The Waterskiing Duck


waterskiing duck

JUNE 10, 2008

waterskiing duck

With winter set in, I’m really noticing how weak the light is, and that’s affecting my fast exposures. So I’ve slowed my exposures down to 640th second. Unfortunately, slowing the ducks down is not an option so I’m getting a bit of motion blur, but that’s the price you pay for some decent depth of field without also pushing up the noise levels.

I’m getting better at tracking fast-moving birds in the viewfinder now and this time I was able to give the camera a decent chance at focusing. But I’m still too slow at hitting the shutter button.

waterskiing duck

Only a couple of ducks this day, but I was pretty happy with this one. Nice and sharp at full resolution

Now I’m not saying I’ve become obsessed by this task or anything like that. I consider it absolutely normal to wake up in the mornings wondering, ‘Is this the day I get that waterskiing duck?’

MAY 26, 2008

waterskiing duck

I was having a run of bad shots and then found myself back at work again, talking about my pursuit of the Holy-Grail shot. My friends at work are very much used to this kind of talk from me. They’re really nice about it and smile and nod their heads politely, and sometimes you’d swear they were listening to me as well. I’m thinking, forget about getting another camera — what I need is a place where ducks fly in regularly, in a neat line, one by one. Preferably all day. Like planes do at airports. That way I’d be sure to get at least one shot that worked out. One of my friends suggested I should get my girlfriend to stand outside of the frame and hurl the ducks in one at a time. That might get around some technical problems but I’ve sworn a pledge that no ducks will be hurt in this pursuit.

But I got one okay shot this day. It’s not perfect because it’s a bit out of focus. But I like the heroic stance of that bird (White-eyed Duck)

MAY 19, 2008

waterskiing duck

I was talking about waterskiing ducks with some friends. Well okay, it’s pretty much all I’m talking about these days and Soapy, a Canadian artist friend of mine, asks me if the ducks ever dig their toes in when they land. He figured that if they accidentally dug their toes into the water at high speed they’d end up flipping face down into the water.

So I’m thinking a lot about Soapy’s question and then by a stroke of luck I find the beginning of an answer in this shot of a duck lining itself up for a water landing

waterskiing duck

So that’s your answer right there, Soapy. This duck is approaching at high speed. You can tell it’s going fast because its wing feathers are all bent back by the air pressure as it decelerates. And look what it’s doing to those toes. I’ll show them at higher resolution to make it easier for you.

The duck’s toes and claws are clearly curled right up, like the front of a water ski. That’s why they don’t trip over on the water.

No doubting what’s going on there. That duck knows what it’s doing. Now have another look at it, I mean the whole bird. I can’t say this for sure, but I reckon that bird is deep in concentration. I mean, what if one foot hits the water before the other. That would flip it around sideways and you’d have a duck doing donuts instead of a ski run. So it has to get it just right. And I thought I was the one who had a lot to remember.

waterskiing duck

I took a bunch more pics. The lighting wasn’t good — everything was harsh and back-lit — but the ducks were coming in at an impressive rate and I was getting in some practice.

waterskiing duck
waterskiing duck
waterskiing duck
waterskiing duck

It turns out that my favourite ducks are the Pacific Blacks. They seem to be the ones that come in fastest and therefore ski the longest. Unlike this guy in the series shown here.

At 6 frames a second this sequence of four shots took only two thirds of a second. By the way, this pic is another one that shows the toes curled up, ready to prevent it being flipped over. At this point the bird is concentrating on a level landing.

waterskiing duck


The bird is fully level now.

waterskiing duck

This is pretty much the part of the sequence I’m aiming for. Shame it’s so blurred …

waterskiing duck

… and a sixth of a second later the party’s over. That’s all folks. Nothing to see here.

This landing was a pretty unimpressive waterski, but it shows how precise you have to be with your timing

So now I know where this is heading. At this point, a serious photographer would get some serious camera gear, with a good fast lens and much faster burst rate.

But that’s taking all the fun out of it.

MAY 12, 2008

waterskiing pelican

That last shot put a real spring in my step and suddenly I’m more keen than ever to get my Holy-Grail shot. So I was back at the pond with my 400mm lens ready and watching for flying ducks. And then this guy turned up. This is no duck but, like the swan its size made it an easy photographic target. So I’m firing a burst of shots thinking it’s going to have to stop sooner or later. It more than filled the frame before it slowed down and this was the last shot I got in the sequence. I love this shot. Like I said, it’s not a duck, but the pic shows what impressive big birds those pelicans are. The full-resolution shot looks really cool.

