Spectacular images of birds in flight have always impressed me, but the thought of crouching for hours in a bird blind had prevented me from actually trying it. Then I learned about the Mumford Time Machine. For me, this device has proven just as magical as its Jules Verne-like name suggests: The Time Machine takes fantastic pictures of airborne birds, while I'm enjoying the morning paper. That's magic!
A programmable camera controller, Bryan Mumford's Time Machine ($325, direct) plugs into the electronic remote port of an advanced SLR. It functions as an intervalometer to take time-lapse photos at regular intervals for a predetermined period of time or number of exposures. Or, as I use it for birds, it can fire a camera on visual or audio cues.
Mumford's infrared sensor ($135, direct) plugs into his Time Machine and throws an invisible beam, which I place so that it crosses the path of birds alighting on a feeder in my back yard. When a hungry sparrow or jay breaks the beam, it prompts the Time Machine to trigger my rig: a tripod-mounted Canon EOS 5D, 105mm f/2.8 Sigma Macro lens, and Canon 580EX II Speedlite.
The technique works primarily for early morning shooting, because the sunlight is still weak and won't introduce blur or ghosting to my flash-lit exposures. (Using flash in brighter light, my sync speed of 1/125 sec isn't fast enough to freeze action.) A typical exposure is 1/125 sec at f/8.
In order to direct the birds toward the IR beam, I confine them to a single incoming flight path by propping branches at strategic locations around the feeder. This assures, more or less, the same approach for all birds.
Since the delay between beam break and flash firing is about 1/10 sec, I place the IR beam about a foot in front of where I want the bird to be when the shutter fires.
Camera and flash are set to produce the shortest system lag and shortest, action-stopping flash duration possible. To these ends, the camera's AE, AF, and the flash's exposure systems are all set manually. For the shortest flash duration, I set the 580EX's weakest output: 1/128 power.
For lighting, a single Speedlite will work. The result, however, is a dark, sometimes cluttered, or (if it's before daylight), a totally black veil behind the bird. This spells failure, especially for dark birds.
So, for a more pleasing background, I position a photo of blue sky behind my scene as a backdrop and light it with a second 580EX set to 1/128 power. I set both flashes to the same power output (and therefore flash duration) -- otherwise near and far wings can show different degrees of sharpness or blur.
Photographing birds this way is easy because, once set up, the Mumford does the heavy lifting. Be warned that the system doesn't produce a very high keep-to-delete ratio. My typical morning of bird photography produces about 400 images. I'm lucky to walk away with a single keeper. But that keeper can be pretty spectacular!
Ted Kinsman, a scientific photographer from Rochester, NY, posts images of birds, bugs, and various naturally occurring phenomena to www.sciencephotography.com. For more about the Mumford Time Machine, visit www.bmumford.com.
How it works: A blue-sky backdrop (A) is behind the feeder (B). The incoming bird breaks the beam of an IR sensor (C), prompting the Time Machine (D) to fire the camera (E) and two flashes (F), one each for bird and backdrop.