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Working with what you've got

Yesterday I described my high-speed photography experiment at Point Impossible, where I also performed an unplanned washing of my Fuji X100 and Canon flash in a slurry of salt water and sand. I treated the victims as best I could, after retreating to a grass-covered rise at the edge of the riverbank. As the tide continued to come in, the wide sandbank in front of me would periodically be swept by a wide, fast-moving sheet of shallow water.

As I watched, I noticed numerous plovers, dotterels and sandpipers scurrying about, pecking up the invertebrate morsels that make up their diet. Presumably their location is revealed by the passing water; maybe they they wriggle as they float? The birds were progressively being lured toward me by their watery dining and as usual I had that giant-killer of a camera, the inexpensive Canon SX50 (1200 mm, 35 mm equivalent), with me "just in case".

However, even with the super-zoom of this camera, these tiny birds can be very hard to photograph, as I'll explain. This humble camera can make tiny things larger, even when being handheld, but it is nowhere near the same as using a sophisticated DSLR and telephoto lens. The latter combination benefits from a decent viewfinder, fast focussing, and high frame rates. Manual focus for the SX50 is performed impractically, with buttons, which leads you to rely on auto-focus with any moving subject. The downside is that you can't effectively use auto-focus if the bird is in foliage, although this was not so much of a problem today because the birds were isolated on sand. The other issue is "black-out time": when I press the shutter, the viewfinder is black for 2 seconds, during which time the subject has usually shot out of the frame in search of the next snack. Both of these limitations make tracking and following small, darting birds very challenging.

The end result is that you need to shoot a lot of images, knowing that 30% won't have focussed on the subject and another 30% will only catch a part of the bird leaving the frame. And all this is without considering the usual failure rate due to poor pose of the subject etc. In summary, the second part of my day's shooting resulted in just one decent photo to share, with another half-a-dozen that I've kept for identification purposes.

However, I haven't mentioned a side-benefit of this sort of photographic experience. Time spent with a single-minded focus on trying to capture tricky subjects like this takes you completely out of your day-to-day worries. It's almost like an active meditation, that leaves you tired but refreshed.

This immature Double-banded Plover was such a cutey that it was definitely worth the effort.

*I've added a little texture to give it a slightly painterly effect; something I sometimes like to do when also posting to Instagram.