I’m not an active bird photographer, just the annual sandhill crane migration and bald eagles when I can find them. I admire people who create the stunning images of waterfowl, raptors or even backyard birds, especially where movement is involved. It takes a lot of practice to use your gear effectively when sharp images of flying birds is your expected product. Cameras have gotten more sophisticated, yes, but for bird photography the practitioner is still an essential part of the equation.
Which brings me to seagulls. Hang around the Lake Michigan shore and you’ll see them everywhere. They are so ubiquitous it’s easy to ignore them until they walk up and take food out of your hand. Still, they do present the perfect subject to practice flying bird photography. Think about it – here’s a brilliant white bird with black markings against a very blue sky or lake, generally cruising at a steady pace just above eye level. Plenty of contrast, steady level movement, details to measure sharpness against – see, the perfect subject.
I didn’t really have the right lens today while wandering along the beach, but it’s a pretty sharp one and I figured I’d test the limits of enlargement on images made from it. All these images have been seriously cropped – probably more than 60% of the image is gone. My technique was to put the lens on my tripod, turn on the continuous focusing, set the aperture around 4-5.6 (to get fast shutter speeds), and follow the flying bird while holding the shutter release down taking multiple images.
Most of the birds were 50-100 feet away, cruising the shallow water for food. The wind was blowing just a little, although I think they get some updrafts off the water since they weren’t having to flap their wings very much as they swept back and forth over the water.
Every once in a while a bird would stop cruising, perform a complex aerial acrobatic maneuver and suddenly drop to the water face first, landing in a big splash and sitting for just a second or two.
Not sure we fully understand how sharp a bird’s vision is but I’m impressed at how they can spot a small fish under a highly reflective surface and then dive to that exact spot to grab it. Lots of complex math going on in that little brain, that’s for sure, although it’s all hardwired I’m sure. Only Jonathon Livingston Seagull seemed to be capable of asking Why? to such exertions.
Fishing for seagulls, like for humans, isn’t always successful. But they have the advantage over us – they can go to where the fish are and follow them around in order to catch them.
All in all a good practice run for a non-avian photographer. My next challenge is to take the right lens out and see if I can get similar results, but with images that don’t need so much cropped out.