December 14, 2013 • 3:59 am

Reader Stephen Barnard sent two bird photographs from near his home in Idaho. The first is of a male and female mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) with the description (click photos to enlarge):

Here’s the first decent photo with my new super duper Canon 500mm IS lens, which arrived last night. I’m practicing with the ever-present Mallards. ISO 400, f/4, 1/6000, handheld


And a lovely pair of trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator):

Trumpeter swans

66 thoughts on “Boids!

  1. I assume these birds are moving, if so the detail is very impressive. I had no idea cameras or talented people with cameras could do that.

    Are swans as evil in Idaho as they are here in England. Always hissing and chasing people? Can they break someone’s arm?

    1. They’re terrified of people and will take off as soon as they see you, although the ones on my place are starting to get used to me.

      1. Obviously Mute Swans have yet to invade Idaho.

        Love the photos, and very cool about the Trumps. Will they be around all winter?

    2. I live in Idaho, too, and there are a bunch of them on the Snake River just beyond my backyard. They show up here when the weather turns cold. They don’t seem to be anything like the aggressive European swans. As Stephen says, they are quite shy.

    3. Trumpeter Swans aren’t hunted (legally) in the US or Canada, but Tundra Swans, which look very similar, are, and Trumpeters are sometime shot by mistake. The two species often hang out together. I think that’s why they’re so shy. Personally, I don’t think Tundras should be hunted.

      I don’t object to duck hunting, and occasionally do it, although I prefer the camera to the gun. Duck hunters have been a powerful force for waterfowl conservation and habitat protection.

      1. The jerk tundra swans never stop here long enough for me to take their pictures. They pass through here when the seasons change but heading either north or south but don’t stick around.

  2. Breathtaking! Spectacular! A thing of beauty – the wildlife AND the camera work.

    I can hear the waff-waff of their wings as they do their fly-past, and taste the air in that corner of Idaho.

  3. Lovely shots and congrats on the new glass! That’s a beauty. I’ve added a 1.4x teleconverter to my 300mm f/4 IS lens which makes it f/5.6 so I have to wait until the light is right. I shoot handheld on a Canon 7D so I get an effective 672mm lens. The reach of a crop camera is what stops me from going to a full frame.

    That 500mm must weigh a lot! My set up is getting too heavy alone! I imagine you must have to take breaks holding it up to focus.

    1. When I got my 1.4x extender I had to update the firmware on my 5D3 camera to get AF to work with the 100-400mm zoom. The 1.4x extends the reach of the 500mm lens to 700mm. For a 500mm f/4 super telephoto it isn’t that heavy. Canon put a lot of effort into reducing the weight. Damned expensive, though.

      I’m considering getting a 7D for the extra reach.

      1. You can get 7D’s for cheap. It’s not all that different IMHO from my 40D as far as image quality goes. I find like that the crop allows you to cheat a bit. I am a pretty steady shot so, for example, I just shot some crows in a tree with snow coming down. I got away with shooting at 1/400 and I got to cheat a little because I got an effective reach of 672 mm with the crop camera but the camera itself is operating with an actual 420 mm lens (with teleconverter) so I didn’t have to shoot at 1/700.

        The downside of course is that there is more noise so a full frame would allow me to crop more.

        Damn trade offs! Damn physics! 🙂

        1. The IS on the latest generation of Great Whites is amazing. Forget entirely the 1 / focal length rule. With the 400 f/2.8, if you’re mindful, you can get clean shots at 1/15. Even more impressive: you can shoot the Orion Nebula with it by sitting on the ground and bracing your elbows against your knees.

          With the Great Whites, you basically don’t consider camera shake at all when setting shutter speed, only subject movement. For sports, of course, that still means 1/500 minimum shutter…and that’s why you see Great Whites all along the sidelines. They’re shooting wide open, often at high ISO, just to keep that shutter at or above 1/500.

          That’s part of the reason why I don’t get the new 200-400 — at least, not at that price. The teleconverter makes it a 280 – 560 f/5.6 lens, which is not at all impressive, and much too slow for anything other than bright conditions. Try to shoot wildlife at dusk or anything other than pro sports under stadium lights or even just portraits in the fog, and…well, you might as well be using that $150 75-300.



          1. BIF (birds in flight) photography is challenging. I generally use single-point exposure and single-point AF, so focussing on the eye is difficult with a fast-moving bird like a Mallard.

            The mode 3 IS on the 500mm is the bomb, but I don’t think it makes much difference at 1/6000.

            1. I set my 300mm to refocus (forget what setting that is) when I’m shooting hummingbirds because the little monsters are darty! The lens is still not fast enough to refocus but not bad.

