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Nocturnal Bird Photography

Lack of light is often the biggest challenge for birders wanting to take photographs. Unless one is equipped with obscenely expensive lenses light rather than proximity to the birds is the difference between good and mediocre images. I am lucky enough to regularly end up in the worst possible situation - interesting birds and bird behaviour at night in an offshore environment. Examples of this include the Black Sea , the Barent's Sea and the the southern North Sea.

Up to the present date (December 2011) I have used two different sets of equipment in these night time situations - a DSLR with an f5.6 400mm telephoto lens and a compact suprzoom. Both have proved useful for night time photography.

Short-eared Owl, full automatic with built-in flash
Fully automatic mode, single shot, built-in flash

Short-eared Owl, high ISO, flash
The same bird as the above photograph.
ISO set high (6400), high speed continuous mode, under-exposing

Recent advances in DSLR technology have meant that higher ISO values can be used - although with very high settings noise in the images is still relatively obvious. Colour contrast is also reduced - often giving a somewhat "muted" feel. However, if the choice is between noise and reduced colour quality or no image at all then of course one uses the high ISO values.

From personal experience the reduction of image noise at high ISO values is is one of the main advantages of upgrading camera bodies.

There are two main techniques I have employed when using the DSLR with 400mm telephoto lens at night:
1) Single shot fully automatic mode using the camera's built in flash.
2) Very high ISO values in high speed continuous mode, often underexposing by a considerable amount

Another technique is to mix the two - use the flash and high ISO values.

Single shot fully automatic
This method can give surprisingly good results despite shutter speeds dropping to 1/60s. I don't quite understand why but hand held shots with this setup have given much better pictures than I could ever have imagined. Normally when using a hand-held 400m telephoto lens one requires much faster shutter speeds than this to avoid shakey images.

The advantage of this way of doing things is that the ISO setting is lower (typically 400), this gives less image noise and better colours.

One of the disadvantages of this way of doing things is that the range of the camera's built-in flash is limited meaning one has to get quite close to the subject (always a good idea, not always possible!). The second disadvantage is that one can only take one picture at a time - something that is fine if the subject is not moving very much. One can also get red-eye or similar effects using this technique.

Nocturnal Offshore Peregrine with prey
Here a Peregrine has taken a thrush and brought it back onboard the vessel, Danish Sector of the North Sea, November 2011
Picture taken with DSLR and 400mm telephoto lens - single shot automatic using camera's built in flash.

High ISO values
The main advantage of this method is that it requires less light and one can use it at longer range than when using just the camera's built in flash. One can also take many pictures in rapid succession - something that is often desirable when photographing birds.

Disadvantages are increased image noise and more muted colours; this latter effect can be at least partially corrected for in image processing software afterwards. I have not altered colours in the images presented on this page.

Superzoom zoom
Male Blacbird klilled by colliding with the vessel.
Picture taken with compact superzoom camera

Dead Goldcrest photographed with compact superzoom
Dead Goldcrest, November 2011
Picture taken from a few centimetres away using a compact superzoom camera

Starling resting on offshore vessel
This Starling was photographed in the German Sector of the North Sea in the middle of the night using a DSLR and a 400mm telephoto lens (hand held). Despite using an ISO value of 2500 and no flash the result was quite good.

The main uses I have for a superzoom compact camera are:
1) When subject is too close to use the telephoto lens
2) "Scenic" shots e.g. pictures of the enire deck
3) Back-up camera

The quality of the pictures are generally not as good as a DSLR - but for the size and price the images are quite acceptable and fit for purpose.

Other photography links

Superzoom cameras for Bird Photography
Digiscoping v DSLR
Bird photography - why bother?
Nikon Coolpix P600 for bird photography

Thrushes on deck, comapct superzoom

Thrushes, Starlings and Skylarks on deck.
Picture taken with a compact superzoom in automatic mode - no flash.

Male Blackcap
Male Blackcap Southern North Sea
Picture taken with DSLR and 400mm lens, hand held in single-shot fully automatic mode using the camera's built-in flash

Although I in no way consider myself an expert at nocturnal photography I have been quite satisfied with the results thus far and have some ideas to improve results during forthcoming migration seasons. Some of these ideas will also be useful ashore - photographing those skulking warblers that shy away from the light for example.

The following comparsions highlight the main differences in the two DSLR techniques. The Redwing was taken at nigh with some ambient deck lighting whereas the Long-eared Owl was taken at dawn with very low and dull "daylight".

Redwing photographed with fixed aperture, ISO 6400 Redwing photographed in fully automatic mode using the camera's inbuilt flash
Image taken using fixed aperture, ISO6400 and underexposing
Some loss of contrast and noise in the image but shutter speed slightly higher.
Image taken in fully automatic mode using camera's built in flash. Colours more natural but shutter speed down to 1/60. Suprisingly good result for a hand held DSLR with a 400mm telephoto lens

Long-eared Owl using flash
DSLR and 400mm telephoto lens, fully automatic mode with built-in flash.
Better colours, less noise but a severe case of red-eye!

Suoperzoom Ruff
Long-eared Owls using high ISO values

Night time Skylark with DSLR in auto mode
Skylark, DSLR & 400mm, fully automatic with built-in flash.
German Sector of the North Sea, November 2011

Migrant Corn Bunting photographed at night
Migrant Corn Bunting photographed at night, Black Sea, March 2010
Another example of fully automatic single shot mode. 

Having enough light for the autofocus to function properly was often a problem; in these situations a torch or LED headlight would undoubtedly have helped. I actually used the torch on a mobile phone for this purpose with some success - but this makes operating the camera rather difficult - a hands-free torch is really required.

Nocturnal Cetti's Warbler
Cetti's Warbler, Black Sea, March 2010
DLSR & 400mm - fully automatic mode with camera's built-in flash

Things to try in the future....
There will be many more occasions when I will be photographing migrant birds at night. Here are some of the things I will be trying during the next migration seasons:

- Buy a bigger and better flash to attach to the camera
- Use a LED headlight to give extra light in order to facilitate focussing

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