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02.08.2017

Bosque del Apache in New Mexico is one of the world’s premier spots for doing bird photography.  Located on a major western flyway, every year millions of birds pass through on their way south.   And one of the most recognizable is the Sand Hill Crane,  which is a great avian subject for making a variety of spectacular photos. In this piece, we are going to discuss panning and speed-blur techniques.

Choosing the Right Equipment for the Assignment.

My normal travel kit consisting of Sigma 24-105mm F/4 Art, Sigma 120-300mm F/2.8 Sports and Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 Sport  lenses worked out perfectly again on this trip. These three lenses cover me with an amazing range of 24 to 600mm for fantastic image quality on both my full frame and crop sensor DSLRs. I find these high quality Sigma zooms to all be a virtual match to any of the best fixed focus lenses available,  and give me so much more versatility. And they make travelling so much easier when the airlines now have so many baggage restrictions.

Why do I choose to shoot with the Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 Sport over the contemporary model?  Image quality is my number one priority,  and since my main camera is a 36 megapixel full frame camera, the sports version is the better lens for my needs. The Sport version optical design gives me a sharper and chromatic aberration free image over a full frame sensor. The contemporary version design places size and weight a priority.   Also, the full weather sealing of the Sport version is a plus when I am likely to be shooting in rain, snow, or dusty environments.

© Robert O'Toole 2016 | Sandhill cranes and cottonwood tree bathed in fog and early morning light. Sigma 150-600 S and Nikon D500 @ 330mm, 1/250s at f/7.1, EV -0.3, ISO 2000, Manual mode.

© Robert O’Toole 2016 | Sandhill cranes and cottonwood tree bathed in fog and early morning light. Sigma 150-600 S and Nikon D500 @ 330mm, 1/250s at f/7.1, EV -0.3, ISO 2000, Manual mode.

Over the last 12 years I have been making annual trips to Bosque and in all that time I have seen all kinds of weather, but this year was completely different. Temps that were at least twenty degrees warmer than normal protected the fall foliage, green grasses, and flowers from dying and turning into a field of drab brown.

The warmer temps this year transformed the grasses and flowers  into interesting swaths of different colors; greens, reds, and oranges that are not typical for this area at the time of the migration.

© Robert O'Toole 2016 |Sandhill crane multi-colored take off in perfect morning light. Sigma 150-600 S and Nikon D500 @ 550mm, 1/25s at f/7.1, EV -1.0, ISO 100, Manual mode.

© Robert O’Toole 2016 |Sandhill crane multi-colored take off in perfect morning light. Sigma 150-600 S and Nikon D500 @ 550mm, 1/25s at f/7.1, EV -1.0, ISO 100, Manual mode.

Stepping up your Game …Show the location.

Once a photographer gets to the point where they can make a sharp, high quality crane flight image,  they should strive to place some kind of color or habitat behind the birds to give the images a sense of place and natural history.   Since sandhills are the most common of the 15 cranes in the world,  you don’t  want to just make a blue sky image that looks exactly the same as every other flight image that could be taken anywhere.

© Robert O'Toole 2016 | Sandhill crane with perfect sun angle and the Chupadera hills in the background. Sigma 150-600 S and Nikon D500 @ 600mm, 1/1250s at f/7.1, EV -1.0, ISO 320, Manual mode.

© Robert O’Toole 2016 | Sandhill crane with perfect sun angle and the Chupadera hills in the background. Sigma 150-600 S and Nikon D500 @ 600mm, 1/1250s at f/7.1, EV -1.0, ISO 320, Manual mode.

For general shooting I always leave optical stabilization, OS for short, on and it really does help me make sharper photos at slower shutter speeds. When I am out shooting wildlife I do not use OS when I am using shutter speeds over 1/1000th of a second as I do not see an advantage and I am usually more concerned about conserving battery life in extreme temperatures. But I do use OS, usually on Mode 2, when shooting pan blurs as it will correct small movements on a vertical axis when I am tracking side to side. With both Sigma 150-600mm zoom lenses, OS mode 2 automatically detects panning orientation and corrects accordingly, a very nice feature.

For Better Images,  know your subject’s behaviors

Photographing single birds becomes routine once you master the basic elements of the correct shutter speed, aperture, and focus. But you can make more interesting photos if you know a bit about the birds’  biology. Sandhill cranes spend time wintering in locations in large groups;  and within the groups you will see family units of two or three. Since the cranes are almost never found alone I always make it a priority to try to photograph the cranes in a family unit.

