Persistence Series – Creating the image – Flying Macaws

Ben Cherry

There are many photographs which are taken in ‘the moment’ where something happens and if you know your camera well enough you’ll be able to quickly respond and get the shot. However, sometimes you have an image or story in you head that you simply can’t move past.

In this new series we are going to look at some examples, where photographers have to dig deep, problem solve and follow their vision. Hopefully lifting the veil on the phrase “Wow you were so lucky to be there just at the right moment, all of those factors came together”. What I’ve come to realise over the past few years is that if you look at the great photographers of our time, many have one thing loosely in common – time. Time to hone an idea, experiment with a subject, to get under the skin of a location, ultimately to fulfil an idea.

Flying Macaw-22
This is Laurel, who was one of my star birds when it came to this project. Notice the mark on the left side of his face, that was one of his unique markings.

I spent the second half of last year working as a scarlet macaw researcher (I’m also a zoologist by training) studying a reintroduced population in a rural part of South-Western Costa Rica. What this gave me, more than any other opportunity so far was that same key factor – time. Quite quickly into the placement I became fascinated with these gorgeous birds, it’s pretty easy to see why.

Away from their clear beauty, I wanted to show these impressive birds flying through the rainforest, how their vivid colours stand out so bright against the green dominated background. But there was one key issue – light. Rainforests are notoriously difficult to photograph any form of action in because they are so dark. The canopy above absorbs the vast majority of the harsh tropical sunlight, leaving it surprisingly gloomy in the undergrowth. Combine that with the humidity that leaves everything with a thin layer of moisture on it (had to put my clothes to rest at the end of the placement, they had gone above and beyond the call of duty!) and you’ve got yourself a hostile environment for camera kit.


Initial attempts

A common way to move around this is to use a slow shutter speed (generally your only option) and pan with your subject to capture that sense of movement. This works up to a point but I wanted to freeze the detail so I tried to implement a simple on-camera-flash approach… Again it was progress but not what I wanted to finish with.
NOTE – I was cautious with the birds in regards to using flash (as you should always be with wildlife), these were wild birds, but because of my research position I was in relatively close proximity to them. They were not disturbed by the flash while in flight, however I was aware that I needed to keep the number of flashes down as much as possible per encounter.
Here is a video that we produced midway through our placement. Showing the initial results and set up as well as some of the problems.

Problem 1. Auto Focus

As the X-Series continues to develop, so does its autofocus capabilities. I’ve recently played with the X-Pro2 and wow, it is a definite improvement over the X-T1, which in itself is so impressive considering where the camera started and where it is now thanks to firmware updates. However, even the best cameras in the world would have really struggled with what I was attempting. Tracking a flying macaw under the rainforest canopy, flying at serious speed from tree to tree! This unfortunately meant that focus tracking was out of the window. But as time went on, I began to understand the routes the birds would fly, this allowed me to prefocus and develop my photo idea further.
Flying Macaw-14

Problem 2. Light source

With refocusing there still needs to be a degree of flexibility to keep the subject sharp. After all this is a wild animal and it isn’t on a scalextric track from tree to tree, they would often deviate by metres. To minimise these missed opportunities, I needed to use a relatively high F-Stop (F8-11) to allow me a good percentage of sharp images. However, high apertures need lots of light and to make it even harder I needed to use my flash(es) at 1/8 power output or faster. The reason for this is the relative time the flash fires for between full power aka 1/1 and quarter power (1/4), those flash duration are long enough for there to still be some motion blur as the birds are moving so quickly. 1/8 power freezes the birds in flight ensuring sharp details can be seen. HOWEVER, that is all well and good but when using F8/11, 1/8 flash power output and while trying to just about overpower ambient light, you need more than one regular flashgun to make this happen!

 

This was a key part of the project, it was initially all about finding a balance between the ambient light and the flash so I could still capture some of the surroundings, making it less of a studio shoot. To make this a reality I just dropped the shutter speed from the max sync speed of 1/180 to between 1/60-1/30. The flash would fire and freeze the details of the macaw but the slower shutter speed would create some motion blur and allow enough light from the background to reach the sensor to register the lush green environment.

Problem 3. Focal Length

I really like using a wider focal length with the macaws, however as the previous image illuminates, it often includes part of the canopy in frame. Light which penetrates the canopy shines down creating these blown out highlight trails. Sometimes these work quite nicely, but often they are difficult to make work, especially if the birds fly in front of a canopy gap, then you get these weird looking highlights cutting through the flapping wings!

Flying Macaw-13


Problem 4. Single Shot Flash

Fujifilm launched the update for the X-T1, allowing flashes to be fired in continuous shooting mode the week I left Costa Rica! Unfortunate for me, but it made for an interesting process, certainly a character building one. With ALL the other factors that had to be dealt with, I also only had one chance to take a shot per flyby! As you can imagine this got pretty darn infuriating at times. There were many times where I clicked at the wrong time and missed part of a wing, or got the wings up when I wanted them down etc.
Flying Macaw-8
The wings are usually the problem, but the long tail feathers can cause problems too! It is about finding the balance between the subject being too small in the frame and being able to fit it all in!