              1. I don’t think there’s any lens — or human, for that matter — that can track an hummingbird. Rather, you need to do a lot of pre-focussing and have a lot of patience. They tend to be creatures of habit; watch them for a while, and make note of wherever they go that would make for a good shot. Then set yourself up in a good place to take said shot, everything framed, and wait. Then, you just need a little bit of recomposing and a short blip of fine-tuning focus to get the shot.

                But you’ll just drive yourself insane (too late, I know) if you try to follow their dartings.


              2. Yeah, I do a combination of framing and following. I’ve gotten some pretty good shots but they can be hard to predict sometimes because they wiggle to look at a bee or they see something up high….cute little things.

              3. I believe that for tack sharp hummingbird photos you need a flash and a focus preset. I can get decent ones in strong sunlight with extreme shutter speeds. I like taking video to the hummers fighting over the feeder. There’s always one greedy asshole.

              4. Yeah — if you want motionless (or near-motionless) hummingbird wings, you’re best off using either a speedlite (ideally off-camera) at the lowest power that it’s the dominant light source (lower power means shorter flash durations) or a Paul C. Buff Einstein in sport mode, again at lower power. And, of course, once you get into flash, you’re likely now wanting a softbox or other modifiers on multiple units…it can get damned fucking insane right quick.

                Some of the 1-series bodies have a mode where they autofocus system will trip the shutter when an object in focus hits the selected AF point. I don’t know if the 1DX has that or not. Lacking that, I’d probably go with a tripod, manual focus on a set spot, and fire with a shutter release (without bothering with the viewfinder) when a bird is in position. Obviously, you’d set it up as a portrait session, paying close attention to the background and the rest. You might even go so far as to stage a twig as a perch in just the right spot, with the twig in sight of the feeder that the hummer will want to guard. It’d likely take all morning (or more) just to get a few keepers, but those keepers should be publication-quality.

                And, as a bonus, you’ve got an excuse to spend the whole morning (or more) watching hummingbirds….


              5. Ha ha! I have done some pretty tack sharp ones but with very high shutter speed so the wings are stopped in some pictures.

            2. You’re absolutely right that BIF is one of the hardest forms of photography there is. But that 5DIII offers some autofocus modes that should let you put initial focus on just the eye while the camera keeps it there even as the bird moves away from the initial AF point. It’s not easy and definitely takes practice (and not a trivial amount of time spent in the manual figuring how to set it all up). But it’s worth it.

              And…yeah, you have to be falling-down drunk to need IS at 1/6000.

              But! With that sniny new toy and its IS, you should be able to get some amazing slow-shutter shots at dusk. Give it a whack — seek out some gloomy light and don’t be afraid to simultaneously crank the ISO and let the shutter drop to “this’ll never work” speeds and see what you get. Your hit rate will go down, of course, but the keepers you get should be magical.



      2. First, ditto to Diana.

        Before you get the 7D…everything I’ve read from everybody who has both the 5DIII and the 7D says that the 5DIII is the camera they shoot with and the 7D either sits on the shelf or is used as a backup.

        Yes, the 7D has a faster frame rate, but the 5DIII’s autofocus is so much better that you get more keepers per second of burst-shooting. And, yes, the 7D has a higher pixel density, but the 5DIII’s images, especially at higher ISOs, are so much cleaner that the 5DIII cropped to APS-C dimensions results in better prints than those from a 7D.

        None of that is meant to knock the 7D; it’s still an awesome camera. It’s just that the 5DIII is even more awesome still.

        What you really want is the 1DX…though, of course, that’ll set you back as much as your sniny new Great White just did. But, hey! It’s only money!



        1. 1Dx & 5Diii are both what I have my eye on but I’d prefer to buy used. I think I’d use both cameras. Jeez, I really have way too many cameras!

          1. The 5DIII is going to be a better studio camera than the 1DX. It’s also got the silent shutter mode that the 1DX lacks. And the 5DIII without a grip and with a Shorty McForty mounted is a lot less imposing than a 1DX with a 50 f/1.2L.

            But, in every other respect, the 1DX is going to beat the 5DIII.

            I think the combination of the two would likely be the ultimate setup for a journalist. Use the 1DX as the workhorse and the 5DIII as the second body and for situations where you need the silent shutter.


  4. If I might make a technical suggestion?

    Long focal lengths like 500mm compress the depth of field quite dramatically compared to closer-to-normal focal lengths. If one goes to and plugs in the relevant data, one can see this played out at different apertures, focal lengths, focus points, etc.

    These photos need more depth of field – f4 is not enough, which is why both birds in each picture are not in focus.

