I recently wrote an article on hand-holding large and heavy lenses, which attracted quite a bit of attention and some nice comments and questions from PL readers. I am not really a writer, but a few people asked me about my technique for getting those shots. Let me start by saying that I am not an expert and there are many ways to skin a cat. So this is the way I get my shots and you will have to find your own way to achieving what you want. Let’s start with a “money shot”: what I would say is the shot of the day, the shot that made it all worth it.
So how did it happen and how could you prepare yourself to get this type of shot? To answer this question, I will reverse engineer what happened that morning and show you how I got several shots from a seemingly innocent sitting photo.
I arrive at a place I know the owl has been hanging around and find her sitting on a rock wall near the ocean. I know from previous encounters that this bird is not too skittish, but this is not something you will always know. So I start shooting from a reasonable distance and slowly approach in a stop-and-shoot manner, moving closer after each burst of shots. I am hand-holding a 600mm Nikon VR lens here, but a tripod works just as well. I edge my way forward slowly, letting the bird get used to my presence, but respecting it and not getting too close. Here is where it all started, “the sitting shot” so to speak:
Get your sitting shots first – let the bird settle down after your intrusion into its space, but be ready, as it can fly any time. Observe it while photographing, see the signs that will indicate if it is about to fly or move. Make sure you put yourself on the right side of the light if possible. I was limited in this instance, because there is an ocean and stone wall in my way to the perfect side of light, so I positioned myself the best I could.
As you can see, the owl is giving signs on what it is about to do. You need to learn these signs, as they vary from animal to animal and you need to be ready when it happens.
You need to decide what kind of shot are you going for: flying or sitting, etc. In this instance, I want flying so I need to make sure that my distance and framing are appropriate for the owl’s wingspan. What looks small in the sensor can become surprisingly big when it launches. In this instance, I didn’t judge it correctly and clipped the wing:
While I did clip the wing, the next shot after the one above turned out to be the “money shot” I showed at the beginning of the article and it was perfectly framed for a 300dpi plus size crop. Because you saw the signs and studied your subject, you are hopefully ready for what is about to happen. The owl is going to go from a calm sitting subject one second, to one launching several feet into the air vertically and then rapidly switching to the direction it indicated it would go. So when you see the signs, you need to be prepared to lift and pan rapidly with the bird. It doesn’t end with the money shot, because you won’t know that until you get home and look at all the photos on your computer screen and judge them for sharpness, composition, placement etc.
In other words, the action isn’t over until it’s over, keep the trigger down and get the whole sequence, there may be some surprise photos in that sequence you didn’t see while all the action was happening.
Here is a sample of such a surprise photo in the sequence:
This was a beautiful pose that happened just a few frames into the flight. I did cut off and mess up several full wingspan shots, but you can’t have everything. You have to choose what you want carefully and set your distance from the subject. Too far away and the photo won’t be as detailed as it can be, too close and you’ll miss (crop or cut off parts) all the action shots.
Let’s talk about frames per second as it pertains to this article. You can get great photos at 4 or 5 frames per second, but the slower the fps, the less likely you will have a chance of getting the perfect pose the first time. At 4 or 5 frames per second, you might have to have several attempts to get that perfect eagle getting the fish pose or you might get lucky and get it the first try. For action and bird photography, frames per second matter, the more you have the more frames you will have to choose from. As you can see from the photo below, many frames per second increases your chance of getting that perfect pose you are looking for. I know the sample screen capture is low quality, but you can see all the different poses that are part of this flight sequence and there are some beautiful ones there I wish I had gotten.
That’s why there always a next time and a better shot, as we, photographers are never happy :)
For those wanting to know about my gear, I was shooting with the Nikon D4 at 10 to 11 frames per second. Also, look closely at the below snapshot and you will see quite a few shots that I missed, because I didn’t pan well enough or just clipped parts of the owl off:
I will finish this article by also mentioning that the buffer size of your camera matters. Before the D4, we had a D3X which shot at about 4.5 frames per second and slowed to an excruciatingly slow speed after the buffer was full. This meant that I had to time when to press the trigger to coincide with the action I anticipated, start shooting too early and the buffer would fill in the middle of the action and slow to less than 2 frames per second while writing to the memory card. The D4 has an amazing, basically unlimited buffer and this means that I can just start shooting whenever I want and follow all of the action to its end. This is something you will have to think about with your camera and be aware of; it may or may not be a problem for you.
I hope you will find the above information valuable. Most importantly, just get out there, get into it and have fun!
Here is a parting photo from the owl’s flight sequence that is definitely a keeper. Remember, this all started from a sitting shot: