Getting things in Focus

At this time of year RSPB Bowling Green, Exe Estuary is one of the best places to visit if you want to see huge numbers of birds settling themselves in for the winter. Waders are now building up in large numbers and in a month or two they’ll be there in their thousands. The bird hide at Bowling Green Marsh looks out on one of the best spots for waders that I know and when the birds arrive at high tide the sight of so many can be quite awesome, especially as they wheel about the sky looking for the best spot. Often they arrive up against the far bank before settling on a spot where they drop and hunker down and/or feed on the rich waters. Getting a shot of such large numbers of birds wheeling about must be on everyone’s hit list. But the problem that most photographers have in these situations is not just tracking the birds in flight but getting the focus right so that all the birds are in focus. It’s not that difficult but it does require patience and practice. In the image above of large numbers of Godwits flying against the far bank and wheeling around prior to landing they never seem to stay the same distance away from us as perhaps we’d like and as a consequence several things can go wrong: not all the birds in focus, blurry images, too many problems with light changes and therefore exposure issues that can mess up the shot. So how can we ensure that we get it right?

The reality is doing your homework first. So here are a few pointers that may help:

  1. Set your camera to spot metering and spot focus and go manual
  2. Decide on the depth of field you want: how much is in focus front and back and set your aperture
  3. Take test exposure shots before the birds arrive and get to know how changes in light will affect exposure and learn to make compensations whilst looking through the viewfinder when the light changes
  4. Decide on the shutter speed you want in order to freeze the moment
  5. Your ISO will be the thing you change if you want faster shutter speeds without affecting your aperture

So where do you start? We all need a starting point and this is mine: ISO 3200, Aperture f7.1, Shutter speed 1/1250

The next bit is adjusting things appropriately. In the image above my priority was getting all the birds in focus so the first to change was the F number to F9 which I know will give me the depth of field needed to ensure all the birds would be in focus. The ISO was correct for the amount of light and in fact was a tad too high but rather than drop it down I decided to change my shutter speed to 1/1600. All this gave me a histogram to work with: A good range of mid-tone with the whites barely clipping and putting a decent amount of data on the right of the histogram.

All this comes from experience and it’s often won with hard work. But once you’ve mastered it then it saves you so much time in the field because it’s second nature. You spend more time thinking about the shot you want, planning for it and envisioning what the final image will look like rather than faffing about and spraying and praying.

In the above image all the birds are in focus and I just lifted the background autumn colours in post-production to give the whole image a seasonal feel. I think it worked.

The gear and settings were as follows:

Canon EOS-1DX Mark III

EF500mm f/4L IS II USM +1.4x III

ƒ/9.0 700.0 mm 1/1600 ISO3200

Happy snappin’ folks

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