Great Crested Grebe Obsession Part 1

For the past few months AndyR has been hard at work with the iconic Great Crested Grebes. Well one TV appearance on Springwatch and an eBook later his project is complete so here he shows his favourite images from the experience.

This article links directly with Grebe Obsession Part 2

As many of you know for the past few months I have been working hard on a Great Crested Grebe project in Cardiff. It's been a lot of fun but a tremendous amount of hard work too. Now that it is finished I have been mulling over how to bring it to you - either a series of short FotoStories or one decent FotoSkool. In the end I decided on this FotoSkool Animal Skills Class as you would all be able to apply it to your own photography no matter what the species. So here goes volume 1, with the next thrilling installment next month!

The Fieldcraft bit

Grebes hang around in the centre of lakes and are a pain in the proverbial to get close to. So I am going to save a lot of words and a lot of stress and wasted time for you by giving you this piece of advice. Ready. Forget trying to get near any Great Crested Grebes ( known now as GCGs) that are "wild". They are on country lakes or anything bigger than a large pond then FORGET it. It's not worth it, any encounters will be few and far between and you will spend a lot of time looking at open water to get anything decent. Check this image out:

It was taken on a "wild lake" and was the a rare encounter that took all of my knowledge to get. I was in the water, up to my neck, behind a camouflage net and in the deep shade of a big willow tree. It was cold and grim. So whilst it was a great "wildlife photographer" thing to do, and I love this kind of stuff, when you equate time against reward it didn't make sense. The answer? Urban grebes. For the past couple of years I have been working with urban GCGs in Cardiff and they are SO much easier. I am sure that where you live you will be able to find urban lakes that have GCGs on them. The more urban, the more people the better because the grebes will be used to you. It's easier, your pictures will be better and THERE IS NO STIGMA BECAUSE THEY ARE IN A TOWN. So get out there and look, now! It's not too late for this year as they double clutch so have a go!

The Kit

I won't lie to you here, to get decent Grebe pictures without doing silly crops you will need a reach of at least 500mm. Sometimes a lot more. I regularly used the Canon 2x teleconverter for a lot of my work. Now usually I hate the 2x converter but the version 3 is great and sharp....provided you shoot it at f11 or f16. Now usually shooting anything at this high aperture would mean a lot of annoying background in focus, but not with the 2x, there is nothing in focus!!! Shooting at such a high aperture ensures that the image given by the converter is sharp. I adopt the same policy for the 1.4x converter as well. shooting f8 with this one. So a long reach lens is essential.

Also essential is a tripod that can go virtually flat to the ground, i.e. no centre column. Shooting low across the water helps isolate the grebes from the water, which is the problem with 99% of the grebe shots that I see. You do not need to have your face in it, as I did, just within a couple of feet of the surface will do wonders.

The great success story for kit during this whole shoot was the UniqBall. You can see here the angle at which the ball is set. So even though my tripod was at such an angle, the unique double ball system meant that I could shoot entirely level water all the time. This saved me a lot of time processing in Photoshop but also just meant I could use the image as I shot it. When you are shooting at such a low angle getting the horizon straight is a real issue. So thanks to UniqBall it was all sorted for me. Remember as a FotoBuzz member you get a discounted price on the UniqBall, just head to Community > FotoXchange for details of how to get yours. Oh for existing large Uniqball owners the need to use the X adaptor is now a thing of the past. I have been testing the new X-clamp that replaces the existing UniqBall clamp, allowing you to put the camera or lens on the top without any adaptor. The testing was successful and now we are in production, here is my store link to order yours.

The Project

Ok I started the project back in February and for much of it had the great company of FotoBuzzer Chris. It was nice to have someone to talk to during the long hours of laying in the mud and also to pass on some of my knowledge to someone who genuinely wanted to learn. Now there is little point in me telling you much more about the project here, as it was a very long and varied job, the easiest way is to show you via some of my favourite images so here goes....

