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Behind The Shot: The Million Dollar Photo Of A Cardinal In Flight

Steve Jessmore (@sjessmo) is a 30-year photojournalist, five-time Michigan Photographer of the Year, Robert F. Kennedy Photojournalism awardee and former Chief Photographer of the Flint Journal (MI). In August of 2018 he stepped away from a position as the photographer for Central Michigan University and began freelancing with a focus in primarily higher education and an emphasis on interaction and storytelling. During the pandemic as work slowed and isolation was necessary, Jessmore took the opportunity to delve into nature photography especially birds in flight. Between the energized feeling of trying something new, the inherent challenges of photographing birds in flight and the reward of getting stunning results, Jessmore has felt re-invigorated. “My goal is to dedicate a day a week to the pursuit of these images," he says. "I made the switch to Sony mirrorless gear on December 28, 2020. I have never been happier.” We saw this incredible photo he captured of a cardinal in flight on his Alpha Universe Profile and connected with him to learn more. Read as he details capturing it with his Sony α9 II and Sony 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G, and create your own Alpha Universe Profile for your chance to be featured HERE.

See how a veteran photojournalist captured the ultimate red cardinal in flight shot with a Sony α9 II & Sony 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G lens


Photo by Steve Jessmore. Sony α9 II. Sony 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G. 1/5000-sec., f/6.3, ISO 250

I was on my day off and this year I am trying to dedicate at least one day a week to pursue and improve my wildlife photography. I have a number of sites around Michigan that I like to travel to where migratory birds tend to gather. I take back roads to and from home as I travel to increase my odds of seeing something I want to photograph.

Go-To Wildlife Setup: Sony α9 II and Sony 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G

I like to travel in my vehicle with my Sony α9 II and Sony 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G zoom near me in case I see wildlife that I can photograph. My love is to capture birds in flight and compose so to say on the fly. I have a protective Domke soft canvas case that I can keep the outfit safe and ready to use which acts like a holster for a gun – very accessible. I do use a camouflage neoprene lens protective cover also to absorb the shock of bumping and it provides added weather protection. This protective cover makes it a bit easier to hold in cold weather without gloves too. I also add some padding if I use a partially rolled down window for support.
This is my go-to wildlife setup. The lens and camera combination is hand holdable and easily maneuverable. It acquires focus on the subject very quickly and locks and follows as it moves. I routinely don’t need a tripod with the stabilization and light weight of the combo. The zoom gives me a lot of flexibility to frame the photo and has nice reach. This is cropped about 1/3 of the full frame. I’ve found the lens is very sharp – especially at 600mm.

How I Got The Shot

On this day I traveled an hour from my home to an area that eagles and snowy owls frequent in the winter. It was a bitter cold day, but a rare sunny one in winter Michigan. When I arrived at the facility many of the roads were not plowed and impassible. The lakes were frozen over and most of the ducks, eagles and owls were nowhere to be found. 
Not being in an area I could hike; I circled the facility in my vehicle on rural side roads. I like how a vehicle acts as a blind and how most wildlife will let you approach at a reasonable distance if one moves slowly enough. As I made my way down one of the roads, I noticed a rough legged hawk atop of a pine tree about a quarter mile ahead of me. I slowly approached in my vehicle and as I got within 100 yards or so the hawk flew right to left in front of me. I pulled to the side of the road and shot through my driver’s side window. Unfortunately, all I could see was its tail end. 
Having failed that shot, I looked right through the passenger window and noticed the much smaller male northern cardinal. It was flying close to the ground from dead weed to weed and feeding on the seeds. I was taken by the bright red against the pure white snow and the detail and saturation of the red as it was front lit by the afternoon sun. I found this a bit unusual as most cardinals I see are higher in trees and at feeders.
I rolled down the passenger and driver side windows, shut off the engine and the heat, and leaned my upper body as far out the window as I could. I proceeded to start up and move my car forward to follow the cardinal two or three times and photograph in between. My hope was to get the cardinal in flight as it moved between weeds. I shoot in RAW at all times. I was in auto ISO and shutter priority. I dialed it up to 1/5000th of a second and lens wide open at f 6.3 at 600 mm. I was EV +1/3 stop. The settings gave me an ISO of 250.
I left the heat off and the windows open so the car would cool down quickly. I’d had problems in the past with the warm air escaping the windows into the cool and giving me unsharp, heat wave effect images. I had the camera set to high speed for the drive. For this shot I shot two frames. This was the first shot as I reacted when he took flight from the weed. In the second frame he was gone. I was fortunate on this try that the cardinal flew straight which was perfectly perpendicular to me. Many of the other tries it flew angled a bit to his right or left which ruined the shot. I cropped the weed out which was in the frame to the right. 
Lens (mm): 200-600 at 600
ISO: 250
Aperture: 6.3
Shutter: 1/5000
Exp. Comp.: +0.3


The final image was pretty straightforward in post processing. The shot was about ¾ of a stop underexposed and that was the major correction. As I photographed I should have dialed up my EV+ correction more, but that’s the beauty of raw files. I opened it via Photo Mechanic, then fine-tuned and saved in Adobe Photoshop. I added a bit of contrast, a touch of vibrance and a bit sharpening. I made one quick pass through Topaz DeNoise which finished my process and normal workflow. 
One of the surprises was the red reflection in the snow beneath the cardinal. Looking closely in the shadow, you can even see the crystals displaced as the three feathers of his wing scrape the snow. One lesson I learned is the beauty of high shutter speeds. I usually shoot about 1/2500 of a second in sunlight when possible. The detail and frozen motion made me a believer in even shorter exposures.
My day started looking for the spectacular raptors. I was more than happy how it ended with a beautiful picture of a much more common bird.


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