May 28

The Dance of Photography

So what camera settings did you use?This is the one question that holds promise of success. Surely by emulating the hallowed shutter speed, aperture and iso of a sought after shot it‘ll all be so much easier. Won’t it?

I spent a while recently in the company of Wagtails. About four hours to be reasonably precise, and during that afternoon of changing light and fleeting cloud I chased down some shots of the flighty little birds. In response to a facebook post of an initial set of some half dozen images from this shoot a friend asked about my settings. Hence this article.

The day before, with lockdown being lifted ever so slightly Nicola and I took ourselves off in our van to spend a little time by a secluded river bank and it was there that the Wagtails piqued my interest.

They just never stopped! Life for them was a rollercoaster of flycatching to fulfil the demands of their growing family hidden somewhere beyond the nearby drystone wall. Noticing the way their antics between the rocks were punctuated by occasional and haphazard aerobatic pirouettes I wondered if I could possibly catch the essence of them in camera. So, we returned the next day, I with the appropriate camera gear and my wife with her art materials.

Pied Wagtail fly catching

A Question

The question from a Facebook friend gave me cause to ponder on just what it takes to catch a telling set of shots and it goes without saying it’s way more than just the camera settings. Of course it’s important that the settings are appropriate for the situation and your desired outcome, that’s a given. However having the most perfect set of settings won’t make up for a lack of preparation and an understanding of your chosen subject and what it is you want to say about it. Additionally, a good working knowledge of your kit, photographic techniques and the mechanics of the event are essential when the going gets tough.

So, in response to the question my settings were 1/4000 of a second, f5.6, 6,400 iso, daylight white balance, manual exposure, a hybrid of auto and manual focus and as many frames per second as my dear Canon 5Dsr could muster. The lens was 100 - 400 and I was shooting at the long end. Having said all of that, even by emulating these settings in the same light conditions would be no guarantee of a result. Photography really isn’t about the gear, although good gear does help! Most DSLRs these days are well able to match these exposure and focus settings, but it takes practise, practise and more practise to be able to massage these settings on the fly, instinctively, without taking your eye from the viewfinder.

Let me briefly outline my approach to this shoot and hopefully shed a little light on my working practice. Some aspects that I discuss here may be surprising but, for me, all these acquired skills helped gather this set of images.

Firstly I got to know my Wagtails. Yes I know it’s not correct to capitalise the first letter of a species name but for me it shows more respect and that is where my own personal process begins. I need to connect with what I am hoping to photograph. The deeper I can enter the mind, the flow and the essence of my subject the more likelihood there is that we’ll get a conversation going which will in turn give me my story. And that is what I want to photograph.

So, I sat and I watched. My camera was in my lap of course, but I wanted to drink in as much about the Wagtails as possible. There were two species performing on the river, Pied and Grey. I had a pair of Pied to work with and a pair of Grey who were accompanied by one of their recently fledged nestlings. The four adult birds looked somewhat bedraggled. They obviously hadn’t been keeping up with their preening regime and had damaged feathers due to the pressures of bringing up a ravenous family. Contrasting to this was the shiny new Grey Wagtail who was still blurred around the edges, softer coloured and with a shorter tail. Her movements were far less frantic too. She was here to play, chase the odd Mayfly and beg food off her busy parents.

Here's a short video showing the wagtails in full flow, at normal speed which illustrates the challenge I was facing.

I sat and I watched their life unfold in front of me. Immediately I noted that the Grey Wagtails were far less apparent. Their visits were few and far between and they only stayed with me for twenty seconds or so at a time. Perhaps their young were more self sufficient now, leaving them to be a bit more relaxed about life. This was certainly not the case with the Pied Wagtails who skipped down the river every few minutes to stuff their beaks full of Stoneflies, Mayflies, Caddisflies and any other flying insect they could espy.

Within the first fifteen minutes I’d discovered that the birds hunted downstream, from my left to my right, and circled clockwise across the breadth of the rocky river as they made their way between the bankings. That was a pattern that I could work with. Although I couldn’t prefocus I did have an idea of the track they would make as they traversed their hunting grounds. Their random wanderings down the river weren’t quite so random after all. However what I really wanted to catch was the aerial acrobatics display when they launched upwards to capture a passing insect. Most of their prey was taken from the rocks, and the boundary where the rocks met the river, but every now and again they’d rocket skywards without warning, catch something and return to the rocky riverbed. This action took no longer than a couple of heartbeats. I know because I timed it.


The psychology of the hunted

Like most every other creature these Wagtails had bigger animals who fancied a taste of them and they had to be constantly on alert for the Sparrowhawk that quartered the river occasionally, ready to make a meal of any small bird that was too preoccupied with their own hunt. No doubt in their nest, and their roost they had to be wary of weasels, stoats, mink and other predators who would take them or their young given half the chance. I mention this because it’s helpful to understand the psychology of the hunted, and it has much to do with our photography.

My lifelong study of nature and deep nature connection has shown me the power of the stare. As soon as we lock our eyes on a wild animal it triggers a ‘hunted’ response and the flight instinct kicks in. Therefore, it’s become my practice to do my best to appear unconcerned, uninterested in what the animal in front of me is doing. I’ll even try to look quite distracted if my subject should appear to be paying me attention. In this way I’m doing my best to let it know that I’m not hunting it, I’m not hungry, I’m just sharing the same place for a while.

