Pin-tailed Whydah and a 400mm F2.8 VR

Masai Mara 3-13 Jan_2015_00750-2

Image 1 – Nikon D800/ 400mm 2.8 + 2.0 x Converter/ ISO 400/ISO 400/F5.6 @ 1/2500sec/EV -1.0


On the CNP Safaris blog ( I gave you some information on the Pin-tailed Whydah as a species. Here I want to talk a bit more about the photography of these magnificent birds. Suffice to say no matter how hard I tried I could not photograph the Pin-tailed Whydah in the same manner again as I did the first time I met the species. This just reaffirms what I have taught photographers for years: work the scene hard if you ever stumble on something special. Forget about anything else, be calculated, evaluate and re evaluate all the time but keep on shooting. I have not succeeded in nailing a single Pin-tailed male in flight again and I have not seen courting behaviour again although Pin-tailed Whydah’s are the Masai Mara around in good numbers.

I decided to take only my trusted 400mm F2.8 VR lens to the Mara and left my 600mm F4.0 at home. The disadvantages of choosing the 400mm F2.8 above the 600mm F4.0 on this trip to the Masai Mara in January 2015? Firstly all my clients had 600mm F4.0 lenses and as they were my first priority I always placed the vehicle keeping them in mind first. For my own shots I managed this by adding either the 1.4 or 1.7 x converter onto the 400mm F2.8 to get closer to the 600mm focal length that they were using. Or I tried to work primarily with the 400mm F2.8 and the 2.0 x Converter as my base combination and place the vehicle accordingly . This allowed my clients to work with their 600mm F4.0 lenses with 1.4 x Converters so that we were all on the same focal length. The main problem was when action quickly moved towards us. When I removed the 2.0 x Converter I was at 400mm and they at 600mm when they removed their 1.4 x  converters which meant that I had to put on another converter to get me from 400mm to either 560mm or 680mm. I have lost shots this way. When the action moved away from me it was less of a problem.

So what were the advantages of the 400mm F2.8 above the 600mm F4.0? Firstly I could shoot full frame images of a male lion with a warthog piglet in his mouth at F2.8 that gave me better background blur, faster shutter speeds and the opportunity to drop the ISO if I wanted to. My friends were shooting such scenes with their 70-200mm lenses with 2 x Converters at F5.6. What is more I had focussing at F2.8 and they at F5.6 which proved to be a vital differentiating factor when lion cubs were learned the ropes in piglet killing. Finally the 400mm F2.8 focusses much closer than the 600mm F4.0 and that was helpful on numerous occasions. All in all looking back at the last weeks photography I will bring my 400mm F2.8 again but only if I have the privilege of a high res camera like the D800. When I ran out of focal length after 800mm F5.6 I switch from my D4 to D800, use the 1.5 x cropping mode to create a focal length of 1200mm F5.6 with 15million pixels at hand and all of this with focussing at F5,6.

The Pin-tailed Whydah session taught me something fundamental. I have unfortunately not purchased my last camera. Better future high ISO sensors, a higher than 1/8000sec  shutter ceiling and the combination of both that will allow for more depth of field at higher shutter speeds will allow me to do a better job on courting Pin-tailed Whydah’s than what I can currently do .


I have for ever held that slightly unsharp wing or tail tips of  birds in flight do not constitute the artistic rendering of movement. To qualify for that it will require that the head and centre part of the body of the bird is rendered pin sharp and the wings and tail feathers rendered as a total ball of blur. I hardly ever see such images but zillions of offerings that claim to portray movement. So for me the calculated challenge after the initial shock of finding this incredible behaviour subsided was to shoot both the male and the female sharp and render the long tail feathers of the male that were drifting in the wind sharp from tip to tip.


Image 2 – Nikon D800/ 400mm F2.8 + 2.0 x Converter/ISO 400/F5.6@ 1/2500sec/EV-1.0

Masai Mara 3-13 Jan_2015_00763-2

My first two shots of the scene showed different results although both were taken with the D800. The higher pixel camera was introduced because I was initially further away from the birds. I calculated that the unsharp tail feathers of image one was not due to depth of field issues but rather too slow shutter speed. I love the fact that the male and female are really flirting with each other in image 1. Score 4/5 In the second image the tail feathers are in line, the two bird on the same plane but the wing tips of the male is unsharp due to too slow shutter speeds. Score 4/5


Image 3 – Nikon D800 with 400mm F2.8 + 2.0 x Converter. ISO 1000/ F5.6 @ 1/8000 sec/EV -1.0

