Sunday, September 13, 2009

Harder Than It Looked

Last week, I finally made to a Birds of Prey Photography Day at The Hawk Conservancy Trust in Andover. I say finally because this was a birthday present back in January that was originally booked for July and then postponed due to bad weather.

I had no idea what I was letting myself in for, but I did have a rough idea of what I wanted: flights shots (obviously!), close up portraits and some details shots of claws, feeding etc. However I'd never shot anything like this before so even kit selection was a problem. In the end I took everything, and only left my extra flashes in the car.

Everything included a 300mm f2.8 that I'd borrowed for the day (Thanks Tobers!) and a 5D mkII body that I'd hired (from Calumet) to help with the portrait shots I was after. All in all, too much kit to be lugging around various fields and trying to shoot from my own way too open brief!

However, after working through >1000 RAW images of 15 different species shot over the course of the day, it seems that it was worth the effort. The 1D mkIII + 300mm combination is a fantastic set-up and it was definitely my technique, (or lack of it!) that was letting things down and not the camera; Tracking birds in flight through more than one turn is hard enough to watch never mind follow and shoot hand held.

I only really had trouble with the focus when shooting moving birds in front of trees, but as I said my pannign/tracking was shoddy and I kept dropping of the subject. I did try tweaking the custom functions to compensate, and it helped but learning to do it right would help better!

The surprise of the day though was that the birds are all cool with flash photography. I fully expected to be told flashes were a no-go area, but Gareth (our helpful guide and endless source of enthusiasm and info for the day) assured me that it was no problem. And, true enough: they didn't even blink! This meant I could play around with strobist-esque underexposed ambient and balanced flash, some of which turned out alright.

American Icon

The biggest surprise though has been the files from the 5D mkII:
1. They're bloody massive! trying to work through selective sharpening in Photoshop was bringing my machine to its knees.
2. The amount of detail in a 21MP image is astounding.
The shot below is my final crop of a Snowy Eagle shot on the 5D.

This shot is a 500x400 pixel crop (HighPass sharpened in CS3)

The detail captured is astounding and printing at pretty much any size is now not a worry.

I've wanted to shoot on one of these days for a while and it didn't disappoint. It was an intense day of thinking and shooting at a high pace to get the images I wanted (and carting too much kit about). It was also a humbling experience.The old adage of "f8 and be there" fails to mention that with a Peregrine swooping and turning at 120mph you can be f8 and right there all day and still get zip if you can't keep up with the little bugger in the viewfinder!

It also gave me even more respect for those photographers who capture images of these animals in the wild. I didn't even have to go looking for them and still found it hard work!

I'd definitely recommend a visit to The Hawk Conservancy Trust in general (the 2 o'clock display is worth going to shoot on its own) and specifically I'd recommend the photography days as the access and knowledge from the keepers/guides is invaluable in helping get the shots you're after.

As usual, the full set is over on Flickr.

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