One of the fellow DSLR forum members asked for me to put fingers to keyboard and write an essay (or three) about bird photography. While I claim to be no expert, I love photographing birds at any spare moment I have and am happy to share some thoughts, experiences and suggestions with anyone willing to read my waffle.
I have become interested in seeing birds after having moved from the coast to the wild-west and my love of scuba diving has thus suffered form the distance. Driving for hours to get to a dive site which I may have dived hundreds of times has suddenly become obsolete and I needed to find a new passion to keep me ticking over. Along came birds. My only regret is that I didnâ€™t take up this pastime sooner. Serious bird photography attempts have begun in March 2006, when I purchased my first DSLR, the indestructible Canon EOS 30D, which has now almost clocked 30,000 images (donâ€™t worry, not all were keepers) and from then on as they say the rest is historyâ€¦â€¦.so here we go.
PHOTOGRAPHING BIRD LIFE â€“ PART I
â€˜Are you trying to photograph birds?
'- asked the elderly gentleman of me as I was sitting near the footpath along Penrithâ€™s Great River Walk one morning early last week . â€˜Yes
â€™ I replied, not trying to be rude, but just keeping answers short enough so that I can try and concentrate on some small songbirds (hopefully) landing on the bare branches in front of me. However, realizing that he was almost towering over me, I knew that there will be no action for a while. So I decided to talk to him about local bird life for a few minutes drawing on my limited knowledge and experience. Once he went on his merry way with his lady friend I returned to the uncomfortable experience offered by my $8.00 three-legged camping stool bought at the local disposal store. This area sees a fair amount of daytime human traffic; therefore, many birds are semi-accustomed to our presence. Now, only if they knew that a camera-wielding person is not a threatâ€¦â€¦.yeah right! There is still much I can learn about how to take a satisfactory image of a bird.
APPROACHING BIRDS IN THE WILD
Most animals, including birds, have circles of fear, which can be thought of as imaginary boundaries surrounding them. This can be one meter, two or fifty, depending on the species in question. I know from experience that I can comfortably approach many herons to within 15 meters, except the Pacific heron (Ardea pacifica
), as most specimens of Pacific herons I have tried to approach thus far have fled from 40-odd meters away, which is hardly a good distance even when using a 600mm lens (300+2x combo). Once you become somewhat familiar with a particular species of bird, you will be able to approach with more consistency, as you will more or less know what works and what doesnâ€™t. And there are times when the unexpected happens and you can get really close with minimal effort, which will totally surprise you. When that happens, you do want to be ready and start firing the shutter on your DSLR.
Clothing you wear may also heavily influence your successful approaches. Plain, earthy tones are best, and you could go as far as yours truly and opt for a full camouflage outfit (and get some odd looks from strangers at times) or just choose flat greens, browns and a nice hat. The hat should also have a broad brim to keep the sun off your face and neck. So leave the floral shirts and gaudy colors at home please!
Basically, the lower you can get the better your chances of approaching. One of my favorite approaches is the prone approach. I get on my belly and crawl on the ground, sometimes in a lot of pain, depending on what I have to crawl over, but that way my size becomes less imposing on my chosen subject. Most birds are extremely skittish creatures. The mere sight of a human in the normal, upright, form sends fear deep into their hearts and they flee these two-legged monsters to live and feed another day. Imagine you confronting a mammoth and the comparison can easily be drawn then. I try and keep my profile low with my butt firmly pushed down as well. This puts more pressure on knees and elbows to do the work and while itâ€™s not everyoneâ€™s cup of tea, it does work. I actually employed this the first time while camping down the NSW south coast with my wife some five years ago. We found a hooded ploverâ€™s nest at Eden and once we got to within 15 meters away, the brooding adult kept hopping off and leaving. Since I wanted to try and photograph it, my wife suggested I crawl on my belly across the sand from about 50 meters away. Oh my God! That was the most painful experience ever and would I be able to approach? I did! I used every tuft of grass, I crawled through kangaroo droppings and stopped every instant the bird turned toward me to look. I could not believe that after half an hour of crawling I was within the 10-meter mark. Approaching this way, I achieved two things; I have gotten close enough for a photographic opportunity and most importantly, I didnâ€™t place undue stress on the adult bird by simply laying low.
I literally crawled through reeds and a mudflat at Scheyville National Park's Longneck Lagoon about a year ago to photograph this beautiful spoonbill (Platalea flavipes). If I were standing upright, I would not have been able to get to within 20m even. Strangely, the reflections are showing the same way on the RAW file too. Image details:30D, 75-300mm f/4-5.6 kit lens at 300mm, probably at f/5.6 and around 1/500th on ISO 1600 most likely, I will dig out the RAW and check if someone needs to know.
Another shot the same morning as the spoonbill using the mud crawl. This black-winged stilt has just caught a small shrimp of some kind.
Another way you can get relatively close, is by lowering your tripod at a level where you can comfortable kneel behind it and approach in a shuffling manner as you drag your knees (feet behind you) along the ground. Thatâ€™s the way I actually approached some red-kneed dotterels and black-winged stilts foraging at Pitt Town Lagoon recently while shuffling through mud and water meter-by-meter.
I approached this pair of hooded plovers using the low-tripod technique described in the above paragraph on Gillards Beach (Tathra). It is one of my first bird shots from about five years ago, well before I even contemplated buying a DSLR. Image details: Canon EOS Elan7, 75-300mm f/4-5.6 with Tamron 2x at f/11. 1/60th and Fujichrome Sensia pushed one stop to ISO 200.
You can also use trees, bushes or other obstacles between you and the subject to try and shield you as you are trying to get close for a shot. But there are also times when you can practically walk straight up to a wild bird and fire away at your heartâ€™s will. When this occurs, shoot first and analyze or contemplate the reasons after it has flown away.
Your car can be a very effective man-made hide at times. Check out the nesting masked lapwing (Vanellus miles
) I photographed in the main car park at Domayne Penrith. I was waiting patiently as she turned towards the sun to get at least a little bit of light on her face.
Image details:30D, 75-300mm f/4-5.6 kit lens at 300mm, f/8 at 1/1000th on ISO 800, car window supporting camera, as metered byb camera.
SAFETY TIPS AROUND WATERWAYS
Working around water presents its own dangers. While it may sound far-fetched, photographing in, around and near water can kill you by the way of drowning, so you should always exercise extreme care when around lakes, seashores, dams or creeks etc. All it takes is a careless step and a slip into water, combined with a head striking a rock or anything heavy enough, could have tragic results. So take care, watch your step and you will still enjoy the experience. I do take a lot of care around water as I tend to dive right in (no pun intended) because as far as I am concerned, being as close to the subjects as possible, within their own environment is always going to get the best results photographically. There have been many times when I chose NOT to step as I deemed a situation precarious, and there were times, when I lost my footing momentarily in the river while carefully wading in shallows and I suddenly stepped into a smaller hole.
Needless to say, in the harsh Aussie sun sunscreen is a necessity - NOT an option. However, by the time the sun gets high up and strong enough, you ought not to be photographing, but scouting out locations for shooting perspectives, collecting branches to use as perches if you are setting up a shoot and so on. Alternatively, if it is overcast, you could keep shooting, but the sunâ€™s UV rays will still penetrate through cloud thus donâ€™t be slack with UV protection.
Next time, more tips.