A Mallard And My Attempt At The Nearly Impossible

  • Note: The “photo-geekiness” of this post runs thick and deep so I’m sure it will be way too much for many of my readers but hopefully it’ll be of at least some interest to photographers.

It’s so very frustrating for bird photographers to have a great bird fly across in front of us when we don’t see it in time to locate it through our viewfinder, focus and shoot. So some of us occasionally, and usually instinctively, try something else that doesn’t require so much time. It’s chances of success are virtually nil but some of us can’t resist attempting it anyway.

But first I’ll try to explain why success using that method is nearly always the impossible dream.


A mixed flock of phalaropes on Antelope Island. A typical photo taken with a “normal” lens might look something like this.

For obvious reasons most bird photographers shoot with high-powered lenses. A standard or “normal” lens is defined as a lens that gives a field of view that appears “natural” to a human observer. That lens is usually about 50mm for 35mm cameras and allows us to see about 46° of what’s in front of us. Liken it to looking forward without any visual restrictions – what you see is what you photograph when you push the shutter. It’s a little like a shotgun approach to photography because our “pattern” spreads out very quickly. It’s easy to keep our subject in the field of view but unless it’s  extremely close to the photographer it will be very small in the frame and have very little detail.

But the situation changes dramatically with high-powered lenses. With a 300mm lens (for example) we see and photograph only 8.25° of what’s in front of us (as opposed to 46° for the “normal” 50mm lens) so now we’ve switched from a shotgun to a rifle and our aim must be much more precise. With my usual gear (500mm lens, 1.4 teleconverter and 1.6 cropped sensor) I’m shooting at a whopping 1120mm so it’s a little like photographing through a very long and rigid pipe that flares only slightly near its end. At those focal lengths our aim must be extremely precise to get the subject in frame and that doesn’t even include the problems of getting sharp focus on the bird, getting the exposure right and having enough shutter speed to prevent motion blur.

So, when we don’t have enough time to look through our viewfinders, locate the subject in flight, focus on it and then fire the shutter button some of us occasionally try something different. From my days on the Montana farm as a kid with my .22 rifle I call it a “hip shot”. Without looking through the viewfinder I simply point my lens in the general direction of the bird and push the shutter (“spray and pray”). Chances of me having the bird in frame are in the “snowball in hell” category, not to mention getting it sharp. I’ve tried that method spontaneously and sporadically for 10 years now and never once completely succeeded.

But two days ago I darned near did!


1/4000, f/6.3, ISO 800, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

While photographing birds through my pickup window at a local pond this Mallard came from out of nowhere from my right. Without taking the time to look through my viewfinder I pointed my lens in its general direction and fired off two shots. This is one of them, presented full frame (uncropped). When I saw this photo on my camera screen my heart actually skipped a beat. I had the bird in frame without clipping anything, I loved the flight pose and the colors and the duck looked “sharp enough” on my screen. I hoped to be able to add canvas on the left so after I cropped it the composition would be acceptable.

But of course I was disappointed. When I got home and looked at the image on my big screen the photo had the following insurmountable problems:

  • the Mallard was a little too soft to be salvaged. Here I’ve applied extra sharpening during processing and it’s still too soft
  • the bird is too close to the left edge of the frame. I could attempt to add canvas on the left to solve that problem but…
  • there’s an additional problem. Based on the water ripples the image doesn’t look level and rotating the photo to achieve apparent level would cut off half of the duck’s head.


But dammit I came very close!

Close enough that I’ll probably try this method more often now (diving kingfishers come to mind). And if I ever succeed you can be sure you’ll hear about it.




39 comments to A Mallard And My Attempt At The Nearly Impossible

  • Ron, I have had some success photographing Common Nighthawks in flight. They are so erratic that it is nearly impossible to keep them in front of my “pipe” (300 mm L/4 with 1.4x converter = 420 mm f/5.6) which provides a more generous field of view than yours. I keep both eyes open and look through the viewfinder with the right eye and at the sky with the left. There is parallax but with practice you get accustomed to the difference in position of subject and image. This has resulted in about one clear un-clipped photo in about 100 tries– or maybe 1,000! Did I say “success?”

  • Laura Culley

    WOW, what a nitpicker you are! I LOVE it, but what do I know?
    And I’m full of darn cactus needles again–YES!

