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Gustav's Kingfishers - how does he do it

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    Posted: 15 January 2011 at 06:20
Gustav (aka ijsvogel) has inspired many photographers on this site. His skill and perseverance in photographing these lovely creatures has earned him many accolades. Sony has acknowledged his skills by showcasing his works in Europe. Gustav has been the guest of Sony at a number of functions where he has presented his work to selected audiences.

It is now my pleasure to showcase his talents on this site. Gustav kindly agreed to draw up the following presentation. I'm sure you will all enjoy it and feel inspired.

- Frank


My name is Gustav Kiburg. I am 42 years old and I live in small town called Ridderkerk, just south of Rotterdam.

I’m a welder, I’m married and I have two kids, ages 8 and 12.

Photography is my hobby, and I specialize in nature photography.

During this presentation I want to talk about photographing kingfishers. I will start with some general information about them, then I will talk about how to find a good location, about the technical side of photographing kingfishers, how to deal with your location and finally I will show how I process my photos in Lightroom.

General information about kingfishers

There are many different kinds of kingfishers. Here we have the European variety, whose latin name is Alcedo Atthis Ispida. Personally, I think our kingfisher is the most beautiful, but in Africa there is also a wonderful kind: the malachite kingfisher, or Alcedo cristata

The European kingfisher is quite small and it only weighs 35 to 45 grams, or between 1.2 and 1.6 ounces.

Male kingfishers have a completely black beak. You can see that a kingfisher is female if the lower part of the beak is orange.

Kingfishers breed from March to August, and lay about 5 eggs. Those eggs hatch in 20 days, and the baby birds are ready to fly 25 days after hatching.

Outside of the breeding season, kingfishers live separated from each other, and they do not allow other kingfishers in their territory.

When the breeding season is about to begin, the male kingfisher starts to look for a female. When he sees one, he offers her a fish. When she accepts the fish, they are a couple. Together, they look for a place to make a nest, and they take turns digging this, while the other stays on the look-out. They always choose a natural levee or the dirt clinging to the roots under a fallen tree. The kingfishers first dig a tunnel and at the end they dig the actual nest.

When the nest is finished, the birds mate. The female squeaks very loud and starts shaking when the male arrives. This usually happens in the morning.

The female only starts incubating once all the eggs are laid, so all the baby kingfishers hatch at the same time.

After the young are born, there are busy times for the male kingfisher. He flies to and from the nest almost constantly to get fishes. The baby kingfisher that sits at the end of the tunnel gets a fish, and then moves to let his brother or sister be fed. That way all the kids get a fish and they will all fly out of the nest. When the little kingfishers are almost ready to leave the nest, you can see them wait for their food at beginning of the tunnel. They often kick out some of their feces .

When the father has given a fish to one of his young, he will dive in the water twice and sits on a tree branch to clean himself. After that he flies away to catch another fish.

After the young first leave the nest, they often still get a fish from their parent, but this is only for a few days, so they have to learn how to find their own food. After about three days the parents stop feeding and fend off their young. Then they start on a second nest.

The natural enemies of the kingfisher are the hobby and sparrowhawk. Other causes of death are: flying into windows, too little food in the winter and nets over fishing ponds.

male-kingfisher , you can see it on his black-beak

female-kingfisher you can see her orange lower part of the beak

Here can you see how the male gives a fish to the female. When she accepts it, then they are a couple.

here they find a place where they make the nest

This is their favourite place to make their nest , it's a clod from a fallen tree

The first young that flies out of the nest

This kingfisher is enjoying a baby pike

The technical side of photographing kingfishers

First of all, there is one golden rule: never disturb the kingfisher. It always comes first, the photographer comes second.

After you have found a location where you know you can find the bird, you have to set up. This can be a tent or a camouflaged net. I always use a tent, because it is fast and you are protected from the elements.

The first couple of times you have stay at some distance of the branch, about 26 feet (~8 m) away.

The kingfisher will at first be surprised by the shutter sound of your camera, but will not think of it as danger. After a while it will get used to the click and will not even notice it. That is the moment when you can move closer. Move up closer every time you come back to photograph them. I myself have taken photos of kingfishers at 13 (~4 m) feet.

The sun

You have to look at the height of the sun and your position relative to it so you don’t get a backlit subject. Often you only have a few hours of sun. For the best photos you should go out on a day with light clouds, so you get better looking diffused light. In Holland we say “klereweer is kleurenweer”, which could translate to “lousy weather is colour weather”.

