Birds in Motion

A couple of weekends ago my father-in-law showed me his new bridge camera. Although I can see the point of them for someone who likes to take pictures but isn’t all that interested in the finer workings of a camera, I think most people who are used to the quality and flexibility of a true digital SLR would quickly become frustrated with one (the model my father in law showed me also gets very, very noisy at high ISO levels, to the point that I’m not really sure why they bothered to allow such sensitivity).

Still, the results my father-in-law has achieved with it are pretty good. One of the shots he was quite pleased with was one in which some seagulls had been captured static in flight as they fought for some bread.

Flash forward a week, and my wife and I were sitting on the banks of the Thames at Twickenham enjoying a lovely warm spring day, albeit in what I believe was technically still winter.

Surrounding us were birds of many shapes and sizes (within reason, of course; they were all still bird-shaped and sized), fighting beak and claw for some of the bread that the inhabitants of my corner of London now felt brave enough to go outside and feed to them. Inspired by the shot my father-in-law showed me the previous week, I decided to try to get some shots of the birds frozen in time.

Fortunately, many of the birds were willing to cooperate.

1/640sec, f/7.1, ISO 400, exposure bias -1.0 (-1.45), 87mm (cropped)

Not bad to start with, eh? Although, I admit there were a few rejected photos before this opportunity came along.

Maybe it was because it felt like the first day of spring, but as much as there were many people around enjoying the weather, there were more birds, doing just the same.

1/640sec, f/14, ISO 400, exposure bias -1.0, 18mm

You might have noticed the smaller than usual apertures. As my aim was to capture motion, I was shooting in shutter priority mode, something I’ve not done in a while. The secondary hope was that, by having a smaller aperture, I would be able to have a wider depth of field and not have these fast-moving creatures slip out of focus before I should fire the shutter. As will become apparent soon, that wasn’t always successful.

There was quite the variety of birds there – swans, seagulls, geese, coots, pigeons, and what I believe were ravens. The ravens were tricky to capture, because they were so dark they often came out as silhouettes.

1/640sec, f/16, ISO 400, exposure bias -1.0 (+1.4), 135mm (cropped)

With this shot, I’ve attempted to use the same technique I use for the ‘faux HDR’ shots I do from time to time, and played about with the shadows and highlights a bit to replicate the effects of a fill-in flash. It’s not gone too badly, but has brought out some noise in the underside of the bird’s wings.

Fortunately, pigeons are a bit lighter in colour and look far clearer when photographed.

1/640sec, f/13, ISO 500, exposure bias -0.33, 135mm

I’ve just noticed the speck on the lens that’s present in most of these photos. Fortunately I’m sure it’s on the lens, not in the body (although there is a bit of a blob in my viewfinder that occasionally bugs me). I need to break out a lens cleaning cloth and give my lenses a once-over.

In hindsight, I’m not sure why I was shooting at such a high ISO; I could probably easily have shot at an ISO of 200 or 300 and maintained the reasonably wide depth of field. Not to worry too much, it hasn’t over-noised any of the images, but it is something I should definitely be aware of in the future.

It wasn’t just birds in flight I was trying to capture, but birds in any form of motion. Including Jesus impressions.

1/640sec, f/7.1, ISO 500, exposure bias -0.33 (-0.47), 135mm (cropped)

Quite a few of the images in this set are cropped, simply because I was sticking with my 18-135mm daily lens to allow me to open up when the birds flew really close; I didn’t want to be restricted by the 70mm lower end of my telephoto. However it has, on occasion, meant that some of the images captured are a bit lacking and have needed to be cropped in order to get closer to the subject.

Another issue I faced was with the white birds, such as the seagulls or swans; my camera would often meter for the surroundings rather than the bird and as a result they often ended washed out a bit. Fortunately there was usually enough scope to tweak the exposure in post and not too much detail in the birds was lost.

This next image is a shot that suffered – and, I think, recovered – from both issues.

1/640sec, f/8, ISO 500, exposure bias -0.33 (-1.38), 135mm (cropped)

This is a swan landing. They land like seaplanes, coming down on their feet before gracefully lowering their bums into the water (if there is such a thing as a graceful bum lowering).

Although the photo that I took immediately after this one (just after said bum lowering) isn’t quite as impressive, I’m including it as I love the detail in the swan that has come out.

1/640sec, f/8, ISO 500, exposure bias -0.33 (-1.94), 135mm

I was actually surprised to see so many flying swans there were. Usually when I’m around with my camera, there’ll only be one, and he’ll fly by whilst I’m not ready, but on this day there were quite a few – enough to have several goes at, er, shooting them.

Not all attempts were that successful, however.

1/640sec, f/5.6, ISO 500, exposure bias -0.33 (-1.51), 135mm (cropped)

Annoyingly, that shot has not come out pretty out of focus. I’ve seen a few shots like this that are amazingly sharp – like this one – but I don’t quite have that level of skill yet.

Fortunately my field of vision was wide enough to have a few goes at capturing these birds in flight.

1/640sec, f/5.6, ISO 500, exposure bias -0.33 (-0.5), 126mm (cropped)

Then, the swan did that beautiful delicate wingtip glancing the water thing, and, unlike some people, I made a bit of a hack job of it.

1/640sec, f/6.3, ISO 500, exposure bias -0.33 (-1.43), 120mm (cropped)

When I compare images like mine with ones like the couple I’ve linked, I always wonder if the difference is skill, luck, patience, or hardware. Maybe it’s all of them.

