Forster’s Tern In Flight With A Fish (+ dealing with the vagaries of bird photography)

Operator error and lack of needed skills are probably the most common causes of screwed up action/flight shots of birds but there are other villains we have absolutely no control over.

Regular readers know how much time and effort I’ve invested recently in getting photos of Forster’s Terns diving for fish. Since they’re virtually impossible to follow during the dive and they only spend about one second in the water my best chance is catching one (hopefully with a fish) during its exit from the water or immediately after. Something nearly always goes wrong but I have succeeded a few times and this was one of them.

But my success was largely ruined by something I couldn’t anticipate or control.


1/5000, f/6.3, ISO 500, 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 few days ago at Bear River MBR I was making yet another attempt at achieving my goal when I caught this tern coming out of the water and it actually had a fish. You’ll notice from the water disturbance at lower left and the droplets coming off the bird that the tern had just barely left the water. The bird is mostly sharp, the wing position works, the fish is clearly seen and I have proper exposure on a difficult white bird. The water’s pretty mucky but I could have lived with that in a behavior/action shot like this.

But I can’t live with that damned stick or reed or whatever it is in front of the bird. It just grabs my eye too much. I think this photo could have been acceptable without the stick but the one that hurt the most…



1/4000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

was the next image in the burst because I really like the wing position and the way the fish stands out against the lighter wing behind it. The mucky water was bad enough but that stick just ruins the photo for me. I like it well enough to keep it but it’ll likely never again see the light of day.

As nature photographers all we can do is work as hard as we can on those things we can control (without using setups, baiting or unethical practices of course) and hope everything else falls into place. When it does our success can be glorious and fulfilling but when it doesn’t it can really burn our butts.

Thankfully previous failures always make eventual success that much sweeter so if we’re not so discouraged that we just give up we keep plugging away…




26 comments to Forster’s Tern In Flight With A Fish (+ dealing with the vagaries of bird photography)

  • Life is messy and chaotic with beauty thrown into the mix. And some of us wear rose-coloured glasses and focus on the beauty and some of us are distracted by the mess.
    Despite my woeful balance I am a fence sitter here. I see the mess and choose to focus on the beauty.
    And am endlessly grateful for the dollops of it you share.

  • Betty Sturdevant

    The instinct discussed today is part of nature. It is what every creature experiences in doing life. It is what makes the eagle keep moving sticks around the nest to get it perfect. It is also what keeps humans buying lottery tickets and any sports fanatic such as golfers going back for more. Very few if anyone achieves the perfection they are inspired to seek but the urge to keep trying is built into the nature of things.

  • Susan Stone

    I hear you about the stick. The photo where the stick is right up against the wing definitely takes away from an otherwise gorgeous photo (mucky water aside). That said, I’m glad you’ve been able to get photos of the Terns with fish and had the bird and fish come out sharp.

  • frank sheets

    I think her message was that if you “get” that PERFECT image, all following will be inferior.

    • Laura Culley

      Yep, that photographer is right on point. The eternal quest for perfection is one of those lifelong things. And if you get there, your immediate response is “gotta do that again!” It’s never ending. And once you get there, nothing less will do again.
      My quest is for the perfect hawk flight that includes a perfect partnership with me and the dogs (for the hawks, perfection is pretty darn easy–it’s pretty much what they do every day). I’ve been close, very close, a couple of times and it was profoundly life altering. Now, I gotta do it again, and again.

    • Then she’s right about that – all (or at least nearly all) others following would be inferior. But that’s still not going to stop me from “hoping for the perfect image”. 🙂

  • Marty K

    Absolutely love the wing positions in both shots, Ron. Although, I saw the stick and thought to myself, “Ron is gonna hate that thing!” 😉 I’d dare say that for many of us, we’d be over the moon to get shots like these — messy background and all! Would you ever consider cloning out the “offending party” in a shot like this?

    • “I saw the stick and thought to myself, “Ron is gonna hate that thing”

      That made me smile big time, Marty!

      I wouldn’t say I’d never even consider cloning it out but I really do hate cloning so I doubt I ever would. But if I did I’d certainly disclose what I’d done.

  • Dick Harlow

    I can’t write any better comments except to say: Life can be pessimistic, but NEVER to a Natural History, Bird, Scenic Photographer! Optimism is the saving grace of most all Nature Photographers that I know! Hope runs eternal – regardless!

