MMM PHOTO FEATURE, FEBRUARY 2012
Some areas of photography are more specialised than others. Photographing nature, particularly birds, must be one of the most difficult of any subject matter simply because birds are shy creatures which, as a rule, don’t want to come close to people let alone have their photographs taken.
For this reason I suspect many people don’t even try to photograph birds but there are ways and means of making bird photography possible even with relatively modest equipment. Compact and bridge cameras have powerful zooms packed inside small bodies, these cameras can take good photos of birds so there is no excuse. What a bird photographer needs is patience and an understanding of the subject which comes with time spent bird watching.
So here are a few tips and ideas to get you started as a bird photographer.
IN THE GARDEN
I’m going to start close to home. The garden is as good a place as any to start watching and photographing birds and winter is the best time to begin.
It is during winter that birds are at their most vulnerable. The cold weather forces them to seek refuge and food in the relative safety and comfort of our gardens. This is particularly true if we have frost or snow.
The first thing to do is establish a feeding area for birds close to the house where you can watch them from a window which will open wide when you need to take photos. It is helpful if you can choose a window which faces away from the sun in the morning or evening when the birds are most actively feeding. It is also beneficial for the background to be a long way away behind your subject, this will help to get a nice out of focus, diffused backdrop to your images.
Start with a bird table and a bird bath and try to make them about the same height as the window. Make them movable so that you can gradually move them closer to the house as the birds become accustomed to them and you. As soon as they are close enough to photograph set up a camera facing out of the window; here a tripod is very useful. Photographing through the window is possible and gives surprisingly good results but if you opt for this method try to get the camera as close to the glass as possible. It is better to open the window but either way pull the curtains around the camera so that you can see out through the camera but the birds can’t see in.
When setting up your camera to take photos of birds remember that they move quickly so you generally need a fast shutter speed. If you have a compact camera then set it in ‘sport mode’, if you have a DSLR use aperture priority and set the widest aperture you can (that is the smallest f-number). In winter the light level can be low so it might be necessary to choose a high ISO setting, which increases the sensitivity of the sensor allowing a faster shutter speed, even though it does introduce more grain or noise.
Photographing birds even in the slightly unnatural setting of a bird table can be rewarding but I think it is more satisfying if you can get the birds to perch on interesting objects. One trick I have learnt is to hide food in places where birds can get at it but it remains hidden from the camera. For instance great spotted woodpeckers, as well as a whole range of other garden birds, love peanuts. To get natural shots of them I find attractive logs and even old spade handles and drill holes in them. Into these holes I push peanuts so they are wedged tightly and the birds enjoy feeding from them because it is easier than trying to get at peanuts through a mesh feeder.
I am also constantly on the lookout for garden props into which I can put bird food. Plant pots are a classic example; try filling a small plant pot with bird seed and placing it on the bird table; the birds will soon become accustomed to standing on the rim and collecting seed. If the bird table is at the same height as the camera the photograph won’t reveal the seed, just the bird standing cheekily on the plant pot. This same strategy can be applied to a wide range of objects so use your imagination.
If we have snow fall then our task as bird photographers is made easier. If there is an inch or more of snow I find that it is possible to hide food in small holes in the snow to conceal it from view.
Instead of using bird seed and peanuts, which can look false if seen in a photo, try using natural foods such as windfall apples. In the last two winters we have had very cold weather which has forced thrushes, including redwings and fieldfares into many gardens and these birds love apples. The apple can make an interesting addition to a photograph, the splash of colour can help and it makes the subject much larger to help fill the frame. Other birds which might be attracted to apples include robins and blackcaps. Tips to help get the best shots include: break the skin of the apple to help the birds start feeding and put the apple on a spike to stop it rolling around or even falling off the bird table.
It isn’t just food that attracts birds. Obviously water is very important and if natural water supplies are frozen a bird bath could be a lifeline visited by a huge number of birds every day. I have made a large shallow bird bath in which I can photograph the birds at eye-level and get their reflection in shot as well. I usually adorn the edges of this bird bath with something natural such as autumnal leaves to get the best images.
