Barn swallows arrive at this location in the Los Angeles area each year in March, spend a few days discussing local zoning ordinances and property lines, then build their nests and have two batches of young ‘uns before heading back to Central and South America in September. It’s a great photo location because the birds are used to people (the nests are above a busy pedestrian pathway), and the views are unobstructed. But there’s little light under the roof: the shutter speed required with my f/4 lens at ISO 1600 is 1/60th. Tripods are not practical due to the people passing through. I don’t like to use flash — I once wrote a book called “Available Light” — but here it’s necessary: 1/60 is too slow to stop the action, f/4 doesn’t provide enough depth of field, and ISO 1600 results in less-than-optimal image quality. While I can walk right under the nests, I like to shoot them from around 20 feet away; that puts less stress on the birds, and produces a less-steep shooting angle.
This day the swallow on the left fledged and sat on a nearby perch for twenty minutes watching his parents feed the siblings in the nest but ignoring him, so he finally fluttered back to the nest. The next time mom (or dad) approached, all opened wide, including the fledgling, and I got lucky with the timing – If I shoot too soon, the mouths won’t be open; too late, and the parent’s wings will block some or all of the action. Fortunately, the parents feed the kids every few minutes throughout the day, so it’s easy to get lots of timing practice. – Mike Stensvold
Equipment and settings: Canon EOS 40D, Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM lens, Speedlite 580EX II flash. 1/250th (the camera’s fastest flash-sync speed) at f/18 in manual mode with flash on auto – ISO 400
Mike Stensvold is Senior Editor at Outdoor Photographer.