It’s an uplifting experience to be heralded into the office by two duelling robins, each belting out a bright song from a nearby tree, with me receiving a glorious stereo mix in the middle.
It’s not robins I have in mind this morning though. I’ve spent a good part of the summer with swallows both here in the UK and in France. Their antics – and even simple presence – is uplifting all summer long.
Firstly I’ll give you some of the finished pictures and then throughout the text I’ll explain how I achieved the shots and show you some of the behind-the-scenes setup.
Swallow challenge 1: Northumberland
Outside my office in Northumberland, there are little-used barns: ideal nesting places for swallows. Not surprisingly, the full title of these little aerial gems is ‘barn swallows’ and I spent many a day in June photographing them, largely inside a dark space getting progressively covered in bird poo. My gear – and indeed I – have not quite been the same since.
As you’ll see, the technical challenges of photographing flying swallows is not insignificant!
I chose two nests and started watching the behaviour of the parents as they sallied back and forth to fetch insects for the chicks. Each of the two nests contained four youngsters – quite a squash in the small mud cup nests when they’re ready to fledge. The pressure eventually gets too great and parents encourage the chicks to attempt a maiden flight by singing from nearby. I watched as, one by one, all four chicks from one nest tested their wings by flying to their parents on a nearby banister in one of the barns.
Making barn doors
Once the residents of nest 1 had scarpered, I concentrated on nest 2, which was just above the barn door. This barn door is about 2.5m high. When I say ‘door’, it’s really just an opening, as it doesn’t have a door at all. I could see the swallows flitting in and out and pirouetting in the air to land at the nest, so I had a go at photographing the incoming birds as they entered the doorway. With laughably poor results! The camera autofocus and my reactions couldn’t cope with such fast flying creatures and there was surprisingly little light just where I wanted to capture the birds, requiring serious amounts of ISO increase.
This called for some sort of ingenuity. Enter Mr. Heath Robinson!
I realised I had to slow the swallows down, so constructed a timber door frame with translucent under-floor foam to block the path of the birds but let light through. Then I cut a hole in the middle so I could control where they would fly in. Around about this time, I took delivery of a new camera trap trigger unit and thought that was just the ticket. After a few tests (with the help of my eldest daughter pretending to be a bird) I realised that there were a number of technical challenges, not least of which was the fact that the object had to be precisely where the trap needed, otherwise it wouldn’t trigger. I also noticed that the battery consumption was high and that if I wanted to leave the trap for hours or even days, I’d need some sort of battery pack. I tried various sizes and eventually plumped for a leisure battery, which is a caravan / motor home battery (a bit like a car battery) that is designed for continuous low power, rather than the intermittent high power that a car battery provides.
Rigging this up on a horizontal pole across the hole in the doorway I hoped it would trigger when the swallows entered. I had the trap linked to my camera on a tripod, which in turn controlled two or three wireless flashes. To cut a long story short, this kind of, sort of worked. A bit. But not well enough.
In the end, I realised I was going to have to press the shutter myself, but that I was definitely getting somewhere by slowing the birds down in the first place. Exchanging the translucent foam for black photo background paper, I re-made the door for a different look. This time, I wanted to cut out all stray light and let the flashes do all, or most of the work. Instead of using the trap, I stood behind the door on the inside of the barn with the camera pointing out of the hole. With wireless flashes on the outside of the hole and manual exposure and focus, I eventually got the shots I was after. Well, almost. There’s always room for improvement and the door is now stowed away ready for next year’s swallow broods.
Quick as a flash
One of the technical aspects I hadn’t banked on having to solve was flash duration. As I’ve mentioned, I wanted the flashes to do all the work, so I had to rely on the flash duration to expose the image. This means deliberately using settings on the camera that underexpose the scene so that the flash is the sole source of illumination. The problem here is that there are flashes and flashes! I tried my studio flash heads, but the flash duration was too long. Even on lowest power, the heads’ flash was on for too long so that the effective shutter speed didn’t freeze the motion of the birds. I’ve since found out that there is a way to do this by using the PocketWizard Flex TT5 and TT1 wireless control units to shorten the duration on these heads, so I’ll have to try that some time. However, I did use these wireless units to trigger three speedlights on various lighting stands. Honestly, the place looked like a shiny forest at times!
Speedlights have the advantage that, particularly on low power, their flash duration is extremely short. We’re talking 1/38,500 sec on minimum power for a Nikon SB900. That’s fast enough to freeze almost anything! In the end, I used more power and a longer flash duration than this, but the effects were what I’d been looking for.
I should mention at this point that stress to the nesting birds was kept to a minimum. At all stages, I was aware of any heightened agitation and backed off if that was the case.
Swallows are actually pretty forgiving little things and adapt to their environment readily and quickly. For example, when I built the door, it only took them a few minutes to work out how to fly through the hole and they certainly weren’t bothered as long as they could get a clear path to their young. They would land on the lip of the hole or fly in front of it to check that there were no surprises behind and then through they would shoot. I left the door in place, rather than removing it at night and they regarded it as simply part of their home.
I suppose this is no different to a small window opening or a hole in the eaves.
Lastly, the amount of light wasn’t altered much as there were windows upstairs in the barn, too.
Both sets of four chicks fledged successfully and are still buzzing around the skies as I type.
Swallow challenge 2:
One thing that didn’t occur to me when heading to France on holiday this year was that more than a hundred swallows would routinely use our swimming pool to drink from. They’d line up on the telephone wires in chatty ranks and one by one come swooping down in a precise dive to snatch water from the surface.
Almost fearless, one came within a metre of me while swimming. It must be thirsty work eating flies all day. Yum.
As you might imagine, I felt compelled to get a photograph of this, although I again came up against the technical difficulties of predicting where a fast flying swallow is likely to be and taking a photo at the exact moment it opens its mouth for a gulp of water.
The wind direction altered which side of the pool the birds would fly from as they seemed to prefer diving into the wind, presumably so they could get immediate lift once they’d taken a drink. I imagined what might happen to an unlucky bird that got the timing wrong: I don’t think it would be able to take off from the water, so would probably not survive.
Again, using manual exposure and focus I cranked the ISO up to achieve very fast shutter speeds and clicked away with a fast frame rate.
Trial and error eventually got some results that I’m fairly happy with.
Until next year
Back in England, I’ll be very sad to see these little fellows fly off to Africa soon. The skies will seem a lot less cheery without their playful frolicking and scratchy twittery songs. I’ll just have to come back and look at the pictures I’ve taken every once in a while over winter and wait for their return early next summer.
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