Photographing Kingfishers

One bird that I’ve wanted to get closeup to to photograph but is notoriously difficult is the kingfisher. On walks in the Test Valley I have seen the odd flash of blue, but never close enough to get a decent photograph, even if I happen to have the right equipment with me (which isn’t often). At Titchfield Haven near Fareham, kingfishers are regular sightings but rarely close to one of the hides. In September 2015, I was fortunate to see one from the Meon bridge by the Visitor Centre where it had been seen fishing for much of the day, but the location was in shadows and even with Photoshopping it was hard to get great colour balanced, well exposed, and sharp, images.

One example:
Look what I caught!

Another example was taken at Arundel Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in April 2016 where, from one of the hides, we saw a blue flash followed by it landing some way away:

But this was too far for a decent set of images.

Fortunately, David Plummer, with whom I have been on a photography tour to Skomer, in Wales, has hides available for hire at Knepp Safaris in Sussex to photograph kingfishers. So, I booked a day with David in April 2016 but it had to get cancelled as the birds stopped visiting the hides he had set up. A rescheduled date in June also got cancelled due to mink invading the nests. Due to David’d photography tours and my holidays, we finally settled on mid September 2016 when we were both available and the kingfishers visiting the hides.

Getting up at 5am to drive to near Horsham for a 7am start, I was set up at the hide by about 730am. David had me at one hide with two perches at different distances and with a supply of live fish located below the perches. Despite taking both my DSLRs along, both 100-400mm lenses and two tripods, David reckoned I had brought too much stuff and should keep it simple.

Hence, I set up my Canon 5D Mk 3 with the 100-400 Mk 2 Lens on my Manfrotto tripod with geared head. I trained the camera on the nearest perch and waited. And waited. I could see activities from moorhen, coots, great crested grebes and other waterfowl. In fact, I saw a great sight of a grebe passing a fish to one of its young – but couldn’t train the camera in time to get a sharp photograph. David later said they would have been too far anyway!

By 1000am no sign of a kingfisher, but then suddenly one appeared on the other perch. By the time I had adjusted the camera to get it in the field and focused, the kingfisher had flown away. David had asked me to text him with progress and I did, but Vodafone reception this close to Gatwick was poor! The odd message did get through. By 1pm, there had been no new sightings, so David offered to move me to another hide where another client and he had seen two sightings already.

I agreed, and he came to pick me up. On our way his other client reported a third sighting of several minutes. So, things were looking optimistic. David had had clients recently where they had taken 1200 frames by midday! This did not look likely for me and by this time was looking for a few frames that were better than either above.

I sat in the second hide quietly with Mike, David’s other client. He gave some tips on exposure and ISO based on his experience so far (go for fast shutter speed and hence trade off against a high ISO which the 5D Mk3 should be able to handle). By about 240pm, we saw a kingfisher circle the pond twice but not land on the perch. Mike reckoned it would land in “a few minutes”. It didn’t.

At 315pm, though, I looked up and saw the unmistakable blue of a kingfisher sitting on the perch a few feet away. I nudged Mike and we quietly adjusted out cameras to get it in view and start shooting. David had advised us not to move quickly but to take our time as it was more likely to stay on the perch. We managed to get a few shots in when it dived into the water below and returned to the perch with a fish and turned around to face us:
Landing its catch
This was perfect. The lighting was good, the composure was good and we could shoot away. The kingfisher whacked the fish onto the wooden perch to stun it:

Battered fish for dinner
Battered fish for dinner

and then proceeded to rotate it 90 degrees in its beak to swallow it:

Hard to swallow
before letting its dinner settle:

Kingfisher digesting its lunch

Most of the above are taken with ISO 1000, f7.1 (to get a bit of depth of field for the bird and the fish), 1/1250s. The bottom is at f/9 and 1/800s.

For a few more minutes, the kingfisher posed on the perch and we shot away. I had my 1.4x extender with me and wondered if I had time to add that so as to get a better magnification so I added that between the camera and lens.

This gave me a reasonable number of shots at the higher magnification. The bird turned around a few times allowing us to photograph the beautiful colours of its back:

Kingfisher on the lookout

Scanning for fish

And then it turned around to face us before flying away:

Kingfisher on the lookout

The above are 560mm focal length, f9, ISO 1000 and 1/800s or f11 and 1/640s.

In the 5 minutes or so it was with us, I captured 170 frames. Not 1200 nor (as David reported a week or so later) a record breaking 3000 shots. But the vast majority were considerably better than  any previous shot (see the first two above) for their colour balance, exposure, sharpness, detail. These photos needed very little doing in Lightroom apart from white balance and a few tweaks on clarity/vibrance/saturation plus sharpening. The ones here are the very best but I’ll go back through from time to time to select a few more.

Had I had the privilege of several visits, then I’d have had the opportunity to change camera settings, composition, etc and probably get some even better ones. Mike obviously had many more shots to choose from. David has tweeted shots from some of his more recent clients and some are brilliant.

This was a great day out, even though I was up at 5am and didn’t return until 6pm for 5 minutes with a (female) kingfisher. Many thanks to David for the opportunity to use his hides and the help in setting up. It was a great day out.

I’ll add more photos to this collection on Flickr over coming weeks:

Kingfishers at Knepp


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