Following on from my ‘personal learning notes’ from my Farne Island blog on wildlife photography technique I have some great conversation with Alan Hewitt from Hawkshead Photography. I thought I would update what I have learned.

Prior to my Farne workshop Alan had persuaded me to use my D800 instead of my D7000 which is my normal default for wildlife – of course I did rent a 200-400 f/4.0 which helped that decision. So this blog is the context of EXPEED 3 processing and the 51 point auto-focus. I was really impressed in the improvement with the D800 compared with my D7000 and have been tempted to switch to the D7100 as a consequence as it has the same auto focus and processing. However it seems the buffer on the D7100 is so pathetic if you use RAW you are lucky to get 3-4 sequential frames. I still don’t know what to do as at the moment a 200-400 f/4.0 is out of budget to buy and even renting for a few weeks is expensive and JPEG seems such a retrograde step – off to Africa again for 3 weeks in Nov/Dec this year. I dare say I will blog about this over the next months.

Auto focus update

The Farne’s highlighted that with rapid moving subjects setting up auto focus correctly and understanding the consequences of your settings is critical. In a previous post I asked myself several questions about wildlife photography and resolved:

  • Use single-point AF for “autofocus area mode”.
      • A new thing I have learned is that on the D800 if you click the centre button on the multi selector it reverts to the centre focus point (saving scrolling and time). Also the image size of the D800 enables cropping to give space to the front of the bird and reduce it behind.
      • Not all of the 51 focus points are equal there are two types – cross hatch and line points. The cross hatch points are central and are much more sensitive as these are 2D rather than a horizontal line (in landscape frame).
      • In addition not all focus points remain ‘designated’ as cross hatch, they ‘degrade’ to line points, depending on the Nikon AF lens (or combinations with a teleconvertor) you are using – this occurs were the widest aperture is between f/5.6 and f/8.0 (note: AF lens open the aperture as wide as possible whilst focussing regardless of any setting you have dialled in). The distribution of the points on the D800 can be seen below – see Nikon for more information.

    Nikon Focus Points D800

        • So understanding which focus points are cross hatch for the lens (or lens/ teleconvertor combination) is important so that by default you can use them rather than the line focus points. In other words use centre points and compose the image frame in post-processing.
  • Use AF-C for “autofocus mode”
  • For “a1 – AF-C priority selection” I have been using “Focus” on D7000 and “Release + Focus” on D800. Alan has been great in debating this and the following is how I am going to try in future:
    • On the D7000 and D800 use “Release” this is because it takes significant processing to get focus ‘lock’ and it means you cannot grab a reasonable frame rate – of course some shots will end up out of focus as time speeds by and the animal, or you, moves. I am comfortable with this for the D7000 but I am uncertain that “Release + Focus” is not a worthwhile compromise – going to try though!
    • To minimise the problem of having shots out of focus using “Release” it is important to separate the focusing action from the trigger action. This done by using “AF-ON” alone and disable focus on the trigger (“a4 – AF activation” set to OFF). This means the trigger button will not attempt to re-focus when you take a continuous shot sequence. You are reliant on your depth of field and AF-C tracking (given you keep your thumb on the AF-ON button) to ensure a series of shots are in focus. I am sure this needs loads of practice to get “rid” of years of learnt behaviour.
    • Using “AF-ON” as OFF is also meant to switch off VR which saves battery and I have found to be limited help if not handholding – the D800 and D4 firmware don’t do this at the moment (they should) so if you can remember turn it off – do so.

Flash Sync Speed

The D800 normal flash sync speed is 1/250s and I found this to be too slow when taking flash enhanced bird shots on the Farne’s.

Artic Tern on the attack in Farne Islands

However using “Custom Setting Menu > e1 Flash Sync Speed” it is possible to change this all the way to 1/8000s.

Choose “1/320s (Auto FP)” or “1/250s (Auto FP)” then use shutter-priority or manual modes to set the shutter speed to anything you want. When you set the shutter speed to faster than 1/250s the camera fires the flash in thousands of short pulses instead of one big flash. Obviously the faster the shutter speed the less power the flash can manage and you are dependent on the ambient light.

