I haven't written about it much on this website, but if you've been following my photos over the past year on Flickr, Facebook, or more recently Instagram 1, you've likely noticed that I've been rather obsessed with photographing kingfishers here in suburban Tokyo. I'll write much more about that another time 3, but for now I want to talk about my efforts to achieve a more stable image when shooting kingfishers.
Many of the people I see shooting birds in my local area try to balance maximum reach versus minimum weight in their camera/lens combo. Borg telescopes are surprisingly common (pictured below) as they are lightweight and affordable - but as I understand it, such configurations lack in autofocus capabilities. As I've opted for a rather heavy but awesome Nikkor 80-400mm zoom, I've also had to think long and hard about a monopod -- because in addition to added stability, I really need to lighten the load of that 1.5kg lens 4.
But then I saw one of the photographers on the river using a ball head and a strange u-bracket attachment, the latter which he constructed himself. This configuration was super handy since he could then use the fence that flanked our local river (fence pictured above) to rest his camera on 2. It's certainly less clumsy than a monopod, I observed, so I decided to try something similar.
The ball-head portion was easy, as I picked up a used one at my local second-hand shop for about 10 bucks. But how could I make the same kind of u-bracket the other photographer had?
In the end I just bought a cheap bicycle camera mount - also 10 bucks - which I could clamp over the fence in the same way that one would clamp a GoPro camera on your bike handlebars. To accommodate the wider diameter of the fence rails, I had to replace the standard bolt with a much longer one, and now it fits quite the fence really well. Now if I have to stand with my camera focused on a perched bird for 15 or 20 minutes, it's far easier. And if he flies 10 meters up the river, I can run after him far easier than I ever could with a monopod or tripod.
Here's a picture of my new apparatus below. I'm sure there's probably a better way, but for anyone in need of something similar on a budget 5, I thought I'd share here. For bird photographers in Japan especially - where urban and suburban rivers are rather uniformly fenced - this could be handy.
On a related note, if you use a long telezoom like mine handheld, then camera shake can also be an issue. The VR function on your lens (IS if you're rockin' a Canon) works wonders when your subject is stationary. But if you're shooting a moving subject like a speedy kingfisher in flight, your lens may compensate for your tracking movement, mistaking your intentional movement for unintentional camera shake.
Long story short, if a bird is flying, I turn off VR -- and so far my results have been far better than when I had VR on at all times. I hear that some sports photographers will do the same when tracking a moving/erratic subject.
I'm happy that through trial and error on a few fronts, I seem to be making some improvements with my bird photography. It's a really fun and educational hobby for me so far, one that I hope can continue for decades.
I'm trying to post one kingfisher photo every day over on Instagram. So far I've kept pace with my goal. ↩
I should note that the fence flanks nearly the entire river, which is more than a few kilometers long. ↩
In fact, I've already written quite a bit, so stay tuned! ↩
I previously had a 70-300mm lens. That was awesome, but not as sharp as I wanted when fully extended. So even though the 80-400mm is a little heavy, it's a trade-off I was quite willing to make to get adequate sharpness. ↩
Maybe for concerts or anywhere else there might be a barricade. ↩
I'm typically maxed out at on the long end of my 80-400mm Nikkor. ↩