Finding a local celebrity

by Alan Godfrey January. 08, 2021 160 views

Welcome back! For those who missed my first post (Introduction), I'm planning on spending the year writing about my favourite photos taken to date, while I use this year to challenge myself to take 52 new images to share next year...

Sounds a bit confusing I'll admit - but it's all with the aim of forcing me to slow down and take more time to both enjoy past successes as well as learning lessons from which to improve in future.

The first photos that I'd like to share were actually some of the last that I took, and were taken over the Christmas break, 2020, of a beautiful local celebrity - a female kingfisher (Alcedo atthis).

Alcedo atthis, female kingfisher

Alcedo atthis, female kingfisher

I've lived in the same area for over seven years, but only became aware that we had a pair of male and female kingfishers in mid-December 2020, when a fellow member of the local camera club posted an image. Taking advantage of being off work, I took a walk to the area but came back empty handed.

A few days later, I was in the same area - this time looking to take some images of a frosty dawn over the fields - when I stumbled upon one! Isn't that always the way.

Female kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) in the dawn light.

Female kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) in the dawn light.

Not only was I lucky enough to be carrying a telephoto lens, but the dawn light lit her perfectly.

I spent a happy hour watching her. At first I approached too quickly and she flew off down the river, but the next time I learned my lesson, lay down on the ground and gradually crawled closer - taking a few shots each time, and trying to manoeuvre into a better position for the light and background.

There was something exhilarating about having to work so hard for the shots, and I feel as if that contributes somewhat to my personal enjoyment of the images. The thrill of the chase!

Love the pose, shame about the blur...

Love the pose, shame about the blur...

Once the excitement had subsided, I started to look more critically at the images beyond their personal emotion. You can never stop learning after all.

My main observation was the disappointing lack of sharpness that I achieved. I'm not sure how much it comes across to you - it'll depend on the size that you are viewing the image at - but personally I feel that these images wouldn't stand up to anything larger than being viewed on a phone.

All of the images here have been cropped in - to varying degrees - to give more pleasing results and to make up for the limitations of my lens. Sharper original images would have allowed for more aggressive crops, giving more freedom to create the final image I was after - and in particular to make the kingfisher larger within the frame.

I edit all of my photos in Adobe Lightroom, mostly using an iPad. Beyond some simple basic adjustments, my main edits of these images were on sharpness of the kingfisher, and in particular around her eyes. Again, it was clear that I was severely limited by the lack of sharpness in the original images.

What lessons for next time?

What lessons for next time?

Hindsight

I used the following gear to take these images:

  • Canon EOS R6 (Full-frame, Mirrorless)
  • Tamron SP AF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD

The images were taken with the following settings respectively:

  • 1/1000 sec at f/5.6, ISO 2500 (300mm, ~50% crop)
  • 1/500 sec at f/5.6, ISO 640 (300mm, ~25% crop)
  • 1/1000 sec at f/5.6, ISO 6400 (300mm, ~20% crop)
  • 1/1000 sec at f/5.6, ISO 2500 (300mm, ~25% crop)

I knew that the Tamron lens I had was not particularly sharp, especially beyond 200mm. For a few shots, I tried to rein back to 200mm - but I needed as much reach as possible. Similarly, it was meant to be sharper stopped down to f/8.0, but doing so would have required an even higher ISO.

The high ISO is really noticeable, especially with the cropping that was needed despite being physically quite close to the kingfisher. (Sadly, the one photo with acceptably low ISO required significant cropping). It was dawn and the bird was well lit, but being December I guess this was quite weak light and the tree canopy likely didn't help.

I deliberately operated in Tv mode, to take active control of the shutter speed - and selected 1/500 to 1/1000; but in hindsight I wonder if I could have gone slower. The kingfisher remained very still throughout, so I didn't need to freeze movement, and with good Image Stabilisation (plus lying on the ground), I could perhaps have kept camera shake to a minimum, while bringing the ISO down.

I've taken some time to look through great images that others have taken. I'm comfortable that I'm not dramatically out of line with my approach - with the only observations that others managed to achieve lower ISO (assuming with better light) or used longer / sharper telephoto lenses.

Finally, I did mess around with Auto-Focusing methods at the time. The camera was originally set to Spot AF, which was mostly fine - but with the kingfisher being so small in the view, it would occasionally switch onto a nearby twig instead.

After a while, I remembered the new R6 body had Tracking AF for Animals. Sadly, either because of the busy scene in the tree, or with the eye being dark and small in the frame, it didn't really work consistently enough to be useful. There were a few occasions when the kingfisher took flight and it was capable of tracking it's movement, which was exciting - but the resulting images were too much of a messy blur. I can see the potential here though, under different circumstances.

I also experimented with focusing manually - using the EVF to zoom in - but forgot to actually switch to Manual Focus, meaning I wasn't taking advantage of Focus Peaking!

While the images are all in-focus, I found both the difficulty in maintaining focus, and the constant switching of approaches, distracting from simply finding the best shot.

Thinking about it now, I was trying to pre-empt being able to take a good photograph if the bird took flight, but realistically I would never have been able to get that shot - through combination of my positioning, my gear, and my settings - so I shouldn't have worried and focused more on what I had. With that in mind, manual focusing and a slightly slower shutter speed would have done the job.

A few lessons for me to take away for next time, but fundamentally investing in a sharper and / or longer lens would be essential if I wanted to improve the quality of these types of images in future; with fingers firmly crossed for better light as always!

Conclusion

First and foremost, I'm just happy to have been able to see this beautiful creature, let alone take some semi-decent photos of her; and all the images mean something to me.

My favourite though is the first image posted here, and I thought it would be instructive to think through why.

While I like the darker background of the third image, and the warmth of the light in the second, I prefer the creamy-green background of the first and last images. There is something about it that conveys more of a sense of the environment, and allows the vibrancy of the kingfisher to stand out. She stands out more clearly, with less clutter from surrounding branches and twigs in these two.

Of those two, while the bird is smaller in the frame, I love being able to see it's profile - and having it look into the frame, along the branch, resonates with me.

I hope that I'll get a chance to photograph a kingfisher again; and next time my challenge will be to see if I can capture something just that little bit sharper!

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Benny Law 3 months ago

I appreciate how serious, thorough, and reflective you are in your work.

3 months ago Edited
Alan Godfrey Replied to Benny Law 3 months ago

Thank you 😊

3 months ago Edited
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