A few Common Tern shots from my archive

I have screwed up a lot of shots in the past and I am sure I will miss some great photo opportunities also in the future. Therefore I constantly go through my archive, look at old pictures and ask myself what I could or should have done better.

Today, we look at some older Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) pictures and discuss what’s good and what’s bad about them. Common Terns are extremely fast and agile hunters. They are pretty tricky to catch in flight and therefore difficult for beginners. However the following shots have been taken back in 2012 when I was fresh in bird photography (How everything has started).

About Common Terns

Common Terns are beautiful relatively small seabirds. They are migratory birds where I live (Switzerland) but they can be seen in many European, Asian and African countries. They are breeding in colonies and often thankfully breeding areas are protected by the government (at least here). Common Terns mainly hunt in lakes with a very effective hunting technique. They are flying (with very little wing movement) over the water and out of nowhere dive bomb the water to catch prey. This makes it very difficult to catch em in flight. They are visual hunters and therefore need clean water. Once they have been successful they often fly very low with the fish’s tail in their beak „slapping“ the fish’s head towards the surface of the water. I think they do that to keep the fish wet in order to swallow it – head first as most birds do in order not to get injured by the fish’s gill.

Flight shots

Nikon D7000 500mm f/4 | 500mm, f/4, 1/1250, ISO 250

Flight shots with prey might be the easiest Common Tern shots (of course perching birds are easier) as the bird is flying calm looking for a place to perch and swallow its prey (unlike other birds, I hardly see them swallow its prey in flight). In the breeding season one parent stays with the chicks to protect them and the other one constantly hunts and returns to feed the offspring. Common Terns can be very aggressive when it comes to protecting their offspring. I have seen them chasing away large birds of prey.

Camera settings for this action
Common Terns are extremely agile hunters and therefore one needs to be prepared for fast action. Looking at the EXIF, this picture has been taken with 1/1250s which is fast enough to capture this moment. However, for a hunting scene, this would have been way to low.

Whats good about the picture and what could I have done better
Nothing special, but I like the wing position of the Tern and the way it carries its prey. It has been taken at 7am on a very grey morning, right before sunrise. I therefore have made the background white, as grey on grey looks terrible.

A little argument or some love?

Nikon D7000 70-200mm f/2.8 | 200mm + TC 2.0 III, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO 640

The next three pictures show Common Terns in a little argument. I remember (that’s the amazing thing, if you are connected to your pictures you remember lots of details when they have been taken) that they had chicks and one animal constantly tried to approach the chicks and immediately has been chased away by one of the parent. I was not able to figure out a clear pattern in behavior and therefore it was tricky to „read“ the birds when such scenes are going to happen. Could be that this was a parent without a chick but I am not really sure about it. Never mind, I was after a while able to follow the birds quick movements and take a few shots. Given the size of the Common Terns not very easy.

Camera settings for this action
I used the Nikon D7000 with the sharp 70-200mm f/2.8 and the terrible TC 2.0 III. Ok, that’s unfair as the TC 2.0 III is not that bad on its own but in combination with the 70-200 f/2.8 and the D7000 maybe not the best choice – but my only choice back then.

Nikon D7000 70-200mm f/2.8 | 200mm + TC 2.0 III, f/6.3, 1/1250, ISO 500

A teleconverter (TC) multiplies the focal length but slows the lens down – in theory. In reality it also affects the sharpness of an image depending on the lens, camera, TC combo. Having said that, the image clearly lacks of sharpness (mainly the 2nd image). To „defend“ myself, I wasn’t prepared for this action and had to react quickly. Also all three images have been taken hand held (no tripod) and a focal length of 400mm already is tricky to handle when animals move fast.

What’s good about the picture and what could I have done better
I like these pictures as they show the animals in full movement and maybe they also tell a little story. The fact that both birds interact so closely with each other makes the photos interesting. The quality on the downside tells us, that these pictures have been taken when I still was very inexperienced in bird photography and bird behavior. Today I probably would be better in the position to read the birds and with this much better prepared. Also I have a better lens (unfair comparison) – but with the 500mm f/4 these shots would have turned out way different in terms of sharpness. However, there is another tricky thing about these shots – the background. The birds are not only small but also very fast and focusing the movement of this kind of action require a lot of practice. It can and will very easily happen that the autofocus jumps off target and focuses the large trees in the background. F-Stop will not help here, as it mainly has to do with proper autofocus techniques. I strongly recommend to first train action flight shots on slower larger birds. Remember the faster the bird is, the faster the shutter speed needs to be. From an f-stop perspective, the larger the bird is, the trickier it is to have the sharpness right (e.g. sharp eyes) but depending on the background the Bokeh will suffer when stopping to much down. Therefore one needs to play around with the settings a bit to get a feeling what works and what not.

