5 TIPS FOR CAMERA SETTINGS, EQUIPMENT & TECHNIQUES
Osprey can be an incredible subject to photograph. At two feet tall with a wing span just under six feet, they twist and maneuver in ways that should simply be impossible for a bird of their size. They are the acrobats of the sky and extremely talented fishermen, succeeding in roughly one in four attempts. Compared to a bald eagle, who carefully skims the surface and plucks a fish from the water, osprey operate at extremely high speeds, violently slamming into the water to snatch their prey. While their physical prowess lends itself to an impressive arial display, it’s also what makes them a tough subject to photograph. Here are five tips to help you succeed.
TIP 1: METERING & LIGHT
One of the most popular questions I get when it comes to camera settings for photographing osprey is which metering mode do I use. As a Nikon user, I have the option of Spot, Center Weighted, or Matrix (known as Evaluative for Canon users). So which one do I use?
None of them.
When it comes to photographing osprey, the only thing that matters is the bright colors of their plumage. Expose for the water and their white feathers will blow out. Expose for trees in the background and their white feathers will blow out. Trust your meter and this will happen more often than not. The first step toward achieving the right exposure is to let go of what your camera is telling you and zero in on capturing the detail in white.
In order to accomplish this, you’ll need to essentially ignore what the meter is suggesting. Simply take a test shot of something with tonal values that are similar to the osprey’s bright plumage, like a white gull or light-colored rock. Be mindful of the direction of light as you will want it to be the same as the light direction that is falling on your subject. In other words, don’t use a shaded subject as a test when you’ve set yourself up in position to shoot osprey in direct sunlight. Look at the subject in your LCD or use your histogram to determine the right exposure and lock it in using manual exposure. Unless clouds or setting sun changes the intensity of the sun, all of your metering decisions are made.
Does concentrating solely on the light areas of the bird mean that the dark areas will be underexposed? Yes. But that is an acceptable sacrifice with this subject.
The very word “photography” had its origins in ancient Greece. The word “photo” actually means “light”. The latter part of the word “graph”, is defined as “drawing”. In other words, photography means “drawing with light” no matter what tools you use to capture the image. No conversation about photography would be complete without examining it’s influence on the end result of the given subject. All of the impressive technology within your camera’s walls is dedicated to making you better at capturing it. No more. No less.
The difference between a day of capturing outstanding images and a day of wasted photography is often decided long before you get your camera out of the bag. Getting yourself into the right position is perhaps the most important decision you can make. 100% of that decision should depend on light.
I have seen it far too many times to count. Whether it’s a frenzy involving dozens of osprey or the thrill of witnessing a single osprey grabbing a fish at close range, the exhilaration can be far too distracting for photographers. We get butterflies in our stomachs. We ignore the light as if somehow the laws of physics will be suspended, if only just for a little while, so we can capture an image that we have coveted for a long time. It might be some incredible action. You might have perfect timing to capture the moment. The composition might be flawless. But the laws of physics aren’t going anywhere. Poor lighting is poor lighting.
Establishing a window of opportunity when it comes to your light source is one of the most important things you will do as a photographer. Silhouettes aside, your light source should ideally be placed at your back. From a planning standpoint, understanding that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west is the first step toward getting yourself into the right position.
Ideally, you should be positioned directly between the sun and your subject which requires a bit of foresight. The angle will change constantly as your subject changes position in flight. But as they approach the edge of your window, your opportunity to catch a well-lit subject will decrease. That said, unless your shooting film, there is almost no cost in taking a chance. An osprey in flight could decide to change direction at a moment’s notice, creating an entirely new lighting situation. Be ready for it!
TIP 2: TOOLS OF THE TRADE
You can have success with virtually any camera so long as it is equipped with enough focal length and allows the photographer to control exposure settings. But the right features will undoubtedly improve your chances. Cameras that are capable of shooting 8-frames per second (FPS) or more can go a long way toward capturing the osprey in action. In addition, effective focal lengths of 500-600mm can allow you to be far enough away from the subject for it to feel comfortable with its surroundings. Larger focal lengths can be a bit too cumbersome, making it tough to track the incredibly quick and acrobatic movements of osprey.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to the use of tripods. We all have at least one photography friend that likes to brag about hand-holding their camera, even mentioning it on every social media post as if it is some sort of badge of honor. If you’ve had good results shooting without a tripod, great! My 500mm f/4.0 weighs far too much to hand-hold comfortably for any length of time, especially given the torture I’ve put my shoulders through in the first 40+ years of life. Plus, a steady frame means a steady shot, leading to sharper images at lower shutter speeds. And I happen to like sharp images.
