Jonathan Smithies
Wildlife Photography

Swallows in bloom

Travelling internationally as a wildlife photographer comes with its own very unique set of challenges, not least of which is lugging around large, expensive and heavy camera equipment. I am visiting south west Turkey, and came across a swallow nest in a small structure, situated next to a freshwater lake. There were easily 10-15 swallows flying around, but in the noon-day Mediterranean sun, I didn’t stand a chance of capturing in-flight shots. However, a short distance from the nest I noticed a pink flowering tree and perched in the branches were swallows of different ages, both adults and some older juveniles receiving midair food deposits.

What caught my attention at first was the potential for a really nice shot featuring creative use of foreground and background to blur the green and pink colours around the bird. I started shooting from a distance of approximately 15 meters, with my camera and telephoto prime lens sat on my monopod and gimbal head, and shot through the branches. The challenge with this approach is handling the autofocus, the solution is manual pre-focus — I manually focus on the bird through the gap in the branches and then use back button autofocus to grab focus on the subject before pressing the shutter button.

I gradually worked my way closer, paying close attention to the swallows’ behaviour to ensure the adults were continuing to feed the “teenage” juveniles and that I wasn’t interrupting their routine. The birds were very cooperative, and didn’t seem at all phased by presence. This was probably because I was only 20-30 meters away from the nest site, and the surrounding area, which was a turtle rehabilitation centre, had a regular flow of people in and out.

The ethical value of a great bird photograph can be measured by the least amount of interruption to the natural behaviour of the species.

The nearer I managed to get, the more I was able to compose the shots giving thought to the colours behind and in front of the bird. I found gaps in the branches, and at this point I decided to handhold the camera for maximum flexibility. I actually enjoy the freedom of shooting handheld, and I find that with good technique, even supporting the weight of a 500mm prime lens, I can produce sharp images. Most of the images in this post were taken at 1/800 of a second with the aperture wide open at f/4.

This experience was a lifer for me as I have never photographed swallows before. I almost never see swallows perched in a photogenic position. Most of the time, if stationary, they are sat on top of telegraph wires with a bland, blown out sky for a background. As far as first time experiences go, I feel this was a pretty good one!

Here are a couple more photos from the collection for you to enjoy.

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About the Author

About me

Jonathan Smithies is a British wildlife photographer currently living in Bristol. He has a passion for photographing birds and enjoys travelling throughout the UK and abroad.