1DX, 500mm lens, ISO 800 f8 @ 1/800th

Lots of people ask me what makes a great picture. Is it the light, the subject or the mood? Well actually it's any or all of these but there is one thing that is perhaps more important than them all, the ability to invoke a reaction. When I attended PhotoLondon last week most of the images left me cold, because in my view they were pants. Then I walked into one gallery with the work of Delgado and Doisneau. Their images stood right out at me, I stopped and looked at them in depth, inspecting them and visualising myself there. They connected with me and invoked a reaction, that's the sign of a great photo, reaction and connection.

I think that this image of the Grebe courtship has it in spades. It's got lovely light yes and they are connected together, but it's the ridiculous expression of the one on the right is what really makes the image work. A few of you I hope will have laughed at it, that's a positive connection. My one regret with this image is that I had to cut the reflection off, this was necessary as with a fixed 500mm lens the only solution would have been to move the grebes further up the frame, which would have spoilt the shot completely. So I decided that since the reflection was so diffuse it was fine to crop it there.

Tip - The funny expression is easy to capture. When the grebes are shaking their heads during the courtship dance, simply lock on to one and fire the motordrive when the shaking happens. You will get a lot of rejects but one or two will be cool. Obviously keep the shutter speed up to avoid "creative blur".

1DX, 500mm with 1.4x, ISO 800, f8 @ 1/500th, -1 compensation

Probably one of the most iconic images I shot and the fitting cover for the Crests of Fire eBook. So what makes this image work? The light. It's that simple, the light is magical. Beautiful early morning light, which even Chris looked attractive in (sorry mate just checking if you are reading this) and the picture was obvious. Again I had no choice but to cut the reflection as I'd been photographing one pair with the converter on and didn't have time to switch. It doesn't matter, it works. Getting two birds coming together like this, where you can only see one face, really accentuates the "it's a challenge" message from the image. Shooting at -1 compensation allowed me to lose a lot of the background and annoying detail in the birds, 2 minutes of Photoshop work did the rest but the essence was, as always with me, shot in camera.

Focus point was actually easy as there was so much contrast on the spiky heads I could have used any method so a no brainer.

1DX with 2x, ISO 800, f11 @ 1/1500th

1DX, 500mm with 1.4x, ISO 800, f6.3 at 1/4000th

I put these two together as they are so similar I cannot decide between them. The first one has space and exquisite lighting, the second again has great lighting but is a little more intimate. The reason I am showing both is to demonstrate the need to keep an open mind when you are working on projects and to take a range of shots. So even though they look the same, I have kept both and processed them slightly differently in the edit. Both though benefit from some space and it really pays with atmospherics not to crowd anything.

The numbers are all self explanatory, as I mentioned before the best results with a 2x come with an aperture of f11 or greater. Focus again was very easy to achieve due to the contrast but in each case I chose a single focus point and picked the backlit crest, using the depth of field to forgive any distance from the face itself.

Tip - When shooting backlit it's an advantage if you can slow down the AF system as you do not want it tracking all the time once you have a decent lock on the grebes. On the Canon system (others are available but I don't know them sorry) use the tracking sensitivity to control this, set it at -2 to really dumb down the AF sensitivity. It helps a lot!

1DX, 500mm, ISO 800, f5.6 @ 1/800th

It's easy to get locked into shooting with the converters all the time and it takes a real effort of will to break off from the close ups and shoot something more exquisite. On this morning I made the decision not to shoot with teleconverters at all, just to shoot everything with the 500mm no matter what. Sometimes you just gotta do this. The result was this beautiful atmospheric shot. I included the reflection as it was very strong in the image and also the golden colours on the water were strongest at the bottom of the frame. AF point again could have been multiple or single, I chose single to keep myself in training, and as above TS was -2 to stop the tracking being a little too keen. I like this one very much indeed.

1DX, 500mm with 2x, ISO 400, f9@ 1/500th

The famous weed dance and one that had eluded me until this project, now Chris and I are weeded out! The issue with the weed dance is that you are staring at empty water beforehand, then suddenly you have seconds when they appear to get it all right. The trick is to prepare beforehand and you usually have 10 seconds or more after they flatten their heads and sink like submarines. Forget using a single focusing point, use a group, they will move whilst dancing and it's too easy with a single point to lose the focus. Don't pick the shots, shoot continuously as it can be over in 2-3 seconds or last for 20, you never know so just blast away. When you edit look for shots where both faces are visible and where both have weed.

