Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Just Jays

Regular readers will know I have a great fondness for photographing various corvids in flight. A particular favourite and challenge has been the Jay.
The majority of people seem to love jays which I put down to their slight unusual and exotic looks amongst the relatively muted colours of birds in the UK. Their pinkish hues of their body combined with black and white wings with its splash of electric blue and a crest which they only occasionally show.

Almost in flight
Jays are generally a relatively shy woodland species with broad wings that provide them with the lift to carry crops full of acorns, which they spend a good proportion of the autumn caching to provide a winter food supply. Having spent a good deal of time with these birds, some of their hiding of acorn tactics are probably not too successful when they simply place it on the ground and place a nearby leaf on top. Amusing to watch but hardly an approach that will deter a determined and hungry squirrel. Their broad wings also offer them great manoeuvrability in the air to help them negotiate with ease through their preferred woodland habitat. However, this aerobatic ability also makes them particularly challenging to photograph in flight.
'Project J' as I entitled this mission when it started a few years ago has proved an interesting and rewarding learning experience. I would say that it is only really during this year that I have finally honed the technique to consistently start capturing images of this fascinating species in flight. The main difference this year has been getting closer to the birds which has allowed me to use the very fast focusing 300mm F2.8 lens rather than fairly unwieldy 600mm. Speed of focus is key when trying to photograph these colourful corvids to keep up with the erratic and rapid flight paths.  However, even with a fast focusing lens and camera body the challenge still remains high. They are prehaps at their most unpredictable when coming into land and as I previously written about before the 'jay flip' often takes them sideways out of the camera viewfinder just when you think you have got the focus locked on.
Interestingly another confounding problem I have recently found at this site, paradoxically, is bright sun. Now many would think that bright sun would be beneficial for this flight photography allowing fast shutter speeds and larger depths of field to be easily achieved. However, apart from the obvious exposure challenges under these conditions on a bird with patches of black, a bright white rump and wing bars, I have often found the camera also struggles to acquire focus. The reason for this is that I am photographing the birds low over an area of grass which has much more contrast in bright sunshine. A camera's autofocus system is based around detecting contrast and so there is a tendency under these condition for the camera to lock on to the grass, especially when using expanded autofocus points. An expanded focus area is a necessity for these birds to try and keep the camera on them during their unpredictable flight path. Under the bright diffuse light of thin cloud cover, the success rate of achieving and holding focus on the jays becomes much greater. This just goes to show how differences in light when combined with the setting can have a big effect on how a camera can perform and as such the photographer needs to constantly change and adapt his settings and approach to maximise success under the prevailing conditions.
I think I have probably rattled on enough here and gone slight off track on the whole purpose of this post which is to show you some flying jays. To me they look at their best from a dorsal view when the blue wing patches are in view and this is probably the most difficult photo to achieve.
I may do one more Jay session this autumn but my thoughts are rapidly turning to my plans for the winter. Winter is a wonderful time for the wildlife photographer, if the weather is kind, and I always look forward to it as I am once again this year.


Lasse said...

Nice flight show !

Jonny Langmyren said...

Not easy those Jays. Very shy. The last picture fancied me most. It is really nice.

mikes said...

Great flight shots
Can you give me settings
iso speed aperture thanks

schammond said...

Stunning pictures. I was able to identify as a jay the beautiful bird I saw take flight this morning on my journey to work to Ilkley. I especially needed to be able to see the open wings and the wing bars to make the identification. I found your blog via a Google Image search and will now visit regularly. Your photographs are stunning.


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