Atlantic Puffins in Flight
Galen Leeds another blogger whom I follow is an avid bird photographer. Julia has asked me about technical tips so I’m adding this to some of my posts now. I’m following up on a post I made on 9/14/2011 about the Atlantic puffin. The little bird is hard to photograph. They migrate and live on the ocean for part of the year. They nest on remote islands that are protected from human intrusion. Puffins don’t like intrusion and even with a 400mm lens and DX format giving you effectively 600mm, the birds are still just a dot on the image sensor.
Large licensed tour boats circle the Maine off shore islands where puffins nest from late spring to mid summer. Since they can’t get close, you cannot get a detailed picture. It’s too far to kayak. Smaller tour boats have special permission to land on some of the islands. You are allowed to enter blinds and that’s where you get the quintessential image that you see on the post cards and in tourist bookshops.
More info, technical tips, gallery, and slideshow
Having seen these photos, I was envious and after going out of the way, I managed a landing and an entry into one of the blinds. We were given about 45 minutes. You couldn’t move to another blind. Each blind had multiple ports of view. By sliding the small port open you could photograph the birds. Changing ports gave you different birds posing. The puffins had become accustomed to people in the blinds so they did not view our presence as a threat. Most non-serious photographers were done in about 15 minutes and went to the lighthouse station to enjoy the sea air. I stayed to the end of our allotted time.
Being here was special and probably not to be repeated for me. After getting most of the picture post card images, my mind began to ponder something different. This turned out to be trying for a shot of the small bird in the air. Puffins are about 1lb, 12 inches long, and have a wingspan of about 24 inches. The ports are about 12 inches wide and 9 inches high. So the first trick is to anticipate the landing zone. The ports limit your angle of view and inhibit the ability to anticipate the action.
Unlike an airport, puffins land on any convenient spot on the rocks not occupied by another puffin. Still, I spent the remaining time looking for and then capturing the little birds in flight. The only image that I did not see to capture was a returning puffin carrying fish in its mouth to feed the young. But, one should never have everything. There would be nothing to look forward to return.
Technical: I had a 70-300mm zoom lens on my Nikon D200. My bigger 80-400mm zoom was sitting on my desk in NYC. I had unfortunately forgotten it before I scheduled this trip. But you were so close to the birds that the 400mm would not have made a big difference.
Don’t start at 300mm. Your field of view is too narrow to see the birds in flight. I hold the camera ready and watch their activity. When one bird looks to be preparing to land, I swing the camera to eye level and zoom to fill the frame with the bird. The most successful shots were straight on where the bird came directly at the camera. Just before they touch down, they slow down. Motor drive will not always get the critical moment. So, don’t press the shutter release and fire a burst from your motor drive. Anticipate.
I keep the camera on continuous drive but I don’t fire off frames unnecessarily. Maybe it’s my film days and conservation of limited images in a roll of film. Exposure is another issue. I tried to use a shutter speed of about 1/250. This freezes the action. If lighting permits, you can go faster to 1/1000.
The depth of field f-stop changes and you may not want to shoot at too fast a shutter speed. Focus is critical. With the birds in motion this is challenging. My camera has single point focus and continuous focus. Continuous works when your subject is in motion, the camera will focus and track the subject as it moves across the image frame. There are focus points, which you can set, where the camera will begin its process of focusing. I discovered, and mostly use, closest subject. This is where the camera hunts for the closest subject and focuses there. It uses all the focus points on the sensor. This works because I am usually interested in the subject closest to me. For landscape everything is at infinity. No problem there. For birds and people, etc, it would be closest subject. So far with few exceptions this works.
Panning is another technique to consider. By moving the camera with the direction of the puffin in flight, say – right to left – you may be able to capture the image and have some motion blur of the background. Straight on motion will not be affected by this maneuver.
With these tips in mind then, it’s practice. With puffins to the right, left, front, back, and even on top of the bird blind, it was a photography shooting gallery.