lone grebe gliding across a lake

A Wing and a Prayer

Andreas Hemb

It’s early morning in the Södermanland county of Sweden and the recently arrived population of Crested and Horned Grebes are starting their day, bathing in the southern lakes as well as the pastel shades of pre-dawn. The light is beautiful, but this April morning it’s still damned cold. The Grebes don’t mind, of course, but it’s a little restrictive for wildlife pro, Andreas Hemb. Bobbing on the surface of a lake in his floating hide, “I can stay in it for maybe an hour at most this time of year,” he grins, “but it’s worth it. They arrive here in March; finding a good nest, protecting it against their rivals, courting, raising the chicks and getting them strong enough to migrate away in September or October. I’m trying to document the whole cycle this year.”

grebe with a fish in its mouth

© Andreas Hemb | Sony α1 + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS + 1.4x Teleconverter | 1/1000s @ f/4.0, ISO 800

Like so many photographic subjects, early morning often yields the best results. It’s no different for Andreas and on the water, it’s maybe even more compelling, with reflections bouncing the dawn colour around and giving masses of variety. “The shifting light means you can get lots of different moods, sometimes within minutes of each other,” he explains, “from the glow just before dawn to soft backlighting. Even direct light is nice if it’s early enough. Most importantly though, early in the morning, the birds are more active so you have more interactions.”

2 grebes with their beaks entwined

© Andreas Hemb | Sony α1 + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS + 1.4x Teleconverter | 1/1000s @ f/5.0, ISO 400

A camera that helps you take your chances could be the perfect way to sum up Andreas’s newest Sony Alpha camera, the Alpha 1. “The way it combines the very best features of Sony’s cameras is a huge benefit,” explains Andreas. “You get both the black-out free shooting and focus speed and the huge resolution. The combination is super helpful, and it returns on the commitment I’m making being out there in the cold water.”

Building on the legendary AF performance of the Alpha 9 series, the Alpha 1’s bird-eye tracking mode is obviously a standout for Andreas.

For me, as a photographer, all I need to do is keep the bird in the frame, and be ready for something to happen,” he says, “the tracking finds the eye or the head, and just sticks to it. That’s impressive when you consider these animals might be turning, or splashing, or obscured by a rise in the wave. It never gets distracted.”
2 grebes fighting in the water

© Andreas Hemb | Sony α1 + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS + 1.4x Teleconverter | 1/1000s @ f/5.0, ISO 200

With so many differences in bird species, is he worried that it will work on some subjects and not others? “Not really,” Andreas smiles, “because even if an eye is difficult to acquire for some reason, or the conditions are tough, as with low-light or with backlighting, I know it’ll take the head and follow that instead. I’ve tried it on the grebes, swans, ducks and plenty of other species and not found it lacking so far.”

Another new feature that he’s been keen to make the most of is the Alpha 1’s 30fps burst mode. “Although I’d naturally shoot in continuous mode, the extra 10fps is something I’ve noticed can make a real difference to my behavioural shots,” he says. “If the bird is running or flying it’s not going to make as much difference, but these grebes try to push each other down under the water as they fight and I’ve been able to catch the exact moment their eye is about to go under, which I’d have less chance of doing at 20fps. Those moments are special. It’s the same with the 240fps EVF, which gives a smoother, more natural view of fast-moving subjects, making them easier to track.”

grebe flying low over a lake

© Andreas Hemb | Sony α1 + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS + 1.4x Teleconverter | 1/1000s @ f/4.0, ISO 320

As the Södermanland lakes warm towards June and July, the water becomes more comfortable, and Andreas can spend longer shooting, but he’s aware his time capturing the grebes’ annual pilgrimage is running out. “Soon they’ll migrate back to southern Europe or beyond, so in the time left I’m trying to get a real variety of images. Portraits, action shots, and wider scenes showing their environment. It’s all important to give a project like this texture.”

grebe preparing to take flight

© Andreas Hemb | Sony α1 + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS + 1.4x Teleconverter | 1/1000s @ f/4.0, ISO 800

Is there any chance of Andreas migrating himself? “No, I’m stuck on Sony now,” he laughs. “These are the cameras that have helped me get my favourite shots of all. The images that document behaviour; those one or two second bursts of activity in courtship or fighting or even nurturing their chicks, which define the species and the photographer. Having made the effort to witness those, I wouldn’t want to miss them, and with the Alpha 1, I never do.”

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Andreas Hemb

Andreas Hemb | Sweden

"An image can contain so much more than just a reflection of our surroundings. I strive to get past the documentary aspect of photography; an image should provide feelings"

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