Great Blue Heron Taking Off at 20 FPS

I’ve been making regular trips to the Hendrie Valley Sanctuary the past little while, as I’ve been doing some fieldwork for an upcoming eBook on bird photography. This article shares some images of a Great Blue Heron taking off shot at 20 fps in continuous auto-focus with subject tracking.

I’ve been planning to capture this exact scene for a while but it took some time for ‘the stars to align’ to present the right opportunity.

What follows is a series of 14 consecutive frames captured with a Nikon 1 V3 and the 1 Nikon 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6. All photographs in this article are 100% captures without any cropping at all.

I’ve also included the fifth frame of the sequence even though my Nikon 1 V3 missed focus badly on that particular frame. I’ve included it simply to show the body position of the heron. This missed auto-focus may be due to ‘operator error’ on my part. It may also have been caused by an AF issue with my CX 70-300 mm lens as it has recently developed a periodic shudder/chatter which affects AF performance. I have shot tens of thousands of AF-C images using fast frame rates using this lens and I’ve never had one of my Nikon 1 cameras miss an image mid-stream this badly. As a result my lens is going in to Nikon for warranty repair.

I shot in Manual mode at f/5.6 with a shutter speed of 1/1600. I used Auto ISO 160-6400 with the ISO of the individual frames varying from ISO-360 to ISO-450.

I backed off my focal length to 245.7 mm providing me with an equivalent field-of-view of 663.4 mm. I did this to allow for the wing extension of the heron as it launched itself into flight.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Frame 1: heron flexes legs signalling flight
Frame 2: heron begins to launch forward, wings beginning to open
Frame 3: heron begins to raise wings to prepare for initial down beat
Frame 4: heron continues to lift wings as it begins to thrust with legs
Frame 5: heron’s wings in full upright position just prior to initial down beat. Unfortunately my V3 missed focus on this frame, most likely caused by ‘operator error’ on my part.
Frame 6: heron begins to launch itself into flight. Slight wing clip at top of frame.
Frame 7: heron positioned in full flight launch, with its feet just leaving its perch. This is the image I was hoping to capture with this 20 fps AF-C run.
Frame 8: heron begins to fly, wings positioned part way through initial down beat.
Frame 9: heron in flight with wings fully extended at the end of the initial down beat. This is another photograph I was planning to capture with the 20 fps AF-C run.
Frame 10: heron in flight with wings cycling back up for the second down beat.
Frame 11: heron in flight with wings pulling upward in preparation for second down beat
Frame 12: heron in flight with wings fully upright just prior to second down beat. Slight wing clipping at top of frame.
Frame 13: heron in flight with second down beat in progress. Feathers on wing tips extended. This is the third photograph I was hoping to capture with the 20 fps AF-C run. Slight cropping would yield a good, usable image.
Image 14: heron in flight with second down beat in progress. Wing position similar to Frame 8.

All of the photographs in the series above were captured in 7/10th of a second.

When photographing birds it is always a good idea to have specific images in your mind so you can react to desired situations when they appear.

I had been watching this heron for a while, including capturing some photographs of it catching two large fish at the same time (that will be the subject of another article!). After the heron ate both fish I thought that the bird likely would take flight soon as its hunger would have been at least temporarily satisfied. I adjusted my camera to shoot at 20 fps and concentrated on the heron’s body movements so I could (hopefully) get my AF-C run. When the heron showed me the leg flex I was anticipating, I pressed the shutter and concentrated on keeping the bird in the frame as it launched itself into flight.

Technical Note:
All photographs were captured hand-held using Nikon 1 gear as noted in the article. Images were produced from RAW files using DxO PhotoLab and the Nik Collection. While I exported a DNG file into CS6 I did not make any adjustments using CS6.

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6 thoughts on “Great Blue Heron Taking Off at 20 FPS”

  1. I know all the hype is about Nikon making a full frame mirrorless. I just wish they’d make an updated Nikon 1, with a viewfinder, modern AF sensors, a couple of external control dials and a microphone jack. I’d pay $1,000 USD for that. I still love my J5 with a 10-100 for quick grab camera. Beats the heck out of cell phone in most situations. I just want something small as a walking around camera that has a viewfinder and modern sensor. But I’m close to giving up on the system. The newest 24-200 Sony 1 inch all in one, The RX 100 VI, has a viewfinder. That might be it for me for the Nikon 1 system.

    1. Hi Simon,

      There are many current Nikon 1 owners that share you view on an updated Nikon 1 body. I’ve heard from a lot of folks that would like an updated V-Series with an integrated viewfinder and grip (like the V2) with the 20.8MP BSI sensor that is in the J5. As Nikon pursues its ‘high value-added product’ strategy I think we’ll see more focus on full frame cameras as they represent higher margin opportunities for the company. Whether the Nikon 1 system is officially discontinued or remains in the product line-up is still a question mark. If the rumours are to believed, some clarity about Nikon’s mirrorless cameras strategy should be forthcoming this fall.


  2. I would respectfully suggest that the 6th and 7th frame are still backfocused as the camera recovers. Images like that are why I’ve pretty much given up on the system for anything that moves. I see the focus kind of wanders after that and the eye is not really sharp after that except for a couple of images. If I care enough to want reliably sharp images I’ll suck it up and take a big camera. If I think before I go out “I don’t care about if the images are going to be in focus” I then think, why even bother to bring a camera to avoid disappointments? I realize that this is a really negative comment, and I’m not trying to be mean, just realistic about what the system is capable of. They are great walking around cameras for stuff that isn’t moving, especially when there’s enough time to use a J5 and carefully examine the image on the screen to see if I’ve really got the composition right. I find I often miss small distracting objects at the edges with that camera. The 70-300 is such a tease. It’s capable of great images, but the cameras aren’t capable of finding and holding on to the right point of focus.

    1. Hi Simon,
      Thanks for sharing your perspectives. Part of the issue may be ‘operator error’ and I may have missed keeping my focus point centred on the heron. The other contributing factor could be some lens shudder/chatter that occurred this morning just prior to me shooting this sequence. As a result, my original CX 70-300 mm (with which these images were shot) is going in for a warranty repair this week. I usually shoot at 10 fps not 20 fps. At the slower fps rate I haven’t noticed any issues.

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