Category Archives: Wildlife

Photographing Shorebirds

As we move into September the Southern migration of shorebirds is in full swing. The main way station beaches are full of life as these long distance travellers rest and fuel up for their long journeys, in some cases thousands of miles well into South America, but photographing shorebirds can present some challenges.


Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) foraging on beach Cherry Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D3, Nikon 500mm f4 lens + TC14 (700mm), 1/800th sec, @ f7.1 with aperture priority mode with ISO 400, + 1.3 stops exposure compensation

It can be difficult to get frame filling shots, even with the longest of lenses as the majority of shorebirds tend to be nervous, quick movers and relatively small. Maybe this is in part due to their habit of wanting to use the same beaches popular with humans, resulting in constant disturbance from their feeding areas, and, not least by dog owners who find great amusement in allowing their pets to chase the birds.

Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) foraging along shoreline, Crescent Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D850, Nikon 500mm f4 lens + TC14 (700mm), 1/800 sec, @ f5.6 manual mode with Auto ISO active at ISO 500 with + 1.3 stops exposure compensation from metered value

To stay away from the crowds I get out early and late, coinciding with the best light of the day. The other thing I check out is the state of the tides. High tide tends to be poor as there is little sand and mud for the birds to feed on. Low tide is much more productive and the best of all is when the incoming tide coincides with the early or late period.

Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) foraging along shoreline, Crescent Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D850, Nikon 500mm f4 lens + TC14 (700mm), 1/2500th sec, @ f5.6 manual mode with Auto ISO active at ISO 400

The reason for this is it’s the easiest way to get close action. By getting in position well back from the flocks of feeding birds and getting low to the ground the birds will totally ignore me. Then I just let the incoming tide bring my subjects to me until I am forced to move.

Getting low also gives a much more natural perspective, in fact a birds eye view!

Semipalmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla) Cherry Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D3, Nikon 500mm f4 lens + TC14 (700mm), 1/640th sec, @ f8, ISO 800, aperture priority mode, + 2/3 stop exposure compensation from metered value off wet sand

Identification of shorebirds can be a real challenge, especially at this time of year when breeding plumage is being shed for their winter look, many of the birds now looking incredibly similar. One should make a habit of making a note of behaviour of each of your subjects as you shoot them, especially when working with mixed flocks. The relative size of each species is much easier to determine when they are stood close rather than in trying to determine the size of a single bird in a photo. I highly recommend ‘The Shorebird Guide by O’Brian, Crossley and Karlson’ for help in identifications as this book attempts to provide details on each different plumage and between the sexes.

Birds in flight

For shorebirds in flight I have given up trying to work from a tripod. They move so fast that it’s almost impossible to keep them individual birds in the frame, although much easier when shooting the vast flocks that can form.

Willet (Catoptrophorus semipalmatus), in flight, Cherry Hill Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D3, Nikon 500mm f4 lens + TC14 (700mm), 1/1250 sec, @ f8, ISO 400, aperture priority mode, + 1/3 stop exposure compensation from metered exposure off sea

I handhold the Nikon 500mm, both with and without the TC-14 converter. The Nikon D850 bodies I am now using are remarkably accurate at locking on to these fast moving subjects and retaining focus. Use a fast shutter speed, keep your vibration reduction turned on, and swing the lens rapidly with the subject, ensuring you keep the lens moving the whole time you are shooting.

For fast moving birds in flight I keep a minimum shutter speed of 1/2000th second, stop down to f5.6 to give a little extra depth of field and use auto ISO in manual mode to ensure my shutter speed does not drop. In fact, I am finding myself using auto ISO more and more.

Mixed flock of shorebirds in flight Cherry Hill Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D850, Nikon 500mm f4 lens, 1/1600th sec, @ f5.6 manual mode with Auto ISO active at ISO 200

When setting out to the beach for shorebirds you need to be ready for other subjects that may suddenly present themselves  a couple of days ago I was heading over the stone berm leading to Cherry Hill Beach when a sudden flurry of movement in the water attracted my attention. This turned out to be a Blue Shark in the surf right up by the beach. You just never know what might turn up!

