During a recent trip to the Myrtle Beach area of South Carolina I took the opportunity to try something new, and captured a number of images of brown pelicans. Although I’ve seen these birds a number of times in the past I never tried photographing them before, and as with any bird species there was a learning curve involved.
The Myrtle Beach area, or the Grand Strand as it is often called, has a few places that are conveniently located to photograph these large birds which frequent the coastal waters.
We rented a house in Garden City Beach which is south of Myrtle Beach and quite close to Murrells Inlet as well as to Huntington Beach State Park. In addition, within about a half mile walk (1 km) there is an ocean pier that protrudes several hundred feet out over the water. I found all three of these locations were good spots to photograph the local brown pelican population.
I initially tried a few shots from the water’s edge along the ocean beach and quickly abandoned this vantage point. The birds that were gliding just above the surface of the water were simply too far away to get any decent images, even with my Nikon D800/Tamron 150-600 VC combination. Plus, the birds flying overhead were either up too high or only offered unattractive belly shots as they flew past.
During the early part of our trip we headed off to Huntington Beach State Park one afternoon and I spent a few hours attempting to get some bird-in-flight images. Unfortunately the rather brisk weather conditions and the relatively small number of birds cut our visit short.
I was able to capture a few images of a brown pelican as it lifted off from the marsh water and flew past us for a few seconds. As is often the case when photographing birds a few seconds may be all the opportunity you get to capture some photographs. Luckily the AF-C on my Nikon D800 worked flawlessly and the Tamron 150-600 nailed focus on every one of the nine individual images I was able to capture during that brief fly-by. Throughout my week long stay I found that the auto-focus performance of the Tamron 150-600 VC on my D800 was rock solid.
A few days later I went out on the Garden City Beach pier to try my luck at that location. As is often the case, I usually seemed to be at the wrong end of the pier when brown pelicans flew past. After going back and forth on the pier I settled on being out at the very end of it. Being up high was a much better vantage point and on occasion the pelicans were reasonably close and at the right height, to get some useable images. We had some overcast conditions which were handled well by the D800/Tamron 150-600 combo.
Although I always shoot hand-held, other photographers may prefer to use a monopod or tripod with a gimbal head when using a long telephoto lens. Since the vast majority of pelicans flew downwind it made them faster to spot on their approach, and I would imagine this would also make tripod or monopod shooting easier.
Towards the end of my stay I got up early on two consecutive mornings and headed off to the boardwalk/pier area of Murrells Inlet. I found that this was by far the best location in terms of the number of opportunities to capture images of brown pelicans in flight.
Although wild, many of the birds are reasonably comfortable being around people which afforded some images of them perching. These types of images are best captured in late afternoon at various spots along the boardwalk at Murrells Inlet.
The best vantage point to capture pelicans in flight was at the end of the pier in Murrells Inlet. The challenge was that I had to constantly scan 360-degrees from that position as the pelicans approached from a wide range of angles. A few times I was able to set up my shots for a few seconds in advance as a bird approached from the distance. More often than not I found myself catching a glimpse of a moving bird from the corner of my eye and I had to wheel around quickly to grab a shot or two. I certainly appreciated the fast and accurate AF-C performance of the D800/Tamron combo.
Since I had the Tamron 150-600 VC fully extended most of the time this caused some occasional image clipping when the pelicans were in tight to me and I didn’t have time to adjust my focal length. This doesn’t bother me personally but I appreciate that many photographers would rather avoid this kind of image capture. If this is your preference then it would be advisable to keep your telephoto zoom set to 400mm or so, then adjust your focal length and zoom out as required.
The variety of angles at which the birds flew past coupled with the strong, rising sun did make it interesting from a lighting standpoint causing a range of conditions from very bright highlights on wings, to backlighting, water glare, and full side lighting depending on the flight angle of individual pelicans.
I shot in AF-C using 9-point AF on my D800. I used a range of apertures with my Tamron 150-600 VC from f/5.6 to f/11 with the majority of images taken at f/8. The Tamron 150-600 is a bit soft at f/5.6 when fully extended so shooting at f/8 does help image sharpness.
I seldom use burst shooting when capturing images of birds in flight. Since pelicans have such slow, strong wing movements it was possible to time individual images in order to capture a variety of wing positions, and thus avoid filling up card space with bursts.
On my final day I arrived at the Murrells Inlet pier at 7:30 am and was greeted with temperatures just a bit above freezing and very strong winds coming in off the ocean. Within 15 minutes I felt like a human Popsicle. Although I almost left a couple of times because I was so cold I persevered until my target departure time of 11 am. During this period I noticed that the pelicans began gathering on the shoreline of the inlet in an area immediately north of the end of the pier. As individual birds approached and left this gathering spot, various flying and gliding shots could be captured. At its peak this congregation of brown pelicans numbered a couple of dozen. By 11 am this had dwindled down to 3 or 4 with most of the birds heading out towards the ocean shoreline, likely to fish.
Mother Nature smiled down on me just a couple of minutes before my planned departure time of 11 am. A beautiful brown pelican approached, flying parallel to the pier and coming straight towards me. It veered off just as it approached me and I was able to capture the image below, almost dead centre in the frame at a distance of about 65 feet (20m) at as focal length of 400mm. It was a great end to a very cold, but rewarding morning.
Technical Note: All photographs were taken hand-held with a Nikon D800 and Tamron 150-600 VC lens. All images were produced from RAW files. Each was processed through DxO OpticsPro 10, a DNG file was then exported into CS6 and Nik Suite for additional adjustments as required.
Article, all images and YouTube video are all Copyright Thomas Stirr. No use, duplication or adaptation is allowed without written permission.