Anatomy of a photo #81: The Least Sandpiper


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While kayaking one day along the shores of Tomales Bay in the Point Reyes National Seashore, I saw a small flock of Least Sandpipers land, then begin methodically working their way along the line between land and sea. It was easy to see where they were heading, so I paddled up the beach from them and nestled my kayak in the shallows near where they would pass. I know this species of sandpiper, and generally they are more comfortable with a kayaker’s presence than most other birds. I didn’t believe that my presence would stress them out unduly.

The Least Sandpipers landed on the shore nearby

I set my camera up for the pictures I wanted to take before settling down to wait- telephoto lens with the autofocus set so that it could focus nearby (some lenses and cameras have settings so that they can focus more quickly on nearby subjects, but this should be switched back to normal when shooting farther away, or it can actually slow your focusing down). These are very active birds with quick sudden movements, so I set my shutter speed higher as it was more of a priority than the aperture. ISO was set low to keep the image as noise free as possible, since it was a slightly older camera. I fired a few test shots.

As I settled down to wait, I was able to stay very still so that I would not spook them as they neared. Since I knew my camera was ready and my exposure properly adjusted, I studied the sandpipers as they approached, scurrying this way and that. I watched how they moved, deciding what angles I wanted to shoot them from. I hunched down lower in my kayak’s seat. They are a very small bird, so I wanted to be very small that I might be closer to eye level.

One of them splits away, coming a little closer

Click. A shot of several of them together as they pass around a jellyfish that’s washed up on the beach. One splits away, coming closer to me. I track it. Click. It’s reflected on the film of water that covers the sand. It bends down to feed. Click. It’s very close now, walking straight towards me. Click. And then it is too close for me to focus upon as I sit in my kayak, before going by and offering up shots only of its backside.

It searched the seaweed and shallow water for tidbits to eat

I glance to where the others are. Mostly they are beyond me, but there are a few that have yet to pass by. A pair of them comes closer I shoot them. Click. Mostly I focus on the closer one, allowing the other to just be a blurred out second bird. I like this method. It shows that there is more than one, but is still a more intimate portrait by focusing on just a single subject.

The two sandpipers, one focused, the other blurred

I take a few token shots, but I know I already have my best images of them on my camera, and I let out the breath I didn’t even know I was holding.

One of the two was so relaxed with my presence that it took the time to tend to an itch

And as a bonus a Willit came wandering by a little higher up on the shore, wandering through some of the jellyfish that had washed up on shore. So of course I obliged by taking its portrait as it high stepped along. (The Willit is a much larger bird than the Least Sandpiper.)

The bonus bird of the session was this Willit

Once they were far enough from me that I knew I wouldn’t spook them, I slid my kayak back into deeper water before paddling on to my next adventure. For more tips try reading Kayak Wildlife Photography Tips and Tricks

Lens 300mm + 1.4x converter
ISO 200, 1/500th of a second, f/5.6

About Galen Leeds Photography

Nature and wildlife photographer, exploring the world on his feet and from his kayak. Among other genres, he is one of the leading kayak photographers in Northern California. To learn more about him, visit him on his website-
This entry was posted in Anatomy of a photo, kayak photography, nature photography, shorebirds and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Anatomy of a photo #81: The Least Sandpiper

  1. ailsapm says:

    Fantastic photos, Galen. What camera(s) do you use? x

    • Thanks Ailsapm. I use Canon bodies (I have a couple different ones) and several lenses to go with them- a 16-35mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm, and a 300mm. I also have a 1.4x converter that works with the two longer lenses

  2. gagarden says:

    I am off to get the 1.4x converter for my 300mm. I just wish I had some of the wildlife that you encounter. These are stunning shots of the birds. I love the lighting and the angle. I can learn from these. Thank you. I added you to my sidebar on GWGT and hope my Eastern readers come your way. You have the best nature photos that I have seen. They look like they are right from the best pages of Nat.Geo.

    • Thank Green Apple. You’re awesome. I look forward to meeting some of your readers. I need to be updating my own links soon, and you will likely find yourself listed there. Also, I’m happy and honored that you think so highly of my images (Now we just have to get Nat Geo to see them and agree.)

      You have some marvelous wildlife over there, and some species that we don’t have on this coast (especially bird species.)Your time outdoors in the parks and in the garden will show them to you more and more, and it is in your garden that you can get some of the best practice. Practicing and working out technique on your local birds and animals (or even your own flowers) is easily the best way to be prepared when you come across the more interesting or exotic species. And with the 1.4x, it will be even easier to get up close and personal with them.

      I’ve had a lot of fun with the 1.4 x. It is much more versatile than the 2x, which reduces your aperture by two stops and makes the autofocus unavailable with most cameras (the 5d and 1d are immune from this). Unfortunately my 1.4x needs a little tuning up, so I haven’t been using it as much lately (a part has worn on it, which makes it hard for lenses to lock securely onto it).

  3. Cee Neuner says:

    I love how you take us kayaking with you!!! Marvelous!

  4. Love the reflections! I can’t wait to spend more time here. Thanks for sharing your talent with us.

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