Blue Shark (Prionace glauca) in surf close to beach, Cherry Hill Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D3, Nikon 70-200 f2.8 lens, at 200mm, 1/1000th @ f5, ISO 800, aperture priority automatic

Workshop news

I will soon be announcing the first workshop series since I have arrived in Nova Scotia. These will include classroom workshops for post-production work using Lightroom, Capture One and Photoshop and the always popular  ‘digital workflow’ where you will learn the complete process involved for every one of my images from camera to final archive. Spring 2020 will see several practical ‘in the field’ workshops learning a variety of photography techniques.

To see a wider selection of new photos go to the Recent Images gallery. This is updated regularly.

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Exposure for white birds

Many people have great difficulty getting the correct exposure for all or mostly white birds, such as snowy egrets. It is vitally important to ensure that you retain detail in the brightest area of the feathers.  If these areas are ‘blown out’ no amount of work in post processing will help. It is all to easy, if relying on any automatic exposure mode, to overexpose your subject.

Any automatic exposure mode is going to inevitably result in an incorrect exposure. Your camera meter will try and render your subject an 18% grey. You need to ensure that whites are actually rendered white.

It is essential to understand how to read your histogram to ensure you achieve the correct exposure.

Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) searching for food among water hyacinths on Lake Chapala, Jocotopec, Jalisco, Mexico

Below the histogram for this image

Note that to correctly expose the bird, I have ensured that the brightest whites (the right end of the histogram) are well to the right but not actually touching the right hand edge. If the histogram goes right to the edge, or, even worse is blocked up against the edge then you have overexposed the image.

Do not rely on a visual inspection of the image on the back of your camera – it will not give a true representation of the actual exposure, especially if you are shooting in RAW – which you should be!

There is certainly more than one way to achieve a correct exposure.  The two that I generally employ are:

  1. Use Aperture priority automatic, check the histogram on the back of the camera and then dial in + or – exposure to bring the histogram to the required levels. I generally find that a value of +2/3 EV is close to correct on my Nikon bodies.
  2. Take an image, check the histogram, then set exposure manually.

Method one works when there is a constantly changing light or I am shooting in several different directions because of movement of the birds.

Method two is employed when the light is remaining constant and I am consistency shooting in the same direction and the birds movements are causing the subject to appear at different sizes in the frame.

To aid in quickly visualizing hot spots, i.e. overexposed areas, turn on the highlight exposure warning if your camera has this setting, otherwise known as the ‘blinkies’. Overexposed areas will then be highlighted and flash on and off giving a clear indication of areas that retain no detail.

Great Egret (Ardea alba) in breeding plumage courtship dispaly while perched in a tree at edge of Lake Chapala, Jocotopec, Jalisco, Mexico (Peter Llewellyn)
Great Egret (Ardea alba) in breeding plumage courtship dispaly while perched in a tree at edge of Lake Chapala, Jocotopec, Jalisco, Mexico

Nikon D3s, Nikon 500mm f4 lens, 1/1600th @ f8, exposure set manually

Photographing birds in flight

Several times I have been asked how it is that my long-time career as a sports photographer gels with the wildlife and nature work I now mostly shoot. The fact is that there are a great many similarities. 

First let’s look at the equipment…  Pretty much identical, rapid-focus cameras using large telephoto lenses.

Second… similar techniques, long periods of waiting around with not much happening while trying to maintain a high level of concentration so you don’t miss the decisive moment!

Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias bringing a stick to nesting mate Arthur R Marshall National Wildlife Reserve Loxahatchee Florida

Nikon D2x, 600mm f4 lens, mounted on a Gitzo tripod with Wimberley head, 1/3200th sec ISO 200 @ f5.6. You can certainly shoot low slowly flying birds from a tripod but it’s much harder to acquire focus and stay locked on than with hand holding. Here, as I was still shooting with a D2 series camera  that does not handle high ISO settings as well as more modern cameras, I have opted for a larger aperture than I would choose today.

One area of wildlife photography where all the above is particularly true is in capturing images of birds in flight. Often fast moving, unpredictable, with difficult lighting, much the same as with so many sports events.

My preferred lens for in-flight photography is the Nikon 500mm f4, either with or without the TC-14 1.4x converter, and occasionally the 200-400 f4, more often than not hand held with image stabilization turned on, depending on the size of bird I am working with and the distances involved. I never use the converter on the 200-400, which slows down autofocus to an unacceptable level. This technique results in more ‘keepers’ than using the 600mm f4 on a tripod with a gimbal head. The 600mm is just way too heavy to hand hold, at least for me, not being a muscle-bound body builder!