What makes this shot work? The low angle. It throws the background out and makes it the reeds instead of the water. It's tough being low though...

You can see here both tripods are at their lowest settings, both on UniqBall to keep the horizons level. The mat is not because I am getting soft in my old age, it's because the marsh was disgusting and full of rubbish and detritus. So the moral is get low, it works!

1DX with 1.4x, 500mm, ISO 800, f6.3 @ 1/1500th, -1 1/3rd compensation

OK up next a couple of variations on the weed dance, both backlit. You can immediately see the difference between backlit and frontlit images. I will leave you to decide what you prefer, I know what floats my boat! What AF point do you think I used? Answer all of them as I was flat and parallel to them and there was plenty of contrast to help the AF. I gave the image space to breathe as the reflections are divine and I wanted to include them.

1DX, 500mm, ISO 800, f8 @ 1/800th, -2/3rds compensation

A different feel to this shot from the above one for two reasons. The first is that it's not backlit but sidelit, the second is that I am not at such a flat angle as the shots above as I had changed position. I was very lucky that they displayed in front of a patch of black water, had they been a few feet to the right then it would not have been anywhere near as good. Luck still stays with me, apart from when I enter competitions (sore point) or when I see West Ham (not a sore point as I'm resigned to it).

A little bit similar to a previous one and taken on the same morning I included this as I wanted to show the benefit of doing one subject in depth rather than rushing around trying to do loads at once. I have no idea how many mornings I had to sit before it all came together, but it was in terms of weeks and not days. One morning the grebes did all their displaying in the area of black water where the sun was absolutely perfect on them, they never did it before and they haven't done it since. Because I concentrated on just this spot, and kept going back time and time again, eventually I was rewarded. All the other times were not a waste as I built up a great collection and every morning had its own challenges, it just reinforces the fact that a true wildlife photographer works in depth on one subject until they get it right.....rather than paying for someone else's hide. Fortunately with grebes you need to do it all yourself, anyone offering grebe workshops would be a pure con artist.

Now tech wise the big thing you notice here is that I had to severely crop off the reflection of the heads. This was actually done in Photoshop rather than a necessity in camera and you might wonder why I even considered it? Well as you can see from this shot I am flat and low to the grebes, underneath eye level. When you are this low any shadows / reflections will be elongated. In fact I was at such a low angle that the reflection was really really long and really really distracting. So I took the decision to take this hard crop. Camera club changes would pontificate about it, but they mostly cannot take pictures for toffee and I always hit them with a freshly caught Haddock (other fish are available). Sometimes you just gotta go with what you think is right at the time and forget what anyone else thinks. I regularly do!

1DX, 500mm with 2x, ISO 800, f8 @ 1/1000th -2 compensation

You all know that I love images like this, they are simple and convey a great message of atmosphere. It doesn't matter that the grebe is swimming away, the breath almost forgives anything. Getting a shot like this is the result of many factors coming together at one. The light needs to be low and in a perfect direction, it needs to be cold enough for the breath and you must have a very low angle. The latter is very important, you need a dark background to show the breath otherwise it will be lost - especially against water. It's important to realise too that this kind of image is only half finished in camera. It needs a few tweaks at the post processing stage to give it an edge, usually this involves an increase in contrast using a bendy S curve and maybe a little darkening of the image. So don't go looking for this kind of image, you will just see it one time when you are out and you will know it's right. When you do I wanna see it!!!

1DX, 500mm with 2x, ISO 1600, f16 @ 1/2000th, -2 compensation

Pure mood and atmosphere here, darkened by -2 stops to cut down the annoying water reflections and remove as much grebe detail as possible. AF point was all the points here as I had doubts about the contrast being enough for a single one. Enough said really. It works and simple is best.

