Image by Morkel Erasmus
Most of the avid amateur and professional nature photographers in the northern region of South Africa know about the Marievale Bird Sanctuary. This RAMSAR-certified wetland conservation area has long been a favourite hotspot for local bird photographers to visit on weekends and the odd day off to occupy the hides before dawn and photograph what is on offer. The sanctuary has also been the subject of much political/ecological controversy in light of the recent mine-water pollution scandals involving the failed Aurora mining operations. Over the last couple of years the reserve has also become known as one of THE spots in the country to photograph the very small and very fast (not to mention very beautiful) Malachite Kingfisher.
I live about 90km from Marievale, and don’t visit it as often as I would like. Part of the reason is probably that I don’t like to get up at 4AM and be there before dawn, only to have to jostle for position in the hide (it can get that busy). When I do have an odd day off in the week, I try to go, as it is invariable quieter and one can go about your business at your own pace and in your own manner.
On this particular morning I shared the hide with the notorious author of this blog – Gerry van der Walt, and his partner-in-crime Andrew Beck, among others. Plenty of long lenses were sticking out of the hide and the shutters were firing away as two immature Malachie Kingfishers put on a display for us: fluttering about, diving into the water, arguing with each other over perches. With all this action, one gets a real sense of their speed as you count the “keepers” at the end of such a morning on your one hand (both hands if you were really on top of your game).
This shot was captured as one of the kingfishers was flying from one branch of the perch to another branch on the same perch, and then back to its original branch. I knew from past experience that in order to have any hope of nailing an image of these guys, you needed to have enough depth-of-field and enough shutter speed. I used a Nikon D3s with a Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II lens. Normally for a bird of this size I would attach my 1.4x teleconverter, but with the subject distance from the Hadeda hide, and the speed at which they travel, I removed the converter to enable me to have more “room” to fit the birds into the viewfinder.
I use the D3s on manual mode, but I allow the camera to choose the ISO automatically. It sounds like a cop-out, but with this camera’s legendary high ISO performance I actually don’t care what ISO I shoot at when the light is good. In poor light I will choose ISO carefully and adjust other settings to make sure I don’t go above my personal allowable ISO (which is usually about 3200-6400 on this camera, depending on conditions). This way I can set the shutter speed and aperture combination that I want to use to achieve the shot I am visualising. In this case, I chose an aperture of f7.1, stopping down the lens for enough DOF, and a shutter speed of 1/8000 to make sure I freeze this little bugger’s wings perfectly (I’ve found that you need to stick to at least 1/4000 for these guys, preferably 1/6400, and ideally 1/8000 if conditions allow it). I tracked the bird flying from the perch on the right to one further on the left, and in a split second it turned around and flew back to the perch it initially sat on. I had just enough time to swivel the camera/lens combination back to the right through enough of a rotation to fit this landing in the frame. This shot is cropped quite a bit given the subject distance was about 7.9m according to EXIF info…and the right-hand-side of this image is the edge-of-frame of the original photo.
Needless to say, I was stoked when I saw this image in the viewfinder. It’s quite easier to get an image of a fast bird taking off, but a bit trickier to get a nice landing pose such as this. I particularly liked the details of the little feet, the perfect wing position and the strong head angle. If you look closely, you can see a very small crustacean or snail in the bird’s beak!
The only step left was to take it into the digital darkroom and process it to get the most out of the file. During processing I cropped, adjusted levels, enhanced the blue colour in the water, and also increased some midtone contrast on the bird. After downsizing I needed to sharpen it a tad for web-presentation…and voila!
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