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Can you plan a nature image?

When I was just starting out in my photography journey I was sitting listening to a speaker at a club meeting talking about how he planned all his images he would take. I was thinking that I am a nature photographer, how can you plan a nature image? I did not think anything more about planning my images for quite some time.

Now fast forward about 6 years and I plan just about all of my images. So what changed and how do I plan a nature image?

I used to just go out and see what subjects I could find and then photograph them. I was able to capture some good images. The Tui image below is an example of this. I was out one day and stumbled across this Tui feeding on the flax flowers so I started to take some image of it feeding. When it flew to the next flax flower I was able to capture it in flight. I was very pleased with this image, but I did not intentionally put my self in a position to take this image. It just happened.

Image details - ISO 800, f2.8, 1/2000th sec, Canon 5D3 with Sigma 70-200 f2.8

There were many times I would go out and not get any images and I would get quite disappointed. So to try and avoid this I first started to target subjects. I would go out to just target Kingfishers, Dabchicks or Kaka. In doing so I got to learn about my subjects.

If I was after diving kingfisher images, I would need to be there either just before or after high tide. If it was Kingfishers eating crabs then low tide was best. I also found out that the local Kingfishers return to the inlet in June and stay and feed up on crabs until they go off to breed in late November early December. This does not mean that there is no kingfishers around between January to May but you might only see 1 or 2 in 5 hours, so your chances of getting the images you want are greatly reduced. Between June and November it is not uncommon to see 10 or more Kingfishers at once.

It is amazing what you will learn about your subjects if you take the time to study them.

As well as learning what time of the year that is best, I also worked out the best time of day to get the best light for that area. If I wanted images of the Dabchicks then early morning is best. At this time of the day I can get a nice soft light as well as some good reflections with the flat water. The image below was taken at 8:32 AM.

Image details - ISO 800, f8, 1/1000th sec, Canon 1DXII with Canon EF 400mm f2.8L IS II USM + 1.4x III

I was finally learning that you could plan a nature image. So what planning goes into an image now?

The Kingfishers have returned to the inlet, so I wanted to get some images of them diving into the water.

I first looked up the tides to see when there was going to be a high tide around 9am in the morning. This would mean that by 9:30am the tide would be starting to go out and have the right amount of water in the inlet for the Kingfishers to dive for crabs out of a big tree on the edge of the inlet. If there is too much water then they will not dive, if the tide is out to far then the Kingfishers move out onto the mud flats to find the crabs.

At this time of day and in June the sun would be high enough to provide enough light for the high speeds required to capture a very fast moving object. If the high tide was in the afternoon the sun would be too low in the sky and would be behind a hill and there would not be enough light on the water.

On Wednesday the weather was fine and high tide was at 9:30am, so down to the inlet I went at about 8:45am. I wanted to get there early so that I could get into position with the sun behind me and give the Kingfishers time to get used to me. I find that if I sit in one place, after about 30min the Kingfishers will learn that I am not a threat to them and they will then go about there business and not worry about me.

When I arrived there were about 10 to 15 Kingfishers around and at least 10 in one tree. I positioned myself with the sun behind me, the tree to my right and the inlet in front of me. This would mean that I could see the Kingfishers fly out of the tree and towards the water. If they returned to the tree after diving into the water they would be flying towards me and this would give me the chance at capturing them with a crab in there mouth and just leaving the water and facing towards me.

Image details - ISO 2500, f8, 1/4000th sec, Canon 1DXII with Canon EF 400mm f2.8L IS II USM + 2x III

The above image shows the Kingfshers waiting to spot a crab and dive on in after it. With an 800mm lens I could only capture 4 of the Kingfishers in one image, at the time I took this image I counted 12 Kingfishers in this tree.

I had put myself in the right position at the right time of day and tide. I now needed use the right settings on my camera and lens. I set my camera to Manual mode with 1/4000th sec, F8 and auto ISO. I had my 400mm lens and decided to use my 2x tele-converter to get a little more reach. I would get a little drop in image quality by using the converter but I am ok with this. This will mean that I will have an effective 800mm lens.

Right on queue at about 9:30am the diving began. When a Kingfisher dives for food, it will fly to the food and about 1 meter above the water they will hover for about 1 sec, then dive into the water. They will fly out of the water from the same spot that they dove into it. I have learned this by spending hundreds of hours watching and photographing them. The technique I use to try and get the images of the Kingfisher leaving the water, I watch them fly out of the tree with one eye and then when they hover above the water I will try and focus on them. I will track them hovering and then going into and out of the water. When they are in the water I leave the focus spot on the center of the ripples that have made when the dove in. All this happens in about 1 to 2 seconds, so you need to be fast.

I found with using what is effectively an 800mm lens and hand holding it, that I was not quick enough most of the time to get the Kingfisher just leaving the water, I got more images with them just above the water and flying back to the tree.

Below are the images I was able to capture, as you can see my planning paid off

Image details - ISO 3200, f8, 1/4000th sec, Canon 1DXII with Canon EF 400mm f2.8L IS II USM + 2x III

I like the above image because of the wing position and that the Kingfisher is still connected to the water as the splash is still covering part of its feet.

The below image has the Kingfisher coming in for a dive with its eyes firmly fixed on to the crab.

Image details - ISO 3200, f8, 1/4000th sec, Canon 1DXII with Canon EF 400mm f2.8L IS II USM + 2x III

Image details - ISO 4000, f8, 1/4000th sec, Canon 1DXII with Canon EF 400mm f2.8L IS II USM + 2x III

Not all dives are successful, this time the Kingfisher emerges from the water without the crab

Image details - ISO 5000, f8, 1/4000th sec, Canon 1DXII with Canon EF 400mm f2.8L IS II USM + 2x III

Even with 15 fps there quite a lot of movement between the above 2 frames even though they have been taken one after the other and in burst mode.

Image details - ISO 4000, f8, 1/4000th sec, Canon 1DXII with Canon EF 400mm f2.8L IS II USM + 2x III

The above image shows the Kingfisher flying away after a successful dive with the crab, notice the eye. I have captured the nictitating membrane over the eye.This is used to cover the eyes to protect them when they hit the water in a dive. Or when they wink at you during a fly by :)

Image details - ISO 2500, f8, 1/4000th sec, Canon 1DXII with Canon EF 400mm f2.8L IS II USM + 2x III

Sometimes the crabs get lucky and can escape from the Kingfishers, but not that often.

Image details - ISO 1600, f8, 1/1000th sec, Canon 1DXII with Canon EF 400mm f2.8L IS II USM + 1.4x III

My last image, which I properly like the most from the 30 min or so of photography that morning is of two Kingfishers.

Can you tell if this is a Kingfisher begging for a feed or telling someone to move on this is my stick? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

So to finish my second blog, I will go back to my original question. "Can you plan a nature image?" Well for me the answer is YES of course and I get a much high % of successful images when I do.

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Please let me know any comments or questions you have in the comments section below and I will do my best to answer and reply to them.



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