Sunday, 4 October 2015

Photographing Hobbies Catching Dragonflies

Recently I’ve been photographing one of the most spectacular sights I know of in nature, hobbies diving low and fast across a lake to catch dragonflies in mid-air. So I thought I’d write a bit about what an incredible sight it is, why getting a decent photo of it is so tricky, and how I went about the challenge.

Incidentally, the best introduction to this would be to watch the wonderful video footage in this short clip from BBC Springwatch, filmed by Simon King in Dorset. It’s the film that inspired me to want to try photographing hobbies so I’m delighted it’s still available:

Hobbies are small falcons, they look just like peregrines but are closer to the size of kestrels. They live in Africa during the winter months and migrate to Europe in May, staying with us until late September. They are astonishingly fast and agile, and can catch smaller birds like swallows and swifts. I have to admit that even though I know it’s true, I still find it hard to believe that anything can catch a swift!

Hobbies are rarely witnessed chasing and catching other birds and it’s not really something you could set out to photograph. But in May and June when the adults arrive here, they are often seen catching dragonflies, and in September the newly fledged juveniles are out doing the same. They need to catch a lot of dragonflies to build up their strength for the long flight to Africa. A lot of this hunting (referred to as hawking) happens quite high up, but when conditions are right and there are large numbers of dragonflies emerging from the long grass and drifting over a lake, hobbies will dive down low to catch them. And that’s when things get spectacular.

To stand on the edge of a lake as a hobby drops out of the sky, gains enormous speed, levels out just above the surface of the water heading straight towards you, makes a sudden jink and then pulls up just above your head with a pair of dragonflies in it’s talons, is one of the most awesome wildlife experiences I’ve had!

It’s hard to describe how fast this all happens. I have no idea what speed the hobby is flying at but it’s incredibly fast, on a different scale to the speeds we’re used to seeing birds doing. Initially the hobby doesn’t have a specific target, it’s just building speed and waiting until a dragonfly appears roughly in it’s flightpath. Then it has to adjust it’s course in an instant and with perfect accuracy if it’s to intercept the dragonfly (or quite often a pair of mating dragonflies), and it has to bring it’s talons forward to make the catch. When you see this happen it’s as if there’s just a small flicker in the flight pattern because it all happens in the blink of an eye.

Dragonflies have great peripheral vision and very quick reactions, and they do try to dodge out of the way of hobbies.

So how do you go about photographing this? It’s not a great challenge as far as creativity is concerned. You’re really just trying to capture the action as it plays out in front of you. But as a purely technical challenge it’s an extreme one. I think it’s the most difficult action photography I’ve ever done. If you think of motorsport photography as being technically demanding, I can assure you as someone who regularly shoots MotoGP (the motorcycle racing version of Formula One), it’s nothing compared to hobbies catching dragonflies.

The first problem (apart from the obvious point that, unlike MotoGP bikes, birds can appear at any moment and going in any direction) is that hobbies and dragonflies are not very big, so you need to use a long telephoto lens. If you can imagine trying to follow a tight turning fighter jet with a really powerful telescope then you’ll get the idea. Half the time when you aim the lens at the hobby and then look through the viewfinder, all you see is sky or trees because the bird has already manoeuvred onto a different path. And by the time you’ve aimed again it’s often too late, the bird is too close.

Shooting with a shorter lens is easier but you end up having to crop the image a lot. (This was at 300mm).

Using a big lens means you can’t always keep them in the frame. (500mm lens on Canon 7dmk2, 1.6x crop factor)

Another problem with big lenses is that they’re heavy, and swinging them around for any length of time soon has your arms shaking and your back aching. A monopod or a tripod with a gimbal head are ways to relieve this but then you lose a little freedom of movement.

But the biggest problem with long telephoto lenses is that they give an exceptionally small depth of field. In other words, to get your subject sharp you have to have the lens focused at exactly the right distance. If a hobby is 20 metres away then 19.5 or 20.5 metres is not good enough, the bird will not appear sharp. No human could keep a rapidly moving object accurately focused by continually twisting the focus ring on the lens barrel by the perfect amount. Remember, you have no idea where the hobby will encounter and attack a dragonfly, so you have to be able to track it constantly and keep it in focus. And that means you have to rely on autofocus.

