In my opinion, the most important elements of obtaining a quality bird photograph are: 1) Lighting; 2) Proximity to subject; 3) Technique; 4) Research; and, 5) Patience. Part I of this post discussed how I was introduced to bird photography and lighting. Part II will discuss my second element to obtaining quality images: proximity to the subject.
2) Proximity to Subject
It's rarely easy for a bird photographer to gain close proximity to the subjects we shoot. The reasons are many and varied. The terrain can be a problem, the subject may be on a body of water, or even federal law may preclude a photographer from getting too close to the bird. And most birds, like 99% of the Earth's creatures, have an innate fear of humans. And when something has wings, it's simply going to fly away from you and your camera.
Why is proximity so important? First of all, many birds simply aren't very big. While your 70-200 zoom may work wonders when shooting your friends at a backyard party, it's not going to help you very much if you're trying to shoot a small cardinal or a warbler resting in a tree in that same yard. The further we are from our subject, the more we'll be forced to crop the image in order to make the subject prominent. And while I don't know the science behind it, I know as a photographer that image resolution significantly degrades as I crop a photo more and more tightly to bring the subject to the forefront. The closer we can get to the bird, the less we'll have to crop later and the chances for creating a quality image improve greatly.
Poor lighting aside, the sharpness and clarity of this image taken at Cape May Point State Park suffers greatly because of the heavy cropping that was necessary to make this eagle the predominant part of the photo. The original file appears below:
Although there are many local, state, and national parks and refuges with good access roads that allow for relatively close shooting from a vehicle or marked trails, we're often not able to get as close to our subjects as we'd like. So if we can't bring ourselves closer to our subjects, the only option is to bring the subjects closer to us. This is primarily achieved through the use of supertelephoto lenses, and I recommend the use of no less than 400mm for birding. It also helps to use a camera body with a crop sensor, such as the Canon 50D, Canon 7D, or the flagship Canon 1D Mark IV. (A 'crop' sensor means that the sensor is not 'full frame,' which is the equivalent to an old 35mm film camera. The smaller crop sensor has the effect of increasing the focal length for an attached lens by a factor of 1.6 for the 50D and 7D and 1.3 for the 1D Mark IV, thus getting you that much closer to your bird.) Canon offers several high-quality supertelephoto lenses. There's two drawbacks inherent with the use of supertelephoto lenses, though: 1) their size; and, 2) their expense. I've never even used Canon's Holy Grail of birding lenses, the 500 4.0L IS, because of its size. The lens itself is 15.2" long and weighs over 8 pounds. Eight pounds is not heavy for an everyday object, but when attached to a camera body that's hanging around your neck it can become very heavy very quickly. Its large size and weight also makes it difficult to handhold when tracking birds in flight, so a sturdy tripod system is required. A quality tripod with a head to which to attach the lens can set you back $300-$600 alone, not to mention the price of the lens itself, which is $6,140 on amazon.com as of the date of this post. Fortunately, outfits like lensrentals.com make this lens and the necessary tripod accessories available for rental (with an option for insurance) if you are so inclined to seek the Holy Grail.
Since I do most of my birding by kayak or via an old Honda EX, the use of the 500 4.0L isn't very practical or wise- not to mention that it doesn't fit my photography budget at this time. I currently own a 400 5.6L that I purchased used from lensrentals.com for about $900. It's a fantastic lens, but like any other bird or nature photographer I'm always wishing that I had more reach. I've used or owned all of the more manageable Canon supertelephoto lenses, and here are my thoughts on each:
300mm 4.0L IS ($1,250): I don't look at the charts that lens makers provide to demonstrate the image quality of the lens. All I know is that when I take photographs with this relatively small, lightweight lens is that the results are crystal clear and sharp in a way that few other lenses can provide- especially for the price. For birding, I attach my 1.4x teleconverter to this lens, which turns it into a 420mm 5.6 lens with image stabilization. Teleconverters give you extended reach, but have the effect of costing you one stop in terms of aperture and some loss of image quality. That said, the 300 4.0L demonstrates very little decline in image quality with the use of the 1.4TC. A great article on the use of teleconverters with lenses can be found here:
Every lens has a minimum focusing distance, which means you are required to be at a certain distance from your subject for the lens to be able to properly focus upon it. Perhaps the most overlooked feature of the 300mm is the fact that it has a very short minimum focusing distance of 1.5m or 4.9 feet. This allows you to get very close to your subject and still obtain proper focus. (In contrast, my 400 5.6L has a minimum focusing distance of 3.5m, or 11.5 ft.) The short minimum focusing distance of the 300 4.0L allowed me to get in close to this very small hummingbird and obtain a very nice image:
Hummingbird Drinking Nectar, Canon 50D, 300 4.0L + 1.4TC, f/5.6 @ 1/2000, ISO 400. September 19, 2009, Cape May Point State Park, Cape May Point, NJ
When the original RAW file is viewed on my computer (and not compressed as on flickr), the image quality is stunning. Even the small 'eyelashes' around the hummingbird's eye are clearly visible. I simply could not have obtained this image with my 400 5.6L. Although my 400 is incredibly sharp, I would have had to stand too far away from this ridiculously small, fast bird for the camera to properly focus thus resulting in an image that would need some serious cropping- and I know because I've tried.
