Big Birds In Flight

I don’t post images of these two species as often as I should. Both are common in my area and such large birds are relatively easy to photograph in flight so I hope the reason I’ve largely ignored them has nothing to do with snobbishness on my part.



american white pelican 2135b ron dudley

 1/5000, f/6.3, ISO 800, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF500mm f/4L IS II USM +1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

I photographed this American White Pelican three weeks ago at Bear River MBR. I have other shots of this bird (and others) with slightly more interesting wing positions but they were against a plain sky background. I much prefer those images that include far off mountains in the backdrop and this is one of them.

I often wonder how these heavy-bodied birds can even fly but once they become airborne there aren’t many species that are more graceful and effortless in flight.



great blue heron 0969 ron dudley

  1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 800, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF500mm f/4L IS II USM +1.4 tc, canvas added for composition, not baited, set up or called in

When I do get a featureless, homogenous background I tend to crop fairly tightly on the bird if I have the pixels to do it. This Great Blue Heron, photographed at Bear River a week ago, was in good light against slightly smoky skies. The shot was taken early in the morning so there’s no annoying shadows and the light was still warm and flattering.

Both of these images are examples of something I need to improve on – my shutter speed and ISO are much too high in both shots. When I’m driving around looking for birds most of them are on the ground or perched against a darker background and I have my camera settings adjusted appropriately. But when a bird in flight suddenly appears, by the time I get my pickup aimed the right direction and the engine turned off I often have no time to adjust camera settings before taking the shot. In that situation the bright sky background automatically boosts my shutter speed, sometimes dramatically (I shoot in aperture priority).

Often my choice is to get the shot at the settings I’ve already dialed in or miss the bird as I’m fiddling with my camera. But I must admit that since I purchased the Canon 7D Mark II that handles higher ISO’s with less noise than my previous camera I may have become a little complacent about less than ideal camera settings.

One more thing to work on in the field…


28 comments to Big Birds In Flight

  • Charlotte Norton

    Beautiful flight shots Ron!


  • I love them both.
    And how nice to hear that someone else sees dinosaurs when they look at birds. Our corellas and galahs look entirely avian, until they put their crests up, when their long ago ancestry appears. I mentioned it to someone here who looked at me with an expression which said she was clearly considering calling the men in white coats…

  • Patty Chadwick

    I guess the pelicans i’m thinking of must be the brown pelicans off of Bald Head Island , which is near the mouth of the Cape Fear River and Wilmington, North Carolina…see a lot of porpoises there, too.

    • Patty Chadwick

      That’s supposed to be PORPOISES but this evil iPad has other ideas…damned thing!!,!!,!

      • Susan Stone

        Patty, we spend a lot of time on the Outer Banks (headed there this week for a week, to close up the beach house), and what we see there are actually Bottlenose Dolphins… That whole area is one of my favorite places to be.

    • Yes, I’m sure the ones you saw were Brown Pelicans, Patty. I fixed the typo…

  • Betsy Livingstone

    Hi Ron – in response to “more interesting wing positions:” these pics demonstrate the aerodynamic body positions of these heavy flying/soaring birds. I especially love being able to see their folded, extended toes. I’ve seen white pelicans in several spots: Circle Bar B Ranch Preserve in central Florida, Bridgeport Lake and Sierra Valley (where they were breeding) in the eastern Sierras, and at the mouth of the Russian River here on the N. California coast. Once I watched a flock of them soaring in great, slow circles higher and higher as they rested on a perfect thermal; they were tiny disappearing dots before they began to descend and never flapped their wings as long as I watched. Thanks for reminding me of these memories. An enjoyable post as always.

    • Susan Stone

      Betsy, we watch Brown Pelicans when we’re on the Outer Banks of NC, and the soaring seemingly forever without flapping their wings is one of the things that has always impressed me about them. Thanks for reminding me of that. We’re headed back there this week, so I’ll make sure to watch for that…

    • Thanks very much, Betsy. I enjoy watching pelicans soaring on thermal too. It’s amazing how, when they’re high up, the entire flock can seemingly disappear and then reappear when the light is just right again.

    • Patty Chadwick

      Betsy–those aren’t toes sticking out the back of the bird…it’s the tail. Pelicans don’t have toes, they din’t even have feet. If you study Ron’s photi very closely you’ll see that this is true….just as buffalo(bison) don’t have any ears…..

  • Steve Housley

    Ron, I look forward to your post each morning and wonder how, day after day, you manage to find interesting subject material. Todays post certainly must have taken considerable time and effort. Much like preparing lesson plans, right?

    Occasionally, you make a statement that deserves additional comment. For instance, “Both of these images are examples of something I need to improve on – my shutter speed and ISO are much too high in both shots.” The high ISO might cause more noise, but what difference does the “too high” shutter speed make, unless you are trying to blur the wing movement?

    • “Much like preparing lesson plans, right?”

      Boy, did you hit that nail on the head, Steve! I often think the same thing when I’m preparing posts.

      And you’re right, I didn’t word that (“my shutter speed and ISO are much too high in both shots”) as well as I could have. I’m generally not concerned about having too high of a shutter speed in its own right, but since SS is related to ISO (with some variables) a crazy-high SS can be indicative of using higher ISO’s than you need to.

      For further explanation, see my reply to Michelle Greenwood, below.