Camera settings

Just like photographing high-speed sport it’s essential to set your camera effectively to freeze the action (unless of course you are going for intentional blur, but that’s a whole other subject – coming soon!) I never let my shutter speed drop below 1/2000th sec, adjusting my ISO settings to ensure that I stay at this speed or above. Remember, birds can be very high-speed subjects, often cruising at 30 mph, and can reach enormous speeds of 60 mph or more when diving or hunting. I will generally stop my lens down to around f8 to give a good depth of field and also because this is the ‘sweet spot’ on my 500mm producing the sharpest corner to corner images. Unlike sport and ground-based wildlife subjects – where I will often use my telephotos wide open (largest aperture) to limit depth of field and isolate my subject from the background – this is rarely necessary with in-flight photography as, in the majority of cases, your subject is against the sky or is already distanced from any discernible background.

Great Egret (Ardea alba) in flight over Lake Chapala, Jocotopec, Jalisco, Mexico

Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens hand held, 1/2500th @ f8, ISO 800. Look for the unusual bit of action such as when this bird dips his toes into the lake.. 

With my Nikon bodies I use continuous autofocus, AF/C (AI Servo on Canon) and select 9-point autofocus when photographing single birds, or 51-point 3D-tracking when shooting more than a single bird. I always use the highest frame-per-second rate possible and, like capturing sporting action, will often shoot in short bursts.

Shooting birds in flight I almost always use manual exposure, unlike sport where my preferred method is aperture priority. Primarily, in sport, I generally aim to keep my subject isolated from the backgrounds which, most of the time, are fairly constantly lit. With in-flight photography, backgrounds can constantly change as you continue to shoot; i.e. the birds move from blue sky to white cloud, or from a dark vegetation background to a more open area, and it’s really important that the exposure is based on the bird and not on the background. To set my exposure I get in position and shoot a few test shots ensuring my minimum 1/2000th sec is achieved, checking my histogram, and adjusting my shutter speed and ISO to move the histogram to the right without it actually touching the right-hand edge and blowing out highlights. It is essential to keep detail in the brightest, often white, part of your subjects.

For white balance I invariably just leave the setting at auto. As I shoot 100% in RAW format, I can always change the white balance in post production, if I need to – which is rarely. I find it all too easy when manually setting a white balance to forget I’ve done so and end up with extra work on a whole bunch of photos.

Technique for birds in flight

Even though my Nikon lenses autofocus extremely rapidly, you often have little time to acquire sharp focus as a subject might suddenly appear. To ensure the most rapid focus I will, if at all possible, find a subject that is at approximately the same distance as I predict my subjects might appear and pre-focus on that. This means that when a bird appears in the right zone my lenses have little work to do in locking on to the bird and I find I am shooting sharp images way earlier. I always use the rear focus button on the camera and not the half-depressed shutter button, as I like to decide when the cameras actually focus on the subject… Another throwback to how I shoot sport.

If you can, keep your selected autofocus points on the eye of the bird, which is easier with large birds than with rapidly moving, smaller subjects. When photographing more than one in-flight bird, ensure that your focus points are on the leading bird, because if the leader is ‘soft’ and the following bird(s) is sharp, it produces a very strange look.

American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) flying above of Lake Chapala, Jocotopec, Jalisco, Mexico

Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens handheld, 1/2000th @f8, ISO 320. When shooting more than one bird ensure you focus on the leading subject. Also remember that many birds have large areas of white colour so it is essential that you don’t blow out your highlights.

Just like shooting sports, with birds in flight it is essential to develop good panning technique. You MUST keep the lens moving, locking your subject in the same position in the viewfinder as far as you can, and keep shooting. A common error is to shoot every image with the bird dead centre in the frame. I often shift my focus selection points slightly to one side of the frame or the other depending on the flight direction, to allow space for the bird to move into. This generally gives a much more pleasing composition. The best bird images, particularly with larger species, tend to be when the wing is at the highest or lowest position during the flapping motion, aim to hit this spot consistently.

