Phone Scoping Guide

  • Paul

African Pygmy Kingfisher: Filming a neon missile

This blog post describes how I captured this short video of an African Pygmy Kingfisher diving into a water bath in slow motion. As well as the sequence itself, I've included the same video in real time and some out takes. As in my more general guide to phonescoping, I've tried to share some simple hints and tips you can employ to capture shots like this, as well as hopefully showing how much fun you can get out of this form of videography.

I'm just back from a short visit to The Gambia, which is one of the best locations for birding and photography in the world. It was my first time there, and a great opportunity to see hordes of new species and of course squeeze in a bit of phonescoping. Most of the filming I did was fairly opportunistic: see a bird, often a new species, and immediately shoot a bit of film to capture the moment while the bird is still on view. With so many species to see, this felt like the best use of my time. In other words, I primarily went birding. But I did spend a morning dedicated to filming one of the more stunning African birds: the Pygmy Kingfisher.

On my first visit to Brufut Woods, a small nature reserve at the western end of the urban sprawl of Serrekunda, I discovered that African Pygmy Kingfishers sometime visit the water bowls provided by the reserve rangers. Woodland habitat kingfishers can be really tricky to find, so it was exciting to hear I'd have a good chance of a sighting. A particular drinking bowl on the ground, was the favourite plunge pool for these birds. A kingfisher would typically appear at the edge of the forest before zipping out of cover and diving into the water - presumably to drink, to wash and maybe to cool off. This created the perfect opportunity for a long shoot in slow motion, to capture this all too brief spectacle in more detail. Here's my first attempt. As I said when I posted it on twitter: close but no cigar.

In realtime these miniature birds fly like the clappers, buzzing out into the open and splashing into the water like a neon guided missile. Here's the diving part of the final video in realtime!

It was possible to sometimes watch (and film) the bird while perched under the canopy at the edge of the clearing, but as with many of these small, insect eating, woodland inhabiting kingfishers, seeing them in flight was little more than a blur. In slow motion however, it would clearly be an impressive sight. This was the wildlife spectacle, hidden in plain sight, that I wanted to reveal.

Several days after my first visit I decided to sacrifice valuable birding time for some dedicated filming. I spent the early hours at Kotu Creek to capture Malachite kingfishers that I'd noticed were frequenting a particular pool (that's a whole other blog post). And then later in the morning, as the temperature pushed into the 30s, I paid another visit to the water bowls at Brufut. With things hotting up mid-morning, the bowls would see more visits from the birds. Despite managing several trips around the world to see wildlife, I've had relatively little opportunity to do some photography at established drinking bowls. In a hot climate these locations become magnets for birds seeking to drink, wash and gain some respite from the heat. This is a great paper that captures the experience and impact that a drinking bowl can provide. It's a fascinating concept for me - a birder from the UK where our cooler and wetter climate means that although providing water can be important in extreme weather, it's not usually such a draw for so many different species.

In order to capture my target on film, I had the benefit of knowing almost exactly where the kingfisher was going to perform. But "almost" is the operative word here. The drinking bowl was quite large, the kingfisher was tiny, and my previous attempt had missed most of the action as the bird dived into the water from the side and passed out of view as it emerged and shook itself off. I'd need some luck to get the shot, but decided to do what I could to increase my chances. This meant varying the angle of the shot, frequently changing the focus and putting in enough time to see several visits.

Through a two hour period kingfishers visited twice and so I filmed from two different angles. Each visit involved several dives into the water - I counted ten across the two visits. I managed to film most of these. Another issue was focus. When setting up for a long shoot, a focus point initially comes down to guess work. When a target appears only in frame for a fraction of a second, there's no opportunity to perfect and lock the focus, and then get the shot at the next visit. So again, luck is required. But I hoped to give myself more chance of getting it right on at least one occasion by adjusting the focus between dives. Resetting the focus to where I estimated was the centre of the bowl. This is a more general phonescoping technique: get the shot in the bag, then adjust and re-lock the focus. It's often only possible to evaluate whether you've nailed a sharp focus and perfect shot when reviewing your footage afterwards. So don't put all your eggs in one basket.

With such a rapidly moving quarry, super slow motion was always going to be the way to go. The disadvantage of shooting 240 frames per second was that the light gathering was greatly reduced. White balance makes up for this to an extent, but what tends to be lost is a degree of sharpness. Shooting in a mostly shaded forest glade also didn't help. But there was little other option here.

Another challenge to shooting at such a high frame rate is the high workload for the phone. In winter in the UK, overheating is not a problem, but in The Gambia it really is! iPhones will gradually dim the screen and then eventually shut down when they overheat. So any shooting would have to be limited to just a few minutes at a time. To get the temperature down between shots I kept the phone locked. This caused a bit of panic, when the target bird was sighted and a frantic passcode unlock was needed. Video has to be shot in landscape mode, and it's a shame that Apple's Face ID doesn't work with the phone in this orientation.

So with that approach established, I was all setup and ready to go. The kingfisher duly put in a couple of appearances and inbetween there were lots of other great birds, including a stunning Levaillant's Cuckoo that flew down to drink from one of the water bowls. When the kingfisher was in sight, or at least presumed to be around (sometimes perched close by but out of sight) I left the phonescope recording on the water bowl. The kingfisher was way too quick to be able to press record in time when it flew from it's perch for the water.

The final job after some long shooting in slow motion was to review the footage and edit it all down, before selecting which bits to use. As always I used the technique outlined in the Editing section of my guide. First, I very carefully scanned through each film snippet to locate each of the kingfisher dives. This requires a lot of patience and care as it's so easy to miss the brief moments of action. Just 2 minutes of shooting at 240fps is 18 minutes of playback at 30fps, with each bit of the action filling not much more than 4 or 5 seconds. I noted the timecode of each dive, and then went back at the end to edit each dive into a separate short video. From there, it was easy to compare and select the best shot.

Here's a quick-fire compilation of all the kingfisher plunges that failed to make the final cut. Some were way off, with the bird hardly in shot. A couple weren't bad - including the one with the startled Bulbul. But it's the one at the top of this blog post that I liked the most, which I edited together with the dive from the perch.