    I think you need to stop your lens down a bit more, and raise your ISO setting in order to keep your shutter speed up. I have looked at award-winning nature photographers work, and when they are gracious enough to post their camera settings, it is pretty astonishing to see how consistently they work at mid to high ISO ranges – 1600 and even 3200 – even in full daylight, in order to get enough DOF and keep shutter speeds high. (This is why long telephotos offer really small apertures – f45, for example!)

    These are still very fine images, and my hat is off to you for having the gumption to capture them!

    1. Hmm…not sure I’ll agree with you on that.

      The whole point to a Great White Lens is to shoot it wide open, especially to get subject isolation with a creamy indistinct background. If you’re going to shoot at f/45, you might as well save your money (and your arms!) and get a $150 75-300 f/4 – 5.6.

      There’s plenty to nitpick with these shots, but they’re just fine for a first outing.

      The background with the mallards is busy enough at f/4; stop down any more and you won’t be able to tell bird from branch. That’s one shot where the 400 f/2.8 would do better than that 500 f/4, though I’m pretty sure the overwhelming majority of the time he’ll be glad he’s got the 500 f/4.

      In both cases, focus is too far forward. I’m guessing the autofocus locked onto the nearest wingtip. That’s something Stephen is going to need to practice with the new lens to figure out. Had the focus been on the eyeball of the nearest swan, the depth of field would have included the rear swan’s head as well. That might not have happened with the mallards at this shooting angle, but it would have had Stephen been a bit farther forward of the birds.

      But, again, that’s nitpicking, and I’m sure Stephen’s already done exactly that same nitpicking. For what these are — first light with a serious piece of glass from somebody whom I’m pretty sure hasn’t used that kind of equipment before — they’re just fine.



      1. I disagree.

        BTW – I did not recommend shooting at f/45 – merely that these long tele’s offer it, so one could get tens of yards deep DOF at, say, 100 feet focus, if one wanted it. The compression of DOF at 500mm is unbelievable.

        Example – With a 7D @ 500mm @f/4 focused at 40 feet away, the DOF is 0.28 feet!

        At 80 feet, it is still only 1.16 feet.

        500mm@ f/8 at 80 ft is still only 2.32 feet!

        500mm@ f/8 @ 40 feet is only 0.6 feet!

        But the photographer needs about ~ 8 feet of DOF if he wants to have both near and furthest wing tips in critical focus.

        That’s f/27 at an 80 foot focus point!

        The far shore is still going to be plenty out of focus even at that setting.

        With a Canon 5D, about f/16 will give 7.35 feet DOF. If we want to get tricky, he could use f/10, but he would have to focus on the near bird’s far wing.

        In any case, one needs to stop down a lot from f/4 to get the shot.

        So, not that there’s anything bad about it, but you are hideously and irrevocably wrong about this. ;D ;D

        1. Depth of field calculations are meaningless without specifying the circle of confusion, and that depends on enlargement and viewing distance. Make 36″ x 54″ prints meant to be viewed from arm’s length with your calculations and you’ll find you’ve got nowhere near enough depth of field. Post 500px x 750px images on a Web page and your calculations are serious overkill.

          And, aesthetically, I disagree with having both wingtips of a bird in flight in focus. Indeed, I’m going to be drawn more towards a photo with a shutter speed just slow enough to show a bit of motion in the wings, coupled with good panning technique for a sharp catchlight in the bird’s eye. A supertelephoto wide open under those circumstances will, though depth of field, further blur the wingtips adding more to the sense of motion.

          Same thing with airplanes at an air show. Use too fast a shutter and the propeller is perfectly frozen, and it looks like a toy hanging from a string. Or a car on a racetrack: you need to pan so the car is sharp but the wheels and the background are blurred.

          Generally the only time I’m worried about maximizing depth of field is when I’m shooting landscapes, and then I’m generally using movements to tilt the plane of focus. And that’s because, when you start stopping down past f/16, diffraction starts to become visible and, yes, more of the picture is in focus but what’s in focus is softer than if you had been shooting at an optimal aperture. Frankly, f/27 looks like shit on most lenses, and f/45 is useless.

          Most of the rest of the time I’m looking to use depth of field as a tool to draw attention to the subject and to provide a sense of depth and dimension. And that means intentionally throwing out of focus those elements I don’t want the viewer to be distracted by as much as it means achieving critical focus on the elements I do want the viewer to pay attention to.

          With birds in flight, that almost always works out to shooting wide open with the fastest lens available, and then wishing for something even faster.