  • frank sheets

    I would agree, the images are not going to win any awards in “Natures Best”, just too much clutter including the “stick”, but, you have to given accolades for even getting the bird in the frame considering your focal length and your subject. Terns are very quick once they make the decision to dive and following them into the water is really tough. I would guess most folks attempting the same feat would be using a shorter lens and cropping their way to success, but IQ would suffer I suspect. Some would say there is always the post processing option, but even with these images, the best at that would be challenged. And, I agree, the goal of natural history photography is to generate great original images that require minimal manipulation.

    Next week I hope to get down to the S. Cal coast, Bolsa Chica, and try again with Terns and Skimmers. I was there earlier this year and spent an afternoon attempting to get the “right” image. I think I came away with maybe two or three that were somewhat acceptable, but nothing with the clarity you are showing here. I deleted all but a few.

    On a side note, while up on Montana last summer, actually in Alder, we ran into a gal named Lark who was operating a small specialty restaurant serving her custom goat cheeses and nice wine. In Alder Montana, population probably around 50! She used to be an internationally famous commercial photographer, traveling the world doing work for the likes of Nike and other big names. I showed her some of my bird photos and as I complained about problems with many of the images she commented, “never hope for the perfect image, everything subsequent will be a disappointment”. So there you have it Ron, we strive for the perfect image but hope to never get it. Such is the plight of natural history photographers. Kind of reminds me of beating one’s head against a wall and enjoying it.

    Have a great day!

    • “I would guess most folks attempting the same feat would be using a shorter lens and cropping their way to success”

      You hit that nail on the head, Frank. While shooting diving terns and kingfishers I’ve occasionally used my 100-400 lens for exactly that reason. It has its advantages but the bird is nearly always too small in the frame.

      I like little Montana towns like Alder. My next trip up there I’ll definitely stop into that restaurant and check it out. She sounds like an interesting lady but I’m afraid her advice to “never hope for the perfect image” isn’t for me. Hope for that “million dollar shot” is part of what keeps me going… 🙂

    • Marty K

      Frank, depending on when you get down here, it’s going to be a bit on the warm side (90s between now and Monday) and then cooling off to the low 80s by the end of next week. Just wanted to give you a heads up. I’m about 15 minutes from the wetland path in BC. 🙂

  • Jerry Ellison

    If you hadn’t made an issue of the stick, I wouldn’t have given it any notice at all because the subject is soooo good. Great shots!

  • Laura Culley

    Ron, I agree with Kent. Nature (and life in general) is messy! It’s just the way it is. Yes, I get your perfectionist self and how much that burns you. I’m like that with words (which is one reason my posts sometimes appear later in the day if the Internet connection is working). I’m trying to perfect what I write, although I never really get there with so many distractions going on. So, yes, I get that.
    From my eye (for whatever that’s worth), I noticed the stick, but only after celebrating the sheer beauty of the bird with the string of OH WOWs. My mind then quickly rejected the importance of that stick in the overall scheme of things and went right back to studying the perfect details of the tern, totally ignoring the stick. The images of the tern are simply spectacular. In other words, my brain just automagically PhotoShopped the damn thing out of there 😉
    Speaking of distractions, I found a nail in my left rear tire yesterday. From years of racing and hanging out with car nerds, I didn’t touch the darn thing, but I’ll need to drive into town to get that fixed today. That was NOT on my extensive to-do list!! The nail doesn’t seem to have punctured anything, but I’ll drive slowly just to be safe and to annoy all the California drivers…LOL!

    • “In other words, my brain just automagically PhotoShopped the damn thing out of there”

      Ha, I wish my brain would do that! Instead it focuses on the imperfections. That may be partly due to all the years I spent as an active member of a nature photography critique forum (NPN).

      Good luck with the nail and tire – been there many times. For years I had a wood shop set up in my garage (still do but I seldom use it anymore) and I was constantly getting wood screws in my tires.

  • Judy Gusick

    Great shots even if the nasty “whatever” had to get in the way. 🙂 I agree with Kent – Nature IS messy – an so are we – “stuff” in the yard often causes problems that way………:(

  • Kent Patrick-Riley

    I like the reed remnant. Nature is messy.