When my D850 review came out, I received more than a few nice comments about the tern photos in that video – frequently followed by questions asking how I captured them. So, I thought I’d try something new and put together a short article all about “how I got the shot.” In fact, after thinking about it I decided to take it one step further and make this a regular series on the site (as long as you seem to like it).
First, the location. I captured these at a new spot for me – the Edwin B. Forsythe NWR in New Jersey. It was one of those “just passing through” places, but I’m glad we stopped. This location is a keeper!
Our day started off windy and overcast without too much going on as we drove through the first mile or so of gravel road. We spotted a few gulls here and there as well as the requisite great blue herons and egrets, but everyone was hunkering down and not displaying much of a photographic spirit.
The road runs through the middle of a narrow strip of land that separates various pools and reservoirs from one another. Otherwise, it’s all wetland with small, scattered areas of thick grass growing from the shallow areas and islands.
As our tires crunched over the gravel, we happened upon a small bridge that sat over a water transfer system designed to shuffle water from one reservoir to the other. Today, this transfer system was busy at work pumping H2O from the right pond to the left one – and stirring up all the little fish in the area in the process.
Never a bird to pass up an easy meal, the terns were flocking to the area to scoop up the disoriented schools of seafood below (this lead to more than a few squabbles, but overall they got along better at the buffet than you might expect).
Well, there’s nothing like a slow day at the refuge to make flying terns look appealing, so I pulled myself from the truck and grabbed my gear (D850 and 600 F4 E). (Pffft – Who am I kidding? I’m a sucker for terns.)
As luck would have it, the thick dreary clouds had thinned by this time and were giving way to a nice, bright overcast. Meanwhile, I was setting up my 3-series Gitzo Tripod and Wimberely WH 200 gimbal head with visions of flying terns soaring through my imagination.
This situation offered a unique perspective. Normally, when you’re at the lake or oceanside with terns in the viewfinder, you have to look up toward them from the ground as they search and hover looking for a meal. The bridge allowed an eye-to-lens perspective that I knew I was going to enjoy.
As I mentioned, it was a windy day and the open nature of this refuge didn’t offer much in the way of windbreaks. So, the terns would swoop in, try to hover as the wind slung them around, and then dive for fish. This combination of elements conspired to make keeping the terns in the viewfinder about as easy as placing a panicky cat into a bucket of ice water. I knew that between the movement of the terns, my movement, and the wind tossing the birds around like scraps of paper in a hurricane that I had a challenge on my hands – and that shutter speed was the main priority.
So, the settings went down like this: I choose 1/3200th of a second as a shutter speed, although in looking back at some of the shots, I would have enjoyed a high keeper rate with 1/4000th or faster. Even at 1/3200th, I had more than a few images corrupted with a touch of motion blur.
Since the light was relatively consistent and the situation wasn’t too tricky, I went with my go-to autoexposure mode, Manual + Auto ISO. In this mode, I choose the shutter speed and F/stop and the camera floats the ISO for proper exposure. (More info here.) For the most part, my ISO was between 200 and 400.
For the most part, the camera did well with regular matrix metering, most of the time the exposure was within 1/3rd of a stop either way of correct. Had the camera been struggling, I would have simply gone to full manual, but the varying densities of cloud cover kept the light levels on the move, so this technique allowed me to focus on the birds while the camera monitored and adjusted for the brightness. Since I was shooting RAW, I could easily tweak the exposure back home if needed for an individual shot.
The background was also incredibly tricky. For the most part, it was gray clouds or gray water – not an ideal backdrop for a white bird. My only hope was a few narrow swaths of grass in the background. I ended up shooting at F4.5 with my 600 F4 (it would have been F4, but I inadvertently bumped the dial somewhere along the way) to turn the background as soft and blurry as possible. The birds were relatively close to the camera and the background relatively far, so the wide aperture gave the images a look that was even better than I had anticipated.
Frame rate was “only” 7FPS as I didn’t have the grip for my D850 yet. The truth is, a higher frame rate would have helped to capture more keepers, and I really wish I’d had 9FPS (or more) in this situation.
Still, one major advantage the D850 had that outweighed the slower frame rate is a massive amount of resolution. This allowed me to start shooting just as soon as the bird filled up the DX area (or so) of the frame and continue to fire away so as it came closer and occupied more of the viewfinder. This is not something I would typically try with my D5’s 21 megapixels as the crop would result in a small, 9MP file.
As a side note, the more I shoot with the D850, the more I find this crop-ability one of the major reasons I pull it out of the bag before any other body. I always fill the frame when I can, but when the action recedes (or isn’t quite there yet), the D850 still has enough resolution to save the shot.
However, the real trick here was the narrow strips of green/brown background. Although the birds were plentiful, over 90% of the time they had nothing but gray sky behind them. My technique was to lock on to them with Group AF (using AF-C and Back Button AF of course) and attempt to track them as they came in (no easy task under these conditions).
The reason for Group AF over one of the other modes (such as Dynamic) is simple – I find the Group AF is better at latching onto tricky subjects than any other mode. Since these birds were all over the place and I only had a second or so when the background looked good, I needed the AF mode that was the best at quickly locking on in a hectic situation – and that’s Group AF (at least for the way I shoot).
When the bird was in range and I had a nice amount of grass in the background, I’d knock out a burst until they left the grassy background – which never took more than a handful of frames (which is why I wish I had 9FPS). The majority of the time, I had to forgo any shot at all of an approaching tern, as the bird either never came close enough or never floated into the narrow notch of acceptable background.
(Side note – the grassy background is what allowed me to shoot without exposure compensation – had I been shooting the white birds against the clouds, I would have needed about 1.5 stops of extra exposure over what the camera calculated.)
Due to the conditions, this was one of those times where the hit rate just wasn’t going to be very high, and I knew it going in. First, the birds were incredibly tough to keep in the viewfinder, and when you did keep them in the viewfinder, they needed to be close enough AND floating in front of a proper background.
Next, I’m shooting at F4.5 with small birds at close range – and demanding tack sharp eyeballs. Most of the time, my depth of field was shallower than an Instagram celebrity, so I frequently had images where the beak, wing, or neck was sharp but not the eye. However, the thing is, sometimes you have to accept the idea that you’re doing something relatively tricky and that not every shot is going to be a keeper.
I spent nearly an hour with these guys before clouds finally surrendered to the sun and the light became too harsh. In that time, I was able to capture the images you see here, as well as quite a few I have yet to process. So, even with tough conditions, it’s usually possible to pull off some keepers with a little know-how, shot planning, and persistence.
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