It Is Possible to Photograph a Swallow in Flight!
Article and Images by Rick A. Brown“Certainly it can’t be done. Swallows are so fast and agile, certainly I wouldn’t be able to photograph them flying without sophisticated camera traps and high-speed flash equipment.” This is what I would say to myself about the issue of trying to photograph swallows in flight.
As a photographer who specializes in birds, I always aim to photograph whatever birds and bird behavior that I can. Thus far, I have not gotten into the camera trap, high-speed flash scene. So, I had not given much thought to getting these kinds of images but always thought it would be beautiful, and knew that it was not that far beyond my grasp because the swallows would often be flying rather close to me while I was photographing other birds.
Then, on April ninth 2005, I was at Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge to photograph waterfowl. At first, it really wasn’t going well. Western Oregon’s unusually dry winter had ended in a few weeks of large amounts of rain and the water level of the slough was very high. This contributed to the ducks being spread over a wide area and not being within photographable distance. So, as I was just sitting around in my car wondering what I should do, the wind picked up, I would estimate to about thirty miles per hour. Wetlands like the north and south slough ponds at Baskett Slough always seemed like the locations with the best possibilities of this nature; swallows often drink on the wing, an act that slows them a lot and they also spend a lot of time feeding over locations marshes. Now that the winds had picked up, I noticed that when the tree swallows turned upwind, they were flying dramatically slower than in still conditions. Would it be possible to photograph them flying into the wind with just a digital SLR and long lens?
Well, since I wouldn’t be paying for film and developing, and throwaways would be free, I figured I might as well try. I positioned the car in a pullout as close to the slough as I could. I rigged up my Kirk window mount and ballhead and tuned the tension on my ballhead to allow for easy yet smooth and controlled movement. Next, I selected one of the focusing sensors on my EOS 1D MkII near the center but off to the side a little so that the swallows would like like they were entering the frame, assuming they were flying into the wind. This assumption was no problem, I had decided to only attempt images when the swallows were flying into the wind. This setup took a few minutes and then I started. Despite the fact that the swallows were flying dramatically slower than normal, they were still incredibly fast. I tracked the birds as best as I could, hitting the shutter whenever I thought I had something. Of course, I didn’t get much, but I did get about four images, far more than I ever expected.
Later, I discovered several vultures and a pair of red-tailed hawks quarreling over a dead goose fairly near the road. This allowed me the opportunity to get some fantastic flight shots of these two species.
These events prove that photographers should always keep their eyes open for opportunities to make images they might consider impossible. If I had completely given up on getting swallow flight images, I would have completely overlooked this possibility. Then there is the digital advantage; not being concerned about the film cost helped me feel free to try this crazy idea.