Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Better To Be Lucky AND Good

This article appeared in the June 2010 edition of Rangefinder Magazine
Bird photography can be rewarding as well as extremely frustrating. There is always a stick in the way, an unwanted shadow or the light is bad. Just when you think you have the perfect shot lined up, the bird flies off. While other photographers worry about the composition of their shots, many wildlife photographers rely on “Press and Pray.” Sometimes you have to be happy that you got the darned bird in the shot at all – at least, most of it.

Female Cooper's Hawk that disrupted my
photo session with some songbirds

Always on the lookout for danger, most birds possess superior eyesight and keen hearing. Even if you could sneak up on one, as soon as you hit the shutter button the startled creature would simply fly off. This is not to say that you can’t get close enough for mind-blowing photos, it’s just that you need a different approach. Taking beautiful photos of the Grand Canyon does not require much knowledge of geology nor do wedding photographers need to be experts on human relationships. Most really good bird photographers, on the other hand, know an awful lot about birds – often more than most wildlife biologists!

Many birds are more active in the early
morning hours when the light is best

We’ve all seen that kind of hard-core bird photographer. They are usually dragging around a giant lens on a tripod with a second camera slung over their shoulder (I’m the one in the floppy camo hat). They have probably been standing there all day waiting for a shot of a bird that you’ve never even heard of. Fortunately, you don’t have to follow their lead to get outstanding bird photos.

Harlequin Ducks can be very rare in NJ, but everyone knows that they
can be found at the Barnegate Light in Winter
The principles that apply to landscape or wedding photography apply to photographing birds and other wildlife. You need to worry about light, foreground, background, depth of field, composition and all that. The problem is that you probably have less control over the environment than you are generally used to. For the beginner it may seem like trying to take beautiful photos of a flower from a moving rollercoaster. The real secret to success is to eliminate as many variables as possible.

For this shot, I set the focus to “single shot,” focused on the flock of geese as they
 flew towards the moon to prevent the camera from refocusing on the moon
First of all, select the longest, high-quality lens that you already own. You can buy the 800mm lens later. How much lens you need depends on the size of the bird and how close you can get to it. Ducks and Geese in the local park are a great place to start (don’t take a loaf of bread – it’s really not good for them). Birds that come to backyard feeders are often used to people and frequently permit you to get very close. Getting close enough for a shot, even with a short lens, can be easier than you think. If you try to approach a bird, even a relatively tame one, it will probably keep moving away. Instead, find a comfortable place to sit where the light and background are good and wait for the birds to come to you. As long as they don’t feel threatened, birds will often come extremely close. I have a number of photos of hummingbirds that were taken with a macro lens.

This camera was set on a tripod near a feeder and was often
used as a perch by hummingbirds
Backyard bird feeders can create fabulous photo opportunities. Of course, you probably don’t want a shot of the tail end of a bird sitting on a feeder. To improve your photos, place an attractive stump near the feeder. Birds will often land on it, especially if you hide peanuts in a knot hole. I like to lash a stump to a lawn chair and move it around to get the perfect light or background. You might be surprised how many of my better shots involve duct tape and rope.

For this shot, I found an old branch with lichen and some moss.
I added a bit more moss and tied the branch to a ladder near a bird feeder.
The background is a dead flower garden about 50 feet behind the branch
Even if you have a small yard with a cluttered background, you’re not out of luck. Most bird photography is done using a large aperture (f/5.6 to f/7.1) so you won’t have much depth-of-field. You can hang an old sheet on the fence or the kid’s swing set to create a pleasant background. Out of focus flowers or green lawn make fabulous backdrops for your photos. In colder months, try hanging a feeder near your window, tie a stump in place where the light is good and open the window just enough for your camera lens. In spring, put up a bird house (preferably where you get great morning or afternoon sun), mount your camera on a tripod and use a wireless shutter release to take photos. The parents will often start to use your camera as a perch.

This was taken of baby birds in a birdhouse in my backyard using a tripod
and wireless remote shutter release
Getting the perfect bird shot often requires you to deal with extreme conditions. Even so, principles that apply to other types of photography apply to bird photography. Perspective is important. Whenever possible, try to photograph your subject from eye level. You may have to lie down in the mud or stand on the roof of your car (cars make GREAT blinds). Often, you simply have to wait for the bird to move to a better location. Always keep in mind that these are wild animals. Disturbing a hawk that is feeding on a kill may mean the difference between life and death for the bird. Remember the basic birding ethics. Avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger. If a bird you are photographing appears disturbed by your presence, BACK OFF! Be particularly careful when dealing with endangered or breeding birds.

This Burrowing Owl was standing watch over his nest at the end of a suburban
driveway where children were playing basketball.
Of all the challenges, I think that lighting is the biggest. Ideally, you want the sun directly behind you so that your shadow points right at the bird. The problem is that you may just get a second to take the shot, which doesn’t give you a lot of time to play with the settings on the camera. Imagine that you are in the Florida Everglades and found a place where a Bald Eagle is flying back and forth, taking fish to a nest. The sky is blue, the sun is at your back. Everything is perfect. You set your camera on Aperture Priority, overexpose a bit for the sky. You take a few test shots and the histogram looks good. The next thing you know, an Osprey carrying a fish flies by you so close that it fills the frame. Now, instead of metering off the blue sky, the camera meters off the white body of the bird. You end up with a badly underexposed shot. Making it worse, the Osprey is being closely chased by the Eagle. This time, the camera meters off the dark body of the Eagle and blows out the white head of the bird. This has happened to me – more than once. Instead of throwing your camera into the swamp and walking away, tell yourself that you were darn lucky to see such a sight.

Bald Eagles congregate at the Conowingo Dam in Maryland each fall
and often fly with fish towards the photographer’s area
So, now you have two mediocre shots. Sure, you may be able to “save” them with photoshop, but you know that they will never make it to a magazine cover. What to do next time? Well, you have to make a choice. If you REALLY want superior shots, you should concentrate on one species at a time. If the situation permits, set the camera to “Manual,” adjust for your target species and accept that you are probably not going to get that killer shot of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker when it flies by. Better to get one great photo than to get two that are poor.

When all else fails, Press and Pray!

You can see thousands of my photos at http://www.stevebyland.com/  They are all available for sale as prints or licence. I have a section where you can find birds by species or hard-to-find vertical shots for your next magazine cover. 

1 comment:

  1. Great tips, Steve. I particularly like how you set a camera up as a perch!