Preening Sandwich Tern
What was the hardest part of this capture?
It was not the exposure. With a solid cloud cover, I was able to lock in a manual exposure for perfect results on every shot. In this case, I chose a 1/1000 shutter speed (the bird was moving a lot and quickly), an f/5.6 aperture (to isolate the bird using shallow depth of field) and ISO 160 to bring the brightest whites up to near RGB 255,255,255.
The challenge was not the tight framing of the bird. I was able to slowly belly-crawl close to the small flock of terns. So close that I only needed a 234mm focal length in front of the 7D II's APS-C sensor. I should have used a slightly wider angle still as I added a small amount of canvas on the left in post, providing additional breathing room for the wing.
The challenge was also not the low shooting position. Using the NatureScapes Skimmer Ground Pod II, I was able to push the camera forward as I crawled in the sand. Shooting from on the ground gave me a clean background (only sky) and the remaining land in the frame is primarily a blur of texture.
The big challenge? Timing the shutter release in conjunction with using the proper AF tactics to get this specific composition with the head included in focus. The sandwich tern cleaning process involved a wide array of moves, few of which I was able to predict and all of them fast. The head was constantly moving in what seemed like all directions and fast framing adjustment with a properly-selected AF point proved very challenging. A narrower aperture would have reduced the AF task, but the result would have been more ground in focus for a different look.
One aspect of this image that I like is the complete separation of the head from the body. Many of the preening positions did not have this attribute (and many had a completely hidden head). I also like the balance. While I don't often place my subject in the center of the frame, I felt that centered worked best in this case. The wing and tail balance the bird over the dark, eye-catching legs. The head extended to the right caused me to want the legs shifted just left of center to get what I felt was the right overall balance. My shooting position was low enough that only the legs intersected the color of the sand. The small amount of feather pulling through the bill is the bonus feature. I'll credit the 7D II's short shutter lag for enabling that timing.
This sandwich tern was on the gulf shores of Captiva Island, just north of Blind Pass. This location in southwest Florida is ideal for expanding one's bird photography portfolio.
234mm f/5.6 1/1000s ISO 160
Canon 7D II and 100-400 L II Get Close to a Royal Tern
There was a small flock of royal terns on the Captiva, Florida beach just north of Blind Pass and Sanibel Island. It would have been easy to stand and capture distant photos of the flock resting in the sand, but I was looking for something better. By lying down in the sand and moving forward slowly, the beautiful birds allowed me to get quite close without showing any signs of stress. So close that I had to zoom out somewhat to get the framing I selected for the bird in this photo.
That the 100-400 L II focuses so closely is a big benefit when the subject is small and you want to fill the frame with it or a portion of it. The close focusing is also useful in situations such as this one – when I got too close. As I said, there was a flock of birds and I was photographing various birds as their positions and behaviors warranted my attention.
A low shooting position often has the benefit of a clean background (the sky in this case) and provides a nice angle on most small birds and animals located on the ground. To make shooting while lying flat in the sand easier, I utilized a NatureScapes Skimmer Ground Pod II. To help darken the sky in the background, I used a circular polarizer filter.
Early and late in the day sunlight often provides the best lighting for bird photography, but nice images can be made at other times of the day. This royal tern photo was taken at 11:44 AM. At this time of the day, the sun is near its highest point, making shadows harsh and the color temperature of the light cool. By carefully timing the shutter release, I was able to catch bird positions that minimized shadows (especially on its head) and that included a catchlight in the eye. Sunlight reflecting on sand also helps minimize shadows (though not as well as the snow that was on the ground at home on that date does).
With a white bird in full sunlight and under a cloudless sky, the exposure decision was easy. Lock in manual mode settings that included a shutter speed fast enough to stop any movement present (there was lots of action happening), an aperture that provided adequate depth of field and an ISO setting that caused the brightest areas of the photo to be *just* below blown (pure white) in brightness.
The 7D Mark II and 100-400 L II performed extremely well on this trip. The alert among you will notice that the reported full size pixel dimensions for this image are larger than those native from the 7D Mark II. I framed this bird tight to the top of the frame and used Photoshop's content aware fill to extend the canvas, creating more sky in the final image. This tactic created a modestly higher resolution image overall. Another option for increasing resolution would have been to capture a similarly-focused second frame with more upward angle, taking in much more sky for later stitching to the bird image.
I spent hours focusing on these birds and will try to share some additional images when I get time.
360mm f/8.0 1/1250s ISO 160
Willet Standing on One Foot
Under a cloudy sky, the lighting was right at any subject angle and throughout much of this day at Blind Pass in Captiva, Florida. This giant softbox-like lighting permitted me to maneuver to the ideal angle for this subject (from the side) and the NatureScapes Skimmer Ground Pod II allowed me to comfortably work from right on the sand.
This low perspective caused the background content to be farther away. That distance, combined with a long focal length and close primary subject, meant that the background became significantly blurred. When it becomes a blur, the background's color and shapes become the primary concern.
In this case, the ocean was my background. The wave patterns, including breaking waves, supply the gently-changing color and shapes.
When the ocean is in your frame, shutter release timing often matters as the ocean is constantly changing. A wide variety of waves shapes worked well for this situation, but my final selection included not only the willet with ideal head and body angle, but also with most breaking waves (white color and shape) avoiding the bird's outline.
As I've said before, the Canon EOS 7D Mark II and EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II Lens make a great birding combo.
400mm f/5.6 1/320s ISO 100