One can easily make the argument that tripods are also a great way to enhance autofocus tracking. If the focus point is bouncing around while attempting to hand-hold your lens, the likelihood that you will maintain focus on the subject is drastically reduced. Again, I happen to like sharp images.
TIP 3: FOCUS SETTINGS FOR OSPREY
Moments after you’ve pressed the shutter button, several mechanical processes take place within the camera. While it seems as though this all takes place in an instant, this seemingly insignificant amount of time can have a negative effect on the sharpness of your images. This problem is exacerbated when using large telephoto lenses as the depth of field is significantly decreased.
Thankfully, camera manufacturers have created a solution for this one as well. By predicting the amount of distance that your subject will cover in the time it takes for all of this mechanical wonder to happen, your camera will actually “pre-focus” based on the speed of your subject. In other words, the camera will focus at the distance the subject is going rather than its current position. By establishing whether your subject is “erratic” or “steady”, you’ll help the camera determine the best outcome.
Most manufacturers have this setting buried amongst a thousand other camera settings but it’s one of the first things I change when photographing birds in flight. When your focus point leaves the subject, the camera will attempt to focus on a new target which is often nothing but blue sky. Without contrast, even the most sophisticated cameras will begin to search…and search…and search, allowing your subject to escape from the viewfinder. Choosing the erratic setting will tell your camera to wait a bit before jumping to the next subject, allowing you to maintain focus for a bit longer, even when your focus point has left the bird. This feature has its limits, so be sure to concentrate on keeping the subject in the frame.
TIP 4: EXPOSURE SETTINGS FOR OSPREY
Resist the temptation to find a one-size-fits-all approach. Yes, action stopping shutter speeds will also work for static subjects, but why waste precious f-stops if you don’t have to? When the subject is stationary, I like to follow the age-old rule of matching my shutter speed with the effective focal length. In other words, if I am using my 500mm on a full-frame camera, my shutter speed will likely be around 1/500th of a second. The f-stops gained can be shifted to add depth of field (aperture) or lower noise levels through a more friendly ISO. If, however, I am using a lens that sports a 300mm focal length, I can get away with slightly slower shutter speeds of 1/250th of a second. Notice the use of the term “effective focal length”. The increase in magnification should be considered when using any cropped sensor camera bodies. For example, that 500mm lens on a Nikon cropped sensor camera (Nikon’s crop factor is 1.5x) would essentially become an effective focal length of 750mm. I would therefore increase my shutter speed to 1/800th.
When action is involved, I aim for shutter speeds between 1/2,000 – 1/4,000th to stop the action. While I have occasionally had success with slower speeds, 1/1,000th of a second is often the minimum needed for satisfactory results when it comes to osprey. If you are hoping to catch the bird in a dive, shutter speeds of 1/1,600th should be your target.
While shutter speeds above 1/4,000th can seem like a great idea, they are beyond the point of diminishing returns and do little to improve image quality. It’s often best to shift those “extra” f-stops to the other side of the exposure triangle, like aperture or ISO. Choosing smaller apertures (f/8.0 over f/4.0) can give you some room for error which is critical when photographing a fast and erratic subject. That said, fast shutter speeds should be the priority.
TIP 5: FRAME IT UP
I have spent more time photographing bald eagles than any other subject and made the mistake of thinking that osprey were no different. When a bald eagle dives for a fish, my success rate is probably somewhere around 70%. When photographing osprey in the same scenario, my success rate drops to about 10%. They are much faster, more cunning and unpredictable.
River hawk, sea eagle, fish hawk – the osprey has many names. Perhaps the most fitting nickname from a photographer’s perspective is “frame Jumper”. The moment you get comfortable with your tracking efforts and you think you are well on your way to capturing a stunning image, they jump out of your frame, often resulting in frustration.
Resist the temptation to fill the frame. Using a smaller focal length can provide enough room to help determine its flight path. The difference between a successful sequence and blown opportunity will often be your ability to keep up with them. Remember, you can always crop it later…assuming you actually got the shot.