Knots landing (Part 2) -or why we need a 7D mark 2 as soon as possible!

Oystercatchers, Snettisham (Canon 7D, 100-400L zoom
Oystercatchers, Snettisham (Canon 7D, 100-400L zoom
In the first part of this post I described in a general sense my recent visit to Snettisham to photograph its big wader flocks. This time, without getting into too much detail, I’m going to discuss some of the technique and equipment issues I experienced.

The big difference was that I had changed camera bodies between visits. About eighteen months ago I had purchased a Canon 7D to use as my bird photography body, and I thought it would be the answer to all my prayers. How wrong I was. At first I was surprised at how difficult the 7D’s autofocus system found it to distinguish between subject and background – a bird on a branch, for example. It often seemed specifically to focus on something outside the AF point that was placed so carefully on the bird. I’m still not sure if it was a malfunction, user error, or if I was just expecting too much of it.

Probably more seriously, I was taken aback at how poor the ISO performance was. Even at ISO 400, the results I was getting were markedly inferior to those I was accustomed to from my 5D2. That is perhaps to be expected from a camera with a crop sensor, and I have managed some absolute belters. But more often than not the resulting images have been what a fellow photographer described as “mush”. Underwhelming to say the least! Again it could be down to user error: at 400mm on a 1.6x crop camera any minor inadequacy will be magnified by almost thirteen times. Most wildlife photographers will be pushing a 7D to the limits of its abilities – long, heavy lenses, high ISO’s, narrow depth of field. What could possibly go wrong?

Just about everything. Image not quite sharp for some reason? Easy – turn to your software. Underexposed? Ditto. But in both cases the noise levels quickly become almost intolerable. It may be – and probably is – a good camera in the fairly undemanding situations where a DSLR is typically used. Many people swear by them. But as far as I can see, for its intended purpose – fast-moving action at long distances – the 7D just can’t quite cut the mustard. In my opinion it boils down to this: for good results the 7D demands absolutely immaculate technique.

So following the advice of other bird photographers, it looked like it might be possible to replace both my camera bodies (a 7D and a rather elderly 5D mark2) with a 5D mark3. This became viable once the camera’s firmware was upgraded to allow the use of autofocus on an f5.6 lens with a 1.4x extender. The 5d3 could do the job of both.

My second trip to Snettisham was its first outing as a bird photography lens. There are disadvantages. To reach the same level of magnification (roughly) as the 7D (with its crop sensor) I would also need the 1.4x extender, and this adds bulk and weight to my outfit. I cannot leave the 5D3 attached to my long zoom as I did with the 7D – I also need it for other things. The burst rate is slightly slower on the 5D3 – 6fps compared to 8fps – and this may be to be a slight disadvantage. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say, and I’ve been very pleased with the quality of the images so far. It is early days yet, and I’ve only just begun to dip in to the 402 page manual. But the latest images sharpen well, noise is negligible, really, compared to the 7D, and cropping down into the images gives very acceptable results.

On the first visit, dawn was bright and clear but thick fog very soon arrived. Very few of the waders on the pools were actually visible. It really was that thick! But over time the fog lifted to low cloud, leaving lighting conditions that were subdued but very even. Ideal, in fact, for photographing birds with high levels of contrast in their plumage, like oystercatchers (see above). It is difficult to expose correctly for any black and white bird in bright sunlight, so that was an unexpected bonus. Second time around, a gorgeous pink dawn was quickly replaced by powerful low sunlight, which cause some contrast problems for a while.

Photographing birds is a very different discpline to landscape. In some ways it takes me back to my early days when I tended to point, click and hope! But one refines one’s techniques over the years and I expect my hit rate will improve. As it is I’m spending a lot of time deleting images. But I’m sure even the most experienced pro’s will be looking for that one image from a motor-driven burst that catches the action perfectly. A far cry from parsimonious picture-taking of the landscape specialist.

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Knots landing (Part One).

