Bluebirds and Stink Bugs

We have a bluebird nest in our backyard. There are two fledglings, and this is their dad.

To me, bluebirds have always had a specific connotation (i.e., the "bluebird of happiness," or more lately, "Twitter"). But this guy is a fearless badass. He'll fight off other birds, cats, squirrels—and photographers—if they get too close to his nest.

And for two afternoons this week, this particular bluebird led me down a photographic rabbit hole.


Here's the photo that got me started:

Just an ambient-light grab shot from the kitchen window with a long lens. But interestingly, that's a brown marmorated stink bug he is eating. (Or, making his kids eat. Insert your own broccoli joke here, parents.)

Thing is, BMSBs are a big thing around here in that they are a) invasive, b) ruining crops and c) have no real natural predators. (Praying mantiss, maybe. But that's pretty small potatoes.) Except as you can easily see here, they do now have more efficient natural predators. I had shot/written about the BMSB for HoCo360 in 2010, but this unexpectedly blessed predation was a new wrinkle.

So I thought it would be cool to report this development to the consortium of scientists (no, really) who are working together to save us from the smelly, hungry little aliens.

Also, now I was kinda hooked on this guy. So I started thinking about lighting him and getting something cool. After all, I had a nest/box for a location. So I knew where he was always gonna be headed once he caught a bug. And it turns out that lighting a bird in flight is not as hard as you'd think. But it is also not as intuitive, either.

The weather was variable, moving from sun to shade. And the bird-to-flash distance would be variable, too. So you say three Hail McNallys and get out the TTL flashes, right?

Wrong. The pre-pulses delayed me enough to ensure I never caught him as he flew through my shooting zone while heading towards the box. It was like shooting a martial arts expert with a Buzz Lightyear camera. Not good.

So I switched to full-manual flash: One remote, tripod-mounted camera with a 28mm, an on-camera flash, one beneath for fill and a back/right flash for texture.

Here's the setup:

Even in manual, there were problems. With full sun, I had to shoot at 1/250th max, which gave me a deep aperture and a lot of depth of field. Also, I had to overpower that sun with my flashes.

But I needed fast t.1 times to stop the bird. And low-power settings for fast recycles. Trust me, when this guy swoops in or out, you do not want to be waiting for a 4-second recycle time. You want to lay down on the PW remote button and bing-bing-bing-bing at 9 frames/sec.

With that setup, I got several promising photos over the afternoon, including this one which I liked because it was from a cool angle with a wide field of view:

It kinda looks like he is being backlit by the sun. But the flash was too bright; too overdone. And it was hard to design the light because you never knew what the positioning/pose of the bird was gonna be.

Plus, the bluebird did not exactly like the bing-bing-bing-bing and 28mm lens right next to his nest, either. He attacked it. And me, when I went to check it. 'Cause he's a badass. We eventually reached an agreement, and he got used to my gear. But not to me. Ever.

Our relationship defined, I decided to stalk him for a second day. I went back to my own site's archives to pull some good info on bird photography. Learning from that, I set up a backdrop in my shooting zone—a piece of white foam core. Then I backed the camera up and went with a 70-210 lens.

How to light it? How many flashes? What the hell, let's bring a bunch out to cover our bases. Here was my setup for Day Two:

There were six flashes in all. First was on the PW-remote camera to trigger the others. Second was aimed at the backdrop to erase any weird shadows. Flashes three and four were rim lights. Flash number five was my key, up and to the right. Flash six was a fill from the bottom.

Power-wise, I needed to balance recycle with t.1 pulse times and the ability to at least match (if not overpower) daylight. So every flash was at or below ⅛ power. So I could bing-bing-bing-bing.

That setup gave me a number of cool frames, including the one seen at top which is repeated here:

He's not quite frozen. But to do so I would have had to have been a lot more intrusive with the gear (more Einsteins than I own, a boom, etc.)

But for what started out as an ADHD-induced diversion, this was loads of fun. And I learned a lot about bluebirds (other than the fact that they are impossibly beautiful) in the process. There was a lot of learning and predicting involved.

And the fact that I was freezing the inbound chuck wagon, time after time, gave me the ability to analyze the menu in a way that would be otherwise very difficult.

Surprising result: fully half of the food runs resulted in BMSBs for dinner. This is fantastic news, and birds predating the invasive insects will really up the scale of our efforts at controlling them. Not to mention, the fledglings are learning that BMSBs are now legitimate food.

I sent my pictures off to some of the scientists, and a half dozen of them have already written back expressing enthusiasm for the new information. This is news to all but one of the scientists, and that one had only seen it once before. So this is being viewed as corroborating evidence.

Way cool, as far as I am concerned. Plus, it was an awesome way to spend a couple of spring afternoons.

Next: Soprano Rebecca Hargrove Pt. 1


Brand new to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos

Comments are closed. Question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist


Blogger anggerbondan said...

Simply beautiful

April 26, 2013 8:28 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Larking said...

It sounds like you have enough photos to actually have the beginning of a statistical study. That's cool.

April 26, 2013 9:02 AM  
Blogger Josh Slaymaker said...

