered relatively still whilst the further you look to the outside of the frame there is increased blur.
There is a huge range of movement you can introduce, rotation, up and down , side-to-side each of which will introduce a different blur effect. Also experiment with the same movement and different shutter speeds to find which works best.
As creative blurs require longer exposures than normal you need to take care with not to overexpose your photos. In general keep the ISO settings as low as possible and use small aperture to allow for longer shutter speeds without over-exposing. On bright sunny days even then you may not be able to set a long enough shutter speed to achieve the desired effect. This is where the use of a neutral density filter comes into it’s own. Neutral density filters cut the amount of light coming through the lens without altering the colours. These are available in a range of density settings but I recommend owning having one of the darkest, perhaps a -6 stop. This way you can always open the aperture or raise the ISO if you need a slightly faster shutter speed. If you don’t have a dark enough ND filter you have fewer options to slow the shutter down.
Nikon D3s, 20-35mm f2.8 lens @20mm hand held, 1/30 sec @ f4, ISO 200. Here due to the light levels it was not necessary to use a small aperture to achieve the desired slow shutter speed.
Here, a word of warning. Your sensor must be scrupulously clean when taking long exposures. Almost invariably you will be using small apertures which have the effect of sharply focussing every tiny scrap of dust on the sensor. If I know I am going to be taking long exposure shots I will always clean ny camera sensors before going out.
To see more creative blurs search the online archive by entering keywords in the search box below.
Several times I have been asked how it is that my long-time career as a sports photographer gels with the wildlife and nature work I now mostly shoot. The fact is that there are a great many similarities.
First let’s look at the equipment… Pretty much identical, rapid-focus cameras using large telephoto lenses.
Second… similar techniques, long periods of waiting around with not much happening while trying to maintain a high level of concentration so you don’t miss the decisive moment!
Nikon D2x, 600mm f4 lens, mounted on a Gitzo tripod with Wimberley head, 1/3200th sec ISO 200 @ f5.6. You can certainly shoot low slowly flying birds from a tripod but it’s much harder to acquire focus and stay locked on than with hand holding. Here, as I was still shooting with a D2 series camera that does not handle high ISO settings as well as more modern cameras, I have opted for a larger aperture than I would choose today.
One area of wildlife photography where all the above is particularly true is in capturing images of birds in flight. Often fast moving, unpredictable, with difficult lighting, much the same as with so many sports events.
My preferred lens for in-flight photography is the Nikon 500mm f4, either with or without the TC-14 1.4x converter, and occasionally the 200-400 f4, more often than not hand held with image stabilization turned on, depending on the size of bird I am working with and the distances involved. I never use the converter on the 200-400, which slows down autofocus to an unacceptable level. This technique results in more ‘keepers’ than using the 600mm f4 on a tripod with a gimbal head. The 600mm is just way too heavy to hand hold, at least for me, not being a muscle-bound body builder!
Just like photographing high-speed sport it’s essential to set your camera effectively to freeze the action (unless of course you are going for intentional blur, but that’s a whole other subject – coming soon!) I never let my shutter speed drop below 1/2000th sec, adjusting my ISO settings to ensure that I stay at this speed or above. Remember, birds can be very high-speed subjects, often cruising at 30 mph, and can reach enormous speeds of 60 mph or more when diving or hunting. I will generally stop my lens down to around f8 to give a good depth of field and also because this is the ‘sweet spot’ on my 500mm producing the sharpest corner to corner images. Unlike sport and ground-based wildlife subjects – where I will often use my telephotos wide open (largest aperture) to limit depth of field and isolate my subject from the background – this is rarely necessary with in-flight photography as, in the majority of cases, your subject is against the sky or is already distanced from any discernible background.
Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens hand held, 1/2500th @ f8, ISO 800. Look for the unusual bit of action such as when this bird dips his toes into the lake..
With my Nikon bodies I use continuous autofocus, AF/C (AI Servo on Canon) and select 9-point autofocus when photographing single birds, or 51-point 3D-tracking when shooting more than a single bird. I always use the highest frame-per-second rate possible and, like capturing sporting action, will often shoot in short bursts.
