The following photographs were taken from a boat as it returned up the Milford Haven from a trip round the Pembrokeshire islands.  The gulls were following the boat and it seemed to me to be a perfect opportunity to try a variety of shutter speeds to see how the resulting pictures varied.  It was late in the day and the light was soft and fading so it was a challenge to balance the different shutter speeds with the required apertures to get both sharpness, depth of field and suitable exposure.

I used my Canon 7D hand held with a Canon L series 100 – 400 mm IS telephoto lens.  I set the camera to Shutter Priority (TV) in order to be able to maintain focus on the moving subjects as I followed them.  White Balance was set at ‘cloudy’.  

A fast shutter speed was required to try to overcome both the movement of the bird and the boat, but this of course limited the light reaching the sensor, particularly as the ambient light was fading.  The use of a long telephoto lens, whilst enabling the capture of larger images, also reduced the light available to the sensor as light is lost within the lens. This could in part be overcome by using a wide aperture (low f stop setting) to increase the light available through the lens but a large aperture limits the depth of field restricting the amount of the image that is in focus.  It could also be overcome by using a high iso setting which increases the sensitivity of the sensor to light, but the higher the iso, the more ‘noise’ or graininess one gets in the image.  I will use the following images to explore the different effects of adjusting the various settings.

A traditional head-on shot with the gull travelling from side to side at the stern of the boat requiring side to side panning to attempt a shot.
The use of a high iso setting (range of 1250 to 3000 or higher as the light dimmed) boosted the light sensitivity of the sensor and enabled the use of slightly higher f stop settings (f6.5 to f11) and faster shutter speeds (range 1/300 to 1/1000 sec) than might have been possible otherwise.  Even so, whilst the head is reasonably in focus the wings are not.  This might have been overcome by increasing the shutter speed, but then there would be a risk of underexposure of the image due to insufficient light hitting the sensor.  Even so, the image has some graininess / lack of sharpness with only the head being in reasonable focus whilst the wings are slightly out of focus.
Personally I find this to be a pleasing image as the eye is drawn to the head in the centre of the image and the soft wings provide a gentle surrounding for the central point.
The image for me has a greater intimacy than if the whole image was in sharp focus.


A faster shutter speed has almost frozen the movement, but there is still a softness
about the wings that I like.  The shot was taken by panning with the gull as it
at an angle coming up over the boat so it was a more vertical pan than a
horizontal one.
I like the composition of this shot as the eye is drawn from the centre where the
sharpness and focus are, downwards and outwards via the down curved wings and
upwards and to the side by the direction of the beak and eyes.  This produces a
tension and creates interest, and I think is enhanced by having a limited depth of field resulting from a relatively wide
aperture as the strength of the central focus on the head would be lost if all the bird was in focus.
This shot takes the central focus theme another step further.  A fast shutter speed has enabled the head and body to be in reasonably sharp focus, but now a mixture of limited depth of field and also greater wing movement have resulted in and image where the contrast between the in-focus central area of the head and body and the out of focus wings is more marked.  This gives a lightness to the image, almost as though the body and head of the bird are hanging in isolation.
This shot works well for me as it gives not only a sense of the solidity, detail and identity of the gull, but also a sense of its other characteristics such as its lightness, its motion and its transitory nature.
In contrast to the previous images, a slower shutter speed (1/150 to 1/250 sec.) has
resulted in greater blurring with none of the image being in focus.  The result is that
the whole image becomes the centre of attention with the eye drawn to the darker
area of the wings rather than the central lighter area of the head and body.
The fact that the subject is a gull is of little consequence here as it difficult to say
with certainty even that it is a living bird.  The picture still works, however, as the
composition has some strength and direction and suggest a bird through its outline.
The lack of sharpness also suggests movement and flight.

Whilst it is far from being a bird ‘portrait’ and a means of appreciating the beauty in
the detail of the bird or its identification, it offers another vision of what it is to be
a bird that we do not normally see and has a spiritual element to it that a bird
‘portrait’ would not.
Another shot taken with a slower shutter speed but this time with a wider aperture anda higher iso setting as an experiment.  As a result the image is not only blurred but also very overexposed.  Whilst still identifiable as a bird shape, the image almost merges into
the surrounding light giving it a very ethereal quality.  Not much good as a record of abird in the usual sense, but I was pleased with the effect of the different camera settings and believe that this creates an interesting and engaging image that could have a number of decorative or illustrative uses.
A similar shot to 5 above but the position of the wings at the top of the downbeat
suggests a more dynamic pose in comparison.  In 5, the image appears to hang in the
frame without support whereas in 6 there is a sense that the subject could be falling.
Both images work for me in that they both have a light and ethereal quality whilst
also having a sense of tension.  They also seem to be part of their background, almost
merging with it which brings a unity to the whole image.
I have seen images similar to these used to illustrate books, in particular the book “Johnathan Livingston Seagull” by Richard Bach springs to mind, for which the photographs were taken by Russell Munson, a photographer specialising in aviation subjects.  His work can be seen at


I have included this more conventional image as a contrast to 6 above as the pose is
similar but the shot was taken with a faster shutter speed and a smaller aperture to
freeze the subject and capture the detail.  Being a more conventional image and similar
to what a viewer will see in every day life it does not have the arresting quality of the
two previous images.  It does enable the viewer to see the detail and beauty of the
gull as it is in life and will appeal to many people on one level.  The previous two
images will appeal on a different level and for different reasons.
Back to the slower shutter speed  and lower ISO setting for a shot which has captured multiple images for the wings giving a real sense of movement and action.  It shows the up and down action of the wings in a way that a sharp image would not do and creates a pleasing image.
The degree of blurring will depend on more than the settings of the camera.  The speed of the bird through the air in relation to the camera, the degree of activity of the bird (whether it is passively gliding or actively flapping), the motion of the camera and the photographer and the ambient light will all play a part.  The ability of the auto-focus sensor to latch onto the subject and maintain the focus whilst the camera is panning is also a factor and I often found that the focus had been lost when I wanted to take the picture.
To demonstrate the points made above, here is a similar shot to 9 but the image is more blurred with little but the outline to identify the subject.  The settings were the same as for 9, but it is possible that either I and the camera moved, or the autofocus failed to maintain the focus during panning.  The effect, although not maybe what was initially intended, is still pleasing.
Image 11
In contrast, this is an image that was intended and where all the elements of light, focus, camera settings, panning, etc. have worked producing an image that is reasonably sharp throughout, well balanced, eye catching and full of detail.  Whereas it could be called a bird portrait, it is more than just a bird sat on a rock or a pier and shows the relaxed, effortless nature of  the subject in its element.  For this shot, I used a shutter speed of about 1/1000 sec and the ambient light had improved to allow a smaller aperture to get better depth of field.  The shot was taken by panning with the bird as it approached the stern of the boat.
Image 12
Another shot taken during the same pan as the gull approached the boat and came alongside.  I was using the multiple shot (motordrive) feature of the camera to take continuous shots as the gull approached.  Interestingly, the trailing edges of the wings are blurred, possibly indicating that the feathers were fluttering at a faster rate than could be frozen at the shutter speed used.
—–     o0o     —–
I found this to be an interesting and exciting exercise and one that I was so engaged with that I failed to record the actual camera settings used as I went along.  I changed the settings repeatedly as I worked to accommodate changing light conditions and to vary the final images.  I was constantly checking the images on the screen and making adjustments to experiment.  I had hoped to extract the shooting information from the images when I got home but when I downloaded them onto the computer I found that the information had been lost.
There is a lesson for me to learn here!
———-     o0o     ———-



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