The geese arrive for winter – ICM bird photography

ICM Inspiration

As the geese arrive in the Netherlands for the winter, Charlotte explores ICM bird photography and shares her experience

Birds flying high, you know how I feel. Sun in the sky, you know how I feel. Breeze driftin’ on by, you know how I feel.

It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day. It’s a new life for me, ooh.

And I’m feeling good

Nina Simone

Having lived in The Netherlands for nearly 12 years, there are still some things that excite me every year. The arrival of the geese into our neighbourhood is one of them. It’s not the sight that alerts you to their arrival, but rather the noise; it is like an orchestra warming up, forgetting that there might be any order in who plays first. Honking, braying, rhythmic…and loud! Even in the house, you can hear them from far off. And that is my signal to grab my camera and dash outside. Sometimes following their landing and moving off across fields for hours.

I have many sharp images of this wonderful spectacle, but yesterday I decided to document it for the first time with the Intentional Camera Movement (ICM) technique. I spent a wonderful hour watching and trying to master getting something that resembled images worth sharing! I’ve been playing with ICM bird photography for some 6 years now, but that doesn’t mean it results in super images the minute I click away with my camera. Animals are a unique entity with ICM photography because they are so unpredictable in their movements and speed, that you might catch one good shot and then end up with a further 30 that look awful. Needless to say, I made around 600 images yesterday and I probably have 30 keepers. You will have to sign up for the Deep Dive ICM – Subjects course (where we cover animals as one of the subjects) if you want to see how bad it can get! When I teach, I share my failures to help explain the process and show that even after 6 years of experimentation, it isn’t an easy genre to photograph with ICM.

A sky full of a flock of geese flying over some trees in the late afternoon sun

I love capturing the essence of the migration. The hundreds of birds in the sky at once. Yesterday there was some beautiful colour in the sky, and the sun came and went from behind the clouds, lighting the trees below. I chose to include the treeline in this image to give a feeling of the place and height of the birds in the sky.

When photographing birds with ICM, there are several elements you should be aware of that can make or break, or at least influence the results.

Your shutter speed

The length of your shutter speed will dictate how much time you have to move your camera to add movement and create your image. With birds, I find a shutter speed that is too long results in the birds becoming invisible in the image. This is because you are moving your camera and your subject is moving. If you were to get the speed of your movement matched perfectly with the speed of the bird, this would be like panning, and would not be a problem. However, I tend to struggle with this. So I work between 1/4 and 1/6th second when I am making ICM bird photos. I am also aware that the wings are moving at a different speed from the body, and I like to capture the wing movement, so opt for a shorter shutter speed because of this.

Your camera movement

In general, the camera movement I use is in the same direction as the birds are flying. It depends on the element that I am trying to capture; the direction of flight, the wing movements or the movement of a group that will help me choose the movement. If you watch birds, you will see that their movements are graceful, and so I match this with fluid smooth movements with my camera, rather than moving too jerky. When you arrive to photograph your birds (or any animal) it helps to allow yourself a bit of time to watch and recognise if there are any directional patterns or predictable movements. With the geese, I saw that they had periods when they turned the corners with no wing beats. I chose to photograph them at this point in flight because I wanted to capture the wing movement. I could also see their directional changes, and from a distance could predict where they would appear over or in front of me.

5 geese fly above in a blue sky they almost look the shape of flying dinosaurs - made with ICM photography technique

Where you are standing relative to the birds and lens choice

I had a lot of fun playing with this. I loved it when the birds flew directly over me, as well as the formations they created as they circled before landing. I only have a zoom (24-200) lens, so I am quite restricted with how close I can get to the geese and how big they appear in the frame. Be aware that the greater the zoom you are using or the longer the lens length, the greater the effect your movement will have on the subject. When I started my session yesterday, I found I was moving my camera far too much and getting birds that were elongated or just wisps. When I realised this, I reduced my movements to very small camera movements. Most of the images you see in this post have been cropped to give the birds greater importance in the frame. Of course, sometimes, as you see in a number of my images, I love to capture the feeling of the location or loads of birds in one frame. Then I intend to have a wider view and choose to give myself more space with a wider lens choice.

Five geese fly in a blue sky away from the photographer image with ICM technique
Two geese fly directly overhead. Wings look like aeroplane propellers against the blue sky using the ICM technique

Light is important

I was lucky yesterday. The clouds kept moving, and in between offered me some beautiful golden late afternoon light. I noticed how the birds took on a whole new dimension in shape and colour when the light wrapped around their bodies. The first image below I love because some of the birds are lit differently from others, depending on where they are in the turn. In the two square images, I love how the light accentuates the white back and tail feathers. Of course, you can make ICM bird images on dull and sunless days, but I enjoy the way the sun adds colour and shape to the subjects of the image. I chose to photograph with the sun behind me yesterday, but if you are looking for more abstract or silhouette-style images, you could try photographing towards the light but do be aware of managing the exposure of your image. Especially if you are interchanging between the direction you are pointing.

Geese flying overhead in a late afternoon sky using the ICM technique

Useful camera settings

I couple of settings that I utilise with ICM bird photography. Continuous focus tracking. This is invaluable so that your camera finds the birds and stays with them once it has them in the viewfinder. I also swapped to a wider focus area yesterday and found that a lot more successful than a single-point focus as well. I work with a Nikon Z6 II and love the fact that It has various settings that can help with focusing on small moving objects in the frame. Although I am shooting movement and ICM, I don’t want ‘blurred’ unrecognisable elements in the image, so my subject does need to be in focus before I start moving the camera. Another setting I experimented with yesterday was continuous shutter release instead of single. Experimenting with this, I just kept my finger on the shutter and followed the bird, making multiple images at a time. I very rarely use this option, even when shooting sports or animals, because I like to pick the precise moment to capture rather than sort through 5 images to find the one I want. However, I did feel it helped with the success hit rate yesterday. Be mindful of your exposure if you are shooting into a light sky. I added my 6-stop filter yesterday and found I was able to pick whatever shutter speed I wanted, rather than worrying about if my changes in shutter speed for ICM would push me to the boundaries of images with unrecoverable highlights issues.

Small groups of geese in a blue sky using the ICM photography technique
A flock of geese fly over a line of trees in the blue sky with ICM technique

So if you want to go out and experiment with birds – be they flamingoes in the local zoo, seagulls on the beach, kingfishers at a stream, birds of prey in flight or migrating flocks of birds, remember several elements will influence the images you achieve. Take your time on arrival to understand the movement, looking for predictable patterns and elements you find beautiful or intriguing, this will help you with the movement you use and the shutter speed you choose.

A black and white photo of Charlotte Bellamy

Hi, I'm Charlotte

Creative Artist