Steadily making progress…

Then I raised the shutter speed to try and freeze the bird against a darker background. The reason why it is darker is because little of the flash light is aimed at the background (as multiple flashes were involved, all pointing toward the bird from different directions) and the shutter speed was now was 1/180 (max flash sync for X-T1) so it was 3/4 times faster than previous images.

All in all this process went on for three/four months. It was a very interesting exercise, and laying the photos out like this you can see how the project steadily developed. Often with projects like this it is all about problem solving, from fixing kit in the middle of nowhere to getting around problems out of your control, such as the flash-camera interaction. Though incredibly frustrating at times, it was a brilliant experience and yielded some good results by the end.


Final image

You may not agree but I like the balance in this image. the bird is clear and crisp while the background is still distinguishable.
You may not agree but I like the balance in this image. the bird is clear and crisp while the background is still distinguishable.

Here is a 2 minute something video visually summarising my project and its issues.

Hopefully what you will take from this is that if you have an idea, don’t give up at the first hurdle, break it down bit by bit and steadily you can make progress.
What projects are you working on with your X-Series? Why not let Fujifilm UK know, the community is teeming with talent, ideas and people willing to lend a hand – lets bounce ideas off each other.

A little about Ben

Ben is an environmental photojournalist, zoologist and Fujifilm X-Photographer. His passion is showing the beauty and fragility of the natural world. Find more of his work at:

Preparing and maintaining your kit for the great outdoors

Sloth - Ben Cherry
When I’m heading out for a long day(s) in the outdoors this is the kind of equipment I usually take with me. Now it may be more than you would ever need, but for those looking to get into landscape or wildlife photography, particularly those about to head out on safari – this blog is for you.


A bag for your gear

Camera gear ready for Costa Rica!

There are too many camera bags in the world, meaning that the choice available is verging on ridiculous! If there is one item that ignites G.A.S (gear acquisition syndrome) over anything else it is probably camera bags. I’m currently using a Pelican 1510 hard case with a Thinktank Ultralight (discontinued) that fits inside the case. This basically acts like a backup backpack as it isn’t the comfiest bag for long treks, so it generally acts as a safe and secure place to store gear. I took this set up to Costa Rica because I’m based there for such a long time so the pain of travelling with such a heavy pack was negated by the benefits it offers me over the six months away, namely water-tight, lockable security.

All fits in my Millican Dave

For when I’m out and about I have two non-camera bags to choose from: Millican Dave, a great hiking bag that when combined with a cheap padded insert becomes a very good camera bag. Or a dry bag backpack which I often use on light treks where the conditions are looking a little ominous. This isn’t to say that Dave isn’t up to the challenge (he’s pretty good at being water repellent and has rain cover), but out here in the rainforest, when it rains, it pours! And having a bag that can in fact be submerged helps to ease the mind. The advantage of both of these bags is that they are easy to stuff lots of items into. One of the issues I usually have with camera bags is that once all of it is padded, it has lost of significant percentage of space for misc items. Misc items are usually seen as add ons with certain bag companies, leaving little room for other helpful items, so hiking bags can be really helpful non-camera gear.

Gear for Ice Hotel Commission
Gear for Ice Hotel Commission
Kit in action, covering ice church!
Kit in action, covering ice church!

What photography equipment do I take?

Cameras:

  • 2 x X-T1 (fantastic all-round cameras, definitely brought the X-Series to a wider audience, and very much looking forward to trying out the new X-Pro2!)
  • X100s (Out of all the Fujifilm cameras I’m lucky enough to have this is the one I’d probably sell last! Does everything very well, wonderful lens/camera, makes you think much more about your photography. Above all else, it is small enough to carry around everywhere. So some of my most treasured photos are taken with this because otherwise it would have been left to my phone. Combined with the wide angle and telephoto adapters, makes for a brilliant little system. I haven’t had the chance to work with the T yet.)

Lenses:

  • XF10-24mm (Almost perfect – fantastic lens, hoping for a WR version in the near future.)
  • XF16mm (Generates so much creativity, from the extremely close focusing to the fantastic depth of field control, 24mm equiv. is quickly becoming my favourite focal length.)
  • XF16-55mm (Fantastic workhorse of a lens, built to last and equipped with image quality to make any prime-lover happy.)
  • Soon to be – XF35mm F2 (when I get back to the UK this is high up on my list – 50mm equiv. lens, small, fast and discrete WITH WR!)
  • XF50-140mm (My most used lens – can’t really say a bad word about it, produces the goods every time, simply fantastic!)
  • Nikon 300mm F2.8 ED Manual focus (The elephant in the room, because my current role is focusing on birds, I needed something longer than 200mm equiv. As the much anticipated:
  • XF100-400mm Isn’t quite out yet I opted for a quirky alternative… Yes it is heavy, yes it is manual focus, but thankfully peaking assist and a sturdy tripod help to make this a viable option. Nevertheless, my back is looking forward to Fujifilm’s new super telephoto zoom!)
  • Fujifilm extension tubes and Nikon 2x teleconverter (yep, that gives me a 900mm equiv. lens… Absolutely bonkers!!)
Frankenstein X-T1 filming sloths

Misc:

  • Filter system (Depends on what you prefer to photograph but I highly recommend a neutral density graduated filter set up and a circular polariser.)
  • Flash system (Lots of options out there, depends what you can afford/prioritise – space or power output.)