MAY 9, 2008

waterskiing duck

This time I was just so close. The light was a million times better that day. Focus was pin-sharp. Framing good. But once again I was a bit slow with the shutter finger and the bird was fully settled into the water before I got my first shot. But there’s enough stuff working in this pic for me to really like it. It’s not the Holy-Grail shot, but at high resolution (much bigger than it looks here) it looks beautiful, especially those frozen-moment curled-water effects. This one’s a keeper.

MAY 6, 2008

waterskiing swan

I’ve jumped a whole bunch of days. No need to show you my pics. Just a bunch of blurred ducks. But then the craziest thing happened — I got my first wasterski shot which I was (and still am) happy with. Except it wasn’t a duck …

I was standing by the pond wating for ducks and noticed this black swan heading for a water landing. After weeks of practicing on small, fast-moving ducks, getting my camera focused on this great giant of a bird was dead easy. I like this shot. The bird and water are nice and sharp even at 100% resolution, and you can see what’s happening.

Sure, it’s not the shot I wanted but I’ll keep it. And it’s given me a bit of confidence and it’s around about this point when I see a duck approaching. I’ve been learning how to use my camera but I’m not quite fast enough. Despite getting the focus right the duck has already settled into the water.

waterskiing duck

The lighting’s not great but I’ll keep this shot too. I’m definitely getting better at this

APRIL 4, 2008


When you first notice a duck approaching it’s usually less than a hundred metres away.

Ducks fly really fast, which is why they do such good waterski landings. Chances are they’ll be landing in front of you within a couple of seconds and the whole game’s over in less than a second after that. So I’m talking maybe three seconds.


I see the duck approaching about a hundred metres away so I aim the camera and realise I can’t see the duck through the viewfinder. Because the duck has moved — fast, and my 400mm lens only shows a small part of the sky.

If I’m lucky I’ll find the duck before it’s hit the water. Then I’ve got my finger on the viewfinder trying to focus and that takes a bit more time. By now I’m panicking because the duck’s still blurred. I’m struggling just to keep the bird in the frame which means the camera is struggling to focus. To get everything framed and focused this way probably takes me about three and a half seconds.

Three seconds for the duck. Three and a half for me. When you do the maths you know it’s not going to end well.

waterskiing duck

So after waiting at the pond for a while I see my first duck. It’s coming in from the side at an approach velocity of about warp nine. I barely manage to fire off two shots before it’s all over.

waterskiing duck

Just like the first time — the spray’s in focus but the duck is blurred. Except this time the duck is mostly outside the frame. This was when I realised that unless I lift my technical skill levels I’m going to need a lot of luck.

APRIL 1, 2008

waterskiing duck

I’m a big fan of ducks. And an especially big fan of how they land on water after flying. They have this really cool way of slowing down. They stick their feet out and waterski across the surface for a bit before they sink into the water. Sometimes they ski for about 6 feet or more. They do it really well and I have a hunch they enjoy it. And I want to catch that moment in a photograph.

Although having had a go at this now I’m thinking this is easier said than done.

The illustration here shows the shot I want. For a brief moment after landing on water they’re not flying and they’re not swimming either. They’re waterskiing. I can’t think of anything else you could call it. I’m not making this up and duck experts around the world will back me up on this.

I figured it would be great to get a shot of this brief moment. And I almost have too. On my very first attempt today I came awfully close.

waterskiing duck

You see, I headed for the pond where the ducks hang out and no sooner had I turned with my camera when I saw a duck flying towards me at high speed. I barely had time to find it in my viewfinder before it was on the water skiing to a halt in front of me. Here’s the shot I managed to fire off before it was all over

waterskiing duck

… and here’s that same pic at 50% resolution (half-size). I got the water in focus but the duck is badly blurred

The way I see it, this shows that it can’t be all that difficult. I just need better timing. Just for a bit of fun I intend to see how it long this takes so I’m going to make this into a sort of blog.


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Copyright © Mark David. All rights reserved |

Copyright © Mark David. All rights reserved |