Friday, May 20, 2016

A Tripod in the Canoe: I never thought I'd see the day

I have a new set up for photographing birds from the canoe. It is a 300mm Minolta f/2.8 lens attached to a 2.0 teleconverter. This is a 50% increase in focal length from my other lens (from 400mm to 600mm). The obvious advantage is that I can get close up shots of birds from a greater distance. This is particularly beneficial at the bird rookery where nesting birds can be easily disturbed if approached too closely. I also purchased a vertical grip. This provides me an ergonomic advantage when shooting vertical images.

But here is the issue, this new set up weighs 8.6 lb (this includes the weight of two batteries). This doesn't seem like a lot, but it can make it impossible to steadily handhold for long periods. It's difficult enough when firmly on ground; but in a canoe, the results can be unacceptable. It would be a shame to have such a powerful lens and not be able to use it to its full potential. But I have to be in the canoe if I want to photograph the rookery or wading birds on Biscayne Bay. So a new system was developed.

I need stability; therefore, I need a tripod. It's a simple matter of placing the tripod in front of me, with one leg pointed toward the bow and the other two legs straddling the pelican case that sits in front of me. There is yet another part to this. While a ballhead attachment works great for many things, I decided I needed a Gimbal head for added stability. The Gimbal head allows the camera to remain in place without the need to hold the camera. As long as the camera and lens are balanced properly on the head,  you can take a break from shooting and not worry about it falling over.

I recently had a couple chances to put it to the test. No doubt about it, the 50% increase in focal length is a great advantage, especially at the rookery. And it is a relieve to not have to hold the camera at all times. But, there are conditions that have to be met to make this work. First, the water must be very calm. Second, there must be a way to hold the boat in place. I use two stake out poles attached to the gunwales (see image below). While this works fantastic and keeps the boat from moving, it works only up to 4-41/2 ft of water depth.  In addition, once staked out, it is a pain in the a** to uproot and try to move to another position. So it is imperative that I get into an ideal spot where I can stay for a couple hours. This takes some patience as I scout out the rookery and figure out where I have the best photo opps within my field of view.

The real test are the images. No doubt, I can more easily fill the frame with birds with the 600mm focal length. And the rookery has been extremely busy lately with several active nests. The challenge has been to isolate an active nest from the surrounding activities. I may get a clear shot of an egret parent feeding her chicks, but quite often the scene is photobombed by another nesting bird or chick; which can be an egret, cormorant or brown pelican.

Nevertheless, the bird rookery is most inviting and I can't wait to get back there. I will continue to visit over the next couple months and hope to have more images to share as the young chicks begin to fledge. In the meantime, here are a few.

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