Welcome Swallows and for that matter any of the fast flying aeronauts make great photographic targets for enthusiasts wanting to pit themselves and their gear in the ultimate quest to ‘nail’ a flight shot of an aerial speedster. I have set about the challenge many times over the years with great optimism thinking that with Zeus’ grace, I will bag the ultimate Swallow in flight shot only to come away with a bunch of useless frames that hit the bottom of the recycle bin quicker than you can say National Geographic.
2012 | Nikon d300 | 7 fps | 480mm | 1/2000, f 7.1, ISO 250 (wrong angle, too dark, too slow, too soft, POV too high and too many sharks).
In recent times with new equipment offering faster frame rates and better resolution at higher ISO’s this ultimate goal is within the reach of the prosumer photographer and no longer the sole domain of the multi flash syncing, laser beam toting professionals.
The first prerequisite is a good body of water which is ideally long and narrow and aligned roughly east- west to allow for early morning and late afternoon sessions (when the light is optimal) and then of course you need the birds. Stake out your pool regularly to determine whether it is used as a watering point and whether you can identify any behavioural patterning. For example swallows, like other birds, prefer to fly into the breeze when undertaking technical manoeuvres, such as drinking on the wing, as this offers more control. By relating information such as this to your local patch you can align your set up to the birds’ patterns, increasing your chances of success.
For the shots to be effective you need a low point of view (POV). By this I mean as low as you can go. Useful aids include a ground sheet, skimmers or tripods which can fully flatten out to ground level. I use a NatureScapes skimmer ground pod with a jobu designs black widow junior gimbal head but this is overkill as my technique does not require any camera panning. I am therefore working on a different platform which will allow me to get even lower as the POV is slightly too high for my liking.
My swallows are pretty confiding and allow me to shoot them at between 8 and 10 metres (25-30 feet) distance. I used to use camo sheets, blinds and so on but these days I don’t. I’d suggest experimenting with camo for yourself and see if this offers any advantages in your own situation.
Preferred shooting distance 8-10 metres (25-30 feet) at full frame and 700mm. Nice low POV but could be lower.
My technique involves switching to manual focus mode (or back focus autofocus mode) and pre-focusing on a point on the surface of the pool, making sure that this is where the swallows are drinking from. This is something to be determined during the reconnaissance of your pool but be aware this may change as conditions vary and the pool dries out or swells up.
2016 | Canon 7D Mark 2 | 10 fps | 560mm | 1/2500, f 8, ISO 800 (reflection is off, catch light is poor, limited by low light performance, extender and focal length)
Lastly go fastly! Crank everything up as fast as your rig will allow, for instance in manual mode, dial in the highest ISO your camera is capable of whilst maintaining acceptable levels of noise. Then set your aperture, I like to shoot wide open or close to it. Finally your shutter speed will be determined by these two parameters and the amount of available light. I like to shoot at 1/5000 sec or faster to freeze the bird in flight and particularly any action such as contact with the water. Good strong light is therefore essential, but not to the point of being harsh. Max up your burst setting and wait. The waiting can take minutes but shouldn't take hours. If its the latter perhaps seek an alternative watering point. When the birds arrive they will typically circle overhead before coming down so you will have a bit of time to adjust your shooting position. Either look through the view finder or along side the camera, it doesn't really matter although the latter may enhance timing. When the birds approach the pre-focus area, squeeze off the shutter release, spray and pray - Good luck and may Zeus be with you!
2016 | Canon 1DX | 12 fps | 700 mm | 1/6400, f 7.1, ISO 2000 (getting there, could be lower and I'd like for the bird to make contact with the water)
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