Bird photography s something I started only last spring. I though foolishly that it was easy to capture birds in their every day life.
I’ve started running after birds with a 70-300 mm lens and I soon discovered that was little short for getting acquainted with my feathered friends. The sentence “it’s not the equipment that makes the photo but the photographer” …. well it is not entirely true here, size does matter. If you want beautiful photo where you do not have to crop too much you will need a longer lens. You can work your way with a 300 mm, but you’ll need to work on your patience and will probably have many photos where you will need to crop a lot.
If you want to help youself at getting closer to birds, get some camouflage clothes, the same used by hunters. When I go in search of birds, I have a coat and a hat that I bought at my local army surplus. The nice thing is the camo pattern is fashion these days, so you won’t look too much like a hunter if you wear it. Bird sees very well and are nervous, do not try to beat them by approaching them fast, they are faster than you. Go with the slow approach, hide, wait, take a few steps, hide, wait, take a few steps …..
If you expect to show up and take wonderful photos after only 2 minutes at watching birds, you are wrong. It’s not street photography. You need to approach the birds very slowly. Remember they see you as a predator. How would you react if a 35 feet zombie approaches you with something that looks like a 5 feet stick or a bazooka in its hands? That is exactly how a 12 inches tall bird feel like when it sees a human. Keep a low silhouette, the closer you are to the ground, the smaller you to their eyes and the less you are a threat. The bird Kildeer is really scared of humans, if you walk in its direction, you won’t get closer than 20-30 feet. It will fly off. One time, after scaring the Kildder, I tried to lay flat on the ground and waited. After 10 minutes the bird was back and slowly got closer to me. It came within 6 feet from me, much closer that if I had been standing. It was so close my camera could not focus. I’ve waited 20 minutes laid on the ground, taken 70 photos including this one.
The Common Goldeneye duck is very shy and does not like to be too close to humans. This one was staying right in the middle of the pond and all I could get was this.
until I decided to sit near tall grass and waited for 25 minutes with my feet in the water and then I got this shot.
Very important, when you wait if you need to move, move slowly.
STUDY YOUR SUBJECT
Third advice, look at the bird you want to photograph and study its behavior. They are predictable most of the time. I watched some Cormorran fishing and noticed that they were spending 8 seconds under the water and 3 or 4 seconds at the surface catching their breath. By timing its routine, I was able to get the shot I wanted as it was diving into the water. By knowing how they do their things, it is easier for to catch the right moment.
This week I will look at what I did when I had not the choice of the background. One of the option is to blur the background either by using a large aperture or the longest possible focal lenght of your zoom.
In the Kestrel and Owl photos below, I had not the choice of background. I was at a birds of prey demonstration, we formed a circle around the falconer and she was passing the birds in front of us. Wherever I positionned myself, there was always someone in the background, and to top that, many were wearing bright colors.
I had my 70-300 mm f/4.5 lens and to solve the problem I used the longest focal length with the largest aperture possible to blur the background as much as I could. I setted my camera on aperture priority and chose the smallest f/number, extended the zoom. With a blurred background attention will on the subject on my photo, not the background. When I got home I was in for a surprise and a couple of F… words. They do this demonstration once time a year, last year I made a rookie mistake, this year my background was shitty. The photo below show how distracting those bright colors are.
So in order to reduce the effect of the colors, I tried the monochrome. I think monochrome is better at hidding the colors and help bringing the attention of the viewer on the bird and less on the background. First, I went with black and white and then sepia. The latter was better for the finish product.
But you have to be careful in using a long focal lenght on a zoom lens. Most of the zoom lens will not give the clearest image at their maximum, so choose a focal lenght that is less than the maximum. For example my 70-300 mm lens loose some “crispyness” in the details after 250 mm.
Another thing you can do to blur the background is put as much distance between your subject and the background. The greater the distance between the two, the blurrier your background will be, but again this is not always possible. It was in that situation with the photos below.
If you cannot or did not think blurring your background when you took the photo, you can still do it with a software in post-production but the result are never the same as the lens blurring.
Kestrel taken at close range at 270 mm-f/5.6 with my 70-300 mm lens
Owl taken at close range at 145 mm-f/4.8 with my 70-300 mm lens
Here I was not able to put enough distance between the background and the owl to blur the background – taken @ 300 mm-f/5.6 with my 70-300 mm lens
…. and the sepia finish gives poor results