Whatever happened to fieldcraft? (Part one)

Curlew sandpiper, Ynyslas
Curlew sandpiper, Ynyslas

There have been some very high spring tides this week. At low tide, wading birds feed in the sand and mud of our estuaries and are more or less invisible. But at high tide they are forced onshore by rising waters. During the hour or two their feeding grounds are inaccessible they tend to rest and sleep, and can be quite approachable. This is particularly the case in autumn, when large numbers of juvenile birds are pausing on their long migratory journeys southwards. They seem to have less fear of humans than their parents. So on a visit to the high tide roost at Ynyslas, mid-Wales, on Wednesday I took advantage of these conditions to get some close-up images.

Ornithologists these days all seem to have telescopes and their preferred method of bird-watching is to stand well back above the tide-line and watch the birds as they arrive. This allows reasonably accurate counts to be made and population trends can be identified over a period of years. Photographers prefer to be nearer the action, and we do run the risk of flushing the birds from time to time as we attempt to get that bit closer. There is a certain amount of tension between the needs of one group and the other. So I let the birders do their counts before edging closer to the birds which were resting amongst areas of cobbles on the beach.

Over a period of time I gently approached them until the nearest bird was less than five metres from me! At first they appeared to be absolutely exhausted. They nearly all had head beneath wing and I watched one dunlin’s head and beak visibly drooping is it nodded off. Gradually they become more active and preened, stretched their wings and chattered amongst themselves. It was marvellous to be up close and this personal with these delightful wild creatures. One doesn’t know how much one’s own presence affected their behaviour. Were they excited to see me? It’s impossible to know. When the time came for me to leave, however, I just stood up and walked away without disturbing them in the slightest. I had been completely accepted by them.

As it happened the bird that remained closest to me was a curlew sandpiper. This species is very similar to a dunlin but a little taller and more elegant. There are minor plumage differences in autumn but the white rump is distinctive. It is an annual passage migrant to our shores in small numbers and is usually found amongst large flocks of dunlin. It can provide quite an identification challenge unless one is quite close; in the picture above the white rump can just be seen between the folded wings.

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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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