Over the last decade I’ve been taking my camera to the river Stour, which runs through the nearby town of Blandford Forum, to capture images of the local gulls in flight. I’ve always loved birds and birdwatching and am fascinated by flight. Capturing the birds in slow motion using long hand held exposures transforms the birds into ephemeral balletic forms, like spinning sufi dancers or willow-the-wisps.
These images work best in the winter, with grey dull skies, days filled with drizzle and cloud, the days many other forms of outdoor photography may not be appealing. On wnter days when food is moe scarce the gulls are often found by the river in the town center waiting for passers by to feed them. They gather in large flocks ready to greet passers by with seed or scraps to feed to them, circling and swooping.
With many people stopping to feed them along the stretch of the river that flows through the town, many gulls regularly fly up and down this stretch of the river. Positioning myself at a single spot, and watching them for a while it soon becomes easy to train the camera on their movements and pan with the birds. As I don’t use ND filters, I use exposures of around 1/10th of a second, just enough to capture the movement without blurring out the subject completely.
I generally focus manually honing in on the birds eye, and then panning. ISO is usually set to around 100-200 and I will use an aperture of around f11. I tend to shoot these pictures with an old Minolta beer can 70-300mm lens. ICM (intentional camera movement) is wonderful in that you don’t need expensive lenses to achieve painterly and artistic results.
I find that the birds are best captured against a dark background, and generally chose a position where there are conifers growing on the opposite bank. The dark shadows they create also help to enhance the shadows in the water as the birds fly over. Too much clutter in the background can detract from the subject. I usually shoot gulls (with my camera) in the winter months, but in summer the verdant greens of deciduous trees make can create beautiful bight backdrops and change the tone of the pictures completely.
The first three images in this post ae single exposures, this technique is also effective when using double or multiple exposure. In the last three images in this post I have used Photoshop to duplicate the original layer and to then expand that layer. This gives an etheral glow and echoes the shapes and patterns in the original exposure.
In the image above I have experimented with black and white processing and given the image a wet plate feel, by aging it and applying texture. In the picture below I have played with close ups of wing patterns and layered them over the original image.
As ever I shall leave you with a word of caution. Do be aware of your surroundings, wandering near river banks with a camera at your face can be distracting, do be careful not to fall in. And if you are feeding birds to encourage them to come into shot, it is best not to lie on a beach covered in bird food and not tell your son. I missed an amazing shot of several herring gulls flying directly down at me as my youngest turned around, thought I was being attacked and chased away my subject to rescue me.
You can find more images of birds in flight in the galleries on this site.
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