(If you watched the video clip and are wondering how Simon King did it, well so am I! All I can suggest is that video cameras have smaller sensors than digital SLRs which gives the effect of increasing the magnification of the lens but also increasing the depth of field. So he could film the hobbies when they were much further away on the far side of the lake and therefore perhaps slightly easier to track and to keep in focus. He still did an amazing job to get the footage. I’ve never seen anything else like it, so I’m certainly not suggesting it’s easy!)

With a big telephoto lens autofocus has to be spot on. Half a metre out is close but counts for nothing.

Modern camera autofocus systems are true masterpieces of engineering. Sometimes I find their speed and accuracy mindblowing. If you’re used to watching a blurred image slowly morphing on your mobile phone screen into a slightly less blurred image, then what a good camera autofocus system can do has to be seen to be believed. Usually you just tap the autofocus button and the image snaps instantly and silently into perfect focus. And if the subject is moving towards you then you hold down the autofocus button and the camera tracks the subject so that it stays in focus, allowing you to choose your moment to shoot.

And modern cameras don’t just have one autofocus sensor in the middle of the frame, they have loads of them spread over a wide area. My camera has 65 (referred to as AF points) arranged in the pattern shown below. This is useful if you want to frame a subject off-centre, as you can nominate any single AF point to track the subject with. It also means that once the camera has locked on to the subject with one AF point, if the subject then darts around and you can’t keep it on that point, the camera can pass the subject on to whichever adjacent AF point finds a subject at roughly the same distance, thereby tracking the subject as it moves around the frame.

Screenshot from original RAW file showing autofocus points.

To get the best out of such a sophisticated system you need to understand how it works and set it up correctly to suit the way you’re trying to use it. Many photographers don’t do this and end up complaining that their expensive camera has inconsistent or inaccurate autofocus. I suspect that those using long telephoto lenses tend to make more effort as the results are much worse if they don’t.

Autofocus systems rely on contrast to detect and home in on a subject. So they have an easy time if the subject is a bird against the background of a bright sky. But what if the background is not a uniform, bright area for the bird to stand out against? What if it’s a mosaic of leaves on trees, grassy reeds and ripples on the surface of a lake, on a sunny day? High contrast everywhere. Now it doesn’t matter how many autofocus points you have because they’re all picking up different potential subjects and the camera has no way of knowing which one is your chosen target. Now when you tap the autofocus button a subject comes instantly and silently into perfect focus - but it’s the long grass on the far side of the lake, not the hobby!

Here the ripples on the lake have proved too enticing for the autofocus system.

And on top of focusing, there’s another problem. You don’t know when the hobby will encounter a dragonfly and strike but you need to capture the exact moment it does so. So you have to fire off a rapid burst of images, at the fastest rate your camera can manage, at the slightest hint of a flinch from the hobby. With the camera firing at full speed and the viewfinder blacking out as the internal mirror flips up for each exposure, the effect is similar to the stunted animation of someone seen dancing under strobe lighting. Hardly what you want if you’re trying to smoothly track a fast moving falcon!

So how did I go about trying to solve the problem? Firstly, I had to have every parameter of the camera set up exactly right. Here are just a few of them;
Exposure settings manually selected as the action could take place against a light or dark background. The fastest possible shutter speed to freeze the movement.
The fastest possible continuous shooting speed.
Lens image stabilising active in one plane to help with a smooth panning motion.
One autofocus point selected.
Maximum autofocus sensitivity in terms of expecting a subject that changes distance rapidly.
And crucially, the longest possible delay before the AF point would attempt to acquire a new subject if the current subject suddenly disappeared from it’s view.
And so on…

Then, once the hobby had made it’s dive and was starting it’s run across the lake I had to get the lens onto it and panning with it, while at the same time twisting the manual focus ring to get the focus as close as I possibly could. As the hobby approached, now travelling very fast, I had to keep the panning motion matched and try to guide the centre autofocus point on to it, while continuing to manually adjust the focus.

