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It’s the time of year to photograph terns and swallows over the spring and summer waterways of South Africa.
I love these birds, not just because they are beautiful to photograph and watch in flight but also because they exhibit one of my favourite photographic traits: Repeated behaviour.
Disclaimer - these pics were all shot on a 2005 Canon 1D mark iin - in other words a very venerable and old camera. Modern cameras will do MUCH better in these low light conditions.
The reason any ‘tog likes repeated behaviours is that we can predict roughly where the bird might be, the lighting, the timing and the action. All this makes for shots that we can go some way towards constructing or producing; something that usually we wildlife photographers cannot normally do. It’s generally a luxury for product, portrait and fashion photographers.
If you prepare correctly and watch carefully, it should be possible to identify individuals and locations to target. You can then consider lighting, weather and timing and put yourself in the ideal spot to catch some of the action.
Each location is different, but if you ‘dial yourself in’ you should be able to pick out little spots to capture your target species.
One such location for me is Marievale Bird Sanctuary near Nigel. I particularly like one area. It is near the picnic site standing on the causeway overlooking the water eastwards in the late afternoon. Quite often, if the wind isn’t too strong, the water is still and dark. It takes on the tones and colours of the belt of Eucalyptus trees that overlook the picnic site.
The insects congregate near the dark water and draw in the agile swallows. Terns also really enjoy long low overflights, frequently dipping their bills in the water, much like their cousins, the African Skimmer, far to the north.
Photographing these fast moving hunters in the low, late evening light, can be a distinct challenge. One of the advantages we have is the colour of the terns themselves. The bright white birds look splendid against the dark water and allow us to raise our shutter speed.
At the same time you can underexpose the scene by about 1 - 1.5 stops, relying on the ability of the camera to pick up those bright white tones and display them nicely after a little work in post. That stop or so gain, will allow us to drop ISO or increase aperture or shutter speed - whatever we feel necessary. The underexposure also serves to darken the background and looks very pleasing.
If you find it a little tricky to track these birds erratic flight, then try this little trick. Instead of following the birds in the viewfinder, track their shadows or reflections in the water. The size of the reflection will grow or shrink depending on their altitude, but as they approach the water (which is where you want to photograph them right?) the shadow/reflection grows large and the bird itself comes into shot.
At this point you should have achieved good focus on the reflection and incidentally, the bird as well.
The advantage of this little trick is that you should be able to move your lens in predictable panning sweeps instead of all over the place tracking the bird. The other major advantage is that you should be able to maintain a very even exposure.
At any rate, give it a try, maybe it will work for you too and perhaps I’ll see you there one evening!
There many more tips and much detailed information available in my FREE eBook - Marievale - the photographer's guide. You can get your copy below!