Like most self-taught photographers, I had no clue what I was doing when I dove head-first into bird photography only 3 summers ago. I'm still learning on the go. I had never envisioned myself as a bird nerd. I grew up in Philadelphia, where the official bird is a dirty pigeon searching for crumbs under the El tracks on a horrifically cold February morning. I'd see the occasional blue jay or a sparrow. I was 4 when my parents purchased a small house in Cape May County, and I saw my first cardinal.
Everything changed for me during the summer of 2008 when I was kayaking in the marshlands surrounding Avalon, NJ with my friend Keara and a Canon Digital Rebel XTi with a 70-200 4.0L lens. I knew there was some strange wildlife out there, which is why I had my camera on the kayak in the first place. Then I saw this odd bird with a huge wingspan fly across the water and land on an island of mud and grass directly to my right. It was my first encounter with a Great Blue Heron. Things went relatively well during that first meeting. The bird, which is a member of a notoriously skittish species, let me get close enough that the long end of my 70-200 was adequate although my best shot of the bird was from the rear:
This close encounter with a GBH was the start of my addiction. I couldn't get over the amount of feather detail that a bird image taken with a dSLR provided- the vivid colors, the intricate patterns, the precise layering and position of the plumage- and I finally realized what a masterpiece of nature that a bird represented. I found myself unemployed the following summer when I was let go from the high-end law firm for which I was working as a litigator. I took advantage of the spare time. I moved into an Avalon rental full-time and hopped on one of my friends' kayaks with my new Canon 50D and a (nearly) waterproof bag almost every morning after sunrise. I learned quickly that 200mm was not going to cut it for any serious bird photography. Fortunately, I discovered lensrentals.com and was able to try out the 300mm 4.0L, 400mm 5.6L, and the 100-400 zoom. I also owned a 1.4X teleconverter, which worked remarkably well with the 300mm prime.
I quickly found that I enjoyed shooting wading birds and osprey the most. The marsh surrounding Avalon is replete with man-made platforms for osprey nests. And starting in late June/early July, the wading birds (egrets, herons, and ibis) are plentiful.
II. Equipment and Technique
The most important elements to obtaining good bird images, IMO, are the following: 1) Lighting; 2) Proximity to the subject; 3) Technique; 4) Research; and, 5) Patience.
People who take pictures capture a scene or an object; people who take photographs capture the light falling on a scene or object, whether it be a bird, a plane, a meadow, or a skyscraper. Every photographer who does a little bit of research quickly realizes that the best light is the soft light an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset, which can bathe a subject in a sometimes golden glow.
Even a scene involving an unsightly bird such as this black vulture takes on a more appealing quality when captured in the softer late-evening light. Canon 50D, 70-200 2.8L @ 200mm, f/7.1 @ 1/400, ISO 400. March 15, 2010, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville, FL
A great blue heron feeding on sunfish approximately 30 minutes prior to sunset. Canon 50D, 300 2.8L + 2x teleconverter, f/7.1 @ 1/800, ISO 640. November 17, 2009 at 5:13 p.m., Cape May Point State Park, Cape May Point, NJ
You'll never feed your photography addiction, however, if you limit yourself to shooting solely during these two hours- and that doesn't even account for rainy and cloudy days where there may be no visible sun. That doesn't mean that lighting becomes less of a concern just because conditions aren't optimal. You'll still want your subject to be illuminated as best as possible to bring out all of the wonderful details the bird may have to offer. Most importantly, you'll want to bring out the bird's eyes by photographing it when it is at a position pointed toward the sun. This creates a 'catchlight' in the bird's eye and brings out some of the wonderful reds, golds and yellows that color the eyes of many species. This becomes especially important when photographing birds such as terns or black skimmers that have black eyes. Without the catchlight, the subject's eyes will become lost within the rest of the image.
The black eye of this tern hovering above the water is lost without the illumination of the sun.
