"A BIRD’S-EYE VIEW" Episode 1-3
I’ve always been a fan of birds. When my children were younger, I would, on occasion, buy a parakeet, cockatiel, or finch so we could enjoy watching the bird fly around the house. I guess if you have a bird for a pet, you’re supposed to keep their wings clipped, but I could never bring myself to do it. Birds are meant to fly, and fly they did.
We let them free most of the time, and our birds would spend much of the day perched on curtain rods or the Christmas tree, taking spins around the living room whenever they fancied a flight.
Unfortunately, in every case, Pickles or Bob or Fish, or whoever our pet bird was at the time, would eventually escape the house when someone left the door open for a moment too long. They never seemed too inclined to come home. I guess we could have gotten some homing pigeons, but after losing enough friends of the family, we gave up on the bird idea and got a massive fish tank instead.
I refocused my attention to birds in the wild, and I often bring a pair of binoculars when I’m out for a hike. Bird photography is something I’ve been interested in for a long time, but the longest lens I’d ever had—until this year—was a 70-200mm zoom. For bird photography, a long lens is essential. Birds are incredibly skittish, and no matter how stealthy I was, I found that as soon as I was ready to take a shot, my subject would remove itself to a tree some 200 yards across a nearby lake. But since I upgraded to a longer lens, I’ve had much more success in bird photography than I had back in my 70-200mm days.
A few thoughts about long lenses: They can be a problem, and the problem(s) depends on the individual photographer. For some, it could be an expense. A 600mm lens with a reasonably wide aperture (like an f4) could cost upwards of $13,000. Even a decent used one on eBay sells for about half that, so if the budget is tight, this might feel like an outlandish expense.
Size can also be a problem. Super telephoto lenses can be two feet long and weigh 7–10 pounds. Include a camera body and tripod, and that is a lot of gear to carry into the wild. Thankfully, we have options. You can get more compact and lighter lenses (zoom or telephoto) that won’t break the bank, though they aren’t as fast or sharp. Your dedication to bird photography determines how much of a sacrifice, monetary or otherwise, you’re willing to make. But whether it’s $1,000 or $13,000, a long lens is a necessity in the birding world. If only renting one on occasion is the best option, take it.
I have found two more necessities for satisfying bird photographs: a high-resolution sensor and becoming a master of disguise.
First, more about the sensor. A camera with a large sensor and lots of megapixels is a good idea. I prefer not to fill the entire frame with my subject when shooting, just so I have some latitude during the edit. When I shoot with a large sensor, I’m always amazed at how much I can crop and push in on a photo. It can give you that needed edge when determining the final composition in post. A sharp lens combined with a lot of data makes for a great working file when it comes to creating a stellar image.
Now on to the final necessity: disguise. A long lens and a good camera won’t help if you can’t get near the birds. I can’t count how many times I’ve crept up on a raptor or positioned myself near a singing cardinal, only to have it fly from its perch, never to be seen again. Recently I sneaked up on a watering hole at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in northern Utah, USA. I actually crawled on my belly, trying to be as quiet as I could, but as soon as I poked up my head to set up my tripod, the place came alive with flapping wings. I saw immediately that far more birds were in the area then I’d thought. Unfortunately, they had all taken to the skies at my presence. I had brought a brown textured backdrop, so I draped it over myself and the camera, and I gave my best impression of a giant brown bush. Amazingly, within about 15 minutes, the birds started to return. Once I could hear them stirring in the water again, I began taking pictures. Some of them turned out pretty good.
I have a lot to learn about bird photography, but so far, a long lens, a good camera sensor, and a blind or disguise are the three things I’m focusing on to improve my game. Birds are fragile creatures, so their defense responses are incredibly sensitive. Whatever I can do to make them more comfortable, I’ll do. Keeping my distance and keeping myself hidden seems like a good start.
For this episode, I also thought of another way to get closer to birds: visiting a local aviary, where birds are used to being around people and are naturally protected by their enclosures. They’re more willing to expose themselves to the camera.
Shooting at an aviary is also a great way to get accustomed to a new lens or camera and to learn how birds move and behave. You can also get great images of some incredible species from around the world with relative ease. I’m saying relative ease because birds are a real challenge even at an aviary. But practicing in a more controlled environment is a nice way to gain experience before booking that flight to Costa Rica.
Bird photography is an incredible endeavor and a form of photography I truly enjoy. What could be better? Fresh air and listening to and following some of the most beautiful creatures we have been blessed to enjoy in this world.
Black-naped Fruit Dove