The last place I lived in the UK before I left for mainland Europe was Wales...and it was good to go back, because quite simply it is an absolutely stunning country to visit.
But when visiting Wales, you have to be prepared for one thing: the weather. As beautiful as it is, it rains a lot. And that means dark cloud, grey skies and not a lot of light.
On a return trip to the UK I decided to spend a day at the Red Kite feeding centre in Rhayader. It's a very well known spot in the UK wildlife photographic community. However this was my first visit and despite the gloomy weather I was keen to see what was on offer. I knew that I was guaranteed to see Kites, a feeding centre after all, is going to draw a crowd...or flock...more on that later.
Centre of Rhayader town centre
On a practical note, once in Rhayader town centre you turn left at the town centre clock and you'll soon see the signs to the feeding centre. Keep in mind that the feeding centre opens at 2pm, so if you get there early, the gate is closed and you won't be able to drive up to the farm and park. And there is nowhere to park at the gate so you'll need to do a U-turn and wait it out in the town centre. That's the reason I took this photo!
The centre really caters for photographers. When I arrived there were a couple of togs hanging about. These were the types dressed in full camouflage with large camera straps and big lenses. Not that I want to be too disparaging about the types of togs in the community, but the whole SAS get up, I just don't get unless you are actually out in the wilderness and on a stake out. Rocking up to a feeding centre that is well equipped with a series of viewing huts and hides in camo, is, in my opinion...a little OTT. I digress...
The feeding centre has a number of viewing huts, from general viewing huts to more specialised photographic hides. I decided to pay a bit extra and go in the elevated photographic hide. There was a reason for this. I figured that I'd have a better view to capture birds in flight than if I was in one of the hides a little lower to ground level.
Because the photographic hides are at a premium price, I think from memory I paid around £20, you get a ticket with a code to enter past the gate. You go up the steps and settle in. I had the place to myself, and this was my view...
I was very pleased with my choice. I had an unobstructed view. You can see in the photo the roofs of the huts below where I was located. And you can see that in the clouds above the trees there are a number of Kites that are already airborne.
Intermittent rain, blue sky and some sunlight cast a full rainbow with grey clouds as a backdrop.
There was a bit of a wait before the actual feeding began. But that's a good thing, it gave me a chance to get use to the light. My weapon of choice for this shoot was my trusty Panasonic Lumix G9 with the 100-400mm f4.0-6.3 lens. This combination is without doubt my "go to" for bird photography. And the more I shoot with it, the more I realise just how powerful it is. With a full frame equivalent focal length of 200-800mm you can't really go wrong, and it is fairly easy to fill the frame.
After a little wait, I was amazed to see the kites start to circle at the mere sound of the tractor moving in the distance...
The tractor on its way to drop the scraps in the field
With so many birds circling and the food laid out on the ground it was an absolute frenzy. My photographic interest was more aimed towards bird in flight images than actually capturing the kites diving in to pick up a piece of meat in their talons. This was just swell because after a while I thought I would give it a go from a camera skills perspective and failed miserably! The speed at which they swooped in was phenomenal and it was hard to pick one bird up as they often criss crossed when diving to ground level. I'm a fairly proficient bird in flight photographer but this was one specific scenario I will have to come back to another day...but I would say, if you are planning to photography Osprey or African Fish Eagles on the hunt, then this would be a great place to practice before you get out into the real world!
This was the closest I got to a good shot of the Kites as they dived towards the food laid out on the ground.
Many of my blogs have described how I shoot birds, so I will summarise how I set my camera up. With the G9, I used single point Auto Focus in AFC mode and I have set up through the custom menu back button focusing. This dissociates the focus function from the shutter button and I find it to be more reliable and accurate. I shoot in Aperture Priority mode (Av) and with the 100-400mm f4.0-6.3 this means at 100mm I have access to f4.0 and at 400mm I have a minimum aperture of f6.3. I mentioned that the weather the day I visited was cloudy and dull. One of the draw backs with almost all affordable telephoto lens for wildlife is that the variable focal range means a variable aperture across that focal range. And so f6.3 isn't ideal in grey cloudy conditions because that means having to push the ISO up to a higher level to compensate for a fast shutter speed. Ideally at f4.0 you gain an extra "stop and a bit" over f6.3 and that means you can work in with an ISO range of 800-1250 and easily get a good shutter speed for bird in flight photography. The rule of thumb is to have a shutter speed of two times the focal length for a sharp shot. If you want to get creative and do a motion panning shot, then increase the aperture and then switch to Shutter Priority mode (P) and set the shutter speed to 1/25-1/50. This works well on dark cloudy days when there isn't much light as the slower shutter speed won't over expose the image too much. On a normal day with good light at apertures greater than 16, at 1/25-1/50 your images will be blown out. The downside is that in low light contrast based auto focus systems have a hard time picking up focus especially with fast moving birds. So your panning technique has to be spot on.
On this day I decided to stick to good quality sharp shots. I did not try to do anything creative with panning and slow shutter speeds. Where possible I was trying to also get good clean backgrounds. This was also a challenge because being in the Welsh countryside and at the end of winter/beginning of spring, you had a lot of leafless trees that naturally were going to find their way into the compositions at some point.
But as long as those compositional elements didn't overlap with the subject, and there was still some subject separation with the background, I got some good results. I was particularly happy with the images where I got multiple birds in shot with a nice shallow depth of field and even spacing in the frame to give a good balance of composition.
Even when I couldn't quite get the clean background I wanted, I still got a couple of shots I was pleased with. This image (above) with the tree line, fence posts and sheep bring a real sense of context to the environment of the kite. The additional colours on a grey day were also very welcome in this image!
All in all it was a great day's photography, despite the gloomy weather...towards the end of the afternoon some of the clouds started to break up and a small patches of blue sky started to peak through the clouds. Would I return? Yes. I think this is a very inexpensive way to practice bird in flight photography, especially if you are a beginner or intermediate wildlife photographer. You are guaranteed birds. This is not like some other wildlife experiences where you may have to sit and wait hours before spotting your subject. The you have a matter of seconds to get the shot. Whilst you need the skills to be able to bank those shots in the moment, they aren't easy to acquire. Places like the Red Kite feeding farm have excellent infrastructure that will allow you to hone your skills. And for me there is no better skill in wildlife photography than learning to pan and fix focus on a bird in flight. If you can do that with birds, you'll be able to do it with any animal.
The view as I left the photographic hide and returned to the car park
Until next time...