I was going to try to shoot these birds from between ten and twenty five feet away without a hide or camouflage so trust was needed. Professional trackers stress that it’s important not to even think about hunting the animal, otherwise it may pick up on your intention and become very wary. So, I watched my Wagtails without staring at them and thought to myself that it ‘might be good to try to get some photos’. This may seem rather woohoo to some, quite unnecessarily extreme and bordering on madness, however the trackers I’ve learned from claim that animals follow their intuition, their gut feeling and trust it fully because their life depends on being on the ball. Just as you may get a feeling of being watched so do animals, they tell me. Who am I to argue.

So I sat there, me with my Wagtails and began to follow their patterns. It didn’t take very long for them to settle down and carry on with life without seeing me as too much of a threat. It was time for me to begin.

The day was dull with the occasional bright patch coursing over through the thick clouds. The Wagtails were presenting variously against light sand coloured rocks or the dark shady bank so maintaining the right exposure in these conditions was going to be fun. I began my session by ascertaining what shutter speed would freeze movement. I wanted their eyes to be sharp so had to establish this setting at the very outset. I decided to err on the side of caution and opted for 1/4,000 of a second. The birds were forever hopping, skipping and flying from rock to rock without so much as a pause for breath so this seemed to me the right approach.

Wagtail hopping

My shooting method

I set my camera to manual exposure with a wide open aperture of f5.6 and the aforementioned shutter speed of 1/4,000. To correctly expose my images I needed an iso of 3,200 for most of the shots but had to vary this when the light changed. During the brightest moments I could reduce this down to 800, however when the thicker clouds rolled by I had to take a risk and go all the way up to 6,400.

Focusing was going to be fun too. I had to work with a depth of field of about ten centimetres, or so it felt, and my autofocus was being constantly fooled by the jagged rocks that filled the river bed. To gain maximum control I choose to work with back button focusing so that I can detach focusing from exposure reading or triggering the shutter and this approach paid dividends in these conditions. However I could only trust autofocus to get me somewhere in the ball park and had to constantly adjust my focusing manually as the birds were rarely moving parallel to me, they were either coming closer or moving away diagonally in their hunt for hatching flies.

I began to shoot in earnest now, having gained the fully trust of the Wagtails and soon filled my first memory card. I chimped on the back of the screen very often to ensure I was actually getting sharp shots, the birds giving me plenty of chance to review my images when they disappeared up the river to feed their young.

As the light changed frequently I had to keep an eye on my exposure and tweak my iso accordingly, however my Canon raw files do have a good bit of latitude to play with. In fact I chose to underexpose a good number of my shots rather than venture any higher up the iso scale. 6,400 is quite enough for me! Lightroom successfully rescued them.

Shooting handheld, I used the lens’ built in image stabiliser where I could, primarily for those fleeting moments when a Wagtail posed for me. Otherwise I disabled it as it slowed down my lens as I tracked the birds along the river. I lost several good shots due to the IS liability to ‘drag’ as I moved my camera swiftly upwards to stick with an ascending bird.

About thirteen hundred shots later and I’d filled my boots. Yes the right settings enabled me to catch the shots but more important was my instinctive connection with firstly my camera and secondly, the Wagtails. When they came to dance in front of me I couldn’t afford to take my eye from the viewfinder for fear of losing them so I had to be able to depress the focus button on the back of my camera with my right thumb, tweak the focus with my left hand, switch the image stabiliser on or off with my left middle finger, use my right middle finger to press the iso change button and turn the rear thumb wheel with my right thumb to change this and I had to trigger the shutter with my right index finger! All without leaving my viewfinder. I watched the Wagtail with my other eye to predict it’s movements as best I could. It felt more like playing a musical instrument than tweaking camera settings.

Secondly I knew my Wagtails. I spent time with them, we got to know each other and we had that conversation, that dance that gave me my story and enabled me to catch the essence of Pied Wagtail life down on the river. Eleven hundred and fifty of those thirteen hundred shots were destined straight for the bin. Some twenty five are long term keepers at the moment. However a future cull may reduce this further as I’m still attached to some of the less sharp images.

My main aim was to catch the birds at the top of their pirouette in their aerial dance. I managed to secure just three of these and none of them are tack sharp. But is is what it is and those shots will stay. Perhaps that’s the best I will ever be able to do and I’m ok with that.

Of equal importance was my time being Wagtail. I saw behaviours which I can’t even begin to fathom as the birds wove their tracks over rock, water and air in front of me and for that I’ll be forever grateful. This set of shots, with all the inherent imperfections will hold those memories for me and remind me of my date of catching stories off two families down by the river.

If you'd like to see more of my Pied Wagtail images please follow this link over to my main Portfolio site.

Here you'll find more galleries from my recent shoots and you can chart the progress of my personal projects on a regular basis.

About the author 

Jason

Jason has been a photographer all of his life and successfully carved out a career as a professional editorial photographer and writer working with a wide range of publishers in the UK and beyond. He spends much of his creative time working on personal projects and helping other creative photographers get more from their calling.

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    1. Thank you Roger. I’m hoping to do more ‘behind the camera’ pieces like this which explain more than the merely technical.

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