1DX, 500mm with 1.4, ISO 1600, f8 @ 1/500th - 2/3rds compensation

My favourite image sequence from the whole courtship shoot. Everything just came together, the light, the position and for once I had the right lens length to include the shadows. ISO was high at 1600 but I had just been photographing a fight seconds before and didn't want to miss this shot buy changing it so left it as is, the 1DX can handle it. I shot this deliberately portrait style and placed the grebes slightly higher than centre in the frame to accommodate the lovely reflections, which for me really make this shot. The background is a building in shadow, darkening the exposure again really helps the mood and this and removes any details other than the grebes. It's an example of why more arty images can be smaller in the frame, as it's the light here that does all of the talking.

Tip - Here's a simple rule for reflections. If you want the long arty diffuse ones that reach towards you like ghostly fingers then get below eye level. If you want some reflections in proportion with the size of the main subject, especially if you have perfect mirror conditions, then sit up and shoot. Don't get a lot higher than this as it will put the background behind the grebe as water and that will look pants, so sitting it is!

Crests of Fire

My first eBook, documenting my Grebe project, is now available and it has received an amazing reaction. It's only £6.99 and available for download by clicking here, here is the cover:

And Finally

Well that's some of my favourite images during the first part of my shoot, I really hope that you enjoyed seeing them and that you learnt something from the hints and tips. Next month I will show you my best chick images and trust me you will love these. But before we go I have pleasure in allowing Chris to say a few words and show some of his great images, well done my son (London speak for a jolly good show!!).

Fotobuzzer Chris "Broody" Hawes

As I mentioned above I had Chris with me for much of this project and it's been great. I asked him to write about the experience so here are this thoughts followed by a few of his excellent images for you to enjoy:

"I’ve been meaning to do a project on grebes for a few years now. They are beautiful, photogenic birds which, combined with their elaborate courtship behaviour, and the fact that they are relatively common on most lakes and ponds during the spring and summer months, make them great photographic subjects. So when Andy contacted me earlier in the year and asked if I’d like to join him in a grebe session at a local site, I naturally jumped at the chance.

I must admit I was initially a little nervous about shooting alongside a working pro. I feared I would be getting in the way, and that my lack of photographic experience and knowledge would be all too apparent!

Of course, I needn’t have worried. Andy put me at ease immediately and was always all too happy to offer guidance and tips when I needed them (which was quite often). That first session was soon followed by another, as we quickly realised the great potential of the site. Soon enough, we had fallen into a steady routine involving early starts, late evenings, and sometimes even a few lunch breaks too. (My work productivity took a nose dive for a month or two, but somehow I seem to have gotten away with it). Most sessions were followed by a coffee to warm up, as it was pretty cold at times, especially in the mornings – on a few occasions there was even ice on the water and frost on the lakeside mud and vegetation.

I quickly picked up on how much attention Andy paid to things like the grebes’ behaviour, angles of light, and which areas were best for certain shots at different times of day. I also learned lots about the fieldcraft needed to get close enough for decent shots of these birds. The grebes were always very relaxed around us and came very close at times – several weed dances were performed in full view just a few metres away. Hopefully these are all skills I have picked up and can start to apply in other situations with other wildlife too.

What struck me most about working with him was the humour with which Andy approached everything. Even though there was serious business to be done, particularly once the eBook and Springwatch piece were in the pipeline, we always had a good laugh while we were shooting and nothing was ever too serious. I’ll never forget the moment a grebe dived for weed to commence the weed dance with its partner, only to surface right next to a swan, which promptly took the weed and ate it. The look on the astonished grebe’s face was priceless. I don’t think we took many pictures after that as we couldn’t keep still for laughing. I am sure there must be plenty of pros who would have a totally different approach, and wouldn’t have been happy to shoot with me at all.

I have learned an incredible amount from Andy during the project, have been greatly inspired by his photos. As a result, I think I have taken some of my best pictures to date during this time. I realise I have been in a very privileged position, not only to have benefited from his guidance, but also to have been able to see how a top pro works first hand.

Most of all though, it’s been great fun. Thanks Andy - the next few coffees are on me!"

Andy again here... Well you can see how well Chris did , a lovely set of Grebe images that he should be proud of. Until next month.....


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