Shooting birds in flight I almost always use manual exposure, unlike sport where my preferred method is aperture priority. Primarily, in sport, I generally aim to keep my subject isolated from the backgrounds which, most of the time, are fairly constantly lit. With in-flight photography, backgrounds can constantly change as you continue to shoot; i.e. the birds move from blue sky to white cloud, or from a dark vegetation background to a more open area, and it’s really important that the exposure is based on the bird and not on the background. To set my exposure I get in position and shoot a few test shots ensuring my minimum 1/2000th sec is achieved, checking my histogram, and adjusting my shutter speed and ISO to move the histogram to the right without it actually touching the right-hand edge and blowing out highlights. It is essential to keep detail in the brightest, often white, part of your subjects.
For white balance I invariably just leave the setting at auto. As I shoot 100% in RAW format, I can always change the white balance in post production, if I need to – which is rarely. I find it all too easy when manually setting a white balance to forget I’ve done so and end up with extra work on a whole bunch of photos.
Technique for birds in flight
Even though my Nikon lenses autofocus extremely rapidly, you often have little time to acquire sharp focus as a subject might suddenly appear. To ensure the most rapid focus I will, if at all possible, find a subject that is at approximately the same distance as I predict my subjects might appear and pre-focus on that. This means that when a bird appears in the right zone my lenses have little work to do in locking on to the bird and I find I am shooting sharp images way earlier. I always use the rear focus button on the camera and not the half-depressed shutter button, as I like to decide when the cameras actually focus on the subject… Another throwback to how I shoot sport.
If you can, keep your selected autofocus points on the eye of the bird, which is easier with large birds than with rapidly moving, smaller subjects. When photographing more than one in-flight bird, ensure that your focus points are on the leading bird, because if the leader is ‘soft’ and the following bird(s) is sharp, it produces a very strange look.
Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens handheld, 1/2000th @f8, ISO 320. When shooting more than one bird ensure you focus on the leading subject. Also remember that many birds have large areas of white colour so it is essential that you don’t blow out your highlights.
Just like shooting sports, with birds in flight it is essential to develop good panning technique. You MUST keep the lens moving, locking your subject in the same position in the viewfinder as far as you can, and keep shooting. A common error is to shoot every image with the bird dead centre in the frame. I often shift my focus selection points slightly to one side of the frame or the other depending on the flight direction, to allow space for the bird to move into. This generally gives a much more pleasing composition. The best bird images, particularly with larger species, tend to be when the wing is at the highest or lowest position during the flapping motion, aim to hit this spot consistently.
Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens with 1.4 teleconverter (effective focal length of 700mm) hand held, 1/2000th sec @ f8, ISO 1200. Try and time your shots so the wings are either fully elevated or fully down, relatively easy with soaring birds like this vulture
Perhaps more-so than with other forms of wildlife photography, it is practically essential to shoot with the sun at your back with a useable arc of around 30°. Backlit and sidelit subjects rarely work well as you will invariably end up with very harsh shadows. The angle of the sun is also a huge factor. Photographers talk about the golden hours, around two-and-a-half hours after sunrise and two hours before sunset, when the light has a soft even feel and has a golden glow that lends itself well to all wildlife subjects. A further advantage of a low sun angle is that it will often result in a great catchlight in a subject’s eye. In general, high sun angles during the middle part of the day are not workable if the sun is out, but you can extend the shooting day with more overcast conditions.
Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens with 1.4 teleconverter (effective focal length of 700mm) hand held, 1/2500th sec @ f8, ISO 800. Give a little more space on the side of the image that your subject is facing to allow room for it to ‘move into’
Another weather condition to keep in mind is wind direction. Birds, like aircraft, will tend to take-off and land into the wind. Absolutely the best conditions for in-flight bird photography is when both the sun and the wind are at your back.
Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens with 1.4 teleconverter (effective focal length of 700mm) hand held, 1/1600th sec @ f8, ISO 800. Birds take-off and land into the wind, try and have both sun and wind at your back
Remember, like all photography, the foregoing suggestions are guidelines and not set-in-stone rules! I still experiment with different shutter speeds, camera movement, lighting angles etc. but, my experience has been, that using the above guidelines will generally produce the most pleasing images.