Guest post: birds of prey in a studio environment with the Nikon D800

Eurasian Eagle Owl

I have scheduled several guest posts for this week. Nikon related news/rumors will pick up at the end of July when we will start approaching the pre-Photokina announcement time. The first guest post is from Steven Hyatt who had the chance to photofraph birds of prey in a studio environment with the Nikon D800 and Nikkor 200-400mm f/4 VRII lens (click on images for larger view):

Eurasian Eagle Owl

Recently I was given the opportunity to set up a studio at the Center For Birds of Prey in Awendaw, SC and photograph their birds. Having loved birds of prey since I was a child (especially owls) I was very excited about having them less than 10 feet from my lens. The only drawback was that I had never shot anything of that nature before and was unsure of exactly how to go about it. I had about a week to figure it out.

Eastern Screech Owl

One thing that I knew was that I wanted as much resolution as possible to capture the fine details present in the feathers, and this provided the perfect opportunity for me to use my Nikon D800 for the first time.

While it’s generally unwise to use a camera for the first time while on an actual shoot I didn’t have much time to prepare and decided to have a little faith in the company whose cameras I’ve been shooting for so many years. When it comes down to image quality the camera certainly did not disappoint. The tones and resolution from the D800 were truly impressive. I couldn’t believe the detail I was able to get from it. However, I had a terrible time with the camera’s autofocus. Birds move so quickly and frequently that focus was a concern for me. I found that I simply could not trust any AF point other than the center point. I tested a calibrated lens on a stationary object in the studio and the focus would be spot on when using the center point, but then would need further fine tuning of about +5 if I moved even two points to the left of center. After repeating these same results with a few lenses I decided to stick with the center point focus only and shoot in continuous AF to keep up with the nearly constant small movements of the birds. It worked well with very few images ever out of focus. As to exposure, I shot at ISO 100 with my aperture mostly at f/11.

Barn Owl Chick

Once I decided to use the D800 I had to make a decision on a lens, and it was a decision with which I had some difficulty. I needed to have a relatively close working distance while at the same time having a high magnification so that I could crop in to photograph just a bird’s head. My Nikon 70-200mm lens just did not have the magnification I needed. I could focus down to just under 5 feet with it, but I couldn’t crop nearly as close as I wanted; 200mm on it still left me with way too much bird and background for the composition I was seeking (as a side note, I tested my girlfriend’s Canon 70-200 and I believe I could have used it just fine). I could use my Nikon 105mm micro and get as close as I wanted, but the problem for me there was twofold. One, I couldn’t get that close to some of the birds (the tawny eagle was unsure of me), and two, my depth of field was just entirely too small at such a short focal distance. I had to shoot at such a small aperture that diffraction was becoming a limiting factor. I could go with a fixed 300mm or 400mm lens but then there’d be no versatility and some wouldn’t let me get as close as I wanted and still focus. After considering the things I wanted in a lens for this shoot, high magnification, a relatively close minimum focusing distance, versatility, and good sharpness, I decided on the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 lens. Stopped down the sharpness was fantastic, it let me focus even closer than I needed to, and I had the versatility of zooming in and out as needed to incorporate the amount of the bird I considered most appropriate. I will say, however, that this lens is BIG, but it did a fantastic job (I shot it on a Wimberley II head in the studio).  I rented the Nikon 200-400mm lens from LensRentals.com (who offer outstanding customer service).

The light setup

On to lighting. Birds are quick, even if moving their head from one position to another (which they do frequently). I wanted a short flash duration to be sure to stop those movements, but also to be able to do the few flying shots I did. I decided on Paul C. Buff Einstein lights. The Einsteins are built for speed, among other things, and were perfect for the job. They are affordable and very versatile. I was shooting them between 1/8 and 1/16 power, which was enough to freeze these birds mid-flight. I had one Einstein camera left with a large 86″ PLM with a diffusion cover on it. Camera right I had 2 more Einsteins with umbrellas on them. All of the lights were within 5 feet of the birds. I had a simple black paper background about 10 feet behind the birds. For the flying shots we set up 2 perches, one just at the background, the other between the lights, and would have the birds glide between the two (with beef or chicken awaiting their arrival).

Harris Hawk

Finally, the RAW conversion and bulk of the editing was done in Phase One’s Capture One software. This is the first time I have ever used the program but anyone familiar with Adobe Lighroom, and even those not, should be able to pick up on it very quickly. My main reason for this choice was strictly image quality. I’ve heard repeatedly that Capture One is the best RAW converter out there and after this experience I see no reason to refute that claim.

Ural Owl

I will be returning to the center in a few months to photograph more as they rotate their flight birds (bald eagle, spectacled owl, asian brown wood owl, etc!). In the meantime please enjoy the resulting photos from the day and I hope this information will be of use to you in the future.

Savigny's Owl

Eurasian Kestrel

Lesser Yellow Headed Vulture

Peregrine Falcon

Red Tailed Hawk

Tawny Eagle

Yellow Billed Kite

I uploaded two full size images on flickr: Harris Hawk and Ural Owl.

All images © Steven Hyatt

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