Swell seabirds off Cape Town (the challenges of seabird photography)

March 05, 2012  •  Leave a Comment
This was my first time on a pelagic from Cape Town, and the first where I was very much focused on photography. Here’s a brief account of the day and reflections on the (many) challenges of photographing seabirds from a small fishing boat.
 
I’d booked the trip with Cape Town Pelagics. I can’t recommend them enough - aside from being a well organised operation, they donate all profits to seabird research and conservation, including BirdLife International's Save the Albatross Fund. Big thumbs up.
 
During the previous week the wind had, at times, been very strong, and not surprisingly the trip was pushed back one day. We met at Hout Bay Harbour early Sunday morning and were treated to a fabulous day out. The skipper was great, and clearly interested in the birds - many of these operators split their time between fishing and bird watching tours, and so it was great to have a skipper who was dialled into the birds and eager and willing to shout out observations. Cliff, our guide, was equally great, and the fellow birders on the trip were all fun to be with. Although the fishing boat is small (oops, forgot to take a picture), there was ample room for everyone (although on the way out those at the back did get a little wet). As we left the shelter of Hout Bay it was clear why the trip had been delayed. The swell was still in the region of 2+ metres, which gave us an “interesting” journey out – one that I likened to an hour long roller coaster ride.
 
This time of year is generally considered low season, but we found a healthy selection of species and in good numbers. Highlights included 1 juvenile Wandering Albatross, 60+ Shy Albatross, c10 Black-browed Albatross and a variety of other seabirds. The full trip report can be found on Cape Town Pelagics web site.

On the way out, the skipper kept a careful eye on the radar, hoping for a contact that signalled a much hoped for fishing vessel. We were in luck, and as we neared the ship we could see a good number of birds.


Mass of seabirds behind the trawler
D300, 70-200mm VRI f/8 @ 1/1000, ISO400
 
There were plenty of birds milling around, waiting for the trawler to haul her nets and when she did there was an explosion of activity. The sea just behind the boat bubbled with activity – seals, gulls, petrels and albatrosses - all eager for any morsel of fish they could grab.


Shy Albatross squabble over scraps
D300, 70-200mm VRI f/8 @ 1/1000, ISO400
 
Weather was bright sunshine with occasional scattered clouds. Really BRIGHT, making any in-camera review of images to check exposure very difficult. I was shooting with the sun coming over my shoulder, using manual exposure – typically ISO400 sunny 16 (f/8 at 1/1600), with an occasional adjustment (e.g. for passing clouds). I'm also checking the histogram display (as best I can) for blown highlights, especially on the white feathers of the head. Birds in the sky were fine, but I struggled a bit with birds against the dark blue water. Looking back through my shots, I probably should have increased shutter speed to be around 1/2000 to 1/4000 (opening the aperture accordingly). I don’t like to take the D300 above ISO400 if at all possible, but again probably should have done so, at least for a few shots. Two other observations: at this shutter speed VR is firmly set off, and I’ve also dropped to 12 bit RAW to increase the fps.
 
The birds would typically approach the back of the boat, and then veer towards the trawler. Frustratingly, more often than not they would turn before they had drawn level, and so the opportunity for images where the bird was either approaching (and in range) or still side-on were limited. I made a conscious effort to avoid taking picture of birds flying away, but despite my efforts, many are doing just that!!! As an added consideration, I don’t want the bird’s face in shadow.
 
I would pick an individual bird that was approaching on a potentially good trajectory – hoping it would fly towards the rear of the boat and then turn slowly, offering options for head-on and side shots. I would pick up the bird early, establish focus and track the bird into the “shooting zone”. As the bird gets closer, since it’s flying towards you, things start to happen very quickly. And when it turns to offer the perfect shot, the window of opportunity is extremely narrow, as before you know it the bird has passed and is only offering rear views. Throughout this, I’m trying to keep the pan smooth, in time with the speed of the bird, and contend with the swell that’s introducing an unwanted up and down movement. There is no chance to stand up – I’m sitting, bracing my legs as best I can to minimise unwanted movement. Overall, a pretty challenging set-up, and of any trip, this one had the greatest number of throw always.
 
From my perspective, the 3 main issues were:
 
(1) not enough bird in the frame: this gives a focus lock problem, as it’s all too easy to lose focus when tracking a small subject in the viewfinder. Furthermore, this introduces the issue that to get a good sized subject you’re going to be forced to crop in post-processing. I had other options offering greater focal length in my camera bag that simply never saw the light – I now wished I tried them;
(2) birds flying away: once the bird has passed and/or turned away, the shot is lost;
(3) missed focus: if swell hits at just the wrong moment, the sea above or below the subject is beautifully in focus!
 
I have plenty of shots to illustrate the challenges, and only a handful of “successes”, and even those required a degree of post-processing to extract every pixel of detail.
 
This first one, of an adult Shy Albatross, is a classic sunny-16 exposure, and most importantly the bird is turned slightly towards the camera (note the wing furthest from the camera is ahead of the closest wing).

Shy Albatross Thalassarche cauta
D300, 70-200mm VRI f/8 @ 1/1600, ISO400

This second image, also of Shy Albatross, benefits again from the angle of approach, this time a top-side shot. A passing bank of cloud and the exposure was slightly reduced by dropping the aperture by 2/3 EV (spot metered off the clear sky, +2 EV).


Shy Albatross Thalassarche cauta
D300, 70-200mm VRI f/6.1 @ 1/1600, ISO400

And the third offering is a Southern Skua (also known as Subantarctic Skua), passing overhead.


Southern Skua Catharacta antarctica
D300, 70-200mm VRI f/8 @ 1/1600, ISO400

Once again, thanks to Cape Town Pelagics, Cliff our guide, the skipper and also my fellow birders/photographers who were a great bunch to be at sea with.
 

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