Sunday, September 03, 2006

Photographing Birds in Flight

After a week of mostly fuzzy shots, I scrutinized my technique for photographing animals on the move.
By ``animals on the move,'' I mean herons, hawks, pheasants and so on in flight. Or, in the case of pheasants, I mean the skittish critters kicking up dust clouds with their pointy toes while streaking across a field, as well as when in flight.
My technique has been tug the strap around my neck to brace the camera, to focus and press the button. That's about it. And I've been lucky.
Once, on a very bright day a few weeks ago, I bagged sharp and colorful photos of eagles, pelicans and herons in flight at Charbonneau Parkand Ice Harbor Dam. Then I hit a fuzzy spell.
Several dozen shots of herons, pheasants and a variety of hawks and ducks _ they coulda been contenders _ended up as blobs that I, exasperated, erased without printing.
Three things may cause my blurred images: faulty camera settings, faulty focus and/or a shaky camera. Well, a professional friend has helped adjust the camera settings, so they're now under control. So is automatic focus. So I blame a shaky camera. And after trying and rejecting a monopod (too awkward for flying birds), I bought a shoulder mount. It's simple. You attach the camera, adjust the mount so you can hold it like a rifle, sight through the view finder (lens) and pull the trigger.
Then I drove into the country on arainy day for me to try the toy. I spotted a heron in a field, pulled over, stepped into the mist, aimed the camera and pulled the trigger.
Nothing.
I checked the trigger wire. Fine. I glared at the camera. The window showed an ``E.'' Huh! Empty? No flash card. Mumble. Mumble. Mumble.
I climbedback into the truck. ``Too far away,'' I said to Sadie the
Dalmatian, who looked at me with a tilted head.
``And it's too wet. Let's go home. And you stop moaning,'' I said. ``You can't get out. We're going home.''
So, on another rainy day at 7:39 a.m., Sadie and I set out with the loaded camera forRooks Park. I told my wife that we'd be gone about two hours. Black clouds hovered overTausick Way, and rain pelted the truck. So, we swerved and headed west for distant patches of blue to the west.
We drove slow on country roads between Walla Walla and Touchet. I shot meadow larks on fences and kestrels on powerlines. When they flew, I missed. Just too fast.
A belted kingfisher landed on a wire over a bridge. I passed the bridge, sneaked back and shot as it plummeted past trees to the water.
Drat. Just a dark spot in the camera's LCD window.
A rigid heron stood 50 yards from the road in a field. I stopped and waited for it to fly. I waited and waited andwaited.
It didn't move. Then I saw another heron down the road. I eased toward the second heron, and it flew. I got off a shot or two. More blobs. Hummm?
When I turned back, the first heron had also flown.
Then I passed a heron rookery beside the Walla Walla River. Some sat on nests. One flew in. One flew out. I took many shots. Some looked OK in the LCD. Even great.
Next, Sadie and I walked through a public fishing access toward the Walla Walla River. A cock pheasant boomed into flight. I snapped two shots. Two more blobs.
Maybe I didn't need a$150 shoulder mount. Maybe I needed one ofthose $1,500 image-stabilizinglenses.
Yeah, sure.
We drove on, and a muskrat crossed the road with amouthful of twigs. I got a shot that looked pretty good.
That's when a light went off in the old bean.
I'd been shooting with the automatic focus on. So, when a heron or a pheasant flies up with a background cluttered by trees, bushes, tractors or whatever, the camera became confused about its subject.
My best photos had backgrounds of sky, water or aroadside bank.
Of course!
No dunce, I clicked off the automatic focus.
Then a marmot scooted toward a burrow. I twisted the focus ring and pulled the trigger for another fair photo. Feeling better, I continued to the Wallula Habitat Management Unit at the mouth of the Walla Walla River on the Columbia River.
Maybe I could shoot a scampering black-tailed jackrabbit?
We parked on the North Road, above the wildlife refuge pond and hoofed it into the sage.
I shot a sad-looking robin hopping on the ground. I shot some ducks in flight.
Sadie eventually pushed through weeds and willows to the pond, and I took photos of her cavorting in the water.
OK shots, but not great. I thought some more about an image stabilizing lens. Maybe I'd mention it at home. We spent a long time in the sage, and we had one glimpse, but no photo, of a rabbit.
Oooops. The truck's clock said 3:09 p.m. Where had the time gone? Sadie also wondered and yodeled for her dinner all the way home.
And at home, more than an hour later, Darlene said,``I thought you were going tobe gone for two hours not all day.''
Shucks, I thought. Maybe itwasn't a good time to bring up the qualities of a $1,500 image-stabilizing lens. ``Is dinner ready,'' I asked brightly.
Alas, it wasn't a good time for that, either.

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