The camera

I always use aperture priority mode, and watch my shutter speed. If it is too slow, I push up my ISO. That is not a problem with my camera. I have shown pictures taken at ISO 1600 to many people and they didn’t see any noise.

To get a pleasing background, you have to make sure that there isn’t anything behind the kingfisher for about 16 to 19 feet (~ 5-6 m). If you then use an aperture of 5.6 – 6.3, you will get a nice, quiet background.

I always use spot metering to measure exposure, and use AF, with which I'm generally happy, but sometimes I use manual focus to make sure the kingfisher is really sharp.

One problem is the white feathers on the kingfisher. You often have to underexpose by one third of a stop to solve that.

The branch that the kingfisher usually sits on, you have to try to replace with your own branch. To the bird it doesn’t matter, as long as he can sit above the water.

I always use a stick, and tie a thin branch to that with moss on it. The branch is usually about 1.5 feet long (~50 cm). I push the stick into the ground at the edge of the water.

You have to make sure the branch is about 2 to 3 feet (~60-90 cm) above the water. The branch has to be about as thick as a finger, so it will allow the kingfisher to get good grip and it will look good in the photo.

I always use a tripod and pretty much always have a cable release. Especially if there is little light, it is wise to keep your hands off of the camera when exposing. Every shake can result in blurry photos.

If the light is low, I aim my camera on the kingfisher, let go, and use the cable release to fire the shutter. Also, I always have a little stool in the tent, and my camera bag. Always use a stool with thick legs, to prevent it from sinking into the ground.

Because you often spend a lot of time in the tent, you need to bring some food. Make sure you wrap it up in paper and not plastic, because plastic is very loud when you unwrap it, especially out in nature near kingfishers.

One tip:

If the kingfisher is not around, throw some fish food in the water near the branch. There is a good chance the kingfisher will catch a fish there, which you can in turn photograph.


Do not use kingfisher sounds to attract the birds, that will only cause stress for them, which does not make them feel comfortable. After all, it is a territorial bird and he will fly around nervously to inspect his territory. That doesn’t help you as a photographer, because of course you want him on the branch.

Looking for a good location, and finding a place to set up

There are a number of ways to find a location where you can find kingfishers. Many nature clubs will know some places, and you can often find out where to find locations on nature or bird forums on the internet.

You also have to walk around in the area where you can find kingfishers, to find the right biotope.

When you go out to look for kingfishers, you will need plenty of time. Take some binoculars to make finding them easier. Once you find their territory, you have to observe the bird to find the place where he sits most often. You have to look for the direction in which he flies most often. There is a better chance that direction will be the place where the kingfisher comes most of the time. Often it is also the place where they make their nest. Spend some time finding their nests because it will make identifying the territory of the kingfisher clearer and increase your chances of getting a good photo.

Also look out for bushes and branches that hang over the water, if they have white faecal matter on them. If so, that is where the kingfisher sits down, because there is almost no other bird that sits down above the water.

If you think that the area you found is a good place, you have to create a spot where you can start photographing.

Dealing with your location, both when arriving and when leaving

As I said before, the bird comes before the photographer. When you do not disturb the birds, the photos will follow in time.


When I arrive at my location, I don’t make myself extra quiet. The kingfishers can hear me from a distance, and they think I am a cyclist or someone walking their dog. They will fly away when I come closer, and sit down somewhere else. The birds will get used to this after a while. When the birds sit down somewhere else, I have time to go to my spot. Once I get there, I set up my tent, and put all my things inside it.

I always set up my tripod in the tent, so that doesn’t distract or scare the birds. If you do first set up the tripod and camera, there is a chance the kingfishers will see you, and they might not come back to that place for a while.

After I set up my tripod and connected the cable release, I slide the lens out of the tent and wait for the kingfisher to show up.


Leaving is pretty much the same as arriving. Once the kingfisher leaves I take the camera off of the tripod, put it in my bag, fold up my tripod and only then leave the tent. From getting out of the tent to leaving only takes about two minutes.

If the kingfisher comes back when I am leaving, he will think I am just walking around, and he will come back later.

I strictly follow this method of arriving and leaving, and have used to for years to see new generations of kingfishers fly out of their nests.

Editing photos in Lightroom and Elements

I always shoot in RAW and I use Adobe RGB colour space. I always use these two software packages to edit my photos.

I do my first selection near the kingfishers. Often when they are away for a while I have a look at my photos, and delete any if needed.

That is possible because of the large, high resolution LCD-display on my camera.