Now came the crucial decision point. Only if I had the AF point exactly on the hobby could I risk touching the autofocus button. If I missed just slightly then the camera would instantly lock onto the background and the chance would be lost. You don’t get a second chance once the lens is way out of focus because you can’t even see the hobby, let alone guide the autofocus sensor back onto it. So it’s a game of dare. You have to be brave enough to keep waiting for the bird to get closer so that it presents a big enough target for autofocus (at the risk of missing the shot if the hobby strikes early). But at some point you have to be brave enough to commit to autofocus and risk losing the shot altogether if the autofocus system picks out the background.

Here are two shots I missed by being too scared or just too slow to hit the autofocus button.

And these are examples of misses caused by not being able to keep the AF point exactly on the bird.

Ultimately, the only way to get lucky was to have as many attempts as possible! But I’m delighted with the photos I did manage to get because they’re way better than I imagined possible when I watched that film on Springwatch all those years ago. Below are a few more of my favourites. You can view them all at full screen size, as well as plenty of others that hopefully help to tell the story, by going to the Hobbies gallery on my website:

And finally, whether you want to try and take photos or not, I highly recommend getting out and seeing this at first hand. If you love nature then here it is at it’s most finely tuned!

Can you spot the kingfisher?

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Top 10 Wildlife Moments of 2014

10.   A tranquil spot in India

My only foreign trip this year was in April. It was a trip I’d always hoped to be able to do one day - looking for tigers in India. I had 6 days in Ranthambhore National Park, 12 jeep safaris in all. The whole trip was wonderful, the people were all lovely and the forest was just incredibly beautiful. It was tough going at times - very hot and dusty, you get bounced around a lot in the back of the jeep, and you can easily go a few days without seeing any tigers. But it was great fun!

One morning we stopped at a dam for a rest and a cup of tea and I was able to wander off a little on my own to sit and take in the scene. There were 3 species of kingfishers flying around, peacocks and egrets in the distance, monkeys in the trees, deer by the far shore, turtles, stilts, many other birds, and no people! It must be one of the most peaceful, tranquil spots in the world, let alone India. I can almost taste the tea now just thinking of it.

9.   Stag fight

Having lived near Bushy and Richmond Parks in south west London for many years I’ve spent plenty of time photographing the resident deer. The red deer rut in the Autumn is still an exciting spectacle to witness but as it’s become more popular with photographers in recent years, and as I’ve already photographed it a lot myself, I’ve definitely lost some enthusiasm for shooting it. This year I didn’t even take the big lens out, just cycled around with a medium zoom instead.

One afternoon I came across a big fight between two stags, a surprisingly rare occurrence. It was a great reminder that although these deer are used to people, they are still wild animals. The battle amongst the older, larger stags for the right to mate with the hinds is a gruelling one. For weeks they hardly eat or sleep at all because they’re too busy bellowing and charging around. I’ve woken at 3am and heard a distant stag in Bushy Park still roaring away.

This fight went on for over six minutes and the loser was left bloodied but still calling defiantly. To be so close to such powerful animals locked in combat is certainly thrilling. But when you’re also so close to a group of dog walkers, parents with little kids, bystanders filming it on their phones, and about eight other photographers, it doesn’t really feel like wildlife photography!

8.   Sparrowhawk garden visit

Visiting my parents in Devon I had gone out into their back garden one late Summer evening looking for some house martins to practise on. All was quiet but sometimes when you just sit still somewhere the wildlife comes to you. I remember the sun had just gone behind a cloud and I got this strange sense that something had changed, then realised that all the garden birds had vanished. That usually means one thing - sparrowhawk! I checked the treetops and there she was, perched high up, scanning the garden for any stragglers. To the blue-tits and chaffinches she represents death, and I couldn’t help seeing her as if she was wearing a cloak and holding a scythe.

7.   Kingfisher flight shot

I won’t go into great detail about this shot here as I’ll write more about photographing kingfishers in flight in future. Suffice to say, I’ve spent so many hours trying to perfect this technique and had so many near misses (and plenty of not-even-close failures) that any half-decent image I get is a great moment for me. This isn’t the perfect flight shot, of course, but it made me feel that I’m on the right track.

