Monday, 13 February 2017
Out of the Flying Pan...
It's always good to try different things and go for new challenges. Panning is a technique that I use from time to time along with other methods of Intentional Camera Movement. With Icelandic whooper swans being in the area at this time of year I decided to spend some time working on in-flight panning shots of these birds. It was a project that was to last for three or four days.
As a regular visitor to the reserve at WWT Caerlaverock - where I run photography workshops - I was familiar with the best locations to find the birds and also had the knowledge of when and where they would fly. I also have the advantage of having studied their behaviour over many years so can predict with relative ease when they are about to lift-off. That takes a lot of the guesswork and difficulty out of this kind of photography.
However, it doesn't make taking the photographs any easier. For this type of work I normally prefer to use a sturdy tripod with a gimbal head. For those not familiar with gimbal heads they enable the camera to be fixed to the tripod with a head that, once adjusted correctly, enables fluid movement of the camera in any direction. It is perfect for following birds in flight. Unfortunately, on this occasion the hide I wanted to use and the angles that the birds would fly at precluded the use of this invaluable piece of kit. So, the first challenge was that photographs would have to be taken hand-held.
For the technically minded I have experimented over the years with different shutter speeds and lenses and have worked out that my best success rate with panning shots of these birds is achieved with a hand held 300mm lens and a shutter speed of 1/40 second. For that reason I always take these shots with my camera set in shutter priority mode. Panning requires that the camera tracks the bird at exactly the same speed as the bird in flight. If I achieve that then the head of the bird will generally be sharp while I will get a sense of movement both against the background and also in the flapping wings.
However just to add to the challenge, whooper swans - and other long necked birds - don't always keep their head steady and level in flight - it will often bob up and down as they flap their wings. Experience tells me that 1/40 second at 300mm is the optimum arrangement. Also, still for the technically minded, I don't want to shoot with the aperture wide open as the depth of field can become too shallow when I'm not sure of exactly which part of the moving bird the camera focus has locked on to. Consequently I usually shoot with an aperture of around 5.6 - 6.3.
Of course, the hard bit is learning to lock onto the bird either as it takes off or in-flight and to ensure that the panning action is fluid and steady. Here's a top tip if you want to try this technique for yourself - position your body facing where you anticipate the panning sequence ending. Don't orientate yourself facing where the panning sequence starts otherwise you will get tired and in an awkward position towards the end of the pan - which is generally the position where you want to take the most shots. If you do that you will end up running the risk of increasing camera shake - not good!
All of the shots here were taken using the techniques I have just described. Swans are big but graceful birds and this technique gives them a sense of movement and gracefulness that static 'frozen' images alone can't convey.
Try it for yourself and have some fun but be warned it takes a bit of practice...