400mm 5.6L ($1,200): This is the current supertelephoto lens in my arsenal. Despite the long minimum focusing distance, this 2.8 pound lens seems to focus more quickly than its 300mm cousin, especially because the 400mm lacks image stabilization. (Since I often shoot birds at a minimum shutter speed of 1/1250, I'm not as concerned about the lack of IS in the lens, which is used to combat camera shake. You have to have very unsteady hands for camera shake to spoil an image shot at those speeds.) The image quality can be stunning. Although I enjoy the quicker focus, I would have preferred to own the 300mm with my 1.4TC if I hadn't gotten such a good deal on this lens solely because of the minimum focusing distance of the 300. Then again, I'm one of the most absent-minded people in the world and I can envision myself driving to a refuge or kayaking out to my favorite spot only to realize that I somehow managed to leave the TC behind. It's also convenient for me to have to worry about less parts when I'm out on the water. NOTE: Although a TC can be attached to give you a 560mm 8.0 lens, you will lose the ability to autofocus on the 50D and 7D bodies. Shooting a moving bird without the benefit of autofocus makes it incredibly difficult to obtain a clear, sharp image even with the use of a tripod. The 1D Mark IV will allow for center point autofocus only with a TC attached to this lens. Some shooters have found a DIY remedy to this loss of autofocus problem by placing tape over certain pins. I have not tried this myself.
While using a simple trash bag as a blind on this overcast day, this snowy egret strutted so closely around my kayak at one point while searching for fish that my 400 5.6L was unable to focus upon it because the bird had walked within the minimum focusing distance of the lens.
There's no denying the superb image quality that can be obtained by using the 400 5.6L. The detail in the second image is stunning. In addition to the beautiful detail in the bird's plumage, the both the blood vessels present in the heron's eye and the reflection of the fish about to be eaten can be seen. Great Egret Portrait (Uncropped), Canon 50D, 400 5.6L, f/9 @ 1/1600, ISO 320, EV -4/3. June 4, 2010 at 10:16 a.m., Avalon, NJ; Green Heron Hunting Stealth, Canon 400 5.6, f/7.1 @ 1/1250, ISO 500. March 15, 2010 at 2:20 p.m., Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville, FL
100-400mm 4.5-5.6L IS ($1,500): This popular zoom lens is a favorite of bird shooters. Although zoom lenses generally do not provide the image quality that a ‘prime’ or fixed focal length lens like my 400 5.6L does, the use of a zoom does have a very practical use for birding. When using a prime lens with a focal length of 400mm or higher, the narrow field of view sometimes makes it very difficult to quickly place even a large bird in flight into the frame for a photograph. Long lens technique is something that must be learned with patience, trial and error. Users of a zoom lens have no such problem. When a desirable subject is spotted in flight, the lens can be zoomed out to 200mm or so to provide a wider field of view in your viewfinder. This allows a shooter to more easily lock-on to the bird. Then, you are able to focus and quickly zoom out to 400mm to fill the bird into the frame. You’d be surprised how difficult it can be to place your subject unto your viewfinder with a prime lens sometimes. It’s a big sky out there, and a longer lens may have superior reach but it only captures a very small portion of it at a time. Personally, my own eyeballs have lead me to believe that the 100-400 zoom does not have the same superior image quality of the 300mm 4.0L + TC or the 400mm 5.6L. This lens, however, does provide quality images and is slated for an upgrade in the not-too-distant future.
