Light, Patience and Luck

Light is everything...

Every wildlife photographer I know talks about light.  Some do not like the harsh bright sunlight and actually prefer cloud cover, some are fortunate enough to live in Florida, where light levels are incredibly high. Myself, I live in the UK, where it rains almost every day, with grey skies and very low light levels are normal.  Thank goodness I am moving to the U.S. next year :-).

I am learning, after more than a decade of wildlife photography, to give up with weather forecasts as they are wrong 9 times out of 10 on this tiny Island in the North Sea.  I am also learning [very slowly], that you do not need clear skies all day.  It only takes just a brief break in the clouds, while the wildlife is active. A good example is my most recent Kingfisher shoot, where I managed to capture my best Kingfisher image, and hence the reason for this blog.

My main photographic passion for the last 7-8 years has been Kingfishers.  It started with me being thrilled just to see one of these incredible birds, but I moved on to perched images and then a ‘Kingfisher with a fish’.  Next I wanted to try and capture a Kingfisher hovering just before the dive [with a little wing tip blur]. Of course, we always try to improve and after this I wanted to 'capture the moment' when the Kingfisher explodes from the water with a fish with splashes and water droplets everywhere.

To freeze a Kingfisher in its ascent from the water, back to its favourite perch, you need at least 1/2500 second shutter speed, faster is better. Depending on the quality of your camera body, an ISO of less than 4000 is highly desirable [very sensitive topic for some].  The level of background ‘noise’ is always debated, but I feel that high ISO noise in the background is poor.  Aperture [depth of field] should in my opinion be between 6 and 8, to get the Kingfisher eye and bill in sharp focus, along with the fish.

So what does all this mean ?  Well you need a high level of ambient light, especially when you consider most of this photography is taking place in a dark tree lined stream, pond or river.

I have learned to use periods of cloud cover and low light levels to practice my technique and to study the habits of the Kingfisher.  I watch how it seems to stand tall and hold its breath moments before diving. By using this 'poor light time' wisely, I have developed some patience to wait for a break in the clouds that will allow the camera settings discussed above, to be realised.

During my most recent shoot, I had more than six hours of cloud cover, forcing my ISO setting up above 8000.  Then, when there was a short break in the clouds, I was able to adjust to the ideal camera settings of 1/3200 sec, ISO 1250 and aperture of 7.1.  The result is my best Kingfisher image, shown below in 72dpi low resolution [due to continued theft of my online images].  Note everything is © copyright protected for the same reason.  You will need to take my word for it, but it looks awesome in a 3' 300dpi print.

                         ©  A male Kingfisher exploding from the water with a fish - My best Kingfisher image so far...  ©

                        ©  A male Kingfisher exploding from the water with a fish - My best Kingfisher image so far...  ©

I mentioned luck in the title of this blog, because even with great ambient light and all of the correct camera settings, you still need a lot of luck. A few examples of the luck you need are shown below: 

1. Kingfisher eye/s open
2. Fish facing the correct way or at least looking like a fish in the case above !
3. Water droplets not obscuring the features of the bird and fish
4. Good wing position
5. Oh, and actually in focus - sharp

It has taken me between 7 and 8 years to get this image that I dreamed of, now what is next ?

Mike