6.   Little owls

I must have seemed a bit strange to the other people still in the park at dusk, sitting under a tree on my own with apparently nothing to do but watch it get dark. I didn’t even have a camera with me. I was just there to listen for the calls of male little owls as they established their territories in the Springtime. I did see them too, but only when it was far too dark for photography. I then left them alone for a few months to be certain not to disturb them when they had young in the nest, and returned in July when the young had fledged. It was great to be able to find them straight away. Unfortunately though, they were staying hidden until dusk and seemed to hide away again very soon after sunrise, which made photographing them pretty challenging. Delightful little birds to watch though.

5.   Short-eared owl on Exmoor

I’ve been lucky enough to photograph these beautiful owls many times, and just to watch them gliding over the long grass and then suddenly plunging down onto a vole they’ve detected, is a great thing. My Dad hasn’t had quite so much luck, only a couple of brief sightings in very dim light. So to be able to take my parents up onto Exmoor at Christmas for glorious views of the surrounding countryside in late afternoon light, and for them both to get really clear views of a Short-eared owl, was a truly wonderful wildlife moment. Dad came with me on foot as we tracked the owl to where it was hunting and saw it tussle with a kestrel. Mum stayed in the car and got the best view of all when the owl flew right over the top of it.

4.   Peregrine hunting teal

Ok, so when I checked I discovered this actually happened in the last few days of 2013, but who cares?! This is something I had always dreamed of seeing. The world’s fastest animal and one of the most impressive predators actually in the act of hunting, chasing down it’s prey. The action was a little distant and all happened a bit too fast to really make sense of, but the impression left was clear. The sheer speed and power of it’s flight, the tight turns, and the drama of the predator being right in amongst the flock of prey. Through a long telephoto lens it was impossible to maintain focus on the peregrine but luckily I got the focus locked back on for just long enough to get a shot. The ducks were lucky too, they all got away this time.

3.   Sparrowhawk flypast

No photo with this one. It’s not really something that’s possible to photograph, although if I’d been filming with a helmet-cam I might have got something. I was in a wooded area by the side of a river and had just spotted some footprints in the mud. Hoping for signs of an otter I had bent over and was looking straight down. What I hadn’t spotted was the half-eaten body of a wood pigeon not far away. And I happened to stand back up just as it’s killer returned. A sparrowhawk, coming straight at me from the side at head height.

We only saw each other at the very last moment but it had already adjusted it’s flightpath as if I was just another tree to skim past, and it missed me by less than two metres. I got just an instantaneous view of it’s side, the cream breast with narrow black bars, and then a sustained rear view as it carried on through the wood, dodging from side to side between the trees. A three second sighting that was utterly breathtaking.

2.   Hobbies

This time last year I decided that one photo I really wanted to get was of a hobby catching a dragonfly. Hobbies are small falcons that migrate here from Africa every Summer and somehow I had never managed to photograph them properly before. I thought my best chance would be in May, when they arrive and are often seen hawking for dragonflies. I made a few long trips but without much success. Then in September I heard of a pair and their young hunting over a lake in Richmond Park near my home. Great, except they were due to return to Africa at any moment and I was 150 miles away at the time! Thankfully I was able to get some time off work a couple of days later and finally got my chance.

And what a chance! At one point there were five birds hunting at once, coming in low and fast on straight runs across the lake or down one side of it, jinking suddenly when they spotted a target and then flaring back with talons outstretched to make the kill. When successful they would then pull up and climb, gliding as they ate their dragonfly. In fact they often seemed to target pairs of mating dragonflies and I've got photos of them with one in each talon.

Standing on the lake shore you didn’t know which way to look next. It was the most spectacular flying display I’ve ever witnessed. After a while I had to put the big lens down simply to rest. Technically it was the most difficult action photography I’ve ever tried and I’ll write more about that in future. A few days later I was able to go back and try again but it was too late, they had gone. At least I knew they were well fed in preparation for their epic journey.

1.   Tiger

What can I say? He’s a wild tiger! And he’s about ten metres from the jeep!

This was in Ranthambhore National Park in India, towards the end of a six day holiday. Again, I’ll write more about this another time. For now I’ll just say that it was special for many reasons, most of them obvious. The tiger was completely relaxed. He’s a young male ready to establish his own territory and he’s seen plenty of jeeps before. He was just strolling down towards a water hole. There were a few other jeeps present but for a brief moment we had him all to ourselves as he decided to cut in behind us and then sit in the track right on a bend. What a magnificent creature he is!

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