How to Photograph Dippers
Dippers are not only one of our most ecologically fascinating birds, but they also make compelling spring photographic subjects. This blackbird-sized species, which breeds and feeds along fast flowing, well-oxygenated rivers and streams, mainly in the north and west of the UK, has an unusual semi-aquatic lifestyle.
These birds swim underwater to hunt their invertebrate and small fish prey. This activity is made possible by a transparent ‘nictitating membrane’ over the eye, which allows a dipper to see underwater.
Another endearing dipper habit, when the birds can be seen bobbing up and down on prominent rocks mid-stream between feeding bouts, makes it a relatively easy species for the budding wildlife photographer to see and photograph.
Where to look for dippers
I have watched and photographed dippers on streams and rivers in Devon for a number of years now. Spring usually finds me out and about, searching for potential dipper territories and nest sites, where I can photograph birds undertaking activities such as nest-building and feeding.
I look in particular for ‘white water’ areas, where there are shallow, slower-flowing sections of water, in which birds can forage. I also seek out regular perching spots (marked by tell-tale white streaks and spots), and use binoculars to search as far along the river as possible.
Dippers can be conspicuous whilst perching, and seeing them from a distance gives me the best chance to plan a quiet and unnoticeable approach.
Read more: How to Photograph Nesting Birds
Equipment for photographing dippers
As a long-time mirrorless shooter, my current lens and body of choice is the Olympus OM-1, with the superb 150-400mm f/4.5 Pro lens, and its inbuilt 1.25x converter (I will also use a 1.4x converter if lighting conditions allow).
The extra long reach of this set-up (1400mm 35mm equivalent with both converters engaged) means I can stay well back from the birds, and minimise disturbance as far as possible. This is critically important if birds are coming and going near a nest site.
The portability and long focal length of my setup suits a mobile photographic style. I prefer to move into a well-hidden position at water level once the birds, which move around during their territory-holding and feeding activities, have moved away for a while, or whilst they are underwater.
I use a lightweight monopod or tripod and, once settled in, keep the camera at eye level, which means I don’t have to move when the birds return.
Photography techniques and camera settings
My ideal photographic location has the following combination of features: good cover through which to approach, a shooting position near water level to enable eye-level contact with the birds, and some nicely lit photogenic ‘props’, such as prominent rocks.
Ideally, there will also be the potential for a nicely out of focus background, i.e., there needs to be plenty of uncluttered space behind the perches. This combination of features can be surprisingly difficult to find!
For example, in late February/early March 2022, heavy rain on Dartmoor not only thwarted the early nesting attempts of the dippers, but also resulted in flood debris, such as logs and branches, washing downriver into my previously ideal photo locations. Many of these are still tangled jumbles of untidy vegetation!
It is relatively straightforward to make a ‘representative’ dipper image, since the birds have a habit of perching in fairly open locations in mid-river. However, I am always on the lookout for something different. For example, the rather abstract ‘headshot’ of a dipper in this article was obtained by shooting close to a gap between the branches of a large fallen tree.
The tree not only allowed for an unseen close approach to the subject, but shooting very close to the branches allowed me to create a blurred ‘framing’ effect, which helps focus the viewer’s attention on the subject.
Camera settings are dictated by prevailing conditions and equipment used. For example, our Dartmoor rivers and streams are often in steep-sided valleys, which means that the sun does not come over the horizon until at least mid-morning.
In heavy shade I will shoot wide open with the appropriate ISO to give a shutter speed of (hopefully) around 1/500th of a second– i.e., just enough to stop the kinds of movements these birds typically make whilst perching (dipping). Even so, good timing is the key to success.
Shooting bursts of 3-4 shots between bouts of bobbing usually results in a few sharp images! If the light is really low it may be worth using a tripod, and dropping your ISO to creatively experiment with slower shutter speeds, such as 1/30th or 1/15th of a second, in order to blur the water swirling around a perch.
However, my ideal photographing location would normally be in a more open position, where there is adequate light to obtain a fast shutter speed during the better quality early morning/evening light.
Avoiding disturbance to dippers
As I write in mid-April 2021, the numbers of dippers at my usual river photo locations have been worryingly low this year. I suspect this may be the result of spring flooding washing away early nesting sites, and possibly also due to increased disturbances by dogs. However, there may be other unknown factors at play.
The difficulty of finding dippers on my usual sites has meant that I have had to work harder than usual for shots, and the lower numbers of pairs have made me even more cautious than normal around the few nest sites I have located.
I would like to end on a plea for good practice. Firstly, please use as long a lens as possible (ideally around 1000mm focal length). Secondly, stay as far back as possible from the dippers. Thirdly, and most importantly, be alert to signs of stress.
Dippers are, like most bird species, vulnerable to disturbance when breeding, and there is a real risk they will desert a nest site if a photographer spends too much time nearby. If there is no suitable cover in which to remain well concealed, use a hide or instead search another stretch of river.
Remember the wildlife photographer’s mantra that the welfare of the subject is far more important than the shot!