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