Once in a while you get lucky and what starts as a bummer of a day turns out to be full of welcome surprises!
The past few days the wonderfully mild Brisbane winter was turned upside down by a front of crappy cold wet Melbourne weather that made its way up the coast and screwed up the weekend for everyone in Brisbane! After weeks of alternating between traveling and re-working the images for the new upgraded wildeyeview website (www.wildeyeview.com) I was looking forward to a few days of photography. But the cold wet rainy weather looked like putting a damper on that. Fortunately, by mid morning today it cleared enough to be able to go outside and we decided to take a walk down along the creek behind out apartment complex.
And that’s where the weekend turned from a bummer to being one of the best in terms of interesting photographs taken for a long while.
The rain had flooded a low area of concreted pathway and the local Welcome Swallows were loving it. Hundreds were swooping in, dipping and stopping to fill their mouths with mud for building nests. Now, I’m not dumb enough to look a posing swallow in the mouth and walk past without trying to get a few shots so I settled down in the middle of the path about 5m back from the edge of the water to see what I could get. It was easier said than done.
The Swallows were more than welcoming and were actually not at all fussed by my presence, flying in and settling down to fill their mouths with soft mud. Photographing a bird on the ground is easy stuff and in five minutes I had enough swallows with mud in the mouths shots that I needed. What was difficult was photographing them as they landed or took off or swooped overhead. These birds are fast…dammed fast. It didn’t take too long to figure out that not only did I need to sharpen my trigger finger, but also needed to get the shutter firing at maximum speed and then find a way to pre-focus on a spot and get the timing right.
After a few hundred useless frames with either nothing in them or a blurred edge of a wing or foot I figured I needed a better approach. After watching the birds for a while it seemed that some seemed to routinely return to the same patch of soft mud. So I repositioned myself as low as I could to get the widest horizontal view of the various patches of mud. Then I upped the ISO to 1600 and set the aperture at f5.6 which gave me a shutter speed between 1/2,000 sec and 1/4,000 sec depending on how the light changed.
After that it was a question of anticipating when the bird was likely to take off which was at best a hit and miss thing as more often than not I pressed the shutter after the bird departed. After a while, I changed tactics and started firing short bursts as the birds mouth got filled with mud. This resulted in more success, although the number of dud frames still far outweighed anything captured. But at least we we were starting to get something.
The best chances came when groups of birds arrived and descended at the same time. This meant they needed to swoop past and then hover before landing. Looking over the lens and not through the eyepiece I managed a few fluke frames with very sharp images, but it was still a process of shooting off volume to get something worth sieving out and keeping. At the end of the day I reckon I fired off about a thousand frames to end up with five or six nice shots and about ten others that were also not too bad.
The moral of the story…you want to photograph swallows…you need speed. If you are a fraction of a second too slow on the shutter the birds are gone and all you get is a blank frame. If your shutter is not fast enough it’s just blurred. This was probably the most annoying, knowing you had the bird in the frame, but didn’t work the camera properly and it was a chance blown, never to occur again.
But it was fun!