Capturing wildlife off a cliff

By AG STAFF 7 November 2013
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Risking death for the best image is all in a day’s work for AG photographer Chris Bray.

SAILING INTO REMOTE St Paul Island in the Bering Sea, northwest of Alaska, I really wanted a unique shot of a common murre (Uria aalge) returning to its precarious cliff-side nest. While the end result is by no means perfect, it is one of the most complex and dangerous photos I’ve ever taken.

The idea was simple: lower a Canon 600D DSLR onto a ledge beside an egg, and snap the shot as the bird flies back to incubate. I wanted a big depth of field – the blue-green, speckled egg in the foreground (the egg is conical to prevent it rolling off), against a foggy background of sea cliffs, also in focus.

First, I had to cut and lengthen my 1m remote shutter release, soldering in 10m of extra wire. Having tied myself off and wriggled to the overhung cliff-edge, I used the wire to lower the swinging, spinning camera. Each thundering wave shuddered my unstable perch, and the placement of the camera in the right orientation seriously tested my patience and mettle.

How to capture birds in flight

It’s foggy more than 200 days a year on St Paul, so not only did the lens keep misting over, requiring me to constantly haul it back up, wipe it, and replace it – but the fog also dampened the light. To get a shutter speed of 1/2000th of a second to freeze the bird, I cranked my ISO up to 1600. Making matters worse, I needed to use a small aperture (large F Stop number) for that big depth of field, which further reduces the light.

Being backlit, I wanted to over-expose the shot to prevent the bird being a silhouette, but as this requires even more light, I instead shot in RAW and over-exposed it in post-production.

I used a wide (15mm fisheye) lens to increase the chance of getting the bird in-shot, and pre-focused to the likely distance of the bird using Manual Focus. With the Drive Mode set to ‘Continuous Shooting’, all I had to do then was hold down my button whenever a bird looked like it was headed in, and the camera would rattle off as many photos as it could.

This image took 500 shots over several painful hours, but I’m pretty pleased with the result.

Take Chris Bray’s one-day Australian Geographic photography workshop, in cities across Australia.