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Welome to my blog. This is where you'll find my thoughts on images, projects, equipment and all other things photographic.


Capturing a difference of opinions - camera set-up for fighting birds

In this article, I explain how I went about capturing images of birds fighting in a Hungarian marsh back in January. In particular, how I tailored  and used autofocus parameters specifically for this type of shot.

I specifically set out to get images of fighting water birds. From previous visits to Kiskunsagi in winter, I'd seen that the birds frequently battled over the well-stocked marsh lake. These arguments erupt and end suddenly, and with 30 or more birds in the immediate vicinity of the hide it can be a little daunting to try and work out which might fight (and so which to follow in the viewfinder... and when).

For me, the best preparation for this sort of shot is to photograph in the same place for several days. On this occasion, I found it helped to avoid photographing fighting at first, taking time to just watch what was happening instead (you can miss a lot if you spend all your time glued to the camera eyepiece!). After doing this for a while (taking a few portrait shots in the meantime - it's hard to resist photographing when there are subjects just in front of you), I started to get a feel for how the birds behaved just prior to a fight breaking out, and the likely spots for fighting (some parts of the water attracted a higher density of birds which resulted in more fighting as they clambered for position. I started photographing the action towards the end of the second day and continued for 5 days in total.

herons lab color WEBFRAME WEBTEXT _70R2641.jpg


When taking this sort of shot, the main technical challenges are :

  1. focussing quickly on the subjects and keeping them sharp throughout a sequence of shots
  2. keeping the birds  within the frame as they fight - they tend to suddenly move in unpredictable directions
  3. avoiding getting the myriad other bystander birds in the area in the shot or, worse, in front or behind the fighters

Here's the way I tackled the problems... (I'm afraid some of this - the camera autofocus settings - is Canon-centric, but the rest is applicable to other cameras)

Choosing the right lens:

To maximise the autofocus effectiveness I used a wide aperture f/2.8 zoom for these shots, rather than the usual super-telephotos that I employ.  The fast f/2.8 aperture allowed me to keep the shutter speed high and the ISO within acceptable  levels. It also meant that autofocus worked at maximum speed (as maximum aperture gets smaller, autofocus tends to slow and on many cameras some AF points cannot be used at all). Speed of focus can be further improved by setting the focus range limiter on the side of the lens - in this case, I chose the 2.5m-infinity setting.  I also chose a shorter focal length than I normally use - a 70-200mm zoom, mainly used at 150mm plus. This focal length gave a bit of space around the birds while still keeping them the dominating element in the picture,  making it easier to keep them in frame (challenge (2) above) than if I'd gone for a more tightly cropping 300 or 400mm. Shooting at a wide aperture means that the background can be blurred out to some extent, which reduces distraction in the image. Unfortunately, it also means that only a relatively small part of the image will be in focus so you're reliant on the birds staying level with one another in the same focal plane during the shooting. Strangely, they don't always do this (no matter how many times you tell them) so a fair bit of perseverance is required to get a sharp shot.

Leveraging fast AF systems

I used a camera with especially good autofocus speed and precision - a Canon 1DX (the same focus system can be found on the 5DS, 5DR and 7D Mark II and you can bet that versions of it will find their way into more and more future models).These cameras differ from Canon's other DSLRs in that they also use colour information to help tracking and have separate Autofocus chips rather than sharing processing power with other camera functions). In AI-servo mode (AF-C in Nikon speak) their tracking abilities are significantly better than other Canon models making it possible to use all the focus points of the camera when taking action shots - you just select the initial point that you want to start tracking from and make sure that you get that focus point onto the birds' head. Well, you didn't think that the camera would do it all did you? As the photographer, it's up to you to initially get an accurate aim on the target, after that the camera can help you keep the focus locked on and track it as it moves). For a lot of experienced wildlife photographers (myself included), the idea of having all 61 focus points active  (or more, in the case of the 7D2) is a major change in approach. Previously, AF tracking was just not good enough for these sorts of photo so the photographer generally turned it off (or significantly limited it) by choosing just  a single active point, or, occasionally a small group of  neighbouring points and manually keeping this on the subject. It was a genuine shock to my photographic system when I first experienced the 1DX AF tracking capabilities a few years ago.

