The Birds.

In April, I published pictures and insights from almost three decades spent pursuing my interest in photography. Those thoughts I offered on life behind the camera lens turned out to be one of the best received and most popular posts in the four years since I started this blog. However, I wanted to follow up on an area of photography that I did not dive into as much detail as I could: wildlife. Over the past few years, I have found birds to be a great way not only to take cool photos, but also further refine my photographic skills. I am certainly no expert on wildlife photography, but thought I would take this opportunity to offer some thoughts on the gear, techniques, and locations that can make good bird photography possible.

What follows, then, is a post of things avian… in other words, like the title of a Hitchcock movie: “The Birds!”

The Gear

Canon 100-300mm zoom lens, Canon 100-400mm zoom lens, and Canon EOS 70D camera body on wooden table.
Birds, like most creatures in the wild, will not allow you to approach them closely, so your camera needs to make up the difference. My 100-400mm Canon EF USM L-series zoom lens (center) is a fantastic lens for wildlife photography, offering clear, bright images, fast focusing, and lots of zoom power. Despite its age, my 25-year old 100-300mm Canon USM zoom lens (left) is still capable as well – my wife has been using it to practice wildlife photography recently. And my trusty digital Single Lens Reflext (dSLR) Canon EOS 70D camera body is a workhorse in the field. You can find out more details about my photographic gear in my previous post, The Art of Photography.

The Basics

Location

American Oystercatcher flying over water.
Obviously, good bird photography begins with finding out where the birds are! National and county parks with significant bird information will often listen that information online. Your local chapter of the National Audubon Society will also be a wealth of information for good birding spots near you. Gateway National Park, Sandy Hook, one of my favorite spots to visit for bird photography, is home to many species, including this American Oystercatcher.

Speaking of the National Audubon Society, I wanted to take a quick timeout and recognize a very cool event that organization helped to promote last week. After a racist incident occurred in Central Park in New York City a few weeks ago, a graduate student in biology, Corina Newsome, created Black Birders Week. The goal: to promote diversity and confront racism in nature experiences. Owing to COVID-19, this was a purely virtual event, but it took off (pardon the pun!) on social media. You can read more about this awesome program here.

Great blue heron, standing in pond.
Of course, locations can also be mere minutes away from your house. My wife and I have noticed that this great blue heron has made a local pond home.
Hummingbird about to eat from feeder, with an American flag in the background.
Your backyard can also be a great location to practice your technique! I photographed this hummingbird flitting around a feeder during a trip to the Adirondacks. One benefit of backyard photography? You can grab a lawn chair and get comfortable while you wait.
Bluejay in metal wire bird feeder. The feeder is stuffed with peanuts.
A well-placed bird feeder can lead to all kinds of cool photos – even on a day when you’re stuck inside during a snow storm! By placing this bird feeder on their back deck, fully visible through sliding glass doors, some family members are able to have a front-row view of nature from the comfort of their dining room table.

Focus

Close-up of head of bald eagle.
With any wildlife, the focus point should always be the eyes. When I photographed Freedom the eagle at the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota a few years ago, I paid special attention to ensuring that the eyes were in focus and tack sharp. Even if the rest of the animal is sharp, blurry eyes will often make for a poor photo.
Photograph of egret, standing. This is a side-profile of the head and neck.
In the wild, it can be a bit trickier to make sure the eyes are in focus. It requires a lot of practice to take sharp photos while a bird is in flight, but if you wait until it lands (or is nesting), you will have an easier time. This egret made for a good test subject.

Panning

Photograph of cormorant in flight.
When photographing birds in flight, you want to be able to convey a sense of motion. I almost always try to remember to use panning. To pan, follow the bird as it approaches you. As if flies past you, you turn your body at the waist, allowing your camera to follow the bird’s flight until it has gone. All the while, you are taking photos. If you have a dSLR, select a slightly slower shutter speed (this will blur the background) but a high frame rate (the number of continuous exposures it can take). For instance, high-speed mode on my camera allows me to hold the shutter button down and photograph bursts of 20 photos at a time. I used panning to photograph this cormorant.
Photo of egret in flight.
My wife, who began practicing photography last summer, was able to use panning to capture this egret as it flew past her.

