Photographing wild birds
Written by: Tiffany Joyce
Having developed a passion for photographing wild birds, it’s been interesting to see where that process has taken me in terms of focus, specific birds and the equipment and skills needed to get good photos. For me, my photographs are about trying to capture the beauty I see and convey it to others. My specific interest has become photographing raptors (birds of prey) and more specifically the Osprey who inhabit the Belongil Estuary in Byron Bay.
I use a CanonSLR 450D primarily (although I’m hoping to get the new 550D) with an EF70-300mm f/4-5.6 USM Zoom Lens. What changed things a lot for me in terms of getting better shots, was using Al Servo, it will track the bird flying most of the time. It doesn’t always work but helps a lot. It depends on the available light for the ISO mode … with the Osprey, they’re often in a pretty awful light situation and I do bump it up to 400 as the light is coming from behind me but they’re near a creek that has poor light. The metering mode depends also on the light and the distance but ‘spot focus’ overall seems to have the best results. I hardly ever use a tripod outdoors, it’s just too hard and it’s impossible when you’re trying to track a bird flying. What I do, I’m sure people think I’m nuts, but it works for me …. I always have the camera on a monopod; I don’t actually hardly ever use it on the ground but have it just hanging from the middle of the camera (folded in to its shortest length). Sounds crazy but it helps keep the camera balanced and I don’t seem to get as much camera shake.
Of course it takes much more than good equipment and knowledge of settings to capture
great shots out there in nature’s uncontrolled environment. Over time I’ve learnt a few things and now, because I talk about my passion quite a lot, people tell me where they see birds nesting, roosting or hunting. This information has given me access that I wouldn’t normally have had. Although I’m a very solitary bird watcher I have a good relationship with local bird buddy groups, the Arakwal rangers and Byron Council very kindly gave me a pass to the wetlands. This gives me an invaluable source of information and access.
Then there are the birds and I definitely have a ‘thing’ with them and particularly the raptors. I regularly have osprey, eagles, goshawks and kites circling above my head and letting me get quite close. I believe it’s an energetic thing, but also it’s a familiarity. I ‘talk’ to them and make noises, I go slowly, softly and patiently and I give them time to know who I am and to learn that I won’t hurt them. I’ve got closer and closer to the Osprey and had the great joy last year of photographing their chick from when she was about two weeks old through to her first flight, catching her first fish and now a year later flying with her parents.
I’ve learnt too not to ‘freak out’ when I have a huge raptor hooking down a tree corridor towards me or whistling over my head with a huge fish. If I freak out (by freak out I mean get too excited) I get camera shake and I don’t take the time to focus properly. Sometimes it means I miss the shot but it probably wouldn’t be focused properly anyway. Below is juvenile Sea Eagle, she’s massive and she didn’t see me so she was very close but I managed to stay calm and got a few shots.
Another thing I’ve needed a lot of is patience and a willingness to bear extremely uncomfortable physical conditions to get a shot. To photograph the Osprey I have to walk a considerable distance through wild bush (snakes, goannas, ticks) and then stand, sometimes for hours, in a small creek outlet. My legs feel like they’ll fall off, my arms ache, my eyes get tired and sore and sometimes it’s hot or starts raining, but when the chick pops it’s head above the nest or the female stands in the nest and screams for the male, or the male comes wheeling overhead with a huge fish …. Then it’s so worth it.
I’ve learnt so much about identification, migration, seasons, habits and behaviors of birds by observing them over the years. The Osprey I’ve learnt the most because I’ve watched them close up for several years now. During breeding season I try to go there nearly every day for a couple of months while they’re at the nest. If the chick survives he/she fledges after 48 -76 days and then once he/she has the hang of it, they travel over larger distances until they return to breed again. It’s fascinating and as humans I think we can learn a lot, but that probably another story.
Lastly I’ve learnt how to use Photoshop to enhance and create beautiful images. Some photos just need the basics tweaked but I’ve taught myself how to make composite images. I take photos of the sky when it’s particular beautiful and ‘blend’ it with a good image of a bird in flight. Again you need good clear shots and remember to always take the biggest, best quality file sizes. You can do lots with a really big photo file but very little with a small web one.
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