Speed and beauty, NZ falcon shoot up close

July 5th, 2009 § 16

It was a privilege to work with the rare and little know native New Zealand Falcon this month… New Zealand Geographic Magazine were running a feature on the rare NZ falcon, but didn’t yet have the wow shot to sell the story, so asked if I’d have a crack at it. Knowing that these birds are amongst the fastest on earth, very cryptic, and not particularly large meant that a challenge lay ahead.  I love a tough assignment that pushes thinking beyond the norm; the satisfaction of success is very sweet.  Here is part of the result:

New Zealand Geographic Magazine Cover this month

New Zealand Geographic Magazine Cover this month

The other part includes the next photo as an internal double page spread.  It blows me away and I just can’t stop looking at the result below…MORE…

Perfect 'wing over' falcon landing

Perfect 'wing over' falcon landing. Click image for a larger view.

I’d really urge you to get your hands on a copy of the Magazine.  If you click here you can sign up for a subscription, or have a little online read. How did I go about this shot?  Well, it all starts with visualising a reulst I’d like; and this shot pretty much acheived it fully. I wanted something that frroze the crazy speed of these birds, featured talons, and showed the bird’s amazing flying skill and attitude.  I think I managed to get that, but it took some work.  Firstly, meet Ruby…
New Zealand Falcon (Falco novaeseelandiae; Falconidae), Maori name is Karearea after the sound of their call. NZ Native threatened bird species

New Zealand Falcon (Falco novaeseelandiae; Falconidae), Maori name is Karearea after the sound of their call. NZ Native threatened bird species

The speeding Princess

The speeding 'Princess'

Ruby lives at Wingspan Birds of Prey Trust in Rotorua.  I had an initial afternoon learning about Falcons from Debbie and Noel who operate the facility, and learning a lot about their idiosyncasises, and searching out a location that could give me what I visualised.  In a fluke I managed to snatch several shots of a Falcon flying at low level and speed (below).  Not an easy feat!

Previously I think the fastest animal missile I’ve successfully filmed would have to be the speeding ‘Princess’ – a whippet cross! What made this tough was that one part of Falcon behaviour is to hunt with the sun behind, or use a cryptic background to approach against. Why is this tough? Well, if you don’t have a clear contrasting target then you can kiss auto-focus goodbye for a start.

On the wing at speed - a total test of skill...not to mention the bird...

On the wing at speed - a total test of skill...not to mention the bird...

I had the fortune, or misfortune, of unexpectedly being used as a perch. Falcons like high objects to land on, and being one of those I found out why Noel always wears a hat!  I still have the talon marks in my scalp – not from the landing, but from the big push off with at take-off time.
I'll wear a hat next time.  They like perching on tall things Noel said. A totally unexpected landing.  Oh, and they give a great push off when flying off - I still have the talon marks!

I'll wear a hat next time. They like perching on tall things Noel said. A totally unexpected landing. Oh, and they give a great push off when flying off - I still have the talon marks!

The key shot I wanted to get was right in under the landing bird.  Below is a shot testing equipment and lighting (not intended for publication, but what the heck).  I was keen to try something uncconventional and wanted to stick a wide angle lens in close, and have the sun in frame – effectively using is as a rim light to help create a halo around the bird, and then use flashes to illuminate and stop the action.

A word of caution here – wide angle lenses can create havoc in this set up – the lens can magnify the sun’s rays to the point that they can melt things inside the shutter box of your prize camera, so keep the lens covered between shots!

Noel and Debbie spoke of the area they flew the Falcons as an ‘airfield’. This seemed like a strange thing, but after a while I realised that these birds are really like fighter jets – light, nimble and fast, and their environment affects their behaviour. For instance, careful attention needed to be paid to flight paths, and exit flight paths for landing. And, small changes in cross winds effected how the bird needed to approach the scene, making focus very trying. Anyway, we got it and I could drive home knowing I had the makings of something really special.

Waiting for Ruby. Serious business doing a bit of falcon modelling and testing the light.  That's a realistic beak anyway!

Waiting for Ruby. Serious concentration, the business of doing a bit of 'falcon modelling' and checking the light rig. That's a realistic beak anyway!