The camera allows you to customise the way the autofocus tracking reacts to direction change and speed change of the subject; as well as how it behaves when it encounters an object briefly in the way of the subject. Canon have set-up six pre-set  'cases' that the user can switch between (and even customize), and choosing the right one makes a real difference in focus tracking. (Note - you'll also need to make sure that iTR is turned on (it's activated in one of the autofocus menu screens)  - for reasons I don't really understand, the cameras ship with it turned off by default...) Fighting birds tend to move erratically and accelerate / decelerate quickly. This most closely matches Canon's case 6 "focus on subjects with erratic movement and changes in speed', so this is the one to select. In fact, I've customised my case 6 to the values (0,2,2) from it's default (0,1,1) as I've found that, for me, this works best for fighting. To some extent, the detailed adjustments are user specific - different people move the camera differently, some smoothly, some less so. The settings are not just about the subject, they are about the way the camera is moved! If you have a tendency to jiggle the focus points up and down while tracking, then more aggressive AF settings will work best. If you're a super-smooth operator who can keep a focus point on a birds head with graceful, fluid wrist movements while it fights for its life then you might want to turn down AF auto switching and Accel/decel tracking parameters a bit! To be honest, pretty much everybody is fairly jerky when trying to follow fighting birds leaping almost randomly around - dialling things down a bit is more relevant for e.g. flight shots, which are a bit less erratic.

Canon's default AF Case 6 settings on the 1DX (it's a similar story on the 7D Mark II, 5DS and 5DR).

Canon's default AF Case 6 settings on the 1DX (it's a similar story on the 7D Mark II, 5DS and 5DR).



Canon USA has a downloadable PDF guide to the 1DX AF system (there's also a version for the 7D Mark 2 on their site) which covers things in a fair amount of detail, for those interested.

So, all this is well and good... but what if you don't have one of the above cameras? Generally, selecting a small group of points (1+8 helpers or a block of 4 or 9) worked best for me with another model - the 5D Mark IIl - although the hit rate of pin-sharp images was significantly lower than with the 1DX. A co-conspirator of mine who uses a Nikon D4S reckons that a single point is the  way to gofor these shots (I've tried the 3D focus option on the D4 and D4S, which are Nikon's equivalent of the above Canon set-up, but I personally couldn't get this to track birds effectively. That could just be my relative unfamiliarity with Nikon). On other Canon models, single point, or single point with four helpers (if you have this mode) is generally the most useful.


Taking the shot

When I found a pair of birds that I thought might be about to fight, I locked the initial focus point onto them, then released the AF and waited. When they started to fight I activated the AF again and, when (or should that be 'if', as it's not that easy...) I got a lock, shot, following the birds and keeping them in the centre of the frame as best I could. I used a rigid tripod with a Uniqball head set totilt/pan only. A Gimbal head,  or maybe a two-way fluid video head with adjustable damping,  would also be good options.

In between shots, I refrained from looking through the view finder so that I could scan the entire scene with my eyes and keep checking for isolated pairs of birds that looked as if they were candidates for action. This is really the only way I could think of to overcome problem (3) although much of this relies on luck as to where other birds may be standing.

Even with a fast lens and state-of-the-art Autofocus, it's not easy to get sharp pictures of fighting birds. It takes practice, and a bit of patience... and luck (especially in terms of how the birds position themselves during the action and whether they are both in the same focal plane). It's a great challenge though, and you feel good when it works out!

herons fighting WEBFRAME WEBTEXT _70R2225.jpg

Let it snow: photographing in the depths of winter

Photographing in snowy weather adds an extra dimension to wildlife images. However, there are a few things that you have to do a little differently to normal in order to produce a good image. In this post I'll look at exposure and white balance adjustments that you'll need to make when shooting in snow.