I have created two folders in Lightroom: Import and export.

I import my photos in Import and put them in a subfile, titled something like Kingfishers 10-10-2010. I have a look at all the photos in the photo library in Lightroom, and see which ones are good enough to work on.

I first start to make the composition with the crop tool. I don’t crop a lot, often just to get the bird a bit out of the center.

Then I work on: exposure, then contrast, saturation, highlights, lights, darks and shadows. After that I see if any colours need to be enhanced.

Next I sharpen my photos. I usually increase the amount, and decrease the mask value.

I then transfer the photos to the Export file and give them the same title as in Import. I then use Lightroom to open up the photo in Photoshop Elements, where I can do many things with the photo, but I do not do a lot. Sometimes I clone out some spots here and there, and reduce the noise in the background using Noiseware Professional. Then save the final image, and I am done.

When I want to publish the photo online, I resize it and change the colour space to SRGB.

First I import and assign keywords as needed

Then in the develop module I adjust exposure, as well as maybe a tweak of the curve to get the exposure right.

On this picture I also increased the blue saturation somewhat to make the blue feathers stand out more. I also sharpen quite a lot until it looks right to my eye. (higher amount/decrease mask)

Next step is cropping to get the right position of the bird

And as the last step I increased the clarity

Then I export “full size” to Photoshop elements

Here’s the picture as imported into elements

In elements I open Noiseware Professional

In the dialog box I adjust to get the result I want. I mask the bird so only the background is denoised. (you can see the setting I used)

And this is the final result, after downsizing to the posting size

I hope you enjoyed reading this story as much as I did writing it. It’s great fun to share all our experiences here on Dyxum. If you have questions just post them here.

Also realise that my PP method described above is not the only way to do it, there’s other methods, programs and tools that will yield equally good results. Feel free to post those here in this thread so we can all learn from each other.

Regards and happy shooting

Gustav Kiburg

And last but not least, hereby two of my older "show cases" Hope you enjoy.

Edited by revdocjim - 31 January 2011 at 05:41
*** Sony A850 * A700 * Minolta 5D and other stuff ***

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Post Options Post Options   Quote pegelli Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 29 January 2011 at 20:17
Next to an excellent photographer you're also a good writer Gustav. Thanks for taking the effort to write this all down and share your knowledge on the subject.
You can see the April Foolishness 2021 exhibition here Another great show of the talent we have on Dyxum
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Maxxuman Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 29 January 2011 at 20:26
Wonderful stuff, as I've come to expect from you! Now if only we had any kingfishers here Admittedly I'm sure I wouldn't have the patience you obviously have to be able to achieve such great results...
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Post Options Post Options   Quote bonneville Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 29 January 2011 at 20:47
What can a mere moral say?


Gustav, you ARE Sony digital SLR.

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Post Options Post Options   Quote Noord26 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 29 January 2011 at 20:53
The 'attack of the Kingfisher'..

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Post Options Post Options   Quote betaware Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 29 January 2011 at 21:01
If you ever come to the park Oranjewoud in Friesland, The Netherlands, just watch out for them, I have had much luck finding some kingfishers there also. Last year they were also breeding there. With your tips in mind, chances to see and make pics of ijsvogels will definately increase.

Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge.

Thanks for watching/reading!
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Post Options Post Options   Quote fxcarden Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 29 January 2011 at 21:09

This is an awesome write up.   Thank you.
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Post Options Post Options   Quote jenik.nk Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 29 January 2011 at 21:28
Will have to find more time for proper reading, but I am impressed already!
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Catnip Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 29 January 2011 at 21:29
Originally posted by pegelli pegelli wrote:

Next to an excellent photographer you're also a good writer Gustav. Thanks for taking the effort to write this all down and share your knowledge on the subject.


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Post Options Post Options   Quote capo99 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 29 January 2011 at 21:44
Thanks gustav.
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Jozioau Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 29 January 2011 at 21:56
From far off Australia it is not possible to attend any of your workshops and presentations, but this on-line masterclass is the next best thing. Thanks for preparing and posting it, and for being such an inspiration.
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Serdar A Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 29 January 2011 at 22:32
This is what I would call "A Complete Guide to Photographing Kingfishers".
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Post Options Post Options   Quote taz002dev Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 29 January 2011 at 22:36
Excelent Work. Thanks Gustav, Frankman, Dyxum and of course KingFishers
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Hobgoblin Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 29 January 2011 at 22:48
Very Much appreciated. Excellent work
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