I photographed Pileated Woodpeckers at a couple of nest sites in June. Both were in deep woods, with no possibility for sunlit images, with skylight overhead filtered through the leaves of Bigleaf Maple. The crow-sized birds chisel out a new nest each spring, 15-70 feet up (Peterson), and—in Northwest second-growth city parks—often in Alder snags. Their primeval call shatters a rain forest silence that would make Johnny Weissmuller pause.
Parent birds share in the feeding of the chicks. They’re away from the nest for long periods, sometimes an hour or more, and when they return the chicks beg for regurgitated food. A benefit to photographers of their large size is you don’t have to get really close.
I photographed the nest sites with a Canon 5D III, 500mm f/4 plus a 1.4x (700mm f/5.6), at distances of 55-75 feet. I shot everything at ISO 3200 and f/8. The f/8 was for a smidgen more depth-of-field and a better chance of getting the eyes of both parent and chicks in focus. My fastest shutter speed was 1/160 second—abysmally slow—but on the darkest day it dropped as low as 1/13s. Shooting moving birds with a 700mm lens at 1/13s won’t yield many sharp pictures. Luckily, the parents paused occasionally during feeding; the youngsters, screaming for food, not so much. I did get a few keepers—even at 1/13, 1/30 and 1/40s. Here’s how I did it.
Required was to shoot the big lens from a rock-solid tripod and ball head. Tripod legs were carefully placed and pushed into the ground to solidify the base. A big concern was shooting up toward the nest. Tilting a big lens upward makes the platform less stable, and harder to balance. And balance is a key to avoiding vibration. The thing is, as you tilt the lens upward, the balance shifts rearward; every time I changed position, I had to rebalance the kit. To start, I moved the tripod plate aft (the 500mm f/4 has two plate mount choices) to give me a better chance. Balancing a tripod requires some trial and error, loosening the lock knob and shifting the position back and forth until it falls off equally fore and aft; then locking it tight.
Next, I connected a cable-release (Canon TC-80N3) to get my leaden fingers off the camera. I also turned IS (Image Stabilization) off (If you’re rock solid on a tripod, IS set to ON will probably ruin half or more of your images while the lens element hunts about). Finally, when a parent bird flew in, I put the camera in Live View to prevent mirror slap. At these slow shutter speeds, mirror slap is significant, and takes a while to settle out. Mirror slap peaks at shutter speeds of about 1/15s. It’s a significant factor from 1/2s to at least 1/60s for landscape wide-angles, and a bigger range than that for a long lens. Finally, I manually focused while in Live View at the side of the hole where the adults landed (For the Canon 5D III and other cameras, manual focus can be extremely accurate in Live View. Hit the magnify button twice to get 10x). Autofocus was set to OFF. All these things—sturdy and balanced tripod, cable-release, Live View to prevent mirror slap, Autofocus OFF—were necessary to get a sharp picture. Take any one away, and sharpness quivers into ghosts.
On the darkest day I thought fill flash could rescue the shoot, but no. Since I didn’t want flash to dominate, a bit of fill meant shooting at the same, or close to the same, shutter speed. Flash use needs the mirror up to record pre-flash metering. So when in Live View, pressing the remote shutter causes the mirror to drop—the flash collects the info it needs—and then the mirror slaps up again, shaking the set-up as the image records. I didn’t get anything sharp while using flash and a slow shutter speed.
I’m please with my results. I threw away a ton of images, but I did get a few with the birds caught still. They’re intimate portraits; a deep woods reconnaissance that matches the resonating, deep woods call of our largest woodpecker.