Wow, science and photography, two of the three loves of my life besides fishing... oh and my wife of course. Interesting find, and another great reason to promote blue bird nesting boxes and habitat conservation and restoration!

April 26, 2013 9:02 AM  
Blogger ethervibes said...

David Hobby - The world's only Stroboentomornithologist

April 26, 2013 9:22 AM  
Blogger Eugene Simonalle said...

Great news. Any bird that eats stink bugs is a friend of mine. Do you think the flashes bothered the bird at all? Will he learn to eat PWs like he has stink bugs? What if he crashed while you took his pic; would you be the liable paparazzi? ;-)

April 26, 2013 9:32 AM  
Blogger Richard Wintle said...

That is a very cool story (scientifically; documentation of novel predation of an invasive species, how cool is that?), and thanks for the BTS. Six flashes, I would never have guessed(!).

You've also outlined one of the wonderful things about natural science - much of what we know about species and their behaviours is down to nothing more technical than long hours of observation and meticulous record-keeping. Ok, your record-keeping is highly technical (camera, flashes, etc.) and requires more specialized know-how than simply watching with a notepad for hours on end, but same idea.

And as a bonus, the photos turned out beautifully. Makes me want to try something similar with Hummingbirds at the cottage - which admittedly hang still in the air when feeding, which might make things a little easier.

Great stuff, thanks for posting this for a Friday morning read. :)

April 26, 2013 9:36 AM  
Blogger Barnacle said...

very nicely done!
i also enjoy shooting birds.
i spend time on my deck useing 2 strobes and softboxes.
if you want,, check them out,,

April 26, 2013 9:44 AM  
OpenID Boz said...

Ok, you're just showing off now. Stand clear, master at work.

April 26, 2013 10:14 AM  
Blogger John Harper said...

Nice images...but to another topic:
Did I just see you on an episode of Diners, Drive-ins & Dives? Or do you have a twin that likes tacos?


April 26, 2013 10:22 AM  
Blogger Barry said...

Thanks for the BTS. I am surprised you did not start with the X100S, though it's probably a remote trigger issue or something?

April 26, 2013 10:26 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@John- Yep, that was me.Awesome Mexican foor at R&R, too.

April 26, 2013 10:31 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Yep, remote trigger issue. And a 9FPS issue, too.

April 26, 2013 10:32 AM  
OpenID c61c0b82-ae7f-11e2-80a7-000bcdcb8a73 said...

What did you use to trigger the camera? Infra red setup or??

Great shots

April 26, 2013 10:44 AM  
Blogger John said...

Awesome stuff, I am so going to try this with my kids... uh, helping me, not shooting them. ;)

Two quick questions tho, how did you set your focus point since you were firing your camera remotely? Did you just stick something out there, focus on that then lock it in? Your photos all seem sharp.

Also, (ok 3 questions) when using the white background, did you set your ambient exposure for the same as if you were shooting a natural background?

I'm seriously going o be setting up feeders around my house, been wanting o try this for a while! Thanks for the post!

April 26, 2013 10:48 AM  
Blogger jlawr said...

When will the "Bird Book" (with pictures)be published?

April 26, 2013 11:13 AM  
Blogger Michael David Fisher said...

Wow, David Hobby - Sceintist. Can Sheldon and Leonard be far behind.

April 26, 2013 11:40 AM  
Blogger Lora said...

I am certainly glad you got ADHD-sidetracked; these photos are so beautiful! And it's fun to see what you've learned about the birds as well. Thanks for sharing!

April 26, 2013 11:47 AM  
Blogger Katie said...

"Three Hail McNallys"?!?!?! I almost fell out of my chair laughing!!!

April 26, 2013 12:18 PM  
Blogger Brian McCarthy said...

This may be one of my favorite posts, ever. Love the photos, love the enthusiasim, love that your photography has unintended benefits (scientific research).

Two cents -- the BIF that you think is over-strobed is mostly because you know the facts. Anyone else would be ecstatic with the shot. For my part, I don't know that I've ever seen a BIF from that angle and it makes me feel like I'm flying with him instead of observing him fly. Great, great, great work.

April 26, 2013 12:39 PM  
Blogger Jack and Brenda said...

Nicely done. My bluebirds just showed up yesterday here in Ohio, but already evicted the sparrows from the birdhouse of their choice. I had planned on doing some remote photos of them, but your post game me more incentive and a few new ideas.
Yesterday's arrival photo

April 26, 2013 1:18 PM  
Blogger Clearcon said...

Great job as usual young man. I bet a black backdrop would also have been cool with the lights positioned to miss it and hit the bird. Fewer flashes needed as well.

April 26, 2013 1:25 PM  
Blogger Clearcon said...

Great job as usual young man. I bet a black backdrop would have been great too. Fewer flashes needed; just have to be sure they miss the backdrop and hit the bluebird.

April 26, 2013 1:27 PM  
Blogger Mitch said...

David Hobby - the man that gets amazing catch light in the eye of a bluebird. Phenomenal.

April 26, 2013 1:33 PM  
Blogger Arthur Peslak said...

You could have saved yourself a lot of time. Hummingbird photographers have been doing this for years:

April 26, 2013 1:59 PM  
Blogger tristan Rhodes said...