Things to always keep in your bag

Get some silica packs and store some in your backpack, these can be the difference in saving your precious lenses. Many believe that fungus is an issue reserved for older lenses, unfortunately this isn’t the case, and in particular non-weather resistant lenses are vulnerable so please look after your expensive investments! Bearing that mind, always have some lens cleaner and lens cloths in your bag. You never know when a speck of mud or raindrop will ‘attack’ your lens. Though easy to deal with they can easily ruin a photo, so best to deal with any artefacts asap.

Other items I have in my bag:

  • Duck tape (If you use lights in particular duck tape can be invaluable to secure lights in obscure locations to light your photos or simply to repair your watertight gear)
  • Pen knife (Always ends up being useful for different things but of course be mindful of this when travelling internationally.)
  • Table top tripod (Lets face it, tripods are always annoying to carry around and generally always scream PHOTOGRAPHER, but they are invaluable for certain situations. Nevertheless on some occasions you might not be carrying around a full size tripod so as a small, light back up is generally a good idea, so have a little tripod in the bag.)
  • Remote trigger (I have a variety from wired to wireless, all with their own pros and cons)
  • Rain cover (Generally not for me as in the tropics it is nice to get rained on! But I have a cover for my camera if I’m still shooting in moist conditions.)
  • Rogue Flashbender (A relatively inexpensive flash accessory, easy to pack and very effective, especially when used off-camera to help quickly improve a portrait.)
  • Food and water (Especially if you are trekking, these are the most important items to have on you!)
  • Insect repellent (Insects love me so I usually carry some form of bug spray, DEET is the best but pretty grim stuff to cover yourself with so I have a natural remedy that I prefer. Also a form Vitamin B is meant to be good for repelling mosquitoes so if you know you’re off to a problem region then start some Vitamin B pills or alternatively marmite.)
  • Hat and layers (Yes suncream helps to fight off sunburn but a hat can make all the difference when you are out all day. Depending on where you are, the weather conditions can change quickly so it is important to have spare clothes if it is likely to get cold.)
  • Rehydration sachets + general medication (You can never fully guarantee what is going to happen when you go out and about so it is best to carry some simple things with you to negate any ‘niggles’ that could hamper your day.)
  • Communication (Generally a normal mobile phone to contact anyone if necessary. Not for selfie usage!)
  • Scarf/shall (This might sound strange, being described as a ‘must have’ item, but they have a wide range of uses, from portable shade, towel, dust remover, etc.)

Thick straps, and a comfy all-round design. Makes long days so much more enjoyable!

Thick straps, and a comfy all-round design. Makes long days so much more enjoyable!

Other items to pack in the hold:

  • Sensor cleaning kit (I’ve made the mistake far too many times of not bringing this with me and regretting it pretty quickly. The X-Series is very good for countering this problem, especially considering how often I change lens, but it’s best to pack safe.)
  • Spare chargers/cables (This may well be over the top for certain trips but if you are going into very remote regions the last thing you want is to not be able to charge your batteries or download your photos.)

Kit care in the tropics

Taking a look at the gear I have brought with me to Costa Rica. From camera gear to items keeping the cameras working, I hope this will give you a good visual representation of what to take on your next adventure!


Keep your kit dry

If visiting the tropics or areas where conditions can often be very humid then it is important to figure out a way of keeping your kit dry, generally wiping away any moisture and having some silica gels in your bag should be fine but for my current placement I created a form of ‘dry space’, an area which I draped a tarpaulin in front of and had a light bulb at the top, this is generally left on whenever it is raining and works as a dry location to keep kit dry, anything slightly damp is kept as close as possible to the light bulb to dry it out and to hopefully kill off any fungus.

My camera bag system is constantly evolving but hopefully this will help some of you looking to take your camera into the great outdoors. First and foremost, remember to enjoy yourself, that is the priority. Cameras are wonderful tools for enjoyment and capturing moments, but don’t let the very item you use to capture moments get in the way of them. If you have any suggestions or ideas for other things to take with you in the great outdoors then comment below.

Until next time, happy shooting!

Ben


Ben CherryA little about Ben

Ben is an environmental photojournalist, zoologist and Fujifilm X-Photographer. His passion is showing the beauty and fragility of the natural world. Find more of his work at: