AfterBefore Friday: Bluebird Bonanza

There are no written rules for the ABFriday Forum which is fortunate, because this post surely would be breaking them.

This Friday is the third Friday of the month, the new scheduled appearance of the Forum hosted by Stacy Fischer of Visual Venturing.  Participants from all over the world jointly publish posts to exchange ideas about transforming what their capture sees into what they see.

But the memo didn’t get to the pair of bluebirds nesting in a box about 30 feet from my desktop computer.  They set up housekeeping about six weeks ago, and the eggs hatched on/about 29 May.  When I saw that the parents were arriving at the same spot every 5 minutes, the idea for exploring a new photographic subject became irresistible.  Those with some knowledge of avian biology can see where I’m going with this.  The youngsters would be fledging during the third week of June.

So, in a pathetic attempt to follow at least a semblance of the ABfriday Forum Procedure, the image below will be the Before Image.

Robin Kent ABFriday week 56 Before

Early Attempt (very tight crop)

(Nikon D800E on tripod with 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at 200mm; exposure 1/640th sec @ f/10, ISO 1250)

My goal was to capture the birds in flight, and I thought that knowing their precise destination would make it relatively straightforward.  Such was not the case. My intention was to balance a decent depth of field with an ISO that wasn’t too extreme but still allowed a pretty fast shutter speed.  (See technical data above)  As the result shows, it was necessary to go back to the drawing board.

How about adding an off-camera flash close to the nesting box?  Well, the standard sync speed of the Nikon is 1/250th sec. In other words, that is the fastest shutter speed for normal flash operations.  However, there is a  setting deep in the menu called Auto FP High Speed Sync.  (Details at here)   It enables one to shoot flash up to the camera’s top speed of 1/8000th sec.  There is a certain irony that it took a bluebird to lead me to this piece of knowledge.

Robin Kent ABFriday week 56 Before 02

Male Bluebird Removing Trash from Nest

(Nikon D800E on tripod with 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at 200mm; exposure 1/4000th sec @ f/2.8, ISO 3200; off- camera SB-800 flash for fill light)

But the sync setting is only part of the problem.  With the flash about 25 feet from the camera, I would need a wireless remote trigger and, of course, the capabilities of the old PocketWizards I owned were not up to the Auto FP Sync technology.  I decided to purchase the  PocketWizard Flex TT5 for the flash and Mini TT1 for the camera.

The main difference with the second image is the high shutter speed.  It didn’t take long to figure out that 1/3200th sec. is the minimum speed for a bluebird in flight.  A single flash adds some fill, but not much else.  So that limits the depth of field and forces a high ISO setting.  Compromise may be out of style in politics, but is required in photography.

Robin Kent ABFriday week 56 Before 03

 Female Bluebird Bringing Food

(Nikon D800E on tripod with 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at 200mm; exposure 1/8000th sec @ f/4.0, ISO 3200; off- camera SB-800 flash for fill light)

The above image shows the maximum sutter speed for the Nikon D800E.  Exposures varied widely, depending on the amount of sunlight striking the scene.  The flash was not powerful enough to be the dominant factor. (Note to self, save $$ to buy more flashes and transceivers.)

Robin Kent ABFriday week 56 Before 04

Female and Male Bringing More Food

(Nikon D800E on tripod with 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at 200mm; exposure 1/6400th sec @ f/4.5, ISO 3200; off- camera SB-800 flash for fill light)

Having drawn the line on spending additional cash for gear, the results depended largely on luck.  Three factors would have to be favorable: Would the sun be unblocked by clouds or the shade from trees?  Would the birds stay within the narrow channel defined by the depth of field?  Would I react quickly enough when they arrived? Short answer: “Usually, No.”   I now have even more respect for fulltime wildlife photographers who have far less control over shooting situations than I did in this case.

Robin Kent ABFriday week 56 Before 05

Third Fledging Leaves the Nest

(Nikon D800E on tripod with 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at 200mm; exposure 1/4000th sec @ f/6.3, ISO 1600; off- camera SB-800 flash for fill light)

As proof of that, I was quick enough to obtain only a single image of one of the fledglings as it left the nest and began its life in the wider world.  But if you are curious, you can take a peek at a video clip that was recorded at the time on a separte camera.  It shows the departure of two of the fledgings.  Click Here to see the Video.  Who would have thought that the 2nd body I bought for Antarctica would come in handy for photographing bluebirds in Virginia?

