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Africa Geographic Travel

Mark Drysdale is a groundbreaking wildlife photographer who takes images using unique and creative methods to portray his subject in a ‘new light’.  His particular focus is bird life and you can view his outstanding In Flight Gallery in the second issue of Africa Geographic’s online magazine. 

As a lecturer for Wildlife Photographic College (WPC), Mark gives us some lessons on photographing birds in action:

“The pintail whydah is a remarkable little bird. It averages 12-13cm (4,5 – 5 in) in length and weighs about 26 grams. In the breeding season, the male grows his tail an additional 20 cm and uses it in his elaborate courtship display, by hovering around the female, showing off his tail.


In birds, the “cloaco” is the terminal chamber of the gastrointestinal and urogenital systems, opening at the vent. (In other words…. they have both their No 1 and No 2 stored in the same place and use only one exhaust port.) Birds also reproduce with this organ, and when mating, this is known as the “cloacal kiss.” Birds that mate using this method touch their cloacae together, some species for only a few seconds, which is sufficient time for sperm to be transferred from the male to the female.


Capturing this on camera is not akin to some sordid X-rated movie, but more in line with a sexy extroverted club-style tango; simply, poetry in motion.


By using the above example, I will give you some tips and tricks for photographing birds in motion:

1. Time of day, early morning. Images captured at 06h10. For me, the time of day was critical, because when photographing a contrasting (black and white) subject like the male whydah, exposure becomes more and more difficult with hard light. Trying to get the darks exposed properly without clipping the whites becomes more and more difficult as the morning rolls on. On this particular morning, I was not blessed with pure golden rays but more overcast conditions with the occasional ray of sunshine.


2. Direction of light, from behind my back, at a slight angle. I wanted the sun from behind so that the male would be more likely to fly 90° to the sun (on the focal plane) as opposed to looking straight into the sun when it was low in the sky.


3. Wind direction, from behind my back. I needed the wind direction from my back, so that I could get the male whydah to hover, facing me or diagonally to me. If the wind had been into me I would have ended up photographing the back of the bird.


4. Background, try and establish a good clean background without clutter. I placed a number of natural perches in positions, which the female could land on, and where my background would be un-cluttered, which in turn would enhance the subject. Subtle backgrounds, long distances behind the subject make for the smoothest and creamiest of bokehs.


5. Shutter Speed – in this case what was the slowest speed I could use. Most small birds require relatively fast shutter speeds to freeze the motion, (1/3200th sec) unless of course you want to become creative and include a bit of motion blur, to emphasise the actual movement. Hovering birds make good subjects; kingfishers, sunbirds etc. In this particular case, it was a balance between not having my speed so slow that the male was a complete blur but also not having it so fast that it froze everything. There is no fixed rule for this speed; it depends on actual conditions at the time of shooting. I chose to shoot at 1/500th sec using a tripod to support my camera and lens to achieve this.


5. Aperture.When calculating the focal depth (how much of the subject is in focus front to back) the factors you need to consider are, which camera you are using, the size and type of lens and the distance that you are from your subject. There are apps that do all this for you and can be downloaded to your phone/device for quick and easy access. These are generally referred to as DOF calculators. In this circumstance, I used F 4.


6. Ideal distance from the subject. When deciding upon the ideal distance from the subject, it is a balance between lens size, how much of the image you want to crop, how much of the subject you need/want in focus i.e. the depth of field. This subject was approximately 12 metres from me.


7. A good understanding of your subject and their behaviour. When deciding how you are going to photograph a bird, it is advisable to do some research on that bird. Knowing its behavioural patterns will go a long way to deciding what settings to dial in to your camera. If possible, and time permits, sit and watch what’s happening around you before hurriedly shoving your eye in the viewfinder, to get it all wrong. Research the area prior to shooting in it, more often than not your success rate will be a lot higher if you know where the bird is going to be and when.


The last thing that I would like to mention with respect to photographing birds, or any other creature is, be mindful of them and their environment, we are visitors in their environment.”

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The Africa Geographic Photographer of the Year Competition is brought to you by Land Rover and Canon, in association with At Close Quarters, Airlink, Klaserie Sands River Camp, Hideaways, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Thule and Rhino Tears. The competition will run from December 2016 to May 2017 and entrants can submit images via the online entry form or via Africa Geographic's Instagram channel. This profile will be used to showcase photographic tips from experts as well as blogs from our sponsors to set you on your way to becoming our Photographer of the Year!

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