          But, hey — that’s obviously not your style. So go ahead and knock yourself out cranking down the aperture while you crank up the ISO, and I’ll annoy you by making and admiring photos you think are out of focus.



        2. Higher f stops get you into diffraction limits. I haven’t looked it up, but my guess is that the Canon 500mm is diffraction limited around f/16.

          Ben Goren is right. This lens is designed to be used wide open at f/4, or f/5.6 with the 1.4 extender.

          I’ll often shoot at f/13 to get DOF with BIFS, if the light is decent. The beauty of the 5D3 is that its outstanding high ISO performance enables high shutter speeds.

          1. he beauty of the 5D3 is that its outstanding high ISO performance enables high shutter speeds. <—– and this is why it may be my preciousssssssss

            1. If there’s a camera capable of taking the proverbial photo of a black cat at the bottom of a coal mine at midnight, it’s the 5DIII. (And the 1DX is even better!)


          2. I’m not fond of the term, “diffraction limited,” as it implies an hard cutoff. Rather, diffraction effects are always present but only start to noticeably contribute to a lack of sharpness with smaller apertures, until eventually you’ve got a pinhole and the blur from being out of focus is as much as the blur from diffraction.

            On a 135-format camera, diffraction is generally going to be detectable (theoretically) but insignificant at f/8 and barely visible but well worth the tradeoff when you want increased depth of field at f/11. It’s definitely there at f/16, but sill generally worth the compromise, again, if that’s what you want. Past that and you should tread cautiously, as the sharpest plane of focus will be noticeably softer than at more optimal apertures.

            Small-aperture softness cleans up surprisingly well with careful sharpening in post-production, so it’s not something to rule out…but, at the same time, if you’re really looking to have that much in focus, there are generally going to be better techniques to use than to stop down more. First up is to use a lens with movements, like one of Canon’s TS-E models. Also effective, especially in macro shooting, is focus stacking (for those who don’t know, you take a series of pictures with focus set at different distances and digitally blend all of them together, using the sharpest parts of each exposure).

            There are times when it makes sense to shoot slower than f/16, but very few — and most of those times will be to get a slower shutter in bright light when you don’t have a neutral density filter available.



        3. A large, relatively slow moving bird, like a heron, or a sandhill crane, or even an eagle requires looser requirements for a BIF photo than does a fast-moving one like a mallard or a kingfisher or (ceiling cat help us) a song swallow. Like Ben, I don’t mind, and even prefer, a little motion blur in the wing tips. There is a place for stone-cold frozen, tack-sharp action photos, but it’s a sub genre.

  5. “Ben Goren is right. This lens is designed to be used wide open at f/4, or f/5.6 with the 1.4 extender.”

    Remarkable then, that they include about twenty smaller apertures in their design, isn’t it?

    Your lens, btw, is NOT designed only to be used wide open at f/4. It is designed to be used with any of its apertures, but that the performance at f/4 is top-notch.

    I am quite inpressed with the conversation here. The OP shares two very nice photos, each of a pair of birds and each having one bird slightly out of focus because of DOF issues due to shooting wide-open.

    I point this out, offer data points about simple DOF calculations based on two reasonable focus distances, and then am told I am wrong, because of:

    1) diffraction, which doesn’t apply

    2) Circle of confusion, which doesn’t apply

    3) At least twice because that lens “should” be shot wide open

    4) something about moving wing tips.


    Hey, if a photographer really really likes shooting his ($10K?)lens wide open without regard to the DOF requirements of his subject, please, don’t let me get in the way of your artistic vision. Perhaps the BIF cognoscenti will like the ultra high-speed shutter, minimal DOF look.

    Best of luck to you. 🙂

    1. Gingerbaker, try not to get all bent out of shape over this. These are a couple nice photos that Stephen shared and Jerry was nice enough to post. Try not to take it personally if someone disagrees with photography technicalities. We’re all friends here.

    2. sub

      On second thought, I’ll reply to this.

      The Mallard photo would have been better at f/8. It was the first morning with good light that I had the lens. Naturally, I was pushing it to its limits, and still am. f/4 and 1/6000 is extreme, so I concede that point. I could have used higher ISO, smaller aperture, and gotten a really sharp photo. (Although I think the male is sharp.)

      Consider the difficulty of changing the ISO and the aperture while Mallards are exploding out of the water and you’re trying to AF and get an exposure with a new lens that weighs several pounds. It’s f*cking hard.

      1. And I think you did a great job – it’s hard to take pictures of moving wildlife, think about ISO, DOF, f/stop. I try to get it as “right” as I can & keep the damn eyes in focus! 🙂

      2. Yes, exactly. As I pointed out in my original reply, It’s a good first outing with unfamiliar high-performance equipment, and the criticisms are picking nits that you yourself have already picked.

