Waders are among the bird world’s great travellers: the red knot, a common winter visitor to the UK, flies to South Africa and the tip of South America for the southern summers, then heads to the other end of the globe in the northern summer, to breed in the Arctic tundra. Another small wader, the bar-tailed godwit is known to fly non-stop across the Pacific Ocean from Alaska to New Zealand, a flight-time of around nine or ten days!
Size isn’t related to a wader’s capacity for long-distance flights. For example, the little stint, one of the smallest waders and a winter visitor to British shores, weighs no more than a small pebble, but each year migrates from the Arctic to South Africa. It is these feats of endurance that fascinate many bird watchers, while also making waders among the most conspicuous of the world’s birds as their migrations take in many coastal stop-off points to feed and roost.
Hide and seek
The British Isles are well served for photographing waders, with many purpose-built hides at prime vantage points dotted around the coast. As well as protecting important breeding and roosting sites, bird conservation charities such as the RSPB and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) also maintain hides that make access to these species an easier undertaking for bird watcher and photographer alike. Some hides are even centrally heated, ideal when looking out onto a windswept shore on a cold winter morning. Along with your DSLR and long telephoto zoom, the essential item to take for a day’s hide photography is a tripod.
Fixing your camera and lens to a tripod does more than take the load off your hands. The tripod improves stability, keeps the framing constant for composition, enables more precise focusing adjustments (critical if shooting at maximum aperture with a resulting shallow depth of field), and reduces internal vibrations to a minimum, thereby maximizing image sharpness.
Hides also enable you to use a tripod more freely and easily than if you were out in the open where overt and sudden movements would lead to your intended subjects taking flight before you had even focused. Although not essential, the use of a remote release to trip the shutter will further improve your chances of taking images that are free of unwanted movements and vibrations.
Another useful means of support is a beanbag. As well as being lightweight, a beanbag is portable, versatile, and very effective in use, particularly when placed on the windowsill of a hide.
Most waders that reside or visit Britain’s shores possess long bills and even longer legs, yet remain diminutive in body and weight (although the curlew, a British resident, can weigh up to a kilogram and stand as high as a spaniel). Therefore, photographing any species of wader will require lens focal lengths of 200 to 500mm, or longer, to cover most compositional options, from frame-filling close-ups to wider contextual scenes of the birds in their surroundings.
Generally, the longer the lens the more expensive it is, but one alternative to gaining greater magnification without buying a longer lens is to use a teleconverter. Most major camera brands make 1.4x, 1.6x and 2.0x converters, which increase the focal length of the lens in use by these factors respectively.
Teleconverters are fitted between the camera and the rear of the lens. They are a light, compact and relatively cheap accessory. So, instead of investing thousands of pounds on a 500mm or 600mm f/4 telephoto, fitting a 2.0x converter on a more affordable 300mm f/4 will achieve the same degree of magnification. However, the maximum aperture of f/4 will also increase by a factor of 2.0x to become f/8. Fortunately, the optical quality of recently released teleconverters has improved markedly, so more photographers now believe compromising the aperture is worth the saving in weight, bulk and expense.
It is also worth noting that digital SLR and mirrorless cameras using the smaller APS-C and micro Four Thirds image sensors have an advantage over full frame (35mm) sensors, as they magnify the focal length of full frame lenses by factors of 1.6x and 2.0x respectively.
Focusing and flight
Waders rarely stay still for long; during daylight hours they spend most of their time at the water’s edge, shovelling and sifting through the sand and silt for estuarine delights such as clams and small crabs. Some species prefer to eat inland where earthworms and insects supplement their diet; one species, the black-tailed godwit, has even adapted to eat rice grains in the paddies of Asia.
Whether in the water or on drier terrain, waders will quickly take flight with little or no warning. With species such as the red knot, which gather in flocks numbering hundreds, these flights are often spectacular, as the birds twist and turn as one when taking off or returning to the shore. Many photographers like to depict this behaviour by panning – following the direction of the flock with their lens – and using a slow shutter speed, say 1/30sec, to render the flight as a blur, but making sure to keep focus on one bird to ensure part of the subject area is reasonably sharp.