The catchlight of the sun is seen in the gray eye of this adult northern gannet standing on a jetty. Canon 50D, 400 5.6L, f/8.0. @ 1/2000, ISO 250, EV -1. The quick shutter speed was not necessary for this portrait, but I was alternating between shooting this bird and the juvenile that was diving for food off the jetty under the watchful eye of this adult. I also wanted to be prepared to freeze the movement of the bird's wings should it have suddenly taken off or began preening while I was shooting it. October 8, 2010 at 4:01 p.m., 8th Street Jetty, Avalon, NJ
The late afternoon sun brought out both the plumage and red eyes of these roseate spoonbills. Canon 50D, 400 5.6L, f/10 @ 1/1600, ISO 400. March 15, 2010, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville, FL
There's one aspect of proper illumination that was lost on me when I first began shooting birds: it's the lighting- and not necessarily the quality of the lens or the camera- that provides a clear, sharp image. The most expensive lenses and camera bodies are not miracle workers in and of themselves; they cannot provide an acceptably sharp image without proper lighting. Take a look at this example:
A Study in Contrasts: This photograph was taken adjacent to a pond surrounded by brush and trees. The light of the low sun was blocked at the pond's edge by the foliage, thus the great egret that jumped into the frame is not illuminated and looks very grainy, intentional lack of focus aside. The feeding snowy egret, however, is properly illuminated and bathed in the setting sun's light resulting in a clear rendition of the subject. Canon 50D, 400 5.6L, f/7.1 @ 1/2000, ISO 320, EV -1. April 29, 2010, Heislerville Fish and Wildlife Management Area, Heislerville, NJ
I'll make another point about natural lighting and illumination: every photographer knows that we can't change the weather. While we all wish for optimal lighting conditions, they can often change in an instant- especially when large bodies of water are near. When the birds are plentiful, sometimes you just have to take what nature gives you. I was out kayaking several times on the sunniest of days, only to have them suddenly turn cloudy just as I had reached a favorite birding spot that was filled with potential subjects. I prefer to stay and shoot in these situations rather than turn back around unless a storm is imminent. An overcast day with a dozen birds foraging around you is better than a sunny day with none present. At the very least, it's great practice under challenging conditions. You also never know when the sun might peek through the clouds again, and passing or breaking afternoon clouds can sometimes mitigate the effects of the harsh afternoon sun by offering quality, naturally diffused light.
A very cloudy day didn't discourage me from shooting when a number of black skimmers and snowy egrets gathered during low tide to feed at one of my favorite birding spots in the marshlands surrounding Avalon, NJ, which is accessible only by kayak. The cooler weather also enabled me to use a Hefty bag as a blind without sweating profusely underneath, allowing me to get much closer to the action without spooking the birds. Black Skimmer: Canon 50D, 400 5.6L, f/7.1 @ 1/1250, ISO 320, EV -1/3. May 29, 2010 at 3:59 p.m., Avalon, NJ; Snowy Egret Flipping Fish: Canon 50D, 400 5.6L, f/8 @ 1/2500, ISO 250, EV -1. May 29, 2010 at 2:56 p.m., Avalon, NJ
As you can see from the above photos, I was still able to capture excellent feather detail in the black skimmer, which prove to be more brown than black in some instances when viewed from such close proximity. There was also less of a concern regarding the over-exposure of the white feathers of the snowy egret. (Over-exposure of whites will be discussed in greater detail as this post evolves.)
A point should also be made about backlighting, which occurs when the sun is behind the subject. (In other words, the order is sun, subject, and you & your camera.) This can prevent proper illumination of the subject, but shouldn't necessarily be a dealbreaker for shooting. First of all, much like the weather, the bird photographer has absolutely no say as to where a bird may choose to walk, fly, or forage. Secondly, backlighting can sometimes make it easier to gain a proper exposure of a bird with white feathers. This summer, I came upon a number of great & snowy egrets feeding at low tide near a drainage pipe on two occasions. (Wading birds like egrets, herons and ibises feed at low tide because they can walk upright in the water in search of prey. They generally aren't swimmers like waterfowl.) So I had the low tide, I had a large number of birds in close proximity, but the sun was behind them with some clouds beginning to roll in. So I had two choices: go home and return on a day when the low tide coincides with a clear day and the sun in front of my subjects, or start shooting. Naturally, I chose the latter. Here's some of the results:
This example is clearly backlit. You can see the sun reflecting off the water and reeds floating in the background, and the egret's eye has neither a catchlight nor appreciable illumination. I still enjoy it as an action shot, however, which is part of what makes shooting feeding birds so challenging and fun. The fish is so small and thin that the backlit sun nevertheless appears to give it some important illumination. Canon 50D, 400 5.6L, f7.1 @ 1/1600, ISO 320, EV -2/3. June 14, 2010 at 5:35 p.m., Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, Oceanville, NJ
The clouds have clearly obscured the backlighting in this example, making it no different than any other shot on a cloudy, overcast day. Canon 50D, 400 5.6L, f/7.1 @ 1/1600, ISO 400, EV -1. June 7, 2010 at 4:16 p.m., Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, Oceanville, NJ
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