I went back to the grass fields in central Georgia on August 25th to see if the Swallow-tailed Kites were still flocking together and fattening up before leaving for southern Brazil. They were still there. They put on first class display of aerobatics.
My first post about this special event focused on the birds and their natural history. This post will focus more on the photography: Getting the shot and how the gear was instrumental, and my choice for settings and why.
First a couple of disclaimers. This is not a review. It’s a description of my use on a specific shoot and my thoughts about the experience. I shoot Olympus gear by choice. I have no financial interest in Olympus (OMDS), nor they me.
The fields are on fenced private property. I never go on private property unless I have the owner’s permission. If I can, I get it in writing. This helps with encounters with neighbors or farm workers. This is not only the ethical right thing to do, it’s the safest. When a farmer ‘Posts’ (no trespassing) a piece of property they mean it. You don’t want to test them. Or, their ‘yard dogs’.
Unfortunately, it is getting harder to get permissions. Perhaps more unfortunate for photographers, it’s often because of the behavior of other photographers. When word spreads on social media of a rarity or a special ecological event, photographers swarm the location to ‘get the shot’. Many, not all thankfully, display atrocious behaviors. Opening and leaving open gates, leaving roads and trampling agriculture plantings and\or frightening livestock, both the farmer’s livelihood. They drive or walk across sensitive natural areas. They jump ahead of photographers actually trying to be respectful of the property and the subject. They do this even though it scares the subject(s) and puts an end to the event for themselves and everyone else. The list goes on. It’s gotten so bad that some farmers that once loved sharing their special place have blocked all access.
This is why I encourage fellow photographers to join and support Nature First.
When I got to this location, that I had previously scouted based on past sightings, the birds were in a field north of a county road that runs east west. This put the sun to my right when facing the field. Given their notorious aerobatic skills, the birds could be front-lit, back-lit, side-lit, all in the same pass over the field.
It is also important to point out that when shooting in Georgia on an August morning you are going to be shooting through 95+% humidity. Making grabbing focus, much less sharpness, difficult. But rather than wait for it to burn off (get down to 85% 🙂 ), I grabbed a lot of shots, some in focus and kind of sharp, because I think Georgia and our humidity are part of the story.
I parked in a safe opening on the public shoulder of the county road. This allowed me to follow the birds’ flights over the field by moving on foot along the road’s overgrown public easement. If I moved east or west was totally dependent on the birds’ flight paths. Which was dependent on which sections of the field was holding the most numbers of grasshoppers, june bugs, or dragonflies that were dooming themselves when the moved as their wings dried. Of course, just as I thought I had figured out the pattern and repositioned myself, the birds changed flight paths. Sometimes quite literally diving and reversing direction.
I finally decided to stand close to the middle of the field and take the shots that came to me. It minimized horizontal movement, but still put a premium on being able to swivel as well as change vertically, sometimes directly overhead.
Gear & Settings
All of these shots were taken handheld, while moving along the fence line, with the OMD EM1X and 150-400 F4.5 TC 1.25X (TC was on all morning so most shots were at 1000mm equivalent). I had the freedom to quickly move to take advantage of staying close to the birds when they were on the south side of the field, but without crossing onto the property. This is an excellent example of why mobility is important to me. More about mobility here.
I have a custom mode (C2) set up as the starting point for birds-in-flight. Let me state that my approach is to pick a simple set of settings and then practice. No fiddling. I want to be able to focus my mind on what’s in front of the lens and use muscle memory as much as possible. Keeping a swooping bird somewhere in the EVF at 1000mm eg is no small feat for me.
Core settings are: RAW, Shutter Priority (the default is 1\2000), metering center priority, CAF, 3X3 focus point, S-IS2, Auto ISO with 3200 upper limit, eshutter low burst (10fps), focus sensitivity 0, center start & center priority off.
A few other idiosyncrasies that may, or may not be important. I prefer Back Button Focus. Exposure Compensation on the front dial with steps of 1/3 stops. I do this because I can fine tune my intent to shoot ETTRish by using my right index finger. My goal is to ‘light up the bird’ as much as I can as quickly as I can, especially under rapidly changing light as in this case. Yes, I sometimes blow out the sky.
These are my personal choices. A benefit of the OMD series of cameras, I think, is their customization. I’m convinced that they can be set up to suit just about every idiosyncrasies a photographer may have. It does require some time digging deep into a complex menu system, but there are more and more resources to guide someone new to Olympus. Plus, as I said, I a big believer in setting the camera up, practicing, then adjusting if there proves to be a better way. Then stop fiddling. As I pointed out, I have a few select buttons (very customizable) to change a small number of settings while actively in the field.