A Morning on the Avon

Back-lit Eurasian Coot


So you browse through the latest competition images and groan. If only I was in Africa, knee deep in flamingos, then maybe I could take an award-winning image too.

But here's the truth. You don't need to be in the world's most beautiful or exotic locations to get interesting, and potentially award-winning, images.  In this blog, I want to take you on a journey to one of the least attractive waterbird locations near me to show you what is possible.

The Location: Stagnant part of River


A photo of the location on the banks of the Avon River


Un-wadeable (I think I made up that word): I am sure once upon a time the Avon was a wondrous fresh-water natural paradise, but today, when not in full flow (most of the year), this part of it is largely stagnant, smelly body of deep dark water into which you really do not want to be wading. So all those lovely blogs you see where the  nature photographers are telling you all you need are waders and you too can get low level, beautiful waterbird shots?  Sorry, but it ain't gonna happen in this river!

Messy: In addition to being an impenetrable quagmire, the water here is littered with flotsam that make perfect reflections or glossy surfaces impossible (without a bit of work in Photoshop).  

Common Birds: Yep, if you're looking for exotic birds, you can forget it. 

Coots:  Without some deft maneuvering of camera angle you'll likely end up with a coot in your photo.

Lots of Human activity nearby: People walking past, my dog barking at people walking past, reflections from the cars driving over the bridge noise, pollution, etc etc


Lots of Birds: Lots and lots of birds, even if a bit common.

Coots:  Annoying as they undoubtedly are, they are also aggressive little critters meaning that you have a good chance of getting some great action shots. In fact, coots have the BEST FIGHTS! Seriously, they basically try to drown each other with their feet!

Lots of Human activity: This is an advantage - truly! Why? Because firstly, it means the birds are habituated to human presence and are happy to come close, engage in natural activity. Plus, sometimes those human-caused reflections can give an image an extra dimension. Eg the reflection of a red-truck on the water could be an awesome background for a plain bird such as a coot and elevate the photo from humdrum to 'striking'. 

Equipment Used 

  • Canon 1Dx Mark II
  • Canon F4 600mm lens
  • jeans, shirt and thongs (that's flip-flops)
  • dog
  • cafe latte


Approximately three hours over two mornings. Arriving about 20 minutes after sunrise and sitting mostly facing into the sun.

Camera Settings 

The specific aperture, shutter speed and ISO are set out for each photo. Other things you might be interested in are as follows:

  • for most images, I either handheld the lens or rested it on my knee (I was sitting in the grass).
  • I used Manual mode, changing the settings as required. Sometimes I shot directly into the direction of the rising sun, whilst at other times, if the action moved, I would shoot directly away from the rising sun. The settings required changing, as you can imagine, quite dramatically. This is why having a good understanding of your camera, and knowing what to change and how, is essential (See my article: Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or Manual?). 
  • I always shoot RAW and in High Speed Continuous Mode. This means that I take a LOT of photos and need a fast and large capacity (64GB) camera card. I recommend getting the best you can afford. Camera card speed can affect the amount of photos you can take per second, regardless of what camera you are using. 

My Best Shots

Below are my best photos from those two mornings. None of these images was pre-planned before that morning. Rather I took the time to watch and tried to take advantage of the scene before me in the best way possible. Also, I stopped photographing as soon as the light became too harsh. In Australia, this tends to happen within about two hours after sunrise.

I spent a maximum of two minutes post-processing each image.  I tell you this only because some people may think they are the result of hours of Photoshop work. Wrong!  Mostly the lack of distracting elements is down to the technique of deliberately underexposing the image (at the time of shooting).  

I am not saying that any of these photos are going to be prize winners, but I like them and I think they are a great way to show you that you don't need a beautiful place with exotic birds to take interesting or eye-catching photos.  


Portrait of a Black-winged Stilt on black background


Black-winged Stilt

F6.3, 1/5000, ISO 250. My favourite image and the hardest to take. Why? Because of the contrast between the dark water and feathers of the bird with the white neck and face. If I had relied on the cameras automatic settings, the white parts of this bird would have been blown out (in other words, have no detail at all). To get the correct exposure, I deliberately underexposed the image and used the Highlights (Blinkies) alert on my camera to check if the white areas were ok. I had to repeat this many, many times. In the end, I had to underexpose by 5 or more stops (I cant be exact because the arrow on my camera meter disappeared completely!).  That is the most extreme case of exposure compensation I have ever had to apply. It is another reason why getting to know your camera settings is essential! 


