Guest blog with Chris Bray: How to Capture Birds in Flight on Alaska’s St. Paul Island

© Chris Bray

Editor’s note:
Chris Bray is an award-winning, Australian Geographic photographer with a knack for simplifying and explaining photography. Heading to Antarctica in 2008, he put together his first course, and now hundreds of workshops later, his highly acclaimed ‘1 Day Photography Courses’ have enlightened thousands, and his company has expanded to produce and host small-group photo safaris to the world’s most wonderful places.

Chris’s work has appeared in everything from National Geographic (as well as Australian and Canadian Geographic) to TIME Magazine and Discovery Channel. Check out his site to learn more about the amazing photo safaris he leads.

© Chris Bray

Sailing into remote St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea, northwest of Alaska, I really wanted a unique shot of a common murre (Uria aalge) returning to its precarious cliff-side nest. The murres spend most of their lives out at sea, but they come to these remote rocky islands to breed in the summer months.While the end result is by no means perfect, it is one of the most complex and dangerous photos I’ve ever taken.

The idea was simple: Zip ashore in the dingy with my camera gear safely protected inside my waterproof Lowepro DryZone BP 40L, hike to the cliff-top, then lower a Canon 600D DSLR onto a ledge beside an egg, and snap the shot as the bird flies back to incubate. I wanted a big depth of field – the blue-green, speckled egg in the foreground (the egg is conical to prevent it rolling off), against a foggy background of sea cliffs, also in focus.

© Chris Bray

First, I had to cut and lengthen my 1m remote shutter release, soldering in 10m of extra wire. Having tied myself off and wriggled to the overhung cliff-edge, I used the wire to lower the swinging, spinning camera. Each thundering wave shuddered my unstable perch, and the placement of the camera in the right orientation seriously tested my patience and mettle.

© Chris Bray

It’s foggy more than 200 days a year on St Paul, so not only did the lens keep misting over, requiring me to constantly haul it back up, wipe it, and replace it – but the fog also dampened the light. To get a shutter speed of 1/2000th of a second to freeze the bird, I cranked my ISO up to 1600. Making matters worse, I needed to use a small aperture (large F Stop number) for that big depth of field, which further reduces the light.

Being backlit, I wanted to over-expose the shot to prevent the bird being a silhouette, but as this requires even more light, I instead shot in RAW and over-exposed it in post-production.

I used a wide (15mm fisheye) lens to increase the chance of getting the bird in-shot, and pre-focused to the likely distance of the bird using Manual Focus. With the Drive Mode set to ‘Continuous Shooting’, all I had to do then was hold down my button whenever a bird looked like it was headed in, and the camera would rattle off as many photos as it could.

This image took 500 shots over several painful hours, but I’m pretty pleased with the result.

Katrina Neill

About Katrina Neill

Katrina was the Senior Editor & Communications Manager for Lowepro.

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