Light, light everywhere

A fresh covering of snow does wonders for an image. A normally dark and gloomy scene is made brighter as light bounces off of the snow. And onto your subject. Better still, because the reflected light is coming up from the ground it illuminates those normally tricky shadow areas underneath the subject enabling you to capture lots more detail in these areas than normal.  If the snow is on a flat surface, a lot of this reflected light is polarised in a single direction - this can often make the colours in birds wings really stand out. You can see all this light at work in the image of the Starling below - the bird seems to radiate colour where we normally see muted tones that appear more grey.

If it's so bright, why are my pictures darker than normal? And what should I do about it?

Your camera gets a bit confused by all that snow. It is a simple machine, not overly encumbered by too much in the way of intelligence and doesn't know whether it's looking at a field of snow or a coal cellar. However, it's been programmed to assume that when you average all the different levels of light in a scene they'll even out as mid-grey. And, the world being as it is, this usually works.  Unfortunately, snow rather mucks up this line of camera reasoning. There's a lot of bright white stuff around that makes the average light levels quite a bit brighter than mid grey. The camera thinks that the lighter average that it's actually seeing is meant to be mid grey, so it converts the whites to darker mid grey, and makes all other shades in the image correspondingly darker. That's why if you go along with the suggestion made by your camera's internal light meter you'll get a rather dim image. This is exactly what has happened in the first picture of the Eagle snacking on a Fox below (Fig 1). This is a screen capture from Adobe Lightroom and  is a raw image shot in Aperture Priority mode (Av) with no adjustments to the camera settings. In short - it's what the camera thinks the scene should look like! The histogram at the top right confirms that things are not right - it's shifted to the left (the darker shades) and there's no white or light shades (right end) at all. 

Fig 1: the image settings chosen by the camera

Fig 1: the image settings chosen by the camera

What do we need to do to fix this? Well, ignore what the camera is telling you and add some brightness. If you are shooting in Program,  Shutter (Tv) or Aperture (Av) priority mode, add some exposure compensation. You'll usually  need between +1 and +2 stops. If you're in manual mode, open up your aperture/ lower your shutter speed by this amount. I can't recommend strongly enough that you turn on your camera's highlight warnings. This will show overexposed areas on a played back picture as flashing red. A few small patches of flashing red in the snow are OK, but if most of the snow has turned red then you need to reduce the exposure compensation to avoid burning out your shot.

Fig 2 is a shot of the same Eagle taken a few seconds later, after I had adjusted my camera to add 1 and 2/3 stops of exposure compensation (you can see that the shutter speed is 1/200th instead of the original 1/640th if you look at the date below the histogram). This image is a lot brighter, with more detail in the formerly dark areas. The histogram has movedto the right without being squished up against the far right hand side indicating that I haven't burnt anything out.

Fig 2: Adding 1.3 stops of exposure compensation on the camera brightens the image

Fig 2: Adding 1.3 stops of exposure compensation on the camera brightens the image

Although the photo is a much better exposure than the first shot, it's a bit washed out and lacks  punch. Nevertheless, it's likely to be the best we can get in these conditions with a raw file. We can enhance the photo a little in editing with a few very simple changes.

Fig 3 is a lightly edited version of the file in Lightroom - you can see the changes I've made in the lower right hand pane. The reason that the image is a bit flat is because it's not making use of the full range of darks and lights - the values are compressed into part of the histogram, albeit a large part. There's a gap in the histogram on the left side where we'd expect to see darker colours. To fix this, I've slide the black slider left to bring back some of the blacks, then slidthe shadow slider right until the shadow areas lighten up again. I've done a similar thing on the right hand side of the histogram - raising the white slider to whiten up the snow, then sliding the highlights left a little to get a little more detail in the bright areas. I've also boosted the contrast slightly (this emphasizes the split between left and right hand side of the histogram) and raised the clarity a little bit, which adds contrast to the middle section of the histogram. It's easy to get carried away with the Lightroom sliders, so be careful when adjusting them.  

