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 ( www.cnpsafaris.com) 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
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
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
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
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
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.