Australasian Grebe running across water


Australasian Grebe

F4, 1/1250, ISO 400. I just happened to have a fast enough shutter speed to capture this grebe pin sharp as it unexpectedly took off across the water. I followed it with a steady pan. The dark background was a perfect scene against which to capture the action. It was luck, but it was also patience and being able to react quickly when action happens.


Australasian Grebe bathing in sunlight


Australasian Grebe

F4, 1/1000, ISO 400.  Taken using a shallow depth of field and deliberately underexposing the image shooting almost directly into the light (hence the golden back-light). I especially love the reflection of the droplets in the water. If I was at water level, I would not have achieved that reflection. 



Dusky Moorhen taking a bath


Dusky Moorhen (juvenile): F4, 1/2500, ISO 250. Underexposed, bathing moorhen chick. I love bathing birds. Not every shot works, but I like the angle of his head and, again, the pattern of water reflections. 



Australasian Grebe making a splash


Australasian Grebe: F4, 1/1000, ISO 400. Taken using a shallow depth of field and deliberately underexposing the image shooting almost directly into the light. The resulting backlit image is striking and dramatic. 



Eurasian Coots having a fight     


Eurasian Coots: F5.6, 1/2000, ISO 640. What did I tell you? Always carrying on like pork chops. If you see a coot, think action and get your camera settings ready just in case (you will see I increased depth of field, shutter speed and ISO in anticipation of such an action shot).  



Dusky Moorhen chick from behind with side lighting


Dusky Moorhen (juvenile): F4, 1/800, ISO 400. By using a shallow depth of field, and deliberately underexposing the image, the distracting elements in the water have been rendered into more pleasing circles of light/colour on a dark background.



Dusky Moorhen chick


Dusky Moorhen (juvenile): F4, 1/640, ISO 400. As above, by using a shallow depth of field, and deliberately underexposing the image, the distracting elements in the water have been rendered into more pleasing circles of light/colour on a dark background.



Little Black Cormorant drying out his wings


Little Black Cormorant: F4, 1/3200, ISO 400. These (and their sister species) are very common around the world. On a cobweb laden branch with outstretched wings and water droplets they provide the perfect subjects for a bit of golden back-light photography.



Black-winged Stilt


Black-winged Stilt: F4, 1/5000, ISO 200. I think most bird photographers are going to look at this image and think I have gone completely bonkers, but actually I kinda like it. What I like is the crazy patterns of light on the water, which are actually from the reflection of light from a passing truck on the bridge behind. One of my mottos is try EVERYTHING. Its like a box of chocolates, you just never know what your gonna get...



Australasian grebe portrait


Australasian Grebe: F4, 1/1250, ISO 400. These are common, but gorgeous little birds. I did clone out some of the spots on the water for this image as I wanted the focus to be on the bird and that beautiful ripple of light on water in front.



Little Pied Cormorant


Little Pied Cormorant: F4, 1/1000, ISO 400.  I took this shot as I was walking to the river from my car. The cormorant was nicely framed by sunlit grasses in the foreground. I knew that at F4, I could get a lovely blur from the grasses around the bird.  On this kind of photo, it is important to remember to keep the head/eyes of the bird free from distraction (in other words, you pick a gap in the foliage and frame the bird in it).  


Did you find this article helpful? Is there anything else you'd like to know about bird photography? If so, please be sure to leave a comment below.

 I would really love to hear from you!


  • The newsletter is full of useful information, but more than that I like the feeling that I am almost doing the right things in these situations. The F4 stop is comforting as sometimes I feel I must try and capture more detail, but this is not the case. Having just come back from a week in Sweden with grebes galore, I feel now that I did pretty well in such a short time.
    This newsletter is terrific and certainly will broaden your “fan base”. (I am a big fan) I am gearing up to buy a 5oomm lens very soon, so your terrific photos will spur me on for this rather expensive purchase….good thing.

    Mary Michael Patterson
  • It was lovely to meet you the other week Georgina. Great newsletter.

  • Inspiring newsletter and I particularly love the first stilt!

    Keith Lightbody
  • Wow….!! What incredible talent and a wonderful blog. Thank you – this has made my morning – on the Avon!

    felicity gilbert
  • Almost exactly a year since I got a real camera again, you may have given me the nerve to finally start playing with Manual. Thanks!


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published