Fig 3: a few minor adjustments in lightroom puts lost contrast back into the image

Fig 3: a few minor adjustments in lightroom puts lost contrast back into the image

So, if I'm having to  putting punch (and some of the darks) back into the image, wouldn't it have been easier to have just gone with the original camera settings and take our first dark image (Fig 1)  into Lightroom and added exposure and contrastinstead of mucking about changing the camera settings? Well, yes... but the image would not be as good. Image noise is always much greater in shadows than light areas. If I'd lightened the dark areas artificially, that noise would show up more and I'd see more of it (and less detail) than on our third image above.

Don't let all that snow give you the blues

In the past, pictures taken in snow with a digital camera tended to have a strong blue colour cast. This was a result of the camera's automatic white balancebeing fooled by the unusual amount of white in the scene which caused it to set the white balance to a lower colour temperature than it should, Recent DSLRs have become much better at guessing white balance correctly in snow scenes, and the eagle image is only slightly bluer than it should be. This is easily fixed in Lightroom by shifting the colour temperature slider to the right a little until the snow becomes white.

Spotting a subtle blue cast can be tricky, so here's a technique that I use. Normally, Lightroom has a default background colour of mid-grey. This is normally ideal for editing work as it doesn't confuse your brain into interpreting colours in a scene incorrectly (your perception of a particular colour is changed in the presence of another vibrant colour surrounding it). However, mid-grey backgrounds don't help us evaluate when snow is white or slightly blue. So, when checking the colours in a snow scene I change Lightroom's background to be pure white - this makes any blue in the snow readily visible. The easiest way to change the background in Develop mode is to right click in the border surrounding the picture and this will bring up a choice of background colours.


Fig 4: increasing the colour temperature to remove the blue cast

Fig 4: increasing the colour temperature to remove the blue cast

Finally, here's a full screen version of the finished picture:

Fig 5: final image

Fig 5: final image




A few practical tips when photographing in the snow

Auto focus settings are also important. If the snow is falling, you may find that your autofocus locks onto nearby snowflakes in the sky rather than your intended target. If this happens, try changing to a single AF point and use this to focus on the subject. If the focus is still distracted by the snow then you'll have to change to manual focus mode and adjust the focus ring on the lens to get the image sharp.

Finally, here are a few general tips that I've learned from experience:

  • wear warm, waterproof clothes (I find ski jackets, ski trousers and snow boots to be ideal - they have all sorts of flaps and toggle to prevent snow getting in. ) - that way you can lie in the snow to get eye level shots of your subject. Don't forget a warm hat as well. If it's really cold, or you plan to be out for a long time, thermal underlayer clothing and socks really help. It's a good idea to take spare socks and another pair of footwear to change into when you finish.
  • wear two pairs of gloves - thick and thin. Remove the thick gloves when you want to photograph and put them back on to warm up between shooting sessions. Thin gloves with rubber grips on the fingers work best for manipulating camera controls(I really like Roekel winter rock climbing gloves for this, although they are a little pricey).
  • if you are going to be standing or sitting still on the ground for several hours, chemical hand warmer pads placed between your socks and inner boot soles will keep your feet warm. (You can also purchase battery heating for snow boots if you plan to spend a lot of time in sub-zero conditions)
  • if you wear glasses, it's useful to take a spare pair and cleaning clothes to cope with freezing / misting lenses
  • keep camera batteries in an inner coat pocket close to your body until you are ready to use them - cold drains battery levels
  • a waterproof camera / lens cover (available from places such as, etc. will prevent water damage to your camera from melting snow. also pack plenty of lens tissues / lens cloths to enable you to safely remove snow from glass elements
  • cold tripod legs can stick to your skin and peel it off - make sure to wear gloves, or fit leg warmers to your tripod
  • a flask of hot coffee, tea or soup  can greatly improve a long shoot in the snow