Mother Osprey and Fledglings, Canon 50D, 100-400 4.5-5.6L @ 400mm, f/7.1 @ 1/1000, ISO 250. Referencing the topic of lighting in Part I of this post, note how the late afternoon sun both illuminates and provides a catchlight in the fledglings’ beautiful amber eyes. August 4, 2009 at 4:44 p.m., Avalon, NJ
400mm 4.0 DO IS ($5,820): There have been mixed reviews about this lens, which uses diffraction optics to make for a lighter, more manageable lens compared to the 300mm 2.8L or the 400mm 2.8L. The 400 4.0 DO weighs in at 4.2 pounds, compared to 11.9 pounds for the 400 2.8L or 5.7 pounds for the 300 2.8L. It’s easy to use handheld despite its size. There criticisms of this lens, aside from its price tag, are that the images tend to lack contrast and the bokeh (blurred background effect) is not as pleasing as that offered by the lenses in the Canon L-series. As far as the first complaint, shooting in RAW makes a boost in contrast a breeze during post-processing. Concerning the bokeh, I’ve found that the it does take on a less smooth appearance compared to an L lens, but the 400 4.0 DO does an excellent job of isolating the subject from the rest of the image. I’ve rented this lens for both birding and sports and was not disappointed at all with the results. It also takes a 1.4TC quite well, providing a 560mm 5.6 lens with image stabilization that retains autofocus and won’t break your back during a long hike. If money was no object, this would be my ultimate lens for birding by kayak or a small boat considering its light weight, its ability to be used handheld, and its reach while still enabling the camera to focus automatically.
It should also be noted the USM motors employed in these professional lenses for autofocus operate very quietly, so your subjects shouldn’t be scared off as you focus on them. The 300 4.0L can sometimes make some noise when image stabilization is employed, but the feature may be turned off. Since I’m using faster shutter speeds while shooting birds while feeding or in flight, I don’t fear camera shake and do not use this feature unless shooting in very low light such as just before the sun dips into the horizon.
Aside from the use of supertelephoto lenses, a photographer may get closer to its subject through the use of blinds. Many parks have constructed wooden bird blinds, usually near bodies of water, from which to view and photograph the birds nearby. When birding in the woods or out in the wild, camouflage netting or a small tent can be purchased from hunting supply stores. The only blind I’ve ever employed is a Hefty bag that I used to hide myself while out on a kayak. Surprisingly, it works wonderfully. While not recommended for use on very hot days, a simple trash bag will somehow fool the otherwise wary and intelligent birds into believing that a human with a supertelephoto lens is not among them. Typically, I’ll spot a subject and stop my kayak about 15 yards away along an island depending on the movement of the bird(s) and the position of the sun relative to the subject(s). The birds may scatter initially, but will usually return to the area once your blind is in place. If there are no natural land features by which to stop the kayak from drifting, I’ll simply run it aground before placing the blind over my body. This is easy to do since wading birds will be foraging at low tide and the bottom of the marsh will be exposed in places. It’s very important that you do not drift into a waterway where boats or other watercraft are being used with a large bag over your head that almost completely obstructs your view. Ensure that your kayak is properly grounded or still while using a blind of any sort.
I was able to take the uncropped portrait of the great egret above from a kayak while utilizing a blind. The bird was walking toward me while stalking its prey. I ran my kayak aground on a conveniently-located sandbar about 15 yards back from the subject and applied my blind. The bird continued to walk in my direction and at one point was standing directly beside my kayak at a distance that made it too close to even shoot. However, I was able to obtain several good portraits as it approached- all because of a simple trash bag blind.
It should be stated that some species, like terns and black skimmers, generally are not disturbed by the presence of humans. I’ve had terns diving for food and skimmers skimming for fish directly next to my kayak even when not employing a blind. I can’t provide an explanation for this, other than the birds may know instinctively that they are simply far too fast for you to catch. In addition, birds sometimes think with their stomachs. If fish are readily available for the taking, your presence sometimes becomes secondary to their meal. That’s how I was able to capture the image of the green heron above while visiting Merritt Island. The bird was too busy picking-off fish that were exiting from a small drainage pipe to be concerned about me and my 400 5.6L standing almost directly above him.