Masai Mara 3-13 Jan_2015_00767-3

So to get everything pin sharp I upped the D800 ISO to 1000 and with that the shutter speed followed. Technically better than images 1&2 with both the male and the female pin sharp but the males face is a bit obscured and there is little action on the tail feathers of the male. I love the fact the the female acknowledges the male by spreading her wings. Score 4/5


Image 4 –  Nikon D4 +400mm f2.8 + 2.0 x Converter/ISO 1600 F11 @ 1/5000 sec/EV -1.7

Masai Mara 3-13 Jan_2015_00971-2

This image is taken more than a hour later in much harsher sun and some strong wind . The sun started blowing the whites and the wind kept on pushing the male away from me which meant that the male and the female was not on the same plane creating havoc with death of field now that I moved the vehicle closer in an attempt to register more pixels. All of this made me change to the D4 because I felt that higher ISO was now going to be the order of the day.The F11 gets close to nailing the depth of field but the 1/5000sec shutter speed is to slow to freeze the action on the males tail feather tips. I am absolutely crazy about the female acknowledging the males intentions and this is one of my  favourite images of the scene but the  flaws in the rendering of the male’s tail and wing cost hard earned points and further to this the male is better in image 1. The mid day light forced me to drop the EV further to minus  2.3. Not only did it protect the whites from blowing but also contributed extra shutter speed . Score 4/5


Image 5 – Nikon D4 /400mm F2.8 + 2.0 x Converter/ISO 1600/ F11 @ 1/8000 sec/ EV-2.3

Masai Mara 3-13 Jan_2015_01040-2

Technically very close to flawless but the male is too far from the female and she shows no interest that ultimately is the downfall of this image. Score 3/5


Image 6 -Nikon D4 /400mm F2.8 + 2.0 x Converter/ISO 1600/ F11 @ 1/8000 sec/ EV-2.3

Masai Mara 3-13 Jan_2015_01057-2

Technically well shot but although the male is close to the female she is not convinced so she does not accept the offer. Did the lady not know that there is a shortage of Pin-tailed Whydah sperm around ! –  See Roberts Birds on this 🙂

So their you have have . After two hours of toiling in the African heat and throwing the proverbial kitchen zinc at it I could not pull a 5/5 out on my own rating system out of a spectacular nature story but I know that I pushed my own and my camera equipments envelope at that felt great! Greetings from the Masai Mara and seeing you in January 2016 with CNP safaris. Regards Lou Coetzer PS please let me know which of the images you like best.

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Posted in African Travel, Bird Photography, Kenya, Lou Blog, Masai Mara, Masai Mara Green Season, Photography Tips, Wildlife Photography and tagged , , , , , .


  1. First stunning photo’s and thank you for the technical info.
    I like image 1. I like the male tail blurred.
    Image 6 with all detail.

    • Thank you Johnny. No 1 was the first image and I spent the best of few hours working to get rid of the blur ! For me the blur in No 1 is purely slow shutter speed- to really portray motion the blur had to be much more and therefor I ended up with 6 that is closer to what I wanted to achieve technically. The connection between the male and female in image 1 is really amazing.

  2. It is a really tough decision Lou as they are all really nice in their own respect and arguments could be made for each of them, but I particularly like the connection captured between the two subjects in image #1.


    • Thank you for taking the time Nathaniel. It seems your not alone in preferring image one. I always tell photographers to keep their emotion out of the mix when deciding on the photographic merit of an image but with this one I truly struggle. The image where the female lifts her wings to acknowledge the male’s effort is very special to me.

  3. Lou, to respond to your question…
    Image 1 is by far my favourite.
    I love the action by both birds = interaction and they are also so close to each other that the viewer can see and experience the strong, direct eye contact.
    The movement in the tail of the male with a pin sharp head and tail is superb and distinguish this image futher for me from the rest.

    • Johan , Thank you for your most valued comments. I agree with you that image 1 portrays very strong emotion. The male is truly pleading with the female and she does not seem to be too unwilling. The numerical order the images are displayed in represents the way I shot them over a two hour time frame. So image 1 was really some of the very first ones that I took. I will be honest and say I would have loved to get a second bite at the cherry with the same action towards the end on the scene.That said that is why we love photography- we never arrive. We always need to go back and try again.-and so I will. Regards Lou

  4. Lou, I like image 2 a lot. The crop and closeness between the male and female contributes to an intimate scene. Also like the detail on the male’s wings. Thanks for all the technical info. It gives us a better understanding of how important it is to understand your equipment and techs that goes with it. The challenge for us “rookies” is now to go out there and apply this when we encounter special scenes like these. Thanks for sharing. Take a bow!!

