Forster’s Tern – Moment Of Impact (almost)

This is the closest I’ve come (so far) to catching the moment of impact of a tern diving for fish and it’s pretty darned close.

Let me try to explain the difficulty of my goal. To catch them at impact you have to know (impossible) or guess (highly unlikely) where they’re going to hit the surface and have your lens trained on that spot when they enter the water. The other option is to follow them down in the viewfinder but at the focal lengths I shoot I probably have a better chance of hitting the lottery – twice, back to back.

So I try to be very quick and focus on the impact spot as soon as they hit the water. I usually fail (no bird in the photo, soft focus, bird facing away from me, etc.) and I estimate that they’re only in the water for about one second (fish or no fish) before they’re out’a there so it isn’t easy. But I’m trying!

This sequence from a few days ago is my best result so far. Many of these images have obvious flaws but I think it’s fascinating and challenging behavior to photograph and I’ve had so much fun with my attempts that I thought others might enjoy seeing what I’ve been up to in recent days. This is only a progress report so I decided to have a little fun with it…



1/2500, f/6.3, ISO 400, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

This was taken about 2.97 nanoseconds after entry (tongue in cheek on the timing of course). I think it’s an interesting photo for what I hope are obvious reasons. The vertical splash was so dramatic and high I was disappointed that I cut some of it off up top but a different crop…



1/2500, f/6.3, ISO 400, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

includes more of it in the reflection at bottom. For some reason I was really curious to see more detail of the bird’s head and bill – wondering if that’s really a fish I think I can see to the right of where the bill-tip should be.



1/2500, f/6.3, ISO 400, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

A huge crop of the same image reveals that it is – with its body shape apparently contorted by the intense action (I think this is the first time I’ve ever posted three versions of the same image on my blog…).



1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 400, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

In the next photo in the burst the fish disappears below water’s surface again but…



1/2500, f/6.3, ISO 400, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

several shots later we get a good look at it.



1/2500, f/6.3, ISO 400, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

Sadly I cut off the reflection in almost every image in the sequence but I guess I should be pleased that I didn’t do the same to the bird.

Even though I’ve been unable to get spectacular and technically excellent images of the action so far, just making the attempt is good training for me and I’m learning a lot about anticipating behavior in these terns. If I keep trying I could still get lucky…




41 comments to Forster’s Tern – Moment Of Impact (almost)

  • Marty K

    HO-LEE-COW! These are amazing, Ron!!! I hope you bought a lottery ticket!

  • I so loved this series. 😀 I thought I saw that fish too then was glad you blew things up. 😀

  • Patty Chadwick

    Love all these images…last is wonderful, too…..

  • April Olson

    Nice shots, very difficult to get. The water splash is fantastic.
    I just came back from BRMBR. I was trying to get some flight shots too. I am having trouble with my focus staying sharp even with the BBF. The AF is struggling to keep the moving object sharp and quickly. I hope I did not damage my camera with the eclipse.

  • What a challenge you have set yourself.
    And what a challenge you have come so close to achieving…
    An incredible series and I thoroughly enjoyed the different crops.

  • Joanne OBrien

    Thanks for this great series. A joy to peruse – as usual! Makes me want to get on out there this afternoon and shoot!

  • Kent Patrick-Riley

    WOW, WOW, WOW. Terns are one of my favorite birds to photograph – it must have been so fun capturing them in these photos. Thanks much for sharing

  • Alice Beckcom

    Amazing shots, Ron. I like the reflections even if they are not perfect. Quite an amazing effort that Tern makes to get some food!

  • Den DiMarco

    Ron, I’m a big fan of the tight crop when the sharpness of the photo allows it. It provides an intimacy that just can’t be experienced otherwise. So I LOVE the close crop revealing the fish, the Tern’s face (sort of!) and the resulting chaotic splashing. I know there are folks who like the reflection, and that does have its aesthetic appeal, but my brain seems to be hard-wired to crave the detail that is often invisible in the longer shots.

    So keep those close crops coming. Maybe do as you did here – one of each.

    • I’m a fan of those types of crops too, Den – when they better illustrate detail or behavior that is more difficult to see or interpret in a much looser crop. Yes, I’ll continue to do it in certain situations.

  • Susan Stone

    Now I know exactly how much of a perfectionist you are! Cutting off the reflection, when you actually caught the bird catching a fish, and with the fish after it left the water? I think you did a great job of catching the action, and you can see way better than I can if you know you’re seeing a fish when the bird’s head is under water. I think it would take winning a very large lottery twice back to back to get the whole reflection when you are after the behavior. For me, seeing the behavior is worth far more than the perfection of getting the whole reflection.

  • Art

    What a cool sequence, Ron.

  • Sarah Hamilton

    Absolutely beautiful to my way of thinking. Thanks, Ron.

  • Patty Chadwick

    How I wish you’d gotten complete reflections !!!! Better luck next time… I love the first image…the reflection makes an incredible image….

  • Wonderfully DYNAMIC ! I love the very first image—you are certainly a persistent man, and I’m glad you’re being rewarded for it……..

  • Charlotte Norton

    Awesome Ron!

  • Great capture of an extremely difficult situation Ron. It is even more impressive given that you did it the ethical way, which unfortunately is rare these days. Some well publicized, and awarded images of Kingfishers entering the water have been baited and setup. It is the honest and talented photographers, like you Ron, that show the world that it really can done without cheating.

    I like how you captured not only the bill of the tern, but also the reflection and symmetry in that reflection.

    An awesome set of images Ron! I am sure you were very happy when you experienced this!

    • Ed, you and I both know of some of those photographers who bait birds in with fish (often placing them in plastic kiddie pools or in glass jars that float at the top of a pond). That kind of thing disgusts me, actually…

      I appreciate your very kind words!

  • Mary

    Love these! Thank you.

  • Nikonsteve

    I agree with Diane….simply spectacular !!

  • Diane Bricmont

    Spectacular, Ron! Simply spectacular!

  • Dick Harlow

    Excellent shots, Ron. Not to take anything away from you trying hard to capture the exact timing of entry and exit, but imagine the skill and the development of that skill to be able to see the small fish under the water surface, adjust to its location and than dive to capture it. Life or death for any bird that depends on this technique.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • You make a good point, Dick. This morning I watched a couple of juveniles come in to the area I was photographing with at least one of their parents. The juvies just landed on the water and waited for the adult to feed them (which didn’t happen). Obviously they hadn’t yet learned the skills needed for successful fishing.

  • Judy Gusick

    Beautiful and interesting shots, Ron! Good thing you’re having fun with it given the frustration also involved 🙂 The reflection of both the bird and the splash are neat even if you didn’t get “the whole thing” 🙂