Techniques

Waterbirds on the Chobe River

Helena and I try each year to spend a day on our own, on the Chobe River, photographing water-birds. Besides the water-birds, the Chobe also offers great photographic opportunities for elephants, crocodiles and hippo.

On this particular outing we were hoping to target grey-headed gulls and African skimmers in flight.

 

Grey heron, Chobe River, Botswana. Canon 1DmkIII, Canon EF300mm f2.8 IS lens. Handheld from a boat. Shutter speed 1/2000sec, Aperture f/7.1, Iso 400. Evaluative metering. RAW capture, processed in ACR and Photoshop CS5.

Shooting from a boat provides a stable, low-level platform. We shared two camera bodies, a Canon 7D, and a Canon 1Dmk3. I did all my shooting with a Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS lens, while Helena used the much lighter Canon 300mm f/4.0 IS lens. Whilst 300mm lens would not normally be considered long enough for most bird photography, the relatively large size of the gulls and skimmers meant that we did not need larger lenses. The birds also pass quite close to the boat at times. Although we had a monopod and tripod on the boat, most of our shots were made handholding.

 

African skimmer and grey-headed gull chase. Canon 7D, Canon EF300mm f2.8 lens. Handheld from a boat. Shutter speed 1/2000sec, Aperture f/8.0. Iso 400. Evaluative metering, Ai Servo focus. RAW capture, processed in ACR and Photoshop CS5.

There was ample light at this time of year which enabled us to shoot fast shutter speeds. We used Evaluative metering, and our autofocus mode was Ai Servo. For birds in flight, I used a single autofocus point, and tried to keep in on the flying birds. Best results were had when we were able to start tracking a bird through the viewfinder a long way off, and continually refocusing on it.

 

Grey-headed gull, Chobe River, Botswana. Canon 7D, Canon EF300 f2.8 IS lens. Handheld from a boat. Shutter speed 1/2500sec, Aperture f/6.3, Iso 400. Evaluative metering, plus 0.33 Exposure compensation, Ai Servo focus. RAW capture, processed in ACR and Photoshop CS5.

The grey-headed gulls put on a good show for us, snatching up small fish from the water’s surface. There was also interaction between a nesting African skimmer and a gull that flew too close to the skimmer’s nest. After we noticed this happening we actually waited until it happened again, and I managed to get an image of an aerial chase.

 

Great White Egret, Chobe River, Botswana. Canon 1DmkIII, Canon EF300 f2.8 IS lens. Handheld from a boat. Shutter speed 1/2000sec, Aperture f/7.1, Iso 400. Evaluative metering, Ai Servo focus. RAW capture, processed in ACR and Photoshop CS5.

Interestingly, the wind played a big role in how our images turned out. When it was still, the water would reflect the colour of the sky, which was quite bright most of the time, and not an ideal background. However, later in the morning, the wind picked up, and the surface became much darker and ruffled, which made for an excellent background for the white and grey gulls when they flew over it. It is also important to take note of the wind when approaching larger birds that may be on the ground. As they usually have to take off into the wind, if one positions upwind of them, the likelihood is high that they may fly toward you upon lift-off. I got some good results using this approach with a grey heron. We also made use of the wind when we wanted to drift the boat closer to a subject, without making any sound. We would shut down the engine, and just gradually drift silently closer.

 

African fish-eagle, Chobe River, Botswana. Canon 1DmkIII, Canon EF300 f2.8 IS lens. Handheld from a boat. Shutter speed 1/2000sec, Aperture f/7.1, Iso 400. Evaluative metering, Ai Servo focus. RAW capture, processed in ACR and Photoshop CS5.

Shooting in this manner from a moving boat means that one must take extra care to use the moving subject focus mode, Ai Servo, and continuously keep on ‘pumping’ the shutter/AF button to keep on making the camera refocus.

At the end of the day, our arms were heavy from holding up our cameras and our CF cards were almost full. The accompanying images were all taken during this trip.

About the Author:

I am a guide and a photographer, with a deep interest in all things to do with nature. I am based in Cape Town, South Africa, but travel often to wild places whilst leading photographic safaris, and enjoying the outdoors.

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