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura), in flight, Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico

Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens with 1.4 teleconverter (effective focal length of 700mm) hand held, 1/2000th sec @ f8, ISO 1200. Try and time your shots so the wings are either fully elevated or fully down, relatively easy with soaring birds like this vulture

Perhaps more-so than with other forms of wildlife photography, it is practically essential to shoot with the sun at your back with a useable arc of around 30°. Backlit and sidelit subjects rarely work well as you will invariably end up with very harsh shadows. The angle of the sun is also a huge factor. Photographers talk about the golden hours, around two-and-a-half hours after sunrise and two hours before sunset, when the light has a soft even feel and has a golden glow that lends itself well to all wildlife subjects. A further advantage of a low sun angle is that it will often result in a great catchlight in a subject’s eye. In general, high sun angles during the middle part of the day are not workable if the sun is out, but you can extend the shooting day with more overcast conditions.

Caspian tern (Hydropogne casoia) flying above Lake Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico

Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens with 1.4 teleconverter (effective focal length of 700mm) hand held, 1/2500th sec @ f8, ISO 800. Give a little more space on the side of the image that your subject is facing to allow room for it to ‘move into’

Another weather condition to keep in mind is wind direction. Birds, like aircraft, will tend to take-off and land into the wind. Absolutely the best conditions for in-flight bird photography is when both the sun and the wind are at your back.

Great Egret (Ardea alba) landing on edge of Lake Chapala, Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico

Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens with 1.4 teleconverter (effective focal length of 700mm) hand held, 1/1600th sec @ f8, ISO 800. Birds take-off and land into the wind, try and have both sun and wind at your back

Remember, like all photography, the foregoing suggestions are guidelines and not set-in-stone rules! I still experiment with different shutter speeds, camera movement, lighting angles etc. but, my experience has been, that using the above guidelines will generally produce the most pleasing images.

To see more flight photography go to the wildlife and nature galleries and  choose Birds in flight or enter the keyword ‘flight’ in the Search box. 

The rains are coming

I moved into my new house in San Juan Cosalá on the shore of Lake Chapala back in February of this year and, until a few days ago, we had not seen a single drop of rain. However, we do have the harbingers of the rainy season, the so called ‘rainbirds’ which traditionally begin singing six weeks before the first rains fall. 

The Rainbirds

Not birds at all the Rainbirds are in fact a species of cicada, or chicharra, living underground for the majority of the year only emerging to begin their song. Actually only the males produce the noise and not, as is popularly believed, by rubbing their legs or wings together! They actually have a special organ, called the tymbal, that produces the noise. The noise level, actually a mating call,  is incredible, recorded at up to 120decibels, and if one were to have one of these insects up against the ear canal would be quite capable of damaging the ear drum.

Once the rains start the insects mate, lay their eggs in the soil and the adults die and that’s it for another year.

Cicada or Chicharra – also known in the region as the rainbird against a white background – San Juan Cosala, Jalisco, Mexico

Nikon D3s, Nikon 24-70mm lens at 70mm, 1/250th @ f18, ISO 800, one flash at 45° on each side and a third flash lighting the background

The above specimen was ‘singing’ out on my deck so took the opportunity to transfer it to my light tent for a quick portrait shot. The light tent is great for this sort of subject producing nice even light and isolating the subject.

And, over the last two days the rains have started to fall – right on time with forecasts of rain pretty much every night and thunderstorms over the next weeks. Yes, it really does, in general, only rain in this region at night!

Nature Conservancy Top 100

The 2017 Nature Conservancy Council photography competition attracted over 33,000 entries from 141 countries.

I am honoured to announce that my entry below has been awarded a place in the top 100 entries to go forward for final judging. This includes a peoples’ choice award which you can vote for online. Please visit The Nature Conservancy Council Photo Contest to see the top 100 entries and vote for your favourite images.

Pronghorn Antelope (Antilocapra americana) running at speed, Sand Wash Basin, Colorado, USA

This image was taken with a Nikon D3s, Nikon 200-400 f4 lens (set to 380mm), 1/1250th @ f4.5, ISO 200 

Pronghorns can run at speeds up to 53mph (85 kph) leaving potential predators far behind making them the second fastest land animal in the world after the African cheetah and by far the fastest animal in N. America. Not only sprinters but long distance runners they raise the white hairs on their rumps when startled which can be  seen for miles.