    • Elana thank you so much for your contribution.You are by no means a Rookie anymore and if you think about it the type of control that I illustrate with the Pin-tailed Whydah images is the very same control that photographers are required to make with every photograph they take. No new news here. Photography is all about some very simple decisions each and every time -shutter speed & depth of field control. This was a exercise in using camera sensor advancements to take the same decisions to the end of the current envelope.

  5. Lou… not an easy pick… but #1 stands out as I like the eye contact… perhaps he was a bit more optimistic in the first frame also… and yes, you are being modest about rating yourself, these are amazing photos…

    • Dave thank you for your comments. It must be really tough sitting in cold Seattle and evaluating images from sunny Africa.There is a tangible excitement in the male in image 1 as he pleads for a yes from the female. Lovely! Good luck with the Superbowl this week!Regards Lou

  6. Lou. Image number 6 is my favourite image in the series. Both birds are almost on the same eye level, the tail feathers are nicely frozen and the fact that you could push the camera to EV -2.3 to drive shutter speed is a testament to a great piece of kit and your understanding of the camera and lens limits. I compliment you on the varied use of your equipment with extenders, EV and ISO adjustments to get the shots in this series. It is so important for us as photographers to understand our cameras and the photographic relationships between shutter speed, ISO, F stop and also EV. You have to be able to interpret the scene and push your equipment to the max and still get quality images. I agree with your rating of 4/5.

    Well done.

    • Thank you for your feed back Neal . Out of my conversations with photographers on the Pin-tailed Whydah images and the Blog feedback it becomes clear that the moment other emotions comes into play along with the absolute uniqueness of the images the final score increases.When evaluated on a technical basis only we never seem to really reach perfection.All that said I am so excited to add these Pin-tailded Whydah images to my portfolio because my guess is that there are not that many similar images around by nobody. Yes it truly was a Little Gem of an experience. Lou

  7. Lou incredible footage and special moments captured.
    Image 4 tells the story and my score will be 5/5 but we all know to get a 5/5 from you is far fetched.
    Well done and thx for sharing

    • Johan thank you for your valued feedback. I must say the female lifting her little wings in image 4 -encouraging the male- really melts my hart but the face is not well lit so I will stick to my original score. That said Johan I do have a soft side. The moment I saw your image of the Gabar Goshawk trying to take the Quelea shot while you were with CNP Safaris in Etosha last year I told you it is a 5/5 and the rewards you have received since then for that image confirmed my judgement 🙂

    • Margaret Olivier what can I say to a women that after mayor mayor recent operations thanks me for technical photographic info. You inspire me Margaret! Thank you for you feedback and please give me your vote for the best Pin-tailed Whydah image.

    • Thank you so much for you feedback Johan.This post was just a spontaneous attempt to show how the advancements in camera sensors needs to play out in our day to day photography.When I look at current professional work there are glimpses that the advantages of High ISO capabilities of modern day sensors- while maintaining image quality-is slowly filtering through in higher shutter speeds in recording action. What is totally absent though is the use of these higher shutter speeds that are now available to shoot at smaller F Stops to achieve more depth of field and nail image that were previously not possible. In my attempts to explore these new possibilities I have coined a phrase ” Shoot like a sport photographer think like a landscape photographer ” May this find a home in many photographers’s arsenal and push the envelope of their own portfolios.By the way Johan I would really like to know which of the Pin-tailed Whydah images you like most.

  8. Very interesting article and great technical information. Well, I actually prefer number 6. The posture and movement captured in the male is wonderful and there are lines in every direction-he’s working hard! As for the disinterested female, well, I actually quite like that Lou. You boys can fluff and puff all you like, but sometimes the lady isn’t interested. That is just a fact of nature. 🙂 She looks quite regal and discerning to me. Thanks for sharing!


    • Nancie it might be all true but if you reject a man in public you are going to lose points for the indiscretion. Stop full stop!

  9. Lou incredible, tx’s for the technical info, really puts things into perspective, you are still the master!!!!

    • Thank you Wenzel for reading and the more than generous remarks! It was such a privilege to see and to then walk away with some reasonable photographs is special. Regards Lou

    • Ian it is good to hear from you and the best for 2015 old man.Thank you also for your general feedback and the fact that you stuck your neck out to make a call. So Ian why nr2 ? Regards Lou

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