How to photograph Starlings

Flocks of Starlings are fascinating to watch but even more interesting to photograph, as Steve Bennett explains.

17/01/2011 - 16:47

As the days grow longer and the weather begins to warm up, it’s easy to get excited about outdoor photography. But I will miss taking my camera out on short, cold and often downright miserable winter evenings because nature saves one of her great photo opportunities for just that time of day and year which seems least suitable for photography.

Each night over the winter, starlings gather together in massive flocks to roost. Before they settle down for the night they perform an aerial ballet known as a murmuration in which thousands of birds swoop and swirl across the sky as one, looking more like a single fluid creature than a collection of thousands of individuals.

A large murmuration can be a truly awe-inspiring spectacle that will have you reaching for your camera, but actually capturing the essence of such a dynamic display in a still image can be quite a challenge.

Starlings start to gather in small flocks in summer, once the young have fledged. At this time of year the fledglings still have their pale brown juvenile plumage, which can look almost golden in the evening sun.

As the year draws on, these smaller flocks gradually come together until by late November or December, swelled by migrants escaping the cold in Northern Europe, there can be more than a million birds in the largest roosts.

Like most wildlife photography, photographing flocking starlings is largely a matter of being in the right place at the right time. The right time is easy – just before sunset. The exact timing depends a little on the weather. If it’s overcast they may settle down earlier, but you need to be ready and waiting an hour or so before the sun sets. Each morning the birds spread out into the surrounding countryside to feed, and small groups return to the roosting site throughout the afternoon, gradually building the flock until it reaches full size, so you should already be able to spot the nucleus of the flock.

Being in the right place can be a little trickier. There are a number of well-known and relatively reliable roosts up and down the country – Shapwick Heath in Somerset, Gretna Green, Leighton Moss and Brighton pier to name a few – but the exact spot to be in for the best vantage point varies from night to night. A flock will often settle in the same spot several nights running, but it can cover quite a lot
of ground in a short space of time, so you may find yourself running to keep up if they decide to move elsewhere. Persistence really pays off and watching a roost over a series of days or weeks will reap far more rewards than expecting to get a great shot on one visit.

One of the biggest challenges is the diminishing light. If the sky is clear all the way to the horizon then you have a fair bit of light to play with. If you’re looking right into the sunset possibly too much! If it’s overcast the light fades fairly early and it can be very dim by the time the starlings are displaying.

A largely clear sky with a scattering of high cloud is ideal if you want to be able to catch the flock with an interesting sunset behind them.

Getting the right exposure isn’t easy. If there’s enough sunlight you can aim to expose for the birds’ bodies. As they bank and turn together, their wings will all catch the light together just for an instant, almost by magic. In lower light, you’re really restricted to exposing for the sky and just seeing the starlings as silhouettes.

A shutter speed of around 1/500sec will freeze the action, but a slower shutter speed can produce quite a pleasing effect, and can be all you’ll get, particularly with a slower lens. I’d normally recommend manual exposure for birds in flight, but the light levels change so quickly you’re really better off using AV mode and dialling in a little exposure compensation to get the sky right. A high ISO is almost essential, and it goes without saying that you should shoot in raw.

The ideal lens to use depends very much on how close to the birds you’re going to be and whether you want to fit the whole flock in the frame or just concentrate on a small section.

It’s handy to have the versatility of a zoom, but at the same time you need a lens that’s sharp from corner to corner even when wide open. An individual bird may only be a few pixels across on your sensor, so sharpness really is key. If you can afford them (I can’t) then one or other of the DA* zooms would fit the bill. I’d probably go for the 50-135mm, but it’s a bit long at the short end.

On more of a budget, I’ve found that the constant aperture Pentax A 35-105mm f/3.5 is suitably sharp, though it’s not easy to find these days. For wider shots I use a Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4 which is good enough, but it’s only f/2.8 at the very wide end, where it shows quite a bit of (not unpleasant) vignetting. It’s also worth having a longer telephoto lens to hand in case the flock moves off unexpectedly or if you want to close up on a small group of birds. I’d recommend a 300mm f/4 prime.

As the light really begins to fade, particularly if it’s overcast, you’ll find yourself in need of some seriously fast sharp glass. Fortunately, this needn’t be expensive. Any of the fast 50mm primes, from vintage screw-mount to the latest AF, will keep you shooting long after it’s too dark for even an f/2.8 zoom. I’ve taken some of my favourite starling shots with a 50mm f/1.4 Super Takumar that cost me less than a DA* lens cap. Do beware, though, that the depth-of-field is very shallow at f/1.4!

If you can afford it, having a couple of bodies with different lenses mounted can be helpful.  Otherwise, expect to get quite adept at quick-fire lens changing. I don’t use either a tripod or shake reduction because you have to change angles quickly to follow the birds, but if you want impressionistic slow shutter-speed shots then some form of support is a must.

Focusing can be difficult. Autofocus isn’t brilliant in low light and, because the flock is made up of lots of little shapes rather than one big one, it doesn’t really offer the contrast that autofocus sensors are designed to work with. By the same token, each individual starling is tiny in the viewfinder, so manual focus isn’t exactly easy either, but with practice it will give you better results.

If you can manage to juggle lens choice, exposure, and focus, you might find time to spare a thought for composition. And as you do so, you may gain some insight into why flocking is such a good tactic to avoid predators. Following a flock of birds is far harder than following an individual. As the flock moves it can be very hard to decide when to actually release the shutter. If you get it right, though, you’ll be rewarded with a brilliant picture and all the difficulties will have been worth it.


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