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
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.
automatic mode, single shot, built-in flash
The same bird as the above photograph.
ISO set high (6400), high speed continuous mode, under-exposing
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.
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.
Blacbird klilled by colliding with the vessel. Picture
taken with compact superzoom camera
Dead Goldcrest, November 2011
Picture taken from a few centimetres away using a compact superzoom
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
Starlings and Skylarks on
Picture taken with a compact superzoom in automatic mode - no flash.
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
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
using fixed aperture, ISO6400 and underexposing
Some loss of contrast and noise in the image but shutter speed slightly
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
and 400mm telephoto lens, fully automatic mode with built-in flash.
Better colours, less noise but a severe case of red-eye!
Long-eared Owls using high ISO values
DSLR & 400mm, fully automatic with built-in flash. German
Sector of the
North Sea, November 2011
Migrant Corn Bunting photographed at night, Black Sea,
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.
Warbler, Black Sea,
& 400mm - fully automatic mode with camera's built-in flash
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