  • Susan Stone

    Okay, so the bird is a little soft when I zoom in on it. But it truly is an amazing shot, given the technique you used. I’ve never tried shooting birds with a big lens, and it’s unlikely I will because the film camera I used to have with that kind of lens is long gone, and these days I prefer to carry something that is a little less weighty. I’m okay with not being a “real” photographer most of the time, because my priority when I’m able to take photographs of anything is comfort. One of those old age choices…

  • Jean Haley

    Oh Lordy. Let me get out my Violin lol. What I would give to have such a nice clear picture of a Mallard flying.

  • Alice Beckcom

    Ron, I’ve learned a lot from you [teacher]about what you see in your viewfinder may not be what you see when you look at it on your computer….for good or bad!!

    I love the photo of the mallard in spite of the flaws that you point out. I think that the mallard’s linear position is quite perfect and love the position of the foot tucked in so close to the body. It is amazing that birds can fly and that we love watching them do it.

    Thanks so much for the narrative and beautiful photo.

  • This happy snapper sits on the sidelines. Marvelling. And chuckling at the comments.

  • Joanne OBrien

    I have been spraying and praying for over a year now 🙂 Glad I now have a name for it! Nice photo. Thanks for the interesting post.

  • Ann

    Where you see problems, I see beauty. . . especially those bright orange feet!

  • Marty K

    This is an absolutely gorgeous shot! If you can get me to “holy cow” out loud, I’d say shooting from the hip worked! That mallard is perfectly level and the ripples at an angle make it much more interesting to the eye. I also like the way the mallard’s intense colors (especially that beautiful head) pop against the grayish water. Only the distal part of the left wing looks a little soft (and then only after I really looked for it) and if it’s possible to add a little something in front of him, I’d think this shot would measure up to the most exacting standards.

    I also enjoyed the photonerditude this morning. It’s fun to learn. From your comment to Wally, I’m glad you’ve switched hardware! 😉

    • “photonerditude”

      That’s another one I’m gonna steal, Marty – you’re just a wealth of creative terms and phrases!

      And yes, I’m glad I switched hardware too (he says with a still-low voice…).

  • Ron, you sure are a perfectionist! I look at the mallard’s foot and beak and say: “That is pretty sharp!” I see the ripples and I think: “The mallard is flying at an angle across the water.” That fact gives the image additional interest. Now, as for adding canvas, my wife could do it in Photoshop, and no one would notice, but I sure couldn’t pull it off. I shoot with a Canon 7D Mark II, and either a Canon 100-400 IS II handheld or a straight 400mm f/2.8 with a 1.4 converter, on a tripod (I cannot handhold that setup!). All-around fun!

  • Neat image and story Ron. It was indeed very close, next time 🙂

    I have done this a few times, not as intentional as in your test here. In my situations it was an animal I was pointing the lens at waiting for action, then of course once I take my eye away from the viewfinder it decides to do whatever it was I was waiting for. The results have been 99.9% clipped images.

    Next time I am in this situation I will try again.

  • Although every bit of the photogeekiness flew right over my head without landing, I love the bird, especially its colors, and the patterns in the water are beautiful….

  • Hey! That’s looks EXACTLY like the shot I get when I use that technique! Except there’s never a bird in any of my images. And the backgrounds don’t look as good.

    Darn good, Ron, considering the circumstances! I can relate to the “hip shot” analogy. I had a really cool .22 “Luger” type pistol when I was a kid and practiced the “quick draw” a lot. All the tin cans in the county were in no danger whatsoever. My foot – that’s another story …

  • Shirley

    I too use a Sigma 150-600 as does Judy but with a 1.4 tele converter and have never been successful getting the rocket duck or Mallard in flight, I think this shot is absolutely amazing, too soft? NO, not in my eyes and the head is still there so who cares, Way to go Ron!!!

  • Judy Gusick

    YES! 🙂 I sometimes have enough trouble locating a subject with my 150-600 mm Sigma when it’s standing still let alone zooming in from nowhere! Wonderful shot even with it’s technical short comings (in your opinion) I’d take it any day! Congrats!

  • Dick Harlow

    Damn I’m going to try “shooting from the hip” thing! Never done that, didn’t think it was possible to get a decent shot! But, now with this shot of yours it suggests to me it is possible.
    – you got catchlight in the eye
    – generally the bird IS in focus enough for me
    – except for being to close to the left edge, I think it is a darned good shot considering how you did it!
    So, I have to say thanks for the pic and information.

    • It IS possible, Dick – but it’s a helluva “long shot”, especially at my typical focal length. I’ve tried it many times, especially with swallows in flight, and never fully succeeded. It’s fun to try though and you… just… never… know!

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