Category Archives: Photo/Video Technique

Capturing the decisive bird moment

Recently there have been a lot of posts by photographer friends on a nesting of the Coppersmith Barbet. One of the most common ‘to-do’ list was to capture a parent flying in to the nest with food in mouth and with the wings spread, and the even more difficult and faster flying out with the chick’s poop in mouth! All the better with a composite shot consisting of a few wing flaps. There seem to be some competition with regards to who can capture this best, and invariably those with higher end equipment (pro vs prosumer camera, with 12 fps vs 5-6 fps), or those with the most time spent at the nest have a much better chance of success.

coppersmith barbet merge shot 2
(composite of 2 video frames of an adult flying away from nest, processed in Photoshop)

To digress a bit, this nesting probably made history with the number of photographers present as well as actual photos taken. To estimate the actual number of photos taken is an example of Fermi problem.

From initial hole building to fledging, lets say it is 60 days
Average number of photographers present per day (higher during weekend, lower during weekday), so lets say 25 people (morning and afternoon sessions combined).
Average length of stay for photographer: 3 hours
Average feeding frequency: 15 minutes
Average number of pictures per feeding: 60

Doing the sums give you (60 X 25 X 180/15 X 60) = 1.08 million pictures!

Anyway, back to decisive moment. The reason why so many photographers go again and again to take basically the same set of pictures is because it is hard to get everything right. On a 12fps top of the range DSLR, the number of in-focus shots of the bird flying per feeding session can be as low as 2 (I will explain below with an example). For a slower frame rate camera, it is half the amount. Of these, perhaps the wing/body/eyes are in the wrong position. So it’s no wonder that people try again and again over extended period of time to get the decisive shot.

Is there a better way? Especially for those without more expensive equipment or without much time? The answer is definitely yes, and I will outline how.

To do so is to think a bit differently. Firstly, forget about shooting RAW or JPEG. Think about shooting video.

Not any video, but video at 1080p (1920 x 1080px) @30fps with ALL-I (intraframe), or 720p (1280 × 720px) @ 60fps with ALL-I (intraframe) . Most modern DSLR can do these. Make sure the settings for the shutter speed for the video is high, say 1/2000s thereabouts. Shutter speed and video fps are 2 different things. Video fps is commonly 25/30/50/60 fps for normal DSLR. Whereas shutter speed is actually how long each frame’s exposure should be. It seems funny now, but I just managed to de-couple these 2 concepts in my mind just yesterday, permitting me to test it out.

In the video below, I was shooting at 1080p @ 30fps, 700mm, f/5.6, 1/1600s, ISO 5000. The camera was pre-focussed on the tree stump via Live View, and left in manual before the video commenced. I had to settle for a slower shutter speed and higher ISO as the lighting conditions were not ideal.

The processed video has been slowed down to 10% of it’s original frame-rate. You will see that from the moment the bird start to be in focus to the time where it almost land, there are 6 separate, in-focus frames. That means the bird was in focus for 6/30 = 0.2 seconds. So if you have a top-end DSLR capable of 12fps in still shot mode, you get (12 X 0.2) = 2.4 clear shots. If your DSLR is capable of 5fps, then you get (5 X 0.2 )= 1 clear shot for this flight sequence.

So if we get 1 clear shot in still, and a video gets 6, then obviously we need to take advantage of this. But how do we get the shots out of the video? There are many ways, but I am a lazy guy. On a Mac, I just open the file in Quicktime, go to the relevant video section and advance the frame one at a time and then capture the screenshot and open in Photoshop.

What’s the quality like? Below is a sample of the composite of 3 shots in the sequence. Cropped, resized, sharpened and some saturation added. In an ideal situation, I would prefer to frame it without cropping. In this case, I did not have a favourable position to get a closer shot, and an additional teleconverter would make the already high ISO even higher due to the dim lighting condition.

coppersmith barbet merge shot
(composite of 3 video frames of an adult flight to nest, processed in Photoshop)

What about other scenarios? I present below a video and a screenshot of a feeding adult. This was shot using a Canon EOS70D at 1080p @ 25fp and shutter speed of 1/400s at ISO 200. I wanted a shot of the adult with full berries in mouth, with the eyes in direct line of sight and the chick head jutting out to receive. There are many frames that satisfy this criteria, but I just picked one that I like the best. Easy. There is no manipulation done. Perhaps some sharpening or cropping may be advantageous.

Coppersmith feeding screenshot
(photo from video frame)

To be clear, there is still a good argument to do fast-shutter speed still photography. The quality of the shots is still going to be superior. See photo below. But certainly, there are more than one way to go about doing things, and we pick and choose our tools according to the situation.

Coppersmith Barbet
(photo developed from RAW file)

Are there any more relevant scenarios where this is useful besides nesting moments? Well, this year I wanted to photograph a snipe preening to clinch it’s ID. It took many tries using still photography, but I bet if I had used this technique instead, I would have a much better photographs to show with lesser effort. There are also many instances like a kingfisher/raptor landing/flying to/from a fixed position that will benefit from using high shutter speed video frames.

In summary, here are some of the advantages/disadvantages of this technique:

Advantages:

  • Judging the decisive moment is difficult in photography. You may be a bit too late/early or run out of camera buffer. You may have low fps camera. In this technique, just start video before the subject’s arrival and wait. While others are fretting about buffers and timing, sit back and relax.
  • You have many frames to choose from per session. Up to 6 times more than a slower camera, so choose the best post/moments. If that is not sufficient, then use 720p @ 60fps, You get a smaller dimensioned files, but twice as many frames than 1080p @ 30fps.
  • Certain micro details are only visible in video. No matter how skillful you are, an owl swaying side to side for example is difficult to show in still picture. This is just the result of the strength of the medium. In this barbet feeding session, you get to learn more about the bird. How fast it flaps its wings, or even how it angled its flight for example. I think the ability to slow things down makes the whole viewing experience more enjoyable, and video frames is superior to still frames in that regard.
  • You spend less time on one bird, or one one aspect of the bird and more time on other things. That’s always good for yourself and for the bird.

 

Disadvantages:

  • Only applicable to fixed focus subject.
  • Limited to certain sizes of picture. This will change in future as 4K video capable camera are more reasonably priced. For now, it’s Facebook sized pictures
  • Frames out of the video is not as good in quality compared to RAW files, due to the nature of video compression
  • Takes the fun out of the excitement of waiting. Like the initial introduction of autofocus, some purist will say this is the death knell for the art of photography or of the decisive moment.

Disclaimer: This is a rough guide, not a step by step guide. I do not guarantee that what works for me will work for everyone else. Every camera system is different with a multitude of settings. Please experiment and find your ideal settings.

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