Thursday, November 27, 2014


Last weekend I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop on Birds in Flight (BIF) at Bosque del Apache (BDA) in New Mexico: which is less than two hours from where I live.

There were about a dozen of us in the group led by three very talented instructors. This was my first ‘photo course’ and was it was hard work! 

Each day started with the alarm going off at about 0515, so we could get to the birds before they took off from their evening roost, which at BDA means Sandhill Cranes roosting on ponds.

The mornings were cold with temperatures hovering around 20F on one morning: I soon learned the value of toe and finger warmers I had taken with me!

The day consisted of class time, daylight shooting, and preparation from the evening sunset session. Meaning we were ‘working’ 12 hour days.

In addition to what nature provided to us, we were fortunate enough to have access to a local falconer who was well tuned to the needs of a group of photographers. BTW I wonder what the collective noun for a group of photographers is? Maybe a snap of photographers ;-)

The weekend’s success was rounded off by being with a great group of photographers, all, like me, wishing to learn more about their craft and passion.

So what were some of the things I learned? 
  • Sunrise photography of moving targets is hard! In addition to coping with a 500mm lens at F/8, to get ‘most’ of a large bird in focus, you need to shoot at very high ISOs: at least until the sun comes to your rescue. I was lucky in that my 5DIII can be pushed, so I was shooting in the morning at ISOs of 1600-3200 and getting reasonable shots. Shutter speed is critical, ie at least 1/1000 and ideally higher.  
  • Before the workshop I would have been tempted to use Tv mode and auto-ISO; and this would be OK if the scene’s overall brightness remain ‘constant’. However, as the birds fly past you the background shifts from water, to mountains, to mountains & sky, and finally to sky. Using auto ISO would have shifted the exposure of the bird all over the place: resulting in black birds against a perfectly exposed sky. The ‘secret’ is to use a fixed (high) ISO and meter on the bird and set this in M mode. OK you may get some blown out backgrounds, but at least you will see feathers!
  • I was using a Wimberley Sidekick ( ) with my ballhead ( ) and I decided rather than mount the lens directly to the sidekick, I would use an L-bracket to create a quasi-full-gimbal head arrangement. I considered this set-up a great success as it allowed me to control the camera’s direction with my right hand whilst laying my left on the lens barrel for stability.
  • I did consider renting a 600mm prime, but stuck with my Sigma 150-500mm, and I’m glad I did. The Sigma is a great ‘BIF beginners’ lens, ie before you decide to shell out the big money! At F/8 I was able to make full use the 5DIII’s fantastic focus tracking system.
  • I also attached my battery grip, as I didn’t want to ‘waste time’ monitoring power. But I did need to keep an eye on my CF cards! In BIFing photography you are usually shooting in burst mode and hence, over the weekend, I shot some 4500 images! You need a lot of cards! 
  • I also decided to use this first ‘BIF training’ session to see if Magic Lantern Dual-ISO would help me. The answer is yes and no. When I was shooting with the falconer, ie in bright sunshine, I was using a base ISO of 100, bumped up by dual to 100/800. Dual worked well here, giving me a 13-14 Ev dynamic range. For the sunrise sessions, where I was shooting at ISO 1600-3200, dual was not much help here, as I found out in post. 
  • Also, for the 5DIII the 1600-3200 zone is where metering strategy changes. Below this zone and certainly at the native ISO of 100, where the camera DR is limited by its electronics, it is best to use ETTR. Above this zone, where the camera is limited by its sensor, there is no point in using ETTR. See for some great insight.

In a future post I intend to write more about my BIF photography developments, especially after I have revisited my local BDA ‘training ground’.

So what about results? Well here are a few images, which I have taken from my first ‘quick and dirty’ post processing session: the day I returned from my wonderful weekend excursion. More can be found here:

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