We’d all love to get the best bird shot of our lives, but unless you have some kind of pre-cognitive ability that transcends normality, knowing where and when a fish eagle is going to swoop down and grab a hapless fish out of the river is close to impossible.
So we improvise. On the Chobe river there are fish eagles galore. Some of them have become known to the river guides and they have developed a trick that gives us photographers a better chance at nailing a great action shot of these magnificent birds. What they do is they take a small dead fish, push a twig into its mouth (so that it floats) and by whistling like a fish eagle they toss it into the middle of the river. The birds that they know will fly in towards the free meal and with the boat in the right position it’s up to us to get the shot.
Still not easy.
On our recent Wild Waterways safari we did this about 4 or 5 times and with the exception of this shot every other time I either got 20 to 30 frames of the ripples on the river, or seriously out of focus fish eagles. At first I tried pre-focusing on where the fish was floating and then waiting for the bird to come in and get it. Timing is everything with that method, but the problem is that because the bird is so fast and you’re buoyant in the boat, keeping the fish in the frame is tough. The other approach is to track the bird while it is still in flight and fire as it approaches the fish. This method works well for DSLR users with advanced auto focus tracking on their cameras, but is a bit more hit and miss with something like the Olympus E-M1. It’s not impossible, as you can see from this shot, but you need to know your camera’s AF nuances. Generally I tend to avoid AF-C mode in cameras (not just mirrorless, even when I had the Nikon D700 and D2H I only used AF-S mode) and rely on the camera to acquire focus quickly when I have something moving in my sights. The E-M1 does AF-S faster than any other camera I have ever used, so that’s the way I roll. Sure, I miss more than I hit, but when I hit, it hits sweet.
Here’s a short video clip showing just how fast you have to be to get the right moment: