A Northern Harrier In Flight, Bad Habits And Bird Photography

I’m a creature of habit and as a bird photographer that tendency sometimes doesn’t serve me well.

I have a definite routine I follow before I leave the house in the morning to go shooting. I set my camera and lens on the kitchen counter and format my memory card, insert my (hopefully charged) battery and change my camera settings to what I think will be appropriate for the lighting conditions I’ll most likely face when I first arrive at my shooting site. Since I nearly always try to be there right at dawn when the light is soft and golden but of low intensity my “go-to” settings are f/6.3 and ISO 800 (I shoot in aperture priority). I try to avoid going above ISO 800 whenever possible (to keep the digital noise down) and nearly always that setting will give me sufficient shutter speed to get even birds in flight sharp at that time of day. I’ll go to higher ISO’s only if I have to.

But yesterday morning at Bear River MBR things didn’t go as planned.

My first shots were of American White Pelicans in flight and with large white birds against a relatively bright sky I had plenty of shutter speed to get them sharp so I left my camera settings as they were. But I didn’t think about something I should have… duh! It was a very smoky morning from fires up north so the light was more subdued than usual for that time of morning. I should have known that if I tried to shoot a bird in flight against a background significantly darker than bright sky or water my shutter speed would drop dramatically.

I tried and it did, to my dismay.


1/640, f/6.3, ISO 800, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

Within minutes of photographing the pelicans this Northern Harrier came very close to me in gorgeous warm light as it hunted low and slow over the vegetation. Harriers never come in that close at Bear River so I just didn’t expect it. I didn’t have time to change my settings so I just fired away and hoped for the best but the best didn’t happen.

Even at the slow shutter speed of 1/640 the head, body and tail are reasonably sharp because the hawk was moving very slowly through the air but the wings and feet were moving faster and are unacceptably soft. I took quite a few shots of this bird and this is the best I got so I was very disappointed.

If I’d been thinking (photographers do need to think sometimes…) I’d have pre-tested my SS by taking some test shots of the vegetation. That’s something I often do but I didn’t yesterday because I just assumed that ISO 800 would give me enough shutter speed on a sunny morning, even that early. Usually it would but the effects of the smoke just slipped my mind.

Habits and assumptions bit me in the butt once again.


Note – Featuring a mediocre image on my blog is never something I’m comfortable with but one of my goals with this blog is to be helpful to bird photographers just as other photographers have been helpful to me. We all need to be reminded of such things, especially me.

For non-photographers I apologize for the photo-geekiness of this post.




47 comments to A Northern Harrier In Flight, Bad Habits And Bird Photography

  • Nicole

    Kind of reminds me of when one takes a photo of running water in a stream – one wants that soft look… same here… it’s a great pic, an action shot

  • Your pickiness and very occasional photo-geekiness are part of who you are. And part of the reason we keep coming back.
    Add me to the list of those who like the softness (perhaps because I am well aware that it is sharper than anything this happy snapper will achieve excpet through luck).

  • Thanks for the teaching moment, Ron. Interesting to read about your usual early morning AP settings. Which settings do you think would have worked better for the smoky skies?

    Like a few people have already mentioned, the blur does give the photo a particular beauty. I do love tack sharp wings, but the way the wings blend somewhat with the background creates this beautiful sense of the softness of early morning and it also creates this really cool “partial link” with the surroundings (the bird is separate because it is airborne but there is that reminder of how well its plumage fits with the landscape). Plus, it makes the viewer’s eye focus on the sharp features of the face. The curve of the line above the eye is really neat; it gives the eye a less severe look than I am used to seeing in hawks. The bird’s other “lines” and the composition are really excellent too. The photo may have been better if everything had been sharp, but it is quite beautiful the way it is. Glad you shared it! 🙂

    • “Which settings do you think would have worked better for the smoky skies?”

      I wish I’d gone to ISO 1600 or 2000, Myriam – then I should have had enough shutter speed.

      But as long as I’m wishing I’d have been better off to not have had the teleconverter attached. The bird was close so it still would have been large enough in the frame and then I could have gone to about f/5 or so which also would have increased my SS.

      That “curve above the eye” is part of a modified facial disk that harriers have (similar to that of owls). Other hawks don’t have it.

      • Marty K

        “That “curve above the eye” is part of a modified facial disk that harriers have (similar to that of owls). Other hawks don’t have it.”
        Wow! That’s really cool — I had no idea that any bird other than owls had a facial disk. Thanks, Teech! Learning something new and interesting definitely makes my day brighter! 🙂

      • Thanks for sharing your wishful thinking settings, Ron :-D. And thanks for the info about harriers’ facial disks. Cool! I saw my first (and only) Northern Harrier a few weeks ago, hunting over a marsh. It was neat to see how it flew, which was different from any bird I’d observed before.

  • Laura Culley

    I LIKE the artistry of this shot whether it came accidentally, nor not–and I like it a LOT! Granted, I’m not a photographer, nor do I play one on TV, but to my eye, this is utterly beautiful! And like Sallie said, sometimes perfection IS a little boring (to use MY words). And yes, I know you’ll quibble with my use of “perfection,” too. That’s OK. Quibble away. Takes your mind off the smoke and other things for a little while 😉 Not only that, but I’m not always right! LOL!

    • Ha, I’m not always right either, Laura. But we still have our opinions, don’t we? 🙂

      • Laura Culley

        Yep, and we’re all entitled to them, whether we’re wrong, or not! LOL! There’s always that issue of different strokes and all 😉 But I SERIOUSLY love this image. Yes, you have to factor in that I’m easily amused, tend toward the artistic and I’m just as much a perfectionist as you only in a different context. The opening chapters of my book have been edited and re-edited so many times it’s ridiculous. So I forgive you for your incessant nit picking. HEHE!

  • Zaphir Shamma

    We’ve all been there Ron. We do the best we can with what we have (and that includes ourselves and our thought processes and habits). Just as we upgrade our gear, we upgrade our procedures based upon experiences. This probably won’t be the last time “something” happens and you have to spray-n-pray with whatever settings are in the camera as the moment is fleeting. The important parts of this photo are sharp enough and the movement in the wings and legs convey action. Not what you were after, I get that. Thank you for sharing both the ups & downs of your adventures.

    • No, it certainly won’t be that last time I resort to “spray and pray” because of a screwup on my part, Zaphir. It comes with the territory. Doesn’t make it any easier to endure though, especially when the shots I miss are potentially very good ones.

      I always appreciate hearing feedback like yours from another bird photographer. Thank you.

  • Dick Harlow

    I agree with Marty! The fact that the head, eye, neck and tail are sharp, especially the eye and neck, that caught my fancy when I first looked at the shot. The softness of the wings just give the bird movement. However, I have to admit I do understand where you are coming from. Don’t ask me what I’d do with the shot if I took it, I would plead the 5th! VBG!

    • Dick, Lots of folks really like the motion implied by motion blur in bird wings. I’m less of a fan but in some cases I think it can be quite effective. However, for my tastes these wing tips are just too darned soft.

  • Frank Sheets

    Hi Ron,

    From my perspective its quite a nice image. The softness does not bother me considering the eyes and neck are sharp, which they are.
    Camera settings are always a conundrum to me. As you know, I shoot mostly manual, but there are times when I wish I were in some sort of auto mode, especially in changing light. While in the Galapagos, most of the mornings were overcast with the sun going in and out. I was always chasing good exposures, missing badly on numerous occasions. On one occassion I was shooting a very dark stationary bird in low light at approximately 1/125th. As I looked for other subjects a Frigate bird flew by close to me with a fully extended red pouch. I was still at 1/125. #$%$%#@! I got lucky, he came by again later. I guess for me the lesson is, once you are done with a subject, reset your camera to settings that will give you the best possible outcome should something unexpected come by. I wish I could remember to do that!

    • “I wish I could remember to do that!”

      Boy, me too, Frank! Each year I’ve become better at remembering but it’s taken me 10 years to get where I am now and I still have a ways to go…

  • Mikal Deese

    Ron, as an artist, I have to disagree with you. Perfect sharp-all-over shots are fascinating for the information they convey about shape and plumage. They show us what we cannot see otherwise. On the other hand, this bit of blur conveys the liveness of this bird. We’re not looking at a static taxidermy specimen; we’re getting a glimpse of a bird captured while intensely focused on hunting. Visually, the blur draws my attention to the sharp face, the expression on the face. This image is NOT mediocre. To my eye it “works” even better than it would if “perfect”.I’d like that one on my wall! My opinion.

    • Thanks for weighing in on this, Mikal. I see your point and I might even agree with you except for two things: 1, the softness of those wings is much more than just “a bit of blur” – I could appreciate some wing motion blur but this is way too much for my tastes. 2, By nature and by training I’m a biologist not an artist… 🙂

  • Marty K

    I know you’re not gonna wanna hear this, buuuut…I really like this shot (even though I totally understand your frustration). 🙂 The fanned tail is gorgeous, the wing positions are incredibly interesting, and (my favorite aspect of this shot) having the head so sharp in the midst of the softness perfectly illustrates the intensity of the hunt.

    Thanks for another interesting teachable moment. I like seeing the “less-than-perfects” and then learning how to make them better. Though I’m not into being a photographer myself (although I greatly admire those who are), I get a great deal from these types of posts. They’re a wonderful reminder for me to stop, take a moment, and reflect upon how I might improve.

    • I always like to hear honest opinions of others regarding my images, Marty. I’m not thin-skinned about critical comments (many years on a photo critique forum helped me get over that)and it’s always nice to get positive comments. Thank you for providing yours.

  • Susan Stone

    Geekiness is fine with me, even as a non-photographer (snapshot taker only). And even though I can see what’s wrong with this photo, I still enjoy seeing a Northern Harrier. I think it’s your “fault” that I enjoy them so much… 🙂

  • Marina schultz

    I would love to have taken this picture!!!!!

  • Nikonsteve

    I think it’s still a pretty good shot Ron…and as a photographer I want to thank you for the “photo-geekiness” of this post. I appreciate these little tidbits of info…They definitely help me with my photography. Thanks

  • jake schas

    Ron, Geek away. You have a great teaching blog. I would like to add to Joanne’s question—“Do you ever use a 1.4 TC with your Canon 100-400mm II lens?”–will the lens auto focus with a 1.4 on the mark ii? I will be using the first generation 1.4 when I get the new setup hopefully in December or so.

  • This is a beautiful, artful, image Ron. The head and face are sharp enough and the motion blur of the wings draws my eyes even more to the sharper face. So, with a “glass half full” perspective I would say that this accident turned out great, since it would be hard to plan for an artistic image like this…

    The smoke and haze are a challenge though. As I mentioned the other day I had a golden opportunity to photograph some bison in a field of beautiful sunflowers last week, I took about 400 images, and almost all of them were soft due to heat shimmer and smoke.

    Your habit of setting your “ready” camera parameters, f/6.3 and ISO 800 and then checking for proper exposure using the camera light meter when you get to your location sounds similar to my manual setting of parameters 1/1250 sec f/6.3 and ISO 800.

    I too **usually** check the light meter using spot metering on a neutral gray natural target (fence post, ground, etc.) when I arrive. This usually works great, however there are some “memorable” moments when something great shows up before I do my field test of exposure, and then laugh at the memory of the experience and the dark (solid black sometimes) image I captured of that event 🙂 (river otter swimming up to my tent, mountain lion in the shade, bobcats in the shade, prairie falcon hitting a northern harrier in front of me, …).

    Great memories, almost better than if I would have gotten a properly exposed image 🙂

    • Ed, I hate it when I forget to do that field test for exposure. More often than not that’s exactly when an unusually good opportunity presents itself (similar to the examples you’ve given) – just like how birds always seem to take off the moment you take your eye off of them for a millisecond!

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

  • Leisa Duncan

    Poetry in motion! It’s beautiful to me.

  • Joanne OBrien

    Hey Ron, I think it’s a beautiful shot – despite (or maybe because of) the motion blur! I love looking at it, and I can look at it for a while – that is key for me. And as yooosh I really appreciate the “photo geekiness” portions of your blog. I learn so much.
    I perused yesterdays post while sipping this mornings coffee and thoroughly enjoyed the marsh wren photos. I have yet to see a Marsh Wren but I’m quite fond of the House Wrens and Carolina Wrens I see here. They are some of my favorite sassy little birds. I am so sorry about the fires in your beloved home state.
    I have a question for you – Do you ever use a 1.4 TC with your Canon 100-400mm II lens?

  • Ron, after procrastinating for over a year, I finally programmed my Canon 7DM2 custom shooting modes–as explained in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HphgWNlvjZw. I set C1 for stationary birds, C2 for active birds (like warblers) and C3 for birds in flight. It’s easy to do and will at least get me in the ball park with initial camera settings for each of these situations. I shoot in Manual Mode, so once in the field, I simply adjust the aperture (usually wide open), shutter speed and ISO for whatever conditions I encounter. I shoot in Auto ISO but have the camera constrain the ISO using the Auto ISO Range menu. Manual Mode shooters who use Auto ISO can program their Set Button to handle Exposure Compensation via the Custom Controls menu (just like back-button focusing is handled); once this is done, you simply turn the Main Dial while holding the Set Button to increase or decrease the exposure. I hope you and your bird photographer readers will find these tips helpful.

    • Thanks for providing this info, Ron.

      I’ve seriously considered setting up my Mark II similar to how you describe but for now at least I haven’t done it. My reasoning is based on my tendencies toward “habit”. The way I do things now is so deeply ingrained that it’s now muscle memory so I’m very fast at making adjustments. If I change things it’ll take me a long time (longer than most) to become as quick with the new system as I am now and I just know that in the interim I’ll miss many good shots while I’m fumbling around.

      That’s where I am now but who knows what I’ll do in the future…

  • Charlotte Norton

    Lovely shot Ron!


  • Steven E Hunnicutt

    I agree with Sallie, the Cascades Raptor Center in Eugene, Oregon release three Northern Harriers this past weekend, and to capture them in flight, well I did not get the shot, they were released and hitting the road. I also feel that we as individuals are critical of ourselves more than others.

    • Steven, Photographing rehabbed birds at their release is harder than one might think. I once photographed a rehabbed burrowing owl as it was released and it was surprisingly difficult for a variety of reasons.

  • Judy Gusick

    Still like the photo, Ron.:) The smoke has been so bad here at times there is a “weird” red light – almost like part of the eclipse. My sister reminded me about camera setting recently when we figured out my diopter adjustment was WAY off from what she needed and she was sure the camera wasn’t focusing correctly with her lens – looked fine to me! Also had to adjust some other settings before I used it next as she does manual mode – I don’t go THAT far.:) Being human is part of the fun even if frustrating at times……….

    • Judy, Because of our smoke, last night at sunset the light under my camping trailer was so red on the concrete that it looked like someone had painted the cement red. And yesterday morning just before I took this shot at Bear River the sun looked like a bright red ball coming up over the mountains.

      And yes, if the diopter isn’t adjusted for the photographer’s eyes it throws a LOT of things off.

  • sallie reynolds

    Ron, I think this is one of your best shots. i get bored with the everything-in-focus, feather-sharp all over stuff. It gets to look unreal, plastic. This bird is alive!

    • Thanks, Sallie. In bird photography motion blur is a matter of taste. Some folks don’t mind it at all and others really like it, especially in the wings because it implies motion. My tendency is nearly always for sharpness. I’m not saying I’m right, only that it’s my preference. I appreciate your feedback.