Photographing flocks of knots or other waders in this way is not a technique for the tripod. Instead, the photographer needs to handhold the camera and lens and maintain a smooth and steady movement while following the birds within the frame. Most autofocus systems include an AF-continuous mode whereby the camera continually adjusts focus on a moving target, using dozens of sensors that detect and respond to changes in speed and direction. You can also choose to freeze any in-flight action by selecting a fast shutter speed, say 1/1000sec, and having faith in the AF to do its job of keeping track of your subject.
Backlighting and reflection
Even in autumn and winter, there is likely to be plenty of reflective light around shorelines and inlets. While overall light levels will largely depend on the direction and height of the sun, any backlighting and surface reflections can make an accurate meter reading difficult.
In these conditions, particularly in the absence of cloud cover, overall contrast may well exceed the camera’s ability to render an accurate exposure across the whole of the frame. Some photographers resort to using a camera’s high dynamic range (HDR) setting to address this, while others prefer adding neutral density (ND) graduated filters in front of the lens to control overall contrast. These filters are designed to reduce the amount of light over part of the frame from hitting the camera sensor. That said, seasoned photographers always bracket their exposures: bracketing is the technique of taking an additional pair of shots – one under the other over the ‘correct’ exposure reading. A quick check of the image on the monitor and of the camera’s histogram will confirm the accuracy of each exposure value.
Of course, cloudy overcast conditions will reduce contrast levels, but even a small area of white plumage in sunlight can distort a reading and lead to underexposure elsewhere in the frame. Taking spot meter readings from the brightest and darkest areas of the frame and then manually setting an exposure roughly halfway between the two may often produce an acceptable overall exposure. Check how this reading compares with a spot reading taken from a neutral tone such as grass or reeds. If they’re comparably close, then you’re set.
Licence to shoot
In the UK, dozens of bird species, including some waders such as the green sandpiper, Kentish plover, little ringed plover, stone curlew and red-necked phalarope, are listed as Schedule 1 under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. According to the Act, it is an offence to ‘intentionally or recklessly’ disturb a Schedule 1 species ‘while it is building a nest or is in, on or near a nest containing eggs or young’. Such protection is particularly relevant for those waders as they are ground nesting birds, which means they are more vulnerable to disturbance by anyone who strays from a designated path.
Photographers intending to shoot these must first obtain a Schedule 1 Licence. Although the Act does not define ‘near’, the key responsibility is to avoid causing disturbance to any nesting bird, not just Schedule 1 species. If placed under too much stress by intrusive photography, birds could abandon nests entirely.
• Check which species of migratory waders are likely to be present at the time and place of your excursion, and bring a field guide to help with identification.
• Focus on the eyes. When photographing waders, it is the eye that holds the viewer’s attention: it is a natural focal point, so needs to be as sharply focused as possible.
• Use a telephoto zoom lens to ensure there is enough distance between you and the subject not to cause a disturbance. Pack a teleconverter to give you extra distance if needed.
• Shoot without a tripod. With the camera on a tripod, especially when working from a hide, you can maximise the number of exposure options and stop down your lens aperture for greater depth of field.
• Rely on your camera’s programmed exposure mode and metering system. Take spot meter readings and select aperture and shutter speeds manually, checking the image results and histogram on your LCD monitor.
• Forget the polarising filter or lens hood. Water will feature somewhere in most of your images, so a polariser will help reduce glare and reduce overall contrast
Accessory option: Binoculars
There are many compact budget binoculars on the market, but it’s best to spend a little more for quality and lifetime durability in all weathers. The Steiner Wildlife XP 10x44 binoculars (£1,100) have a wide field of view, 10x magnification, and use fluoride glass to deliver high definition light transmission throughout the visible spectrum for true colour fidelity.
Lens option: Telescope lens
Increasingly, bird photographers are using a type of image capture known as digiscoping, whereby a telescope is attached to their camera lens to achieve greater magnification. The Swarovski ATM 80 HD Telescope with 25-50x eyepiece (£2,400) in effect becomes a 1280mm f/10 lens when attached to a full frame digital SLR.
Camera option: Pro DSLR
After Nikon launched its new flagship DSLR, the D5, it wasn’t long before Canon updated its equivalent, the new EOS 1DX Mk II (£5,200 body only). If you’re looking for a camera to stop even the flightiest of shore birds, this is for you with an incredible 14fps burst, all in focus thanks 61 AF points. Low light capability is also impressive due to an ISO range of 100 to 51,200, expandable to ISO 409,600!
This was published in the October 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.