Blackbirds at the Marsh
There are some wetlands below our house; blackbirds love to hand out there.
If you know what to listen for, you can’t mistake the mating call of a male blackbird. Most of the time, you can hear them but not see them, but there are so many near a local marsh that usually can just stand still and wait for one to flush. I then follow the flight, and use a long telephoto lens to zoom in and get a shot.
You never know what they’ll do; it’s best to just keep shooting and wait for something interesting to happen. If you wait to react, you’ll be too late.
These are four from more than a hundred shots I took yesterday. These are the routine, hanging-out shots, but even then you have to handle the details. The birds are fairly far away, and it’s easy to slip up - a camera movement at the wrong time, moving the monopod without realizing it, a clump of cottonwood drifting into the frame, the wind blowing reeds in front of the bird, or half falling asleep and that’s when something good happens. Add in things like wrong focus setting, sweaty palms slipping, foot slipping into the marshy water, etc., and you have a million ways to go wrong. I feel good if 5-10% of the shots are good ones.
These were taken with the Sony α1 and 200-600mm lens with 1.4x teleconverter. You know what they say? “1.4x the teleconverter, 10x the headache.” They are correct, whoever they are.
For anyone interested, at these long focal lengths (mostly between 600 and 840mm), you need to make sure you have the right exposure settings. Birds move fast, so you want a fast shutter speed—1/1000th to 1/1250th is ideal if there is enough light. Anything less than 1/800th will almost always have motion blur.
Aperture is important at these long focal lengths. The smaller the aperture (higher f-numbers), the more of the bird will be in focus. But of course, smaller apertures mean less light, so getting those fast exposure times becomes a problem.
So you often have to adjust your ISO (sensitivity) to higher numbers in order to get a decent shot. Even in direct sunlight, you may have to go with ISO numbers in the 400-1600 range. It’s best to get some experience with these settings, to know when to cheat in one direction or another. For example, if a bird has really detailed plumage, then a high ISO will obscure that. So you may want to give a bit on depth of field and try to make sure the eye is in focus, or the plumage detail, and let the rest of the bird be a little soft. Another example: if a bird is really twitchy (and the smaller, usually the more twitchy), then even faster shutter speeds might be required to reduce motion blur, and you have to decide where to make the trade-off: less depth of field, or maybe a higher ISO and less detail??? Fun in the sun.
The Sony 200-600 lens is never faster than f/6.3, and with the teleconverter, typically I have to work at f/9 or dimmer. If I want all of the bird to be in focus at the longest focal lengths (> 600mm), then I wind up needing f/13. That only works well on sunny days. Bird photography with longer focal lengths is technically challenging, but after a while it all starts to make sense and you can make the adjustments you need quickly and get the shot. At least 5% of the time…