Photographing Killdeer in Cuba

This article discusses photographing killdeer in Cuba and shares a selection of handheld images of killdeer along a stream. Killdeer are a member of the plover family and are found extensively throughout North America, Central America and the Caribbean.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-280, cropped to 4389 pixels on the width

During a trip to Cuba in 2019 I spent quite a bit of time photographing birds in a marshy area adjacent to the hotel. I noticed that there was one particular area that attracted quite a few killdeer. It was an open area of mud flats and low rocky outcrops where the birds would forage for insects along the shoreline and in some shallow water.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-280, cropped to 3742 pixels on the width

I’ve always found killdeer to be very skittish and difficult to approach. The birds in Cuba were no exception. To get close enough to photograph them I needed to leave a cement walkway and pick my way across the mudflats/rocky outcrops for a distance of 30 to 40 metres (~100 to 130 feet). This made it very difficult to approach the birds before they would notice me and scatter in flight.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-640, cropped to 4321 pixels on the width

As I watched their feeding pattern from a distance it became obvious that many of the birds would start at one end of the wetland area. Then, they would walk along the shoreline or in some shallow water as they foraged.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-560, cropped to 4183 pixels on the width

This gave me the opportunity to position myself ahead of the birds’ foraging route and wait for them to come within photographic range. I would pick my way through the mudflats and low rocky outcrops, and hide as best I could behind low bushes and other scrub as I approached. When I found a good spot about 3 to 5 metres (~ 10 to 16 feet) from the water where I could conceal myself behind some foliage, I’d stop and wait for the birds to walk up to my position.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-360, cropped to 3793 pixels on the width

When possible I would crouch quite low to the ground and use the flip screen on the back of my Nikon 1 V3 to compose images from a lower angle. Given the terrain, most often I shot from a crouching position using my camera’s EVF.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-450, cropped to 4103 pixels on the width

Since the birds were unaware of my presence I was able to get surprisingly close to them. As is my standard practice when photographing birds, I shot in Manual mode using Auto-ISO.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-450, cropped to 5232 pixels on the width

I took short bursts of continuous auto-focus images using a frame rate of 20 frames-per-second. This allowed me to capture a few nice photographs with some detailed action in them… like the water droplets being kicked up by the killdeer in the above image.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-500, cropped to 4302 pixels on the width

On a few occasions I was able to shoot from a somewhat higher angle which allowed me to capture not only the killdeer, but also its reflection on the surface of the shallow water.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-250, cropped to 3888 pixels on the width

Photographing a small, skittish bird like a killdeer with an open beak is always a special moment. Given the limited dynamic range of the 1″ sensor in a Nikon 1 V3 camera, working in post can be interesting.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-500, cropped to 4092 pixels on the width

This is especially true when photographing killdeer that are looking into the sun, causing their heads and necks to cast a shadow on their body. Or, when the angle of the sun cast a shadow along the length of killdeer’s body.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-400, cropped to 3794 pixels on the width

When facing these types of challenges I usually ‘thicken up’ my images before trying to lighten shadow areas. I’ll take the highlights down, sometimes to -100, and add some black to the photographs. I purposely darken the image in this manner so it gives me more latitude with which to work when I try to lighten the shadow areas.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-720, cropped to 3564 pixels on the width

Using just the shadow slider to lighten an image risks revealing noise in the shadow areas, even at fairly low ISO values when using a smaller sensor camera. I use a combination of shadow, exposure, and brightness adjustments to bring the image back to where I need it to be.

I can usually accomplish this without needing to do any spot corrections with dodging and/or burning , which is my preferred approach. I find making spot adjustments too finicky and time consuming. 🙂 As I’ve mentioned in other articles… I hate working in post and do my best to get in and out as quickly as possible. About 3 minutes including computer processing time is my typical time frame with an image.

Technical Note

Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear and technology as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process. Crops are noted as appropriate.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-320, cropped to 4383 pixels on the width

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