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

Perfect 'wing over' falcon landing

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...

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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