HOW TO SHOOT WHITE TERNS | Darrin Henry
White terns, or fairy terns as they are commonly known, are brilliant for photographers like me who lack the patience normally necessary for capturing good wildlife pictures.
Skittishness around people is not for white terns. Their playful curiosity will have them hovering one or two metres above your head, perfect range for shooting beautiful pictures.
The white tern, Gygis alba, is found in the tropical belt all around the world and are often referred to as fairy terns, although fairy terns, Sternula nereis, is a different species. Other names for the white tern include ‘angel tern’ and ‘white noddy.’
Photographing seabirds like the white tern is fairly easy, even so, a few tips are always helpful, so here’s a quick guide, basic tips, on how to capture these angelic-like creatures around St Helena.
Photographing White Terns, Tip 1 – Be Prepared
Have your camera out, turned on and ready to shoot. The terns are inquisitive but they also get bored quickly and once they’ve taken a close look at you they will often retreat back into the trees or out of range. You’re going to be shooting against a bright sky so test the shot beforehand, aiming upwards to make sure your exposure is right.
Tip 2 –Fast Shutter Speed, 1/500+
Set your camera with a high shutter speed as a priority, 1/500 sec or higher. Although white terns are relatively stationary because they’re hovering, their wings are beating quickly to stay in position. A fast shutter speed will ‘freeze’ that motion. On cameras where specific shutter speed is not selectable, switch mode to the ‘sport’ option. This is more important in forest areas; around the coastline the terns are more likely to float on up-draughts with less wing flapping.
Tip 3 – Framing and Focus
Next, the challenge is composing and snapping a sharp shot. Framing and focus. White terns tend to flutter directly above so you end up twisting and turning with the camera to your eye pointing upwards in a very unnatural way! There’s a risk of looking a bit mad it has to be said. I’m speaking from experience here.
Set the focus point to centre weighted.
This is one situation where I never worry about photography’s rule of thirds. Just keep the target (the white tern) in the middle of the frame, covered by the focusing point.
You want to achieve a good, solid focus then press the shutter release in quick succession. Timing is everything. The more familiar you are with your equipment the better; knowing the focus response time of your lens really helps.
Tip 3 – Multiple Shots
Rapid burst is essential if you have that setting on your camera; it increases the chances of more ‘keepers.’ You also capture different interesting angles of the wings as the terns are hovering.
We use the 70-200mm lens, which is perfect. The birds come up close, perhaps 2-3m, which means great close up detail.
Tip 4 – Finding White Terns on St Helena
On St Helena white terns can be found in most places around the coastline, but inland as well in forest areas with tall trees. In fact, they will find you once you wander into their nesting zone.
White terns are also quck to ‘nest’ on tall man-made structures. This little bird is perched on the St James Church clock tower in Jamestown.
Photographing white terns (gygis alba) on St Helena.Plantation forest is a good ‘hunting’ ground. The trees near Napoleon’s Tomb is another. Knollcombes and the forest around the Boer war cemetery and Francis Plain will bring reward. Pretty much most places with tall trees. When it comes to coastal walks, Sandy Bay Barn post box walk, Banks Battery and the cliff trails around Mundens are a few.
April 2018 update: The St Helena Bird Whisperer gave Sharon a chance to shoot white terns in a completely different way.
Finally, time of day for photographing white terns. Earlier or later is better for softer light and avoiding the harsher midday sun.
The fairy tern is a delightful bird to encounter and photograph. It’s not too difficult; good luck.
Did You Know? – Fun facts about white terns.
They don’t build nests in trees; they lay eggs directly on a bare branch. Windy conditions are therefore not good!
White tern chicks have special clawed feet for clinging onto the branches.
Other popular ‘nest’ locations are rocky ledges and man-made structures.
The birds catch small fish for food to feed their young.
White terns mate for life.
They are long-lived birds, recorded living up to 42 years.