Knot, Snettisham, Norfolk
Knot, Snettisham, Norfolk

For many years I hardly took a single photograph outside the borders of Wales. It is an infinitely varied country with enough landscape interest to last a lifetime, and it was how I defined myself as a photographer. ‘Wild Wales’ was my brand and in one way or another I earned an income from Welsh landscapes. Despite a passion for wildlife that pre-dated one for photography, my two interests ran largely in parallel for almost thirty years. But gradually my priorities began to shift and the purchase of the requisite equipment (a secondhand Canon 100-400 L zoom) in summer 2011 allowed me to extend my range of subject matter significantly. While I’m still earning a living from landscape – just – it is bird photography that gives me more of a buzz these days. In a rather unstructured way I’m working on a wildlife project which I hope will see the light of day at some stage.

With this new interest in mind I’ve given myself permission to travel outside Wales to seek out new subject matter – hence two visits to north Norfolk this autumn. Lying between Norfolk and Lincolnshire, the Wash is an extensive area of mudflats at low tide but totally inundated by the sea during the highest spring tides. It is a rich source of food for tens of thousands of wading birds – notably knot – during the autumn and winter. At peak spring tides all these birds are forced onshore by the sea and a large percentage of them congregate on some old gravel pits at Snettisham, near Kings Lynn, now an RSPB reserve.

Tidal rhythms dictate that the highest springs at Snettisham are at roughly of seven o’clock, morning and evening. During the short days of winter the roost thus usually takes place in the dark, and even in autumn it may be necessary to begin one’s walk to the gravel pits in total darkness. So one morning about a fortnight ago I began the journey from my camper van towards the wader roost about 6 a.m. The first few other vehicles had also already arrived: shadowy figures emerged from them, torches in hand, rummaging for equipment in car boots, and quiet voices could be heard. There was a sense of anticipation apparent in the air. Conditions overhead were clear; it all augured well for an exciting morning’s photography.

It was still more or less dark when, half an hour later, I reached the vicinity of the gravel pits. A quiet stream of other visitors were also arriving, many of them laden with photographic gear. Dark figures engaged in quiet conversation as they waited. Small groups of oystercatcher and knot were already moving (and other species) but many more could be heard offshore. Gradually dawn blossomed and a wonderful pink light flooded the area. I couldn’t help noticing as light levels increased that the woman I was chatting with was a lot older than I had imagined! I then had a difficult decision to make: enjoy the tranquillity of the dawn or move quickly to the hide where there would still be room in the ringside seats? As more and more flocks moved into the roost I decided to make a break for it.

I first discovered Snettisham on a bird photography workshop with Chris Gomersall and I am a great admirer of his work – not flashy at all and often paying more attention to the birds’ surroundings than that of other photographers. I’d like to think his work is an inspiration for me rather than something I am consciously trying to copy. I had made some reasonable images of roosting birds two weeks earlier and this time I also wanted to try something more experimental – slow exposures of birds in flight, for example, to try and capture attractive movement blur. From the hide I was hoping for close-ups of wader flocks landing and taking off. In practice the results one can expect using these techniques seem to be unpredictable and it would be difficult to emulate exactly what another photographer has already achieved, so my conscience is clear.

Over a period of an hour and a half I sat in the packed hide and watched the wader flocks arrive and then depart. The rapid-fire clicking of motor-driven shutters was interrupted by short periods of calm. A rather lovely old man squeezed in next to me – a newcomer to the world of birding, I guessed. His comments and questions showed how he was over-awed by the sheer number of birds and their closeness to him. It was far more a reflection on my own attitudes that I found this rather childlike innocence at the spectacle slightly irritating. It was a very intense, goal-oriented experience for me. The sense of wonder that one might hope to feel at such a marvellous natural phenomenon was over-ridden for this photographer by the desire for results.

But such is our lot. It is the same, I feel, for the landscape photographer. A stunning landscape may be unfolding in front of your eyes; a moment when light and land come together completely. It is almost essential to subdue any feelings or emotions that might naturally be felt in that situation – only the calm, collected and efficient operation of one’s equipment will allow the image to be successfully made.

At the very moment the biggest knot flock in front of the hide exploded into flight Sod’s Law dictated that I would be fiddling with my camera bag on the floor! Nevertheless I did get some interesting results like the one above, which, incidentally, looks far better viewed large. I’m still on a fairly steep learning curve, but one thing is for sure: there is so much potential at Snettisham for creative bird photography that I just can’t wait to go back.

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