Continuous Focus

Photo of herring gull swooping in the air.
If you have a dSLR, you want to set your auto focus mode to continuous servo – rather than focusing and locking on a point in space, continuous servo will continually focus and refocus, to better capture a moving object… such as this herring gull. I probably took 10-12 photos to get this one shot. In the days of yore, the cost of purchasing and developing rolls of film made most photographers hesitant to “waste” any photos. With modern cameras having multiple gigabytes of storage in their memory cards, getting rid of unwanted photos is as easy as pressing “delete.” Keep shooting – all that matters is that you get the shot!
Photo of juvenile night egret in flight.
Continuous servo autofocusing will leave you best prepared for the unexpected in the wild… such as this juvenile night egret taking off from its nest.

Isolation

Group of sandpipers feeding by the shoreline.
One of the cardinal sins of photography is pictures that are too busy, leaving the viewer unsure of where to look. This group of sandpipers at the water’s edge is cool… but there’s a lot going on here.
Photograph of one sandpiper feeding at the water's edge.
Instead, by zooming in and isolating one sandpiper from the group, I was able to create what I feel is a more distinct photo.
Group of sandpipers in the surf during sunset.
Then again, sometimes it works out to include the whole group! As with every photographic “rule,” you’ve got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.

Patience

Great blue heron beginning to fly from pond.
Nature is on its own timeline, not ours. If you have a shot in mind, you need to be patient. For instance, to get this shot of a great blue heron flying away from the pond, I waited, squatting in grass (and what I was sure at the time was poison ivy) for about fifteen minutes. Just as I was about to move on, the bird decided to oblige and put on a show. You can’t rush these things!

Photographing Captive Birds

Eagle, screaming, with blue and green wall behind it.
If you are photographing birds in captivity, such as this eagle at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, MN (documented in this post), I would highly encourage you to talk to the staff. They know these birds best and can give you some great tips! In this case, my wife and I had a nice conversation with the museum guide, and she was able to tell me how close I could approach the birds without spooking them. For this photo, I actually got a lot closer than I would have thought possible, and the eagle was quite happy to show off for the camera!

Timing… and luck.

Bird perched on top of bush.
As with many animals, peak activity time tends to be either early or late in the day. Midday typically represents a lull in the action. This thrush was captured in an early morning trip to Gateway National Park, Sandy Hook. Also… how in the world is it balancing itself on those small branches?
Thrush, singing on branches of tree.
Finally, all good wildlife photography does involve some amount of luck… such as when this little guy landed near me on this branch and began to sing. It was not planned or anticipated, but I ended up with one of my favorite photos of all time.

I hope you have enjoyed this brief tour of bird photography! I find there is something immensely rewarding about photographing these creatures, and with any luck, my tips and tricks will be useful. And thanks for allowing me to share some of my favorite bird photos along the way!

Looking Ahead

View of ocean from balcony overlooking beach. A cup of coffee and a copy of The Radium Girls by Kate Moore are on a picnic table on deck.
For the next several weeks, this will be our view! Thanks to some generous and beloved family members, my wife and I will be spending fourteen days by the beach!

Until later this month, my Honda Accord will be in the garage and my wife’s Jeep Grand Cherokee will be parked near the ocean, as my wife and I are taking a much-needed vacation to the New Jersey shore. Once we return, there are some fun posts planned, as we will begin a new round of exciting road trips (while still following good social distancing guidelines). I hope you enjoy our upcoming travels throughout the summer, and until then, have a great few weeks!

And thanks, as always, for coming along on this journey down the open road ahead.

‘Til next time.

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “The Birds.

  1. I enjoyed your breakdown of concepts and pictures exemplifying them. It is amazing how much better the dSLR cameras look compared to a regular camera. Our oldest daughter has one. I often feel her pictures look better than real life.

    We live in an area where the major bird migratory paths from North America to South America cross. It’s supposed to be great for bird watching, but turns out it’s not so great for flying planes.

    What a beautiful view of the beach. I hope you enjoy the change of scenery.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading! Despite how far phone cameras have come, I’m always impressed with the quality of images from a dSLR. You know, when you said you have a front row seat for all the migratory birds, I thought of the awesome photography- the hazard they represent to airplanes hadn’t even crossed my mind!

      Glad you enjoyed the post!!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s