February 7, 2023 | Features
This is an extraordinary image. We’d love to hear about the process of creating it. Can you please share with us a bit about how you envisioned it and how you got to the final image?
I’ve always had an affinity for birds and was thrilled during lockdown to discover there was a kingfisher within my local area who was not at all bothered by the passers by on the opposite bank of the river. I quite like black backgrounds and where I shoot the river is a dark brown to start with which made my job a lot easier. Initially I was thrilled just to see the kingfisher and get a shot of her on the perch but very quickly this wasn’t enough – I kept going back, studying her habits and came to know his favourite perches. Then all I had to do was sit and wait for her to show up. The waiting is the hardest part in wildlife photography. I could spend an entire day waiting and go home without taking a single shot then other times she turns up after 5 minutes (but that doesn’t happen very often).
That summer about three weeks had gone by where I didn’t see her at all so then when my friend invited me for coffee one glorious afternoon I agreed and left the camera at home. We decided to take a walk by the river as he was interested to know about the local wildlife and of course you know what’s coming next. We turned the corner to see about 20 photographers lined up for the show and there she was – in perfect light diving up and down more in those 5 minutes than I had seen in the previous 5 months. ‘Oh that’s a very pretty bird’ said my friend. Yes, I agreed. On the outside I remained calm. Inside I was screaming at him, wishing he’d never been born because if he didn’t exist I would have been here with my camera instead of missing the greatest opportunity I’ve ever had for my perfect shot. But I calmed down and decided to just enjoy the moment for once and then something amazing happened. Without the limited view from the viewfinder I was able to consider the bigger picture. I was chasing the perfect diving in shot and as soon as she would hit the water I would stop shooting. But now I realised there is a whole other sequence as she’s bursting back out and I might actually have a better chance of catching that because at least I know where she’ll be coming from. When she’s diving in you never know where to focus – it’s very much hit and miss (more miss than hit). I made a note to try that next time and this has been my approach ever since and it is paying real dividends.
How did you feel after creating this image? Did you know instantly it was “award-winning” image?
YES! There was a crew of film students there the day I caught this image. They had been filming all day and had just done an interview with me. Most other photographers had gone for the day but I remembered some sage advice from one of my mentors to always stay just a little bit longer, for as long as there is light because often that’s when these moments happen. The light was almost gone and she turned up for one more dive. I happened to be there, I was ready and I caught the whole sequence, she caught the fish and the film crew caught the moment. We were all very happy going to bed that night I’m sure.
From your point of view, what are the key elements that make this image successful? Is there anything that you would change in the image if you were shooting it again?
By now I have tens of thousands of shots of kingfishers in the bag and I have become exceptionally picky about what I consider worthy of processing. I throw a lot of shots in the bin that I would have been thrilled to capture just two years ago because I have captured similar shots so many times. Now I’m looking for pictures that are at the next level and for that EVERYTHING has to be perfect. The conditions must be perfect – no wind, a bright day but preferably a little overcast to avoid hard shadows and a still river, not too high. I don’t bother going now after heavy rain because I know from experience she doesn’t fish there when the water is too high. You need a very high shutter speed for this type of shot so you need enough light to be able to keep the ISO down, though the computer does a very good job now of eliminating noise in post.
The shape of the bird is very important – as she’s flying the body arches up and down and the shape of the wings vacillates between beautiful aesthetically pleasing forms and awkward angles. Just as the nose shouldn’t break the cheekline I try to keep the beak inside the line of the wing. The fish must be facing the camera. If I couldn’t see the fish’s face I would consider this a reject.
Timing and tracking are vital – this comes with practise, LOTS of practise but still you miss more than you catch.
You have to know your camera inside out. I bought the R5 for the eye tracking but it took me a full 6 weeks of trial and error to figure out the right settings for this situation. I prefer to shoot over open water – much easier to process in post to clean up the background if I don’t have twigs and reeds to contend with.
If I were shooting it again??? I will definitely be shooting it again! I am chasing the dream – it has become an obsession and luckily for me I am extremely stubborn and I don’t give up easily. I don’t know how it looks but I’ll know it when I see it. Until then I’ll keep going back, keep trying!