Not much post-processing discussed here but there are a lot of examples of exceptional work by the other participants at Stacy’s Visual Venturing site.  Please check them out.  In the meantime,

Keep Shooting….

32 thoughts on “AfterBefore Friday: Bluebird Bonanza

    • Thanks, Mary. You are definitely right about birds being hard to capture. But it was a lot of fun and a good experience in problem solving. Not that I have the problem totally solved. But if they decide to nest there again, I’ll have a better foundation for the second round of attempts.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Robin: This post was wonderful – it was very educational (interesting to see the setting you needed to use) and I loved seeing the baby birds take their first flight!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Joan. Glad you enjoyed it. It was certainly different from what I usually do. Now that I have this hot new flash sync system, I’ll have to dream up another project to justify the investment. Maybe water drops?


  2. Amazing photos Robin! Very interesting to hear the decisions you made and your learning processes whilst taking pictures of these birds. I really like all of them, the first one really took my eye as even though you have got the wings at high speed blur, you have got the bird’s eye (insert fish finger joke here!) absolutely spot on, its amazing! Cool video too, patience really paid off!


  3. A nice set of pictures and a great article about capturing birds like this. When I head back to my parents house in a few weeks I will need to try this in their Garden, (I have only a balcony with my apartment). I also agree that it is also luck to have the birds coming and going, the same with macro; some days I get one or two insects others I get more than I have the time to photograph.


    • Thanks, Ben. I apreciate the comments. A garden should be a good place to try this out especially if there is a feeder strategically placed. I can imagine that insects are even more difficult; I suspect they are ven less predictable plus there is the need for proximity. Anyway, good luck in the garden; hope to see a future post with your results.


  4. I think it’s amazing that you even have bluebirds in your yard, much less that you captured superb photos of them with just a 200mm focal length. Well done! –Greg


  5. I watched just a little bit of your video, what a serene backyard with the birds chirping and the water babbling. 🙂

    It is interesting that the bluebirds required 1/3200s shutter, I have found that the minimum shutter I can use to get a hummingbird’s wings visible is only 1/2000s. Of course, my hummingbirds are coming to a feeder or a flower not protecting their young, so perhaps the bluebirds are faster so that predators don’t see where they are coming and going. 🙂 Oddly, I was able to get a great still of a cheetah (at the cheetah run in the San Diego Safari Park) at only 1/3000s – which was actually intended to be set at 1/2000s but my finger must have pushed the dial in my excitement. 🙂 Again, the cheetah was ‘playing’ by chasing a stuffed animal on a mechanized string pulling system, not protecting it’s young. Just a curious observation.

    This was a nice discussion on patience and flash limitations (needing fast sync). And great captures of beautiful birds. Great job. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comments and for taking the time to post them. I think you’re right that lower speeds can work, but I was finding that below 1/3200th I would still get a little blur with the wings when they were in flight. That’s pretty cool with the Cheetah, would have loved to have seen that. I’ve not tried hummingbirds, that’s impressive that you were able to catch them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • There are lots of Anna’s Hummingbirds here in San Diego, initially I was stalking them around the apartment complex and getting rather frustrated. Then I put a feeder on my balcony… they soon learned that for the nectar they had to endure my photographing them. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Robin, this was a wonderful adaptation of the after/before theme! Flash sync is a setting I’ve seen on my Nikon, and since I have never attempted to shoot with flash (despite having purchased one for the hot shoe), it’s not one I have yet become familiar with. So thanks for explaining it 🙂 Really, truly remarkable images. And the video? Boy, fledgling number 2 was a bit reticent, wasn’t it? Seemed like Mama kept coming back to give him a nudge. All I kept hearing in my head were little voices (that I attributed to them) saying “Please, God, let my wings work”! 🙂

    I’m looking forward to seeing your idyllic backyard setup come the fall!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Stacy. Glad the post managed to stay within the rules of ABFriday (which are extremely and generously loose). My delay in replying is an Internet outage here since Sunday AM. But things are finally back to normal now and I am gradually catching up. Looking forward to seeing you on the Tour. Don’t know how idyllic the new landscape will be, but it’s definitely different.


  7. Beautiful images and great video, Robin. Watching the baby bird survey the landscape reminded me of the stairs leading to the high dive. When you finally arrive at the top (if you’re me) you do the same, then wait, wait, wait for the splash.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Dani. That’s a great analogy. I definitely would be taking a long pause on the high dive. The little guy surely was skeptical about the wisdom of departing, but it was the last one there, so I guess it figured, what the heck and made the leap.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Close to Home | photographybykent

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