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Case Study: Frankman on birding

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    Posted: 05 April 2008 at 11:09
Birds in flight are hard to capture and generally require both good techniques and some expensive gear with which to record successful shots. This partly explains why true specialists at BIF photography are rare inhabitants of photo forums.

Therefore, it has been a pleasure for most of us at Dyxum to observe the rapid progress in this field made by Frankman, who is based in Australia, a country known for its diverse bird life. In recent times he has provided the mods who choose our weekly Exhibitions with somewhat of a headache – which is how to actually avoid including one of his many great shots in every issue.

Frank has kindly agreed to provide the article below as our first “Case Study”.    -- brettania




Case Study: Frankman on birding


When brettania asked me to write an article about bird photography, I was delighted. I’ve only been birding for 18 months, but I’ve learnt enough to be able to pass on my experiences to others. From the outset, I must admit that I wasn’t a “bird-watcher”. It simply happened by accident. I had some camera gear, there were lots of birds in the back yard and on the river nearby, so I just started taking photos. My early attempts were quite ordinary, but thanks to the wealth of information and inspiration on the web, I improved my technique, and picked up some better glass. The following is a description of how I go about taking bird photos. My technique is still developing, so things may change, however the fundamentals remain the same.

The gear

I started with a KM 5D and kit 75-300 lens. This is not a bad lens for static shots of birds in trees etc. You’ve got to understand its limitations to get the best out of it. Within a year, I had acquired the 200/2.8, the 300/4 and both 1.4x and 2x Minolta teleconverters. Then I got the A700…..

My stock setup is the 300/4 and 1.4xTC. It gives me a reach of 420mm at f5.6. I’ve used this gear on both the 5D and A700. The 5D is no slouch, but the A700 is a noticeable improvement in terms of AF speed, tracking accuracy, shooting speed and image quality.

The Camera Settings

I set my A700 with the following parameters:
Focus:          AF-C
Metering:     Centre weighted or spot
Mode:          Aperture priority, f5.6 early morning then reducing to f8 as the light improves.
ISO:            400 in the early morning, then dropping to 320 as the light improves.
Rear dial:     Set to exposure compensation mode – need quick access to this function in different situations.

I try to balance the ISO and aperture to give me shooting speeds of 1/1000 or so. Why not just shoot shutter priority, and let the camera determine the aperture? Yes, I’ve done this and got good results. However, I just feel a bit more comfortable setting the aperture. This may change in time and I may change to shutter priority.

The 300/4 has a focus limiter. I set it to around 5-10 metres, which means that if I’m tracking a bird and I lose focus, then the lens has less travel before it regains focus.

The Technique

I will concentrate on birds in flight (BIF), rather than on static subjects in this article. General photographic techniques apply to the latter.

I chose a location where I have a clear and uninterrupted view of the birds as they fly past. I don’t go chasing the birds. I wait for them to come to me. My favourite spot is on the bank of a nearby river. I have a 180 degree view. I go early in the morning, just after sunrise. The low angle of the sun, combined with the reflection off the water means that I have a good amount of light under the wings to enhance detail. I stand with the sun at my back, and just scan to the west for any birds that may be approaching in my direction.

As a result of my fascination with BIF photography, I spend a lot of time observing behaviour. I’ve chosen my “lucky spot” because it’s near a bend in the river, and birds “cut the corner” when they fly along it. I often have pelicans fly directly overhead, only a few metres off the ground. Other birds are a little more skittish, and I need to stand very still as they approach. As soon as they spot me, they either swing in an arc around me or increase altitude to fly over me. Predicting behaviour greatly improves my success rate.

As the bird approaches me, I place my feet, such that they are approaching from the direction of my left shoulder. They are flying left to right, which means that as I pan, my body is turning at the hips, and my feet stay still. I lock focus on the bird when they are 50 or so metres away. I track them until they (hopefully) fill one third of the frame, then I shoot. I don’t shoot much in random bursts. I wait until the “light is right”. I want good light under the wings, and hopefully some degree of tilt on the body. Most importantly, I want to get the eye illuminated by the sun, with a nice catchlight.

If the bird is white, I don’t apply any exposure compensation. If the bird is black, I apply +1/3 or 2/3 stops of exposure. The rear dial on the A700 is great for making quick adjustments. I shoot RAW, so I have a better than even chance of recovering blown highlights and shadow detail when I get home. However, there is a limit to what you can recover, so getting it right the first time is the best policy.

I don’t use a tripod. The unpredictable nature of the flight path makes a tripod useless most of the time. I find the 420mm focal length to be hand-holdable as long as your shutter speed is over 1/500 sec.

The Boredom

Well, it’s never boring just standing there watching and waiting. Even if the birds are out of range, I watch their behaviour. Alternatively, I practice my technique on seagulls – there are ALWAYS seagulls around! I also scan for alternative locations, based on where I see activity. There’s always a next day.

At Home

Getting the shot is only half the deal. The other half is processing the shot. As I mentioned, I shoot RAW. My general workflow is to open in IDC and check that the levels are OK, maybe a slight exposure tweak or WB tweak. Nothing major however. Then I send the TIFF file to Photoshop, where I crop, and tidy up any minor flaws. I sharpen twice – once at full resolution using unsharp mask, and then a second time after I’ve changed the resolution for the web using smart sharpen. That’s about it!

My main criterion for what I keep and what I discard is the sharpness of the eye. If the eye isn’t sharp, it goes in the recycle bin. I have a very full recycle bin!

