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How I got the shot

How I Got The Shot: Royal Tern with Upside Down Head

By August 22, 2018No Comments
Royal Tern with upside down head © Frank W. Baker

Royal Tern with upside down head spitting out water. © Frank W. Baker.  Canon 7D, Mark 2, ISO: 250, 1/2500, f/5.6, 350mm, +0.3 exposure compensation.

From the Editor: Do you have a unique photo with a story? Something that required unusual effort or knowledge or a special alignment of time, place and opportunity? Share your “How I Got The Shot” story in an article!


By Frank W Baker

For about 5 years, I have been enamored of wading and shorebirds.  I live in South Carolina so spending time along rivers and the coast has provided me with many wonderful opportunities to observe them.

You quickly learn that birds are fast and usually a fair distance away.  They’re not easy to photograph and I realized years ago that I needed a good camera and telephoto lens in order to capture what I wanted.  So, I invested in the Canon 7D Mark II and the Tamron 150-600mm lens.

At first, my main subject was the Great Blue Heron. I often saw it along the coastline of South Carolina, Florida and Georgia, but noticed it even more inland—along lakes near my home in Columbia SC.  I even started a book for children about the heron. I observed it for several years at locations near my home and in rookeries I had identified in the Southeast.  I began to appreciate its feeding patterns—typically in the early morning and at sunset. I was fascinated by how it collected branches and twigs to build its nests high in trees.  Following a bird like this for as long as I have, I began to appreciate its behavior. If I was watching a heron, wading in the lake for example, it was easy to tell when it was about to take off.  When it was ready to land, I knew where to position myself to get a shot of that almost seven-foot wing span.  I could tell when it was hunting and be ready if it caught a fish. I enjoyed photographing it in every possible lighting situation.

Most of my photography has been from land: standing along a road, a coastline, or a boardwalk around a rookery, for example.  That has certain advantages (it’s a pretty stable platform) and disadvantages (it might be far away from the birds).

Recently, I had the opportunity to do some photography from a boat.  I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve photographed birds from a boat, so I’m not experienced in this way, as some of you may already be. But I quickly realized what a challenge it can be. For example, I had previously taken a kayak out on Shem Creek (in Mt Pleasant SC) to the middle of the Charleston Harbor. There is a sandbar that’s built up over the years and it has become so large that it is now a protected pelican rookery. Many other shorebirds used the sandbar as a stopover, others even built nests there.  Kayaking out alone, and trying to photograph in very choppy water was a challenge, in and of itself.  Needless to say, I didn’t get many useable shots that day.

Pair of Black Skimmers © Frank W. Baker.

Pair of Black Skimmers © Frank W. Baker. ISO 640,  1/6400 sec. f/5.6 256mm

In early July, I joined Eric Horan of Lowcountry Photo Safaris in Bluffton, South Carolina (near Hilton Head Island).  After a forty-minute ride through marshes, we ended up at DeVeaux Bank, a barrier island between Seabrook Island and Edisto Island, and home to a huge, protected pelican rookery. I was not disappointed!  Hundreds of pelicans were circling and diving for fish. Black skimmers danced in twos up above me, a behavior I had not witnessed elsewhere

I’ve found the Tamron telephoto to be extremely versatile, with image stabilization and a very sharp focus. Thus, panning and following a fast-moving bird has not been a problem for me, although it has taken some practice.

Auto focus is helpful, but I often find it easier to switch to manual focus in order to be sure I get a nice, crisp image. Shooting a small shorebird on a rock, or standing on a beach becomes easier when you start to recognize the subtle signals that indicate it’s about to start running or taking off. Each bird is different and, after much experience, you begin to appreciate their behavior and can almost predict it.

A couple of weeks after my boat trip to Deveaux Bank, I was ready to head out on the water with Eric again.  I had an opportunity to travel by boat to another protected pelican rookery: Tompkins Island, a barrier island between South Carolina and Georgia.  This time, in addition to the many Brown Pelicans nesting there, hundreds of Royal Terns used the island as their launching point to search for food.  Terns would take off from the banks, fly low and parallel to the water, and dip their beaks in and come up with a small fish.  If you know anything about these birds, you know they move rapidly, so I was shooting at a very fast shutter speed (1/1000 and faster) and using continuous burst mode. The shot I chose to share is this one: a tern came up and decided to turn its head upside down and spit out the water it had just scooped up.  That’s not something you see every day!

Over the years, I’ve developed pretty good technique, learned a lot about bird behavior, invested in quality gear and tried to put myself in the right place at the right time.  Still, there’s an element of luck in capturing something unusual like this!

Frank W Baker regularly posts his nature photos in the NANPA Facebook Group.  You can also find him on Facebook as Frank W. Baker.  More of his bird photography and shots from US and international travels can be seen at  He is also an education consultant, specializing in the teaching of media literacy, and is the author of “Close Reading The Media” and “Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom,” 2nd Edition. He maintains the popular Media Literacy Clearinghouse and is a blogger for  On Twitter, he is @fbaker.