Nikon D7000 70-200mm f/2.8 | 200mm + TC 2.0 III, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO 400

What have I learned from these pictures
I think these pictures where my first „real good“ flight shots back then. They have pushed me a lot in terms of confidence and dedication. I remember the „wow, did I really took these shots“ moment that is so important specially after lots and lots of days coming home with nothing more than to be deleted shots. I also have learned how important bird behavior is. Reading a birds mind is at least 50% of a good picture. Knowing when things happen is the key to success in wildlife photography.

Hunters gonna hunt

Nikon D7000 70-200mm f/2.8 | 200mm, f/2.8, 1/4000, ISO 500

Catching hunting Turn in flight takes a lot of practice. The tricky thing is to follow the bird with the lens as the animal moves so quickly. Common Terns can within a glimpse of a second and without any visual signal (unless you are really experienced in observation) dive bomb the water. Often they attack but just before the water turn as they know they will not strike. With this they don’t chase its prey and have better chances in the next attack.

What’s good about the picture and what could I have done better
I like this picture mainly because of the birds body position but also because on can spot the fish. To reveal the secret, the Turn already had the fish caught but lost it and re-attack it. This probably explains why the fish is visible as usually you wont see it. You may notice the fast shutter speed (1/4000s) but that’s kind of required for a small bird that fast. Everything below would decrease the pictures sharpness.

What have I learned from this picture
Always follow a bird when it has prey in its beak. I have observed many times that prey is being (intentionally or unintentionally) dropped and re-attacked. That’s a great opportunity to take a shot as you know it’s happening. Hunters gonna hunt.


Nikon D750 500mm f/4.0 | 500mm, f/7.1, 1/3200, ISO 100

I love taking pictures of birds in full reflection. This picture has been taken right before sunset in relatively bad condition. It shows a common behavior of a Tern drinking. This pose is relatively predictable as the bird for a few seconds will fly in the same exact pose and therefore can be easily photographed.

What’s good about the picture and what could I have done better
I think it’s a nice shot in terms of capturing the moment but terrible from a light perspective. This is not something I of course can control but just try to get the best out of the shot. I think the f-stop has been chosen wisely as there is no real background hence a little bit more depth of field is helpful.

Did I say reflection

Nikon D7000 500mm f/4.0 | 500mm, f/4.0, 1/1250, ISO 320

I repeat myself, I love wildlife pictures in combination with reflection. I believe it adds a great flair to a picture if it is done in a good way (it can also destroy a picture). This picture has been taken very early in the morning with zero wind and almost no water movement. Therefore the reflection is kind of picture perfect. It shows a Common Tern right after the catch dragging its prey’s head over the water’s surface. The angle is a little bit unusual as it shows the bird from the back but on the other hand it still gives enough detail to make the picture interesting.

What’s good about the picture and what could I have done better
This picture has been taken in 2012 at the beginning of my bird photography journey and still it is one of my top 5 bird pictures. I love everything about it but if I would have the chance to take it again, I would pay more attention to the exposure as it is just slightly overexposed (at the tail feathers). The tricky thing is the contrast between the white of the tail feathers and the dark of the wings. If I would have tried for more detail on the tail feathers I might have ended up with a darker back. What I however would clearly do different today is the f-stop. The depth of filed is just slightly to shallow. If I could shoot this again, I would stop down to f/5.6 at most and push ISO a bit to still support the shutter speed (that in fact also could be slightly faster).

What have I learned from this picture
Looking at this picture (but also the others), at the settings and at the date when the picture has been taken, I realize that I have relatively late understood the concepts of depth of field. Maybe this is not precise, its less about the concept as such but more about how to apply it in the field. I will dedicate a full article to depth of field very soon as to me it’s one of the most important things to consider in wildlife photography – and maybe a big aspect of why I have missed a lot of shots in the past (in terms of quality).

Let me know your thoughts

I hope this article was helpful for you. I will keep going through my archive and keep sharing my thoughts. If there is anything you are looking for, please let me know and I try to find examples to discuss.

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