I’m very tempted to have an very large quality photo print framed for my office walll. There is something about these birds and what they represent in our spirits I think.  If you’re of a like mind then you can order your own signed DMP print from our website. It would be an honour to produce a high quality signed reproduction for you.

If you’d like to help the conservation of NZ Falcons, then how about talking to Wingspan – the Bird’s of Prey Trust and making a donation.

Many thanks to Debbie, Noel and Andrew, and of course Ruby. Cheers also to James at NZ Geographic for confidently expecting me to deliver the last minute goods.

Technical details for those interested:  Shot on a Canon 1DsMk3 with Canon EF-14mm f2.8L lens and three flash heads. James Frankham has written a piece in NZ Geographic Magazine called “In the Field” that contains more info – you better get a copy, which of course helps support this august organ of  interesting NZ stories.

UPDATES: This image has started to get a life of its own: Check out this humorous church billboard, we won a signficant magazine award, and as a tattoo its created a very touching story.  Recently Auckland Museum has used the image as a key photo to market the New Zealand photographer of the year showcase. Oh, and the NZ Falcon was just voted NZ Bird of the Year in 2012.

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§ 16 Responses to “Speed and beauty, NZ falcon shoot up close”

  • spidermanbryce says:

    great blog, the last shot is certainly a good one! haha! The pro doing what he does best, hard at work!!! love the second shot with the wings spread wide out, brilliant!!!


  • Rob says:

    Hi Bryce
    Yeah, I’ve even got my best serous falcon face on for realism! Thanks, Rob

  • Jason Searle says:

    Hi Rob,

    Fantastic captures of Ruby. Wingspan is one of my all time favorite places to visit. Congrats on the cover, well deserved.

  • Rob says:

    Thanks Jason. Shame we didn’t get the chance to meet. Good work on the article too. Cheers, Rob

  • [...] Fantastic flight shots of New Zealand Falcon by National Geography photographer Rob Suisted [...]

  • Alan & Diana says:

    Wow!What a bird, what a photographer! We once had a falcon swoop onto our lawn and grab a sparrow in front of our eyes – it was a blurr. Now we can see the real thing! Well done Rob.

  • Rob says:

    Hi Alan and Diana. Amazing birds. I’d love to see more appreciation of the species here. Thanks for the compliment. How’s the MG? Rob

  • Al Campbell says:

    Brilliant work, Rob. Have just bought the magazine after being attracted by the magnificent photo on the front cover. As soon as I saw your name I wasn’t surprised as I have seen some of your work. Good luck with your Arctic Adventure. Al.

  • Rob says:

    Thanks Mate – feels great to get compliments like that. Really pleased it’s helping to raise the plight of these fantastic birds. They’ve got serious attitude, but their numbers are declining badly. All the best, Rob

  • Steph says:

    Hi Rob, as the “mother” of Princess, thrilled to see her make the blog, she has now had her 15 minutes. Gorgeous shots, will definitely go and buy the magazine. All the best for the latest overseas adventure!

  • The French Stick says:

    Great photos indeed.
    Don’t forget to vote for the bird of the year at http://www.forestandbird.org.nz/poll
    I reckon the NZ falcon should be it this year (although I voted for the NZ robin, as I’ve been studying it for 7 years).
    Good luck.

  • Rob says:

    Thanks. Just posted my vote. Cheers, Rob

  • Paula Reid says:

    Dear Rob
    As a teacher your photographs are proving invaluable one for one of my Y8 students who is studying our native falcon. At the end of November my Y7/8 students will be spending 3 days in Te Urewera National park and at present we are studying native birds.
    I teach at Taneatua School which is the gateway to this park.
    Sincere thanks

  • Rob says:

    Dear Paula

    Thanks for the feedback. I hope the trip to the Ureweras goes well – it’s a special place. Keep a look out for Kokako!

    All the best, Rob

  • Brian says:

    Photo is simply magnificent. Perfection is never a coincidence. It involved a lot of patient, and years of experience and hard works. Well deserve for the 2010 Magazine Cover Awards. Congratulations!

  • Rob says:

    Thanks Brian. Regards, Rob

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