Great bird photography comes from a successful collaboration of the right location, the right equipment, good technique, plenty of patience and an ounce of luck. If you approach a target-rich environment with the right lens and practice your technique enough — you will get lucky. (I paraphrase my husband’s motto: luck comes to the well prepared.)
The nesting arctic terns on Vigur Island in Iceland (a target rich environment) are very strong, fast and quick. They are busy catching small fish and delivering the fish to their chicks on the island. They also have an instinct to attack your head, so it helps to have an assistant guard your head with a stick.
Set your camera this way: fast shutter speed to freeze action, and all other settings to support that choice: higher ISO, wide open lens, spot meter, and maybe continuous shooting. Then, my technique was very quick action: pan/focus/shoot.
Puffins are camera shy, as they flee when they see you coming — unlike many seabirds that I’m accustomed to in Florida. As soon as I spotted one, tried to creep a bit closer, framed the shot and focused — off it went. Most of my photos that afternoon on Vigur Island were shot a second too late. Charlie and I were a persistent team; he was holding high sticks to ward off the Arctic Terns who are apt to attack your head. He was watching the long grass in the hillside for puffin nests where the puffins briefly land to feed their chicks, and acting as my spotter.
“Over there,” Charlie whispered to me, pointing. I crept closer with camera poised, hoping to focus and shoot before the puffins took flight.
I kept my shutter speed high and my lens wide open, trying to freeze action on a flying puffin at the very least. I was working hard to get a good puffin shot before leaving Iceland. Having seen puffin photos in all the shops, I knew how cute the little birds are!
At last our teamwork paid off, and I captured this image of a puffin with a beak full of fresh fish for the chicks. The Nikon D800 with 70-200 lens and a 1.4 teleconverter gave me a sharp image even though we were about 10 meters away.
Did you ever wonder where the pelicans go at night to sleep? Their favorite spot is an island in the bay, safe from land-based predators like raccoons. In this image, shot in Rookery Bay south of Naples, Florida, you can see a large number of pelicans getting settled for the night at sunset.
Our boat cut the engine and floated silently, so we could watch the pelicans and other large wading birds settle in on their rookery island. It was a privilege to watch this natural phenomenon up close.
Three young osprey were chirping up a storm, while Mama took a bath in nearby tidal waters and then dried her feathers while perched atop a nearby tree. Finally, Mama Osprey came to the rescue and landed on the nest.
With a shutter speed of 1/1000 second, my Nikon D800 froze the action as Mama Osprey landed on her young.
I hopped off my bike to watch a flock of eight to ten ibis peck around in the swamp water in search of a meal. Then I decided to take a seat on the ground and just watch to see if any action developed. The scene presented a few photographic challenges: the birds were in constant motion. Think: high ISO and fast shutter speed. There were so many of them, that they never seemed to form an orderly or symmetrical composition. Think: I’m going to watch for a composition to form, but most likely crop later. The brightness of the birds and the dark water would foil my camera’s efforts to calculate a good exposure. Think: Meter the exposure directly on the bird; you don’t want the feathers to be blown highlights that cannot be recovered in processing.
The result: I caught a scene with some action. One ibis was acting like the bully on the playground, chasing away his peer. Preparation paid off. With all the prior analysis of the scene, I was ready to catch the split-second ibis drama.