Blurs of a Feather II - Susan Dimock

Thanks so much to Rick for asking me to do a guest blog on blurs.  I met Rick this spring in my hometown of Bandon and he graciously allowed me to join his Oregon Coast Caravan tour for their evening shoot on Bandon’s beach.  I’m no stranger to Rick’s work and have long admired his operation and beautiful images. What a great teacher, writer and photographer!  Talk about versatile!

This is a follow up to a blog post on bird blurs that I wrote last winter after a photo shoot in Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge.  In this post I will go into more detail on how I took the shots and why I like them.  You can find the first post on my website.

Above: Relay a “Goose Bump” Experience
Info: 1/25, f 13, ISO 250 Canon 100-400mm

The opening image of Snow Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese I call “Peeling Off” because that’s just what the birds are doing as they fly up.  In-camera, intentional blurs are one of my favorite ways to shoot flocks.  Being in front of a large group of birds at take- off is an exhilarating, multi-sensory experience that is difficult to describe.  It’s one of those things that you simply must experience to appreciate. 

Never-the-less, as a photographer, one of the great challenges is to be able to relay to the viewer a bit of your “goose bump” experience.  Blurs can allow the viewer to feel a sense of motion and to even imagine the thunderous ruckus caused by thousands of wings flapping in symphony.  I often marvel at the organized chaos in a spectacle such as this. And in this particular image I think having some of the bird parts such as the legs and heads in focus help to peak the viewer’s curiosity and to draw them in more to investigate. 

For this blur I hand-held my Canon 100-400 mm, focused on the geese sitting on the ground and moved up ever so gently as the birds moved up.  As I move up I keep clicking off shots until the birds have dispersed.  For the most part, the movement of the birds rather than the movement of the camera is creating the blur.

Above: Panning Blurs…Steady!
1/20, f 10, ISO 200, Canon 1-400mm.

This second image is a horizontal panning blur of Tundra Swans.  As you can see the background is blurred to the abstract and the birds have quite a bit of focus to them except for their wings.   In this case, the movement of the camera as you pan is creating the background blur and the wing movement creates the blur there.  Common questions that I get regarding this style are, “How much blur is too much” and “do I have to have the head and eye in focus?”  Well, I wondered a lot about those questions myself and have settled on this; if the image is appealing to you then don’t fight your own aesthetic sensibilities.  If you really like your image then trust that.  I try not to let comments such as “that’s too blurred” or “I like reality more”, “that makes me dizzy” or my personal favorite, “that looks like a goose down pillow blown up” bother me.  And yes, I have had all of those comments at one time or another. These days they mostly make me laugh!

With panning blurs the ideal is to move slowly with the birds as they fly across the sky. You can do this with steady arms or by using a gimbal head on your tripod that allows you to move gracefully with the motion.  When using my Canon 100-400mm, I usually hand hold. Because of the weight, I go the tripod- gimbal head route when using my Canon 500mm.  In this image I hand held, focused on the head of one of the birds then followed it across the sky as it flew.  Many folks use Al Servo Mode (obviously I’m a Canon shooter) while doing this and that works.  However, I find that I have a lot more luck with One Shot Mode when attempting panning blurs. It seems to get the bird’s heads and legs sharper for me, which is often what I strive for with this technique.

Above: More is Sometimes Better
1/25, f 10, ISO 200, Canon 100-400 mm.

This third image is another version of a Tundra Swan horizontal panning blur.  I add it here to demonstrate that a panning blur can also have more of a softness to the birds and be a beautiful image as well.  Basically, in my opinion, sometimes it works to have more blur in the bird and sometimes it doesn’t.  You will usually know right away if you have a keeper or not.  You will get that sense of “Ahhh, this has symmetry and elegance and it just works.” or the feeling of “Nope, something’s just not right…it’s a tosser.” And again, it’s really a subjective process.  This is your art. Avoid Specimen Feel  Images

Above: Blurs are definitely on a continuum and vary stylistic. But one thing across the board holds true in my view.  They are not boring nor are they documenting in nature.  In this fourth image I have created a fly-up that is just slightly blurred.  While not tack sharp, the birds are generally in focus and the wings are softly blurred. This style is appealing  because I can see each bird individually but they are not frozen in motion so you still get the dynamic, fluid feel.  Sometimes when the birds are tack sharp and the wings are frozen in motion it can be impressive and interesting but may take on a bit of a “specimen image” feel to me.  I took this at 700mm with the tripod and gimbal head combo.  I kept my lens in one spot as opposed to panning and let the bird’s movement create a touch of blur in the wings.

Above: Create Flow and Float

This last photo I refer to as “Ghosts of the Farmland”.  This is one of my favorite blur images.  In today’s world everyone is a photographer. The challenge is to make your images unique pieces of art so that they stand out and cause a person to linger and wonder, ”How was this created?”  When someone calls one of my images ethereal or says that it looks like a painting I feel like I have created something more than a snapshot. For me, that is satisfying.  This last image has an other- worldly, ethereal feel , thus the ghostly name.  I wanted to include the farmland in some images to give a sense of place so using a small flock of Greater White-fronted Geese here helped me to accomplish that.  The ethereal feel comes utilizing a very soft focus in a panning rendition.  This allows the flowing and floating sensation to occur within the image.…. flow and float, that’s what ghosts do, right?   This was also a horizontal panning blur taken at 700mm.

Camera Settings…Be Nimble

Finally, it’s important to know how your settings interact with each other to create the desired amount of blur.  Nothing works better here than practice and experimentation.  And even then, it is not a perfect science because you have a lot of moving parts involved!  Because of this, many images get tossed and at first it is frustrating.  Conversely, you get unexpected surprises that are really cool!  My go to shutter speed for fly-ups is 1/25-1/30.  I like the amount of blur that it tends to produce.  But as you can tell 1/20th and 1/40th are favorites as well.  When you have found the bird or flock that you want to shoot get prepared and do some test shots.

As you do the test runs be sure to expose for what will be the higher portion of your frame.  In the past I have done tests pointing at the flock as it sits on the ground.  I then sadly discovered that the light gets brighter in the sky where the flock flies up.  Of course, those shots were blown out because I had exposed for the ground. 

Expose for the lightest part of your fly-up especially if you are shooting white birds.  Be mindful that your shutter speeds will change quickly as you move your lens up in tandem with the birds.   It’s a dynamic process and as the birds fly up into varying degrees of light your shutter speeds will change and the amount of blur will change with that variable.  I will often focus on the head of a bird while it is sitting on the ground and then I will expose for the light about two thirds up into the frame to get the amount of blur that I want in that portion of the photograph.  Again, the light changes as the birds move up and so you must account for that. 

A cool trick is to set your ISO to 400.  Using your dials you can then change your exposure quickly as the fly-up occurs.  You can even shoot off a bunch at different shutter speeds with this method to see what turns out the best.  You have to be mighty nimble though, as those birds move quickly! Once you get the hang of it more of your images will become keepers.  Warning! This can be amazingly addictive because you never know exactly what to expect.  And chimping is definitely allowed.  Gotta see if you’re on the right track!

Have fun and to check out more of my work please see my web site.

Also check out Susan Dimock Photography on Facebook and Google Plus.   You can also check out our bird photography community on Google Plus at “Bird Photography Community“ which now boasts nearly 30,000 members.

Thank you!