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  • February 24, 2015

How’d He Do That? A Technical Breakdown of the Perfect Shot

Think those gorgeous National Geographic photos happen easily? Photographer Charlie Hamilton James breaks down a recent shoot of a belted kingfisher—and all the work that went in to getting the perfect shot.

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Picture of a belted kingfisher
“A shot like this is impossible to get right the first time,” says Hamilton James. “You have to evolve.” Here, there was too much flash, not enough background light, and not enough sun. The balance of light was wrong, the bird is blurred, and the background is out of focus.

I’m obsessed with kingfishers. I have been since I was seven years old, and to date I have shot and written two books on them, as well as one National Geographic magazine article.

So when I find a belted kingfisher nest on a recent assignment for National Geographic in Wyoming—there’s no choice, I have to photograph it.

Fortunately, I’m covering the wildlife of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem for a special issue, and my job is specifically to shoot cutthroat trout and their predators—one of which is the belted kingfisher.

Picture of a belted kingfisher
Hamilton James took this photo in the evening, to see if the light would be better—but the sun is on the bird and the background is out of focus, which is not the look he wanted.

The section of river I find the nest on is loaded with cutthroat. The situation is perfect: The kingfisher pair has chicks in their nest—a foot-long tunnel dug into the riverbank—and they will be visiting regularly to feed them.

The photo mantra on the National Geographic Yellowstone assignment is this: Every animal has to be shot in context with its background and/or environment. This means shooting close-up with wide-angle lenses. This is a style of wildlife photography that is visually and narratively exciting but presents a complex set of problems, particularly with a small, very fast moving bird.

My job is to get a shot of a kingfisher flying into its nest with a cutthroat trout in its beak and a river valley scene in the background.

Picture of a lighting test
Hamilton James uses a hat to test his lighting setup by the kingfisher nest on the riverbank.

Working in my favor is that the birds visit the nest regularly and stick to the same flight path. Working against me, however, is the fact that the birds are small, shy, and very fast fliers.

The nest is a small hole, located about six feet off the ground on an eight-foot-high riverbank. Upriver is a mountain view, but it’s obscured by a fallen tree. Downriver the view is not as exciting but clear. I opt to shoot the downstream view.

The birds visit every 30 minutes. I don’t want to disturb them so I watch from a distance. When I see the birds fly away, I move in and have time to work without being seen. I have 30 years of experience working with kingfishers, so I am very confident I am not causing problems to the nesting birds. I don’t recommend anyone else try this, however.

Picture of Charlie Hamilton James in a canoe.
Hamilton James (right) and his assistant Kyle Rosenburger leave the nest after setting up their equipment. The nest hole is seen at the top center of the frame. Photograph by Gus Hamilton James

After setting up, I don’t photograph the kingfishers at first—I let them get used to the studio outside their nest.

I have a canoe to get me to the other side of the river, and I watch them through binoculars 300 feet away. Then, finally, I can start shooting. And it’s hard. I have to trigger the camera the split second the kingfishers fly into the shadows area, just before they enter the nest.

Picture of a belted kingfisher
Here, the balance is better, but there is still too much light on the underside of the bird, so it looks artificially lit. Also, there’s no light on the bush in the background.

So after a lot of trial and error, here’s how I finally figured out how to get the perfect shot:

• Canon 1DX placed about three feet from the kingfisher’s flight path
• Canon 24mm prime lens set to manual focus
• Aperture set at f/14 (to get the background in focus)
• Shutter speed set at 1/250th of a second (to synch multiple strobes with slaves)
• ISO of 640—perfect for high image quality
• Pocket Wizard remote trigger attached to my camera
• Shoot in the morning when the river is nicely lit and the riverbank and nest are in shadow
• Match the light on the nest with the natural light on the background using five different strobes
• Set one key strobe to the right of the nest set at manual 1/16th power and attach a warm gel and some pine needles to diffuse the light
• Set another strobe to the left of the nest at 1/32nd power
• Set a third strobe directly in the bird’s flight path at 1/8th power to light it from behind
• Put two more strobes on the ground below the nest, both set to 1/4th power to light the riverbank

Picture of a belted kingfisher
The successful shot of a belted kingfisher bringing a cutthroat trout back to its nest. There is a small amount of light on the bush in the background, and the light on the bird looks natural, like it’s coming from the sun.

Of course, it takes days to actually nail the shot and have the bird in the right place. But, like all these things, persistence pays off.

To read a more in-depth account of this shoot, including further technical details, check out Hamilton James’s blog. You can also see more work on his website.

More of Hamilton James’s photos from Yellowstone will be published in the May 2016 issue of National Geographic.

