Hide photography comes with its own unique set of challenges. Usually it requires a lot of patience and waiting for the animals to come to you. Very rarely will you turn up to a hide and find it bustling with activity.
The world-famous Shenton Safaris’ Carmine bee-eater hide. Where myself and Johan will be spending a lot of time when we host our The Carnivore and Carmine Safari. Is slightly different from most. The hide its self is made of two components, a boat and a steel structure covered in canvas which sits on top of the deck. The boat is anchored in The Luangwa River in front of a colony of Carmine bee-eaters who migrate to this part of Zambia to breed from August to late December. The position and set-up of this hide provides a unique way to view and photograph these beautiful birds.
The birds form breeding pairs, with each colony numbering in the thousands, and begin to excavate their nests into the exposed river bank. The nests are made up of a two-meter-long tunnel with a ball shaped chamber at the end where the birds will lay their eggs.
So many birds, digging such extensive nests in such close proximity turns the colony into a hive of activity and noise. This activity provides wonderful photographic opportunities but also makes it extremely challenging.
Fortunately, I spent a number of years as a guide at Shenton safaris and many hours within the Carmine hide. Through trial and A LOT of error managed to find a number of strategies and techniques to maximise my time in the hide.
With so many birds moving at such great speed in all different directions, the first challenge is finding a subject. I spent a lot of time moving from bird to bird getting extremely frustrated. Just as I focused on one particular individual, they would fly off and I would end up with an image of a bare river bank.
Given that these birds form breeding pairs and excavate their nest together means that sooner or later a bird that has flown away will return to the exact same hole from which it flew. Meaning that if I selected one pair of birds and focused my attention on them I was able to maximise my chance of getting the shot I wanted.
Very rarely would both birds leave the nest unguarded and when one would leave, it wouldn’t be long before they returned, usually only a matter of seconds. After a while a pattern begins to take shape and you able to anticipate the bird leaving and returning, enabling you to capture the bird in flight. Which for me is the ultimate Carmine shot.
Due to the speed of the birds it is important that you have the correct settings. Otherwise, you will end up with thousands of soft, blurred images. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, if that is what you are trying to create. But for the purpose of freezing the subject in flight it is important to remember these few things:
Keep your shutter speed up. When I used to shoot these birds on a regular basis. I found a minimum shutter speed of 1/1250 sec was a good place to start. Due to the speed at which these birds move, I found anything slower than that rendered the image as a little soft. I would go into explaining how to achieve this but, Andrew does a far better job than I could with his back to basics blog posts, click here for his post on Shutter Speed.
Keep your aperture as wide as possible, by that I mean the lowest number possible. For example, on most of my carmine images, shot with the old Canon 100-400 lens, f/4.5 was my maximum aperture. If you have the capability to go to f/2.8 then do so. There are a number of reasons for this, one it helps keep your shutter speed high, if like me you shoot in AV mode. It also allows for a shallow depth of field. Again, all this is explained wonderfully by Andrew. Click here for a lesson on Aperture. However, due to the set up of the hide, it is near impossible to have a completely blurred background as the subjects are so close to the river bank. However, with so many other birds flying around and possibly entering the frame, having the maximum aperture value available to you will help keep possible distractions in your image out of focus.
ISO will depend on one major factor – light conditions. In the South Luangwa, between the months of August and November, the light conditions can vary greatly. For example I have images of from the Carmine hide that have been shot at 400 ISO and at 3200 ISO, both at similar times of the day. The necessity to keep a very high shutter speed will mean at times, if the light is not great, to push it up. But that is not a problem. Andrew, again, explains why. Click here to find out why we should not fear ISO.
As you can see, this hide presents a number of challenges. But knowing how to overcome them will make all the difference. I cannot wait to head back to the Carmine Hide and look forward to sharing my knowledge and experience with those who join us on one incredible safari.
Until next time,