  • Jorge H. Oliveira

    I don’t understand your concern. If your images turned out to be a mess (meaning out of focus or too light/dark or with a lot of noise) then and only then I would be worried. What is the problem having a high shutter speed or a high ISO? Like you said the 7D Mark II handles with that pretty well.
    As long as they come out fine and we all know they do everything is OK. And by the way what “ideal camera settings” are you referring to?
    I wish we had Pelicans here. We seldom see them because they are very rare. Like Patty I also think they came straight from the Dinosaurs Ages.

  • Michelle Greenwood

    I don’t really understand the “ideal camera settings” or how you even know what those are. I can understand if the ISO is really high and you have more grain than you want, or if your shutter speed isn’t fast enough and you get more movement than you want, etc. but I don’t understand when you have a great shot but you don’t like the camera settings. Why does it matter how high your shutter speed is as long as you got enough depth of field to have a sharp picture everywhere you want? Would you mind explaining this to me? I really want to understand.

    And beautiful images, by the way, which is why I don’t understand what is wrong.

    • Michelle, When photographing birds in flight I’d define “ideal camera settings” as those that give me enough shutter speed and depth of field at the lowest ISO possible for what I’m trying to achieve (fast action requires higher shutter speeds, for example).

      The higher the ISO the higher the shutter speeds and more DOF you can get but high ISO’s give you more noise (grain) in the image and noise is undesirable for obvious reasons. And the more you crop an image (and the larger you print an image) the more noise you get. Publishers and folks who buy prints don’t want noticeable noise in their photos so it’s nearly always best to shoot at the lowest ISO possible to get the results you want.

      In general birds are hard to get close to so we often have to crop more than we’d like. Noise may not be particularly noticeable in the full frame image where the bird is very small but crop to make the bird larger in the frame and there it is – that damnable noise.

      To answer your question succinctly, what might look like a “great shot” when presented on the web may have noticeable noise when printed large. So I don’t want to use higher ISO’s than necessary.

      But it’s always a tricky balancing act and I do the best I can…

      • Michelle Greenwood

        Okay, I can understand the ISO setting being higher than you like. It was the shutter speed that confused me. I joined the Nature Photographers Network after your introduction to it recently and on one of my pictures there were comments about the aperture setting being too high (?) which I had done because I wanted such a long shutter speed and then with your comments about “ideal settings” and I had always thought it was just a balancing act between the three values and as long as you got the elements you wanted and a good exposure then it shouldn’t matter what the numbers are. So I figured I clearly had a lot to learn. But I can understand if you aren’t getting what you want because of the high ISO, that makes perfect sense. Thanks for clearing that up for me. And while I hesitated to even ask that question, I see now I wasn’t the only one wondering.

        • Never hesitate to ask questions, Michelle (just like the good old days at Highland, huh?…).

          For me, getting “the elements you wanted” includes having as little noise as possible so I want low ISO’s. That said I’d rather err on the side of a sharp image (high SS and ISO) that has some grain in it than I would getting a soft bird. And I often do err in that direction…

          I’m glad to hear that you joined NPN.

  • Judy Gusick

    Really like these photo’s. We have both here in North Central Montana though not often enough on Belt Creek by our house. Stepping out the door and going back for the camera is often too slow – just never know when an opportunity is going to show up. Having some go to settings to leave the camera in is a good idea rather than just what was there last time I was shooting. Love watching a bunch of pelicans flying overhead with their slow motion glides.

    • Belt Creek, Judy. Then I believe you’re close to what used to be the “Great Falls” of the Missouri River. Right now I’m reading “Undaunted Courage” by Ambrose for the second time and Lewis and Clark are at the Great Falls. What a wonderful book it is and I especially enjoy reading about their adventures in Montana.

  • Jean

    Wonderful pictures Ron. We used to see white Pelicans at Elizabeth Lake, not too far from us, but since the lake is a puddle now the Pelicans didn’t show up. I hear we are in for some good rain this Fall/Winter, and the birds should come back. One can hope anyway.

  • Ron, lovely photo of the pelican. I would very much like to see one of these in the wild. There are some in B.C.’s interior and on Vancouver Island, but not in and around Vancouver City. And great discussion about ISO/aperature/shutter speed: Altough I find that Nikon’s “Sport” settoing gets the balance right, it only allows you to focus on one point of the image — by default, at the center. Changing to focal point is possible, but like you, if I fiddle too long with the camera’s buttons, I loose my shot. But I’m guessing that Cannon or Nikon will soon develop a camera that read our thoughts, right? 🙂

    • Jo Ann Donnelly

      Pierre – if you ever visit Florida, there is a place where you can be sure to see these special birds. There is an Island in the Intercoastal near Vero Beach, FL that is the wintering home for White Pelicans. Here’s the address for the Pelican Island National Wildlife Preserve – and what a shame you’d have to visit FL in the Winter time to see them!!

    • Pay us a visit in Utah, Pierre – you’ll have plenty of opportunity with American white pelicans.

      A “camera that reads our thoughts”, huh? Probably wouldn’t work for me because some of my thoughts would probably frazzle the electronics…

  • Patty Chadwick

    Interesring images…I, too, have wondered how these big birds get airborn, especially the pelicans. The Great Blues sometimes remind me of pteradactyls, not only the sounds they make, which sound so prehistoric, but their size and the big, powerful, almost lazy-looking wing flaps as they fly. i’m always impressed by the straight as an arrow , faster then a speeding bullet, dives the pelicans make as they rocket into the water after a fish…..

    • “The Great Blues sometimes remind me of pteradactyls”

      I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the same thought and for the same reasons you mention, Patty.

      These pelicans don’t dive for fish like the Brown Pelicans do. They fish from the surface.