        What I don’t understand is how this blew up past that. Are we not supposed to show photos unless they’re National Geographic cover material? Is nitpicking technical criticisms of the sorts of things that the photographer is certainly already aware of called for in a non-photographic forum where no critiques were requested?


      1. If you doubt the sharpness of this BIF, look for the water droplets coming off both the male and the female, and the ones clinging to the male’s breast.

      2. Yes, they are.

        There’s a bit of softness when you pixel peep, of course, which is just about what you’d expect from a combination of moderate ISO (for the camera; insane ISO for film), diffraction from a small aperture, and cropping.

        However, I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that a conservative bit of sharpening (my personal favorite is high-pass for these sorts of things, but USM should work as well) would restore all the acutance and that you should be able to get a great 8″ x 10″ print out of that shot. You can tell by looking at how much the birds “pop” in the smaller versions.

        With some careful post-processing, you should be able to get a really good 13″ x 19″ print from that one, as well.



        1. There’s some motion blur in the wings, which I don’t find objectionable. That’s what you get when you go to 1/1500 with Mallards. The conventional wisdom for aperture with BIFs is f/8, which is often a good compromise between DOF and shutter speed. But it depends on the bird and the lens and the camera. A large bird like a heron or a crane or a swan requires a slower shutter and a smaller aperture for DOF. A tiny, fast bird like a kingfisher or a song sparrow is the opposite. Mallards are somewhere in the middle. A long focal length, hand held, encourages a fast shutter. And then there’s ISO. It’s a complex problem, especially when you never know what you might encounter.

          1. The nice thing with your camera is you can push the ISO up and not worry so you get a bit of leeway in dark situations. I don’t dare go past ISO 400 with my 7D, but I’m probably overly picky about noise.

              1. I’m with you on this.

                But, of course, it can get tricky. In some contexts, the noise itself can decrease sharpness…but, paradoxically, it can actually increase sharpness in other contexts. Indeed, there are (rare) times when you might actually want to add in some noise in post-processing.

                Tricky business, photography is….


            1. You should be able to push the 7D past 400, though a big part depends on how big you’re printing. As well, of course, as the visual characteristics of the subject, the visual style you’re going for, and lots of other factors.

              One nice thing about modern DSLRs is that the noise patterns generally aren’t so objectionable — though you do have to be ruthless in stamping out chroma noise.

              The other nice thing is that it all lends itself so well to post-processing. You might boost the ISO to get the shutter speed fast enough to stop the motion of the flowers in the light breeze in the sunset landscape, for example. The noise doesn’t show up in the foreground or the mountains in the midground, but it does show up in the sky in the background. No problem! Just mask out the sky and either don’t apply any sharpening there at all or apply a bit of extra noise reduction.

              Amazing times we live in, incredible technology we have to work with….


              1. I think for me is I like to pixel peep and if there is noise, I can’t accept it. I use Lightroom only & find Photoshop tricky so my post production is limited to basic sharpening, warming/cooling, noise correction (at the expense of sharpness) & adjusting exposure (especially if shooting faster without noise means a darker image that I’ll fix in post).

              2. Pixel peeping is a dangerous thing to do. Many truly great photographs would look shockingly horrid when viewed at that kind of extreme magnification, and I fear many amateurs may well have tossed out some of their better work because of what they saw when they pixel-peeped.

                Of course, I do it, too, and my first step in post-processing is to make the 100% (or even 200%) view look the best I can.

                But…I know ahead of time if the shot is something that I’ll be enlarging to the maximum dimensions of the iPF8100 and if said print has to withstand critical scrutiny from less than arm’s length away. Since that’s almost never the case…well, I’ll still often start by cleaning up the file as if that’s what I was going to do, of course. Otherwise, I’ll consciously insist on not letting it bother me unless I can see a problem at actual physical (not pixel) size on screen. That is, in Photoshop, scale the image without resampling to the size you’ll be printing, turn on the on-screen rulers, hold a physical ruler up to the monitor, and adjust the zoom until the two rulers match. If the photo looks good at that magnification, so will the print.

                That’s also the zoom ratio I use for final pre-printing sharpening….


              3. Yeah, it is bad to pixel peep. I should really push up the ISO beyond ISO 400 but when I see noise, esp in dark areas I get all bent out of shape.

              4. There’s a great way to deal with shadow noise: don’t be afraid to crush the blacks. If there’s nothing interesting in the shadows, doing so will give the image more “pop” at the same time that the noise gets erased.

                Obviously, that’s subject-dependent….


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