Certainly, luck was on my side in terms of flying birdage, with swans aplenty showing off for the camera. They even went around in pairs.

1/640sec, f/7.1, ISO 500, exposure bias -0.33 (-1.66), 135mm

Sometimes, I’d be lucky and a bird would come in to land at a nice angle, like this duck.

1/640sec, f/5.6, ISO 500, exposure bias -0.33, 126mm (cropped)

After a while, the chilly breeze got to us (plus the wife got bored), so we headed off back home. There was, after all, an international rugby game about to descend on the town, so we needed to clear off before there were 82,000 people between us and our home (one of the side effects of living near Twickenham Stadium).

Normally, that would be an end of it. But the next day we found ourselves by the Thames in Kingston eating lunch, and as it was another wonderfully sunny day and there were plenty of birds around, I decided to pick up where I left off the day before.

This time, however, I made a change to my shooting style. Firstly I snapped on my 70-300mm telephoto to try to get a bit closer, and secondly I returned to shooting in aperture priority.

The first shot I took wasn’t really an action shot, but it’s my blog and I can include it if I want to.

1/2000sec, f/5.6, ISO 100, exposure bias -0.67, 240mm

I absolutely love the detail in the water in the bottom third of that shot. Anyway, back to the action.

1/1250sec, f/5.6, ISO 100, exposure bias -0.67, 300mm (cropped)

Admittedly this isn’t a fantastic action shot, but you can see a lot of detail in the seagull, which I like. This seagull then came in to land, allowing me to catch one of my favourite photos of this set.

1/640sec, f/5.6, ISO 100, exposure bias -0.67, 300mm

I’m quite, quite lucky that I managed to catch this one a fraction of a second before the seagull’s foot broke the surface of the water. Somehow the rest of the bird looks a touch out of focus whilst its feet are pretty sharp. Can’t explain that one.

Not wanting to be upstaged, a few of the swans started drying off their wings in order to get my attention (that’s definitely the only reason they were doing it).

1/500sec, f/5, ISO 100, exposure bias -0.67 (-1.25), 225mm
1/1000sec, f/5, ISO 100, exposure bias -0.67 (-0.88), 135mm

As you can see, both of these shots also suffered from the same issue I was dealing with the day before, with the swans being blown out a little and needing an exposure adjustment to bring out the detail.

Like in Twickenham, it wasn’t all swans and seagulls, there were pigeons as well.

1/800sec, f/5.6, ISO 100, exposure bias -0.67, 300mm

Luck was still with me a little on the flying swan front, but the only one I saw was flying so high I didn’t see it at first, but I was able to grab some shots as it was coming in to land.

1/320sec, f/5.6, ISO 100, exposure bias -0.67, 300mm (cropped into portrait)

Finally, I noticed a few birds in the water just below where I was on the waterfront. It did mean shooting into the sun a bit, but the end results have come out pretty well.

1/4000sec, f/5, ISO 100, exposure bias -0.67, 110mm

I was captivated by the sunlight sparkling off of the water as these birds went about their business, which is what I was trying to capture.

1/3200sec, f/5, ISO 100, exposure bias -0.67, 170mm

It’s nice to be able to post a set that’s not just a random assortment of photos from a place I happened to be but is instead a set based on a theme. Admittedly at times I’ve been a bit loose in my interpretation of the theme, but nonetheless there is definitely a general ethos running here and I’ve kept broadly to it.

5 thoughts on “Birds in Motion

  1. Rob, nice work. Do you use center-weighted metering? That might help with the highlight detail on the swans. Also, I see that you are shooting as high as 1/500th of a second, but my friend Bernarnd ( shoots his ski shots at 1/800th to perfectly freeze detail. The shots that you reference were probably take by a person in a blind with a 500mm lens who has been doing it for 20 years. There is a whole school of bird photography. I used to know a guy who had his camera mounted on a rife stock so he could handle the huge lenses. Finally, with all of the water shots, you might thinking about a polarizing filter. I know I kick myself after every fishing trip that mine has gone missing.


    1. Cheers.

      I’m pretty sure the camera is set for evaluative metering. I think that is also the reason why it would hunt around a lot when trying to photograph planes against a largely blue sky last year, the camera was attempting to lock on the the blue – which made up the majority of the shot – and had nothing to focus on. That’s another area of camera setup that I’ve not really explored.

      I was actually venturing up as high as 1/640th for most of the first day; I was surprised even at that sort of speed to get blur. I suppose somewhere in existence there must be a calculator to work out what shutter is required for a certain speed of subject in order to not get any blur.

      I do have polarising filters for my 18-135mm and 50mm f/1.8 lenses. The only problem is I keep forgetting that I have them, and when they’re on I keep forgetting to rotate them to get the best result. I’ve been meaning to pick up a 58mm thread filter that will fit my other two lenses as well but never quite seem to get round to it.


  2. BTW, I really like images 13 and 16.


    1. Ah yes, those are two of my favourites too (assuming I’ve counted correctly, of course). I’m also quite partial to image 15.


  3. My favourite:
    It’s the reflections on the undersides of the swan’s wings I love, plus you’ve caught it where the light on the water in the background sort of mirrors the shape.

    Interesting about metering, I found that shooting at night whilst focussed on well lit subjects did not work well with evaluative metering for the same reasons you’ve said – the camera’s hunting around for a general mid-range exposure which doesn’t work well when you’re dealing with a big contrast range. Spot metering was a lot more effective. Although, as always, the challenge is to remember to set it.


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