USING A REMOTE
You don't necessarily have to be looking through the camera, or indeed holding it when a photo is taken. Many cameras will allow the user to control them from a distance away, some come complete with remote releases whilst for others they are an optional extra. Some work up to a distance of 100 metres away.
Using a remote release will allow you to place the camera close to the action and take photos that you couldn't hope to get in any other way. The initial process of familiarising the birds with the set up you hope to use is the same as described earlier though in the weeks prior to using a remote camera I introduce a pretend camera (a block of wood painted to look like a camera) to allow the birds to become accustomed to that as well.
When it comes to taking the photos I switch the pretend camera for a real one and that's when the fun begins. You might think that this sort of photography is easy but in practice all sorts of things can go wrong.
As a basic principle I would say that you have to set the camera to its widest-angle (ie zoom fully out) and set a fast shutter speed (set it in sports mode or use the widest aperture possible). I have sometimes used flash but I wouldn't do this to start with because the birds react to the flash and they can react so quickly that you are likely to get a blurred photo.
Don't put the camera quite as close as you would like. It is better to have a photo which has slightly too much in it than one which crops the tail off the bird. One thing you can be sure of is that if you plan for a bird to stand facing the left to take your bait, it will stand to the right.
Modern cameras are quite power-hungry so they almost all have an 'auto-off' facility whereby they turn themselves off after a minute of inactivity. Use your menu system to find and alter this function, there should be an option to turn this off.
When buying a remote release check carefully for compatibility with your own camera. Some manufacturers make their own but there are a few independent makes, if in doubt about compatibility contact the manufacturer. For this sort of photography you really need a wireless remote though I have purchased wired ones and extended them to over 100 metres successfully. Try looking at this website and search for remote releases: www.warehouseexpress.com
OUT AND ABOUT
If you don’t fancy turning your garden into a photographic studio full of props, bird food and cameras there are still ways in which you can turn your hand to photographing birds. The next best way is to go to places where other people turn their gardens into studios on your behalf!
There are many locations around the country where people have trained red kites to come to take food from regular feeding stations. They throw out fresh meat on a daily basis at a specific time of day and welcome visitors as well as the kites to come and enjoy themselves.
In the build up to feeding time the red kites can be seen circling overhead allowing great opportunities to capture these beautiful birds on camera. When it comes to collecting food the kites swoop down extremely quickly and snatch the diced meat from the ground, they hardly ever land at the feeding areas, instead they eat the food on the wing and only come to rest in surrounding trees. The action can be mesmerising as hundreds of kites swoop down in every direction.
You must have the sun behind you when photographing the birds and you will soon see that they fly into the wind when coming down to snatch food. Try to focus on one bird and follow it with your camera as it flies in to collect food. This is a challenge!
Your camera should be set with its fastest shutter speed possible, as described in the previous section but also set the drive mode to continuous so it will take lots of photos in quick succession and set the autofocus to ‘follow focus’ or ‘predictive focus’ so it will attempt to keep up with the birds as they fly around.
Despite the fact that there may be hundreds of birds in the sky this is still a very difficult type of photography but it is a wonderful experience. Winter is by far the best time to visit a red kite feeding area because the birds are more numerous, since they need the food more, and the sun is lower in the sky, with the result that the birds are often lit up underneath as they circle and wheel overhead.
I suggest visiting on a sunny day because photographs of birds in flight look fairly drab against a white cloudy sky. Try to get to the feeding area early so that you have time to look around the place and position yourself for the best angles and possibly get the best place in the hide, if there is one. Wrap up warmly with hat, scarf, gloves and waterproof coat, this may sound obvious but after a couple of hours sitting around in February you begin to feel very cold.
There are lots of red kite feeding stations around the country. The most famous is at Gigrin Farm near Rhayader in Powys, Wales, where there are several hides established; but there are others in Scotland, England and Wales. The best thing to do is to search on the internet for the one nearest you. Here are a few websites to look at:
www.gigrin.co.uk (red kite feeding in Powys, Wales)
www.gallowaykitetrail.com (for a red kite feeding area in Dumfries)
www.redkiteswales.co.uk (for red kite feeding in the Brecon Beacons)