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So in the continual search for improving my wildlife photography I decided a workshop on bird photography would be good and Hawkshead Photography day on the Farne Islands on 11 June 2013 attracted me. I have to say it was great fun and Kaleel and Trai we both informative and really helpful.

Whilst I ‘sorted’ my autofocus issues (see earlier blog) I still hadn’t tested the ideas in anger. In addition I thought I would ‘test’ the Nikon 200-400 f/4 that Florian advised he used for 80-90% of his wildlife image and so I rented one from LensForHire (who I can really recommend – a great service). In discussion with Alan from Hawkshead beforehand I decided to use my D800 rather than my D7000.

Out of interest if I sound informed about the birds of the Farne Islands in this blog its because I bought Kaleel’s book Wildlife of the Farne Islands: A Guide to All the Major Breeding Species.Includes professional photography tips – its recommended.

The Puffin’s are what I had in my mind to photograph and I think I got some nice shots with many good take off shots – it was quite breezy and Trai pointed out a spot where the Puffin’s took off into the wind on a headland. I also spotted a nesting area where Puffin’s would come in with Sand Eels in their beaks.

Puffin on Farne Islands Puffin Landing in Farne Islands Puffins on Farne Islands

Puffins in Flight on Farne Islands Puffin with Sand Eels on Farne Islands Puffin in Flight on Farne Islands

Before you get far off the boat however you have to dodge the Artic Terns who nest close to the path and are vicious. We had been advised about hats – I used my Tilly with extra padding in the crown and even then it hurt especially if they got their beak into one of the “eyes” in the side wall of the Tilly – next time I am going to craft something more robust. Kaleel likes using flash to capture the terns going for you I tried this with my Zeiss 21mm set to f8.0 initially though I used my D7000 with a 16-85 on without a flash. I like the flash idea although it has the consequence of a 1/250 shutter which is perhaps a little slow – I am sure there is a way to freeze the action more with the flash.

Artic Tern on the attack in Farne Islands

Artic Tern on the attack in Farne Islands

The other Auks other than Puffins are Guillemots with similar numbers they need a reasonable amount of ‘pulling’ in post processing as they are quite dark! There are also a few Razorbills.

Guillemots on Farne Islands Guillemot in flight on Farne Islands

Guillemonts-Prof Ian Purves-20130611-0942 Razorbill on Cliff in Farne Islands

Another ‘dark’ bird is the Shag and found a lovely shot of one on the nest with a chick – I used my Zeiss 100m f/2.0 Makro-Planner and the boken is great. I must do a blog on this lens I’ve been a bit slack recently.

Shag with Chick on Farne Islands Shag preening on Farne Islands

Shag on Farne Islands Shag with Chick on Farne Islands

The gulls are interesting I particularly liked the Kittiwakes but found myself on a cliff above their nests and the 200-400 is quite heavy to handhold I had been using my Safari monopod technique quite well with the Puffins but this was impractical when shooting below me. In retrospect I should have put my 70-200 f/2.8 on. The other gull of interest, and not that common, was the massive Great Black-backed Gull. There were more of the Lesser Black-Backed ones – though still not many. The Great does a nice line in eating young Puffin’s. I like the shot below with the Puffin’s ducking. Of note this shot had the x2 teleconvertor on (so 800mm) and it worked well with a central focal point.

Kittiwake in Flight onto nest with egg on cliff in Farne Islands

Great Black-backed Gull in flight on Farne Islands

The final shot I was ‘at sea’ with a rolling boat and the birds (Gannet’s) flying across us a 45 degree’s at some distance and hand holding the 200-400 – I got several sharp shots!

Gannets in flight near Farne Islands

Personal learning notes

  • The obvious thing I learned is about understand your “prey” – Scout out the lay of the land and observe behaviours. On the Farne’s wind direction and observation of take off and landing directions is important.
  • The Nikon 200-400 f/4.0 and D800 combination is amazing.
  • I don’t use flash so I need to read up about freezing action with flash. [Update 01/08/2013 see blog]
  •  Trai suggested trying to use the [AF-ON] button for focus and disable focus on the [Shutter-Release]  apparently Alan uses this technique but neither of us could work the settings out – I need to investigate and try it. [Update 01/08/2013 see blog]
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