© Robert O'Toole 2016 | Sandhill crane pair against the Chupaderas. Sigma 150-600 S and Nikon D500 @ 600mm, 1/1250s at f/7.1, EV -1.0, ISO 450, Manual mode.

© Robert O’Toole 2016 | Sandhill crane pair against the Chupaderas. Sigma 150-600 S and Nikon D500 @ 600mm, 1/1250s at f/7.1, EV -1.0, ISO 450, Manual mode.

Photographing pairs of cranes with synched wing positions, straight up, straight down, straight up, seems impossible but is really pretty easy with practice….. and some patience.

Moving up to ART…Challenging Creative Techniques

Getting pairs to sync while doing speed blurs with sharp head images on the other hand is not easy

© Robert O'Toole 2016 | Sandhill crane pair speed blur with fall colors. Sigma 150-600 S and Nikon D500 @ 500mm, 1/25s at f/8, EV -0.7, ISO 100, Manual mode.

© Robert O’Toole 2016 | Sandhill crane pair speed blur with fall colors. Sigma 150-600 S and Nikon D500 @ 500mm, 1/25s at f/8, EV -0.7, ISO 100, Manual mode.

For a successful speed blur, that is an image that shows motion with blurred lines with a some sharp elements, usually a sharp eye or head, I recommend that first timers try 1/40th of a second. At this speed you will show some motion that is noticeable but you should still be able to keep some of the subject sharp. Since we want to keep the moving subject sharp, we need to track their motion through the lens, which then turns the background into the blurred impression.

After some practice at 1/40th second you should be able use slower shutter speeds like 1/20th or 1/30th and still keep part of the subject sharp. For backgrounds that looks like impressionist brush strokes try 1/15th second or slower but the ratio of of keepers with sharp details will be pretty low.

© Robert O'Toole 2016 | Sandhill crane pairs with morning light and fall colors at the south crane pool. Sigma 150-600 S and Nikon D500 @ 600mm, 1/40s at f/16, EV -1.0, ISO 180, Manual mode.

© Robert O’Toole 2016 | Sandhill crane pairs with morning light and fall colors at the south crane pool. Sigma 150-600 S and Nikon D500 @ 600mm, 1/40s at f/16, EV -1.0, ISO 180, Manual mode.

Speed blurs are not every birder’s favorite technique, especially if they are looking for critical details in birds color and plumage,  but I would recommend that you give them a try for something creative and different.  These images can make very impressive room décor,  whereas a technically sharp image may not be appropriate hanging above the living room couch.

The backlit speed blur is one of my favorite techniques. The motion of the subject against the smooth lines of color in the background,  with bright golden highlights really give these images a really special look.

To make this kind of image, like the crane below, shutter speed is the crucial element since it gives you control of the amount of blur in the background. For this image I set the shutter first to 1/25 of a second, in manual mode. Next, I set the aperture usually wide open or just slightly stopped down depending on the ambient light level. Finally I use the exposure meter scale to set the ISO level to give me the exposure I want.   If the background and the subject are an average tone, here a grey bird against a brown background, auto-ISO setting works great.

Professional tip: when using the auto-ISO setting in manual make sure to use exposure compensation to fine tune the exposure of the image and or background. Here I used a -0.7 exposure value in exposure compensation to protect and retain detail in the highlights. Yes, you can and should use exposure compensation in manual mode with auto-iso.

© Robert O'Toole 2016 | Backlit sandhill crane touching down at the south crane pool. Sigma 150-600 S and Nikon D500 @ 600mm, 1/25s at f/7.1, EV -0.7, ISO 100, Manual mode.

© Robert O’Toole 2016 | Backlit sandhill crane touching down at the south crane pool. Sigma 150-600 S and Nikon D500 @ 600mm, 1/25s at f/7.1, EV -0.7, ISO 100, Manual mode.

If you have any questions or comments be sure to share ’em in the comments section below.

For more information on my wildlife tours or to see more images from Bosque be sure to visit my new totally redesigned website.

Robert O’Toole is a Sigma Pro and has been a professional photographer for more than 20 years. As an accomplished instructor, Robert leads photography workshop tours across the US and internationally. For more info visit Robert’s web site at robertotoolephotography.com

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  1. Fabulous photos – thanks for sharing them