My Inspiration

I’ve been inspired by several very good photographers on the web. The first was a fellow that went by the name of “Squidfish” on FM forums. The second is Jody Melanson. His work is stunning, and you can see it here: http://jmelanson.smugmug.com. I’d like to thank all the members at Dyxum who freely share their knowledge with newcomers to the A mount like myself. I hope that this article inspires others to take up BIF photography. If I’ve forgotten anything, just post, and I’ll fill in the gaps for the benefit of all readers. I’m happy to help.

Frank



My early images:

These are my early successes. They made me want to go out and learn more and shoot more:
KM5D + 200/2.8 + 1.4TC





More recently:

Here are a few of my favourites:

KM5D + 300/4 + 1.4TC





A700 + 300/4 + 1.4TC


















This is our first “Case Study”. We hope to run more in order to help people develop either photographic skills or processing techniques. The next planned article will look at how various photographers handle black and white conversions.

Please note that questions and discussion are welcomed.






Edited by brettania - 17 April 2008 at 05:10
*** Sony A850 * A700 * Minolta 5D and other stuff ***
 



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badlydrawnroy View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Quote badlydrawnroy Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 05 April 2008 at 12:00
Well written Frank and a great insight into the methods and techniques you use to get these wonderful b.i.f shots. On a more general note can I ask you about this statement.

" I sharpen twice once at full resolution using unsharp mask, and then a second time after Ive changed the resolution for the web using smart sharpen."

So I assume the actual amout of sharpening would depend on the individual shot? can you give a typical example ? Is the initial sharpening done in the raw converter or on the tiff ?

Look forward to more great b.i.f shots.

Roy
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Frankman Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 05 April 2008 at 12:32
Thanks Roy. I've been using the following sharpening technique for a while:

No sharpening in RAW.
Sharpen the image in PS (depending on the image, these are a starting guide):
Amount: 130
Radius: 1.2
Threshold 3

Then resize to 900px, and apply smart sharpening (again, roughly):
Amount: 60
Radius: 0.4

It all depends on the image. Some need a little more than others. I apply the sharpening in layers, so I can always tone it down by reducing the opacity of the layer at final edit.

Hope that explains it.

Frank

Edited by brettania - 05 April 2008 at 13:26
*** Sony A850 * A700 * Minolta 5D and other stuff ***
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Post Options Post Options   Quote badlydrawnroy Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 05 April 2008 at 12:38
Yes, thanks Frank, thats interesting. I never normally do any sharpening until after resizing. I must give this method a try as many experts seem to recommend it.

Roy
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Post Options Post Options   Quote DaveK Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 05 April 2008 at 13:03
Hi Frank,

Very nice explanations! You make it looking so simple..
And sharpening twice.. I'll try it.

Thanks a lot!
Best regards, Dave
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Post Options Post Options   Quote brettania Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 05 April 2008 at 13:17
As a PS on sharpening shots from the a700 -- gian and I compared notes several times while I was reviewing the camera, and we both came to the conclusion that the first stage of a two-part sharpen could be significantly more aggressive than one would normally consider appropriate. What is more, I would begin with some sharpening in Bibble or IDC, before working on the .tif file in PSP X2.

 



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Post Options Post Options   Quote Ausgezeichnet Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 05 April 2008 at 13:19
Hi Frank,

thanks for time and effort to write this "guideline" down so well.

Which RAW converter do you use?
Have you ever tried sharpening in the RAW converter, or what keeps you from doing so?

I have recently noticed that when I upscale in C1 (200%) to get a decent size from crops, and downsize later a little in PS, the images can take some sharpening despite previous sharpening done in C1 already.

regards,
Bernd
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Frankman Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 05 April 2008 at 13:58
Bernd - I use IDC. The reason I sharpen in PS is that I feel I have a little more control, or maybe it's just that it's become habit. It would be an interesting exercise to compare different sharpening techniques.

Frank
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Bob J Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 05 April 2008 at 14:20
You say AF-C, but do you only use the centre focus points?
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Frankman Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 05 April 2008 at 14:49
Originally posted by Bob J Bob J wrote:

You say AF-C, but do you only use the centre focus points?


Bob - yes, I only use the centre focus point.

Frank
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Dopol Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 06 April 2008 at 17:55
Frank

your advise disappointed me...

After looking at your shots I had hoped that you would explain how to stop birds in mid-air..
or a way to reduce the waiting time between arrival and a good shot to say about 20 seconds....   

But seriously. Especially the advise on shutter speed will help me in next experiments. And the availability of seagulls will help too.

thanks for time and effort

dopol

Edited by Dopol - 06 April 2008 at 18:16
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Post Options Post Options   Quote maewpa Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 06 April 2008 at 19:21
That's really interesting stuff - especially about how you get your shutter speed. Lots of ideas to try. Thank you.

How does the amount of cloud affect your shooting - especially metering?
Paul aka maewpa
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Frankman Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 07 April 2008 at 00:37
Maewpa - I don't go out if it's cloudy to the east. I need fast shutter speeds and relatively low iso (<500). At times when I have gone out and I have clouds to the west, but clear sky to the east, I haven't really had much of an issue with metering. I take a lot of shots, and am regularly reviewing what I've taken, so I compensate as I go along. Very unscientific, but it works for me.

Frank
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Post Options Post Options   Quote mudslinger Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 07 April 2008 at 16:36
Thanks for taking the time to post your technique and post processing information. You have some awesome bird shots on this forum. Keep up the good work!
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