There are 23 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Dave Munn
    March 24, 2015

    I have only started taking photography seriously since i stopped working full time, although we are foster carers so that can be full time, but in a different way. Most of the time the day is my own. I think my best years for adventure are clearly behind me and i don’t know to what lengths i would actually go to to obtain ‘the perfect shot’ but i am learning that your own ability to create something special has no boundaries- if there is a way then it’s worth doing it- if only to give yourself satisfaction that you have ‘that moment’ to look back on.
    I wish i had understood more and spent my time studying what is truly a wonderful world of photographic opportunities. I admire your work and your commitment.

  2. Matthew Messersmith
    March 23, 2015

    It’s nice to seeing a definitive process in photography. Since I was a young boy, I used to be enamored with the photographs I saw in National Geographic. I wasn’t particularly a stellar shot, and albeit much better now. I am still fascinated by the movement in the photography I see in the articles and photos presented on the NatGeo website.

    I am still in the creative field, just another branch if you will, instead of photography my specialty is type and layout. I have done some professional stuff and I can say that unless you know what you’re doing this can be some of the most tedious and time consuming work. I think too many people feel the photography field is obligatorily controlled by Photoshop or other photo editing programs. I’m not going to pretend to be a professional photographer, cause I’m not. But I can’t help but feel little inspired to go out and take some more shots after seeing this article.

    I think a lot of creatives get pretty comfortable with where they’re at and when someone like yourself comes along with constantly evolving conditions, it brings back a lot more respect and admiration to photographic process that I often forget about. Thanks for inspiration!

  3. Bud Stuaart
    March 15, 2015

    All we can ever say is that top notch art is never! easy!

  4. raja
    March 6, 2015

    Your patience+hardwork+visualiztion = Nice snap of kingfisher

  5. david alan kjoller
    March 3, 2015

    In the last year, my interest in photography has migrated from point and shoot to something more serious – I have a Canon 70D and several thousand invested already. While the photo and measures taken to achieve it are very impressive, I have an undercurrent of disdain. What I don’t like, made possible through complex lighting schemes, are scenes that are artificial to this extent.

  6. ravi s
    February 28, 2015

    The time, care and patience you put into making this remarkable shot is the reason I enjoy the photo even more. Simply brilliant photography!

  7. Terry Summers
    February 28, 2015

    i am fascinated by kingfishers as well. i have both of charlie hamilton james kingfisher books and lots of other kingfisher photo books from around the world, i collect them…. great photos…

  8. Melanie
    February 28, 2015

    Wow. It is a lot a work, but it certainly pays off! The shot is beautiful! I hope one day I can make magic just like this…

  9. Lula Singletary
    February 28, 2015

    I enjoyed your account very much. Yesterday I saw my first kingfisher since childhood. I am 86. The kingfisher was on a high line wire overlooking a body of water, probably a crayfish pond. Thanks! I once studied photography so your details were very interesting.

  10. Moyra Mulholland
    February 28, 2015

    Beautiful, I have these at my pond often and love to watch them.

  11. Vijay
    February 27, 2015

    I don’t understand much in photography, there’s either a good photo or bad !

    This is stunning… beautiful !

  12. Rojie
    February 25, 2015

    Amazing

  13. Sujith Sivadas
    February 25, 2015

    Its a wonderful shot…I am planing to give a break to my telephoto…try to shoot with wide angle…all the best!

  14. asim
    February 25, 2015

    So Nice

  15. Rossy
    February 24, 2015

    Amazing article Congrats

  16. Vishal Mihani, India
    February 24, 2015

    I’m also obsessed with Kingfishers. I wants to click all 12 types of Kingfisher in my country India. I have already clicked 7 types till date. I love to shoot them in flight. This article will help me a lot in my passion for it.

    Thanks a Lot.

  17. Larry Tjiputra
    February 24, 2015

    NICE !

  18. Varittha
    February 24, 2015

    Makes me appreciate every shot even more (if that’s possible) To you and all the wildlife & nature photographers and helpful assistants out there, thank you for the hard work and dedication.

  19. Noni Rosli
    February 24, 2015

    Nice, admire all the efforts.Congratulations.

  20. David
    February 24, 2015

    Nice! I’m gonna do some practice when my wife flies in bed tonight, although I doubt if she want to be lit from 5 different angles when doing so.

  21. simao ribeiro
    February 24, 2015

    Very insightfull the workflow and very powefull results indeed, congratulations

  22. Rebecca Bridges
    February 24, 2015

    Outstanding! Love the narrative and photos describing process! Great work. Thank you for sharing.

  23. evangelho soares
    February 24, 2015

    voceis que posta estas fotos e documentários estão de parabéns

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