I love the absolute insanity of this!

I think it's funny how you've gone so minimal for travel you won't even take a second lens or an slr, but shooting a bird in your backyard warrants two days and the use of 6 flashes and a backdrop.

I really like both the wider angle shot from the back and the cover shot!

April 26, 2013 2:09 PM  
Blogger Sheldon Marumoto said...

Fascinating. Love the information given on the flash setup and on the new predation behavior! I have noted this in the Wikipedia article for the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug.

April 26, 2013 4:57 PM  
Blogger George Salt said...

Great shots David, I'm going to have to get more adventurous using flash in the garden. I've done this with the birds that visit before, but not thought to try manipulating the background to such an extent.

Incidentally, the first time I tried this I had USB repeaters daisy-chained up the garden for full camera control via laptop. It made altering the focus point very easy without disturbing the model.

April 26, 2013 5:01 PM  
Blogger Michael Yearout said...

Way, way cool.

April 26, 2013 8:36 PM  
Blogger Hugo Carlone Fotografia said...

Great shots David. Congratulations!
Have you thougt of using your MF camera for that extra sync speed (maybe going up to 500th or more of a sec)? Wouldn't that really "freeze" the bird using the same lighting setup?

April 27, 2013 12:16 AM  
Blogger Marcell said...

Very cool story and fantastic pictures.Nicely done.

April 27, 2013 6:39 AM  
Blogger Mark Dunlap Photography said...

I dig it. Looks like one of those cool studio shots where the animals are coaxed into iconic poses. Very cool that you got such a clean shot on site.

April 27, 2013 9:05 AM  
Blogger Eduardo Cassús said...

Great job. I just hope you don't scare the bird with your gear. This fellow might want to move with his family to avoid the paparazzi.

April 27, 2013 11:35 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

Amazing - when is there going to be a nice hefty coffee table book of Hobby photos? These would be an amazing section.

April 27, 2013 6:47 PM  
Blogger bycostello said...

great image... not sure i'd of had the patience for that one...

April 28, 2013 6:42 AM  
Blogger Paul Grant said...

Just Beautiful VERY WELL DONE

April 28, 2013 2:34 PM  
Blogger Paul Grant said...

Very well done Beautiful Photo's

April 28, 2013 2:37 PM  
Blogger Rajiv Sarathy said...

A birder once told me that many parent birds will abandon their nests and fledglings when they see foreign objects get too close. He was concerned that I was too close to the nest when I photographed a bald eagle parent feeding a fish morsel to its child ( I wasn't -- the eagle nest was some 30 feet above me.

April 28, 2013 6:34 PM  
Blogger Drew Gardner said...

Hi David

An excellent and interesting post.

Hopefully it will encourage a few folk to have a go.

I plan to try something with a leaping squirrel.

Next time you are in the UK you should meet the high speed animal flash Yoda himself, Stephen Dalton.

I wrote a little about the man and his techniques a while ago.



April 29, 2013 1:26 AM  
Blogger MikeScottPhoto said...

Looking at your setup shot I can just imagine Gladys Kravitz next door looking out her window and shouting, "Abner, you've got to come see this..."

April 29, 2013 8:40 AM  
Blogger Nick Oman said...

Great post David. I love to read how you capture your amazing images. I am a landscape photographer, but I still try to incorporate what I learn here on Strobist in my photography. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

April 29, 2013 10:28 AM  
Blogger thewiss said...

DH - Try again with a D40 (you can borrow mine if you like). The trade off is resolution, fps, and AF capability for infinite, sun overpowering flash pops with the lens wide open.

D40 stats are 6MP, 2.5fps, ~1/1250th max sync. You'd certainly freeze the birdie. The D40 electronic shutter is a strobist secret weapon. I've always wondered why Nikon is so in love with mechanical shutters on their DSLRs. Never looked into it though.

Oh, and about designing the light. You can totally design light for your situation. The further away you put your lights from the bird, the larger the zone in which the light will hit at the same exposure. So back the lights up and create a nice 9 cubic ft zone of f/2.8 light.

April 29, 2013 1:46 PM  
Blogger Trebuchet said...

I'm curious, 6 flashes but why no lighting modifiers besides the back drop?

Does nature (or the size of the bird) not need beauty dishes or soft boxes or umbrellas?

April 29, 2013 6:21 PM  
Blogger said...

This is spectacular, I plan on trying something similar with the cardinals that love the catfood on my back porch.

@ Trebuchet, I imagine it would have to do with the relatively small size of the subject and the fact that modifiers absorb flash power.

April 30, 2013 2:12 PM  
Blogger Jeanne! said...

I'm still giggling about the "photographic rabbit hole" descriptor and the bird attacking you and your camera :) Keep on keeping on!

April 30, 2013 4:53 PM  
Blogger Jeanne! said...

I'm still giggling about the descriptor - "photographic rabbit hole" - been there! :)
So fun and beautiful!
Keep on, keeping on!

April 30, 2013 4:54 PM  
Blogger Tony said...

This is great. We have stink bugs, just wish our birds would eat them more.

May 04, 2013 3:50 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home