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.
On June 25, I got inspired to photograph the Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017. I was sitting in my 97-year-old mother’s sitting room while she watched TV and I was reading articles on the Web. Looking at a NASA map of the Zone of Totality, I estimated the cheapest flight from Pittsburgh to the Zone, would be Atlanta. I chose a site in South Carolina near the Georgia border. Concerned about supply and demand, I immediately booked plane tickets and a Hampton Inn and ordered solar glasses. Within a few days of hearing my crazy plan, my husband volunteered to come with me for moral support. My mission to study specialized photographic techniques began.
Most helpful was the iBook “How to Photograph the Solar Eclipse” by Alan Dyer, who has traveled to numerous eclipse sites around the world. Dyer describes many different approaches and urges you to get geared up and practice. Which camera and which lens? Still photos or video? Weighing the relative difficulties of each, could I manage two set-ups, and still enjoy watching the eclipse?
I bought photographic solar filters in three sizes, an additional “Really Right Stuff” ball head for a second tripod and an intervalometer. I developed a plan to operate my Sony a7rII with a 24 mm lens and no filter on one tripod. An intervalometer would operate it automatically to take a photograph every 6 seconds for 90 minutes, so that later a time lapse video could be made. The second tripod would hold my Nikon D800 with a 200mm lens and a 1.4x teleconverter (for a 280mm equivalent focal length), dedicated to taking close-ups of the Corona at Totality. Examining the options, I decided the image resulting from this set-up was my top choice. The close-up requires a solar filter to capture all the partial eclipse images. During Totality I would remove the filter and bracket shots (ISO 100 and f/8) one stop apart from 1 second as the longest exposure to 1/1,000 second as the fastest (1 sec., 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, 1/500, 1/1000), to capture the various levels of luminosity of the Corona. These images would later be combined with layers and masks to create one very special image. It was going to be tough to remain calm and also watch and wonder during Totality, as I knew I would feel really excited and Totality would last only 2 minutes and 18 seconds.
From Atlanta, we drove 2 hours north to a Hampton Inn in Hartwell, Georgia on Sunday night. On Monday morning, we left the hotel around 9am to drive another half hour to Anderson, SC to a recreational park I had pinpointed on Google Maps on Lake Hartwell. We arrived at the park, happy to find plenty of parking spaces, a lovely lake view, blue skies and a few trees to provide shade. Thanks to our Sewickley friend Sarah Hay Rawls, who lives in Atlanta now, we had some chairs to sit in while we waited 4 hours for the action to begin.
Just imagine how we felt as clouds formed just at the WRONG TIME and covered the Sun for most of the eclipse duration. Yes, weeks of focused study, a few hundred dollars in equipment, flights, hotels, rental car and two days of priceless spousal support would result in… what exactly?
Here is the image my Sony was capturing every 6 seconds. (Turn it off.) We looked at one another and shrugged.
Okay, what is the good news? I captured a few close up images during the first few minutes of the partial eclipse.
The other advice that helped me manage my disappointment was from my photography mentor Gary Hart, an accomplished landscape photographer, who advised me to savor the moment and not get too involved fiddling with the camera during Totality. In fact, many solar eclipse experts emphasized that advice. Gary said, “I refuse to be so focused on getting the shot that I fail to appreciate this experience of a lifetime. I’ll take a great memory over a great photo anytime.”
We had a great experience in multiple ways — the wonderful Park family we met there, the serene setting by Hartwell Lake, the mystery of the darkening and lightening of the sky during Totality and the inexplicable special feeling that came with bearing witness to this phenomenon of Nature. I will post my video of totality in my next post.
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.
Just outside my back door, I found fraternal twins on my hydrangea bush: a pink and a blue blossom on the same plant. All the rain in the past few weeks are helping the blossoms last. Stay away, hungry deer!
The hydrangea may be my favorite flower, thanks to associations with my daughter’s June wedding as well as memories of seeing them on Cape Cod.
Some homework assignments are more fun than others. Learning to use my new 600 mm lens called for a trip to the Pittsburgh Zoo. I have wanted to “get closer” to wildlife in Florida while photographing birds and alligators. And I definitely want to be ready for puffins I will see in Iceland in July. I know I will get the best results from practice.
Mounted on a sturdy monopod and attached to my Nikon D800, my new lens focused on the African lion and tiger today, and brought home these images for you.
Americans associate cherry blossoms with the iconic Tidal Basin in Washington D.C., but they are harbingers of Spring in western Pennsylvania too. On this cherry tree in Edgeworth, white and magenta flowers bloom side by side.