Cheating at Bird Photography

Northern Cardinal (male)

Bird photography is my idea of going to hell holding a camera.

As a ponderous, molasses-slow landscape photographer, I am fully aware that photographing these tiny, unpredictable, fast-moving creatures is way beyond my technical limits as a photographer. The high-end skills of panning, locking on and tracking focus, all while shooting eight frames per second are not ones I have practised nor believe I could ever master.

Song Sparrow

However, I do appreciate the beauty of birds and certainly admire the many spectacular examples of bird photography that I see online, by photographers such as Maxis Gamez, Andy Nguyen and my friend Jeff Johnson, who is one of the finest bird photographers out there.

Inspired by a class I recently took with Jeff, I decided to try my hand at capturing some bird images but knew that I would have to find a way to do so within my technical limits. I found the answer in a YouTube video, in which a photographer located a spot that birds frequent, picked up a small branch that had fallen from a tree, sawed off one end, used a drill to hollow it out, creating a bowl, which he filled with bird seed; he then affixed the branch to a fence post, using some string, in a spot with some colourful vegetation in the background. He set up his camera on a tripod a few feet away, pre-focused on the end of the branch and waited for birds to land on it to eat the seed. And bingo! He produced sharp images with pleasing, colorful backgrounds without requiring any of the advanced shooting techniques normally employed when photographing birds.

Carolina Wren

I thought, “This is for me!”

I have the perfect spot in my back garden, where one of my bird feeders is just a few feet from a wooden fence where birds often land to check out the area before flying on to land on the feeder. So, I set up my branch-feeder on a fence post, opened a window that looks out on to the back garden and sat inside, invisible to the birds, shooting out through the window with a Nikon 200-500mm lens on my Nikon D810 camera. Even with that focal length lens, as the subjects were at a distance of about 30 feet, I still had to crop these images heavily to produce a useable image. However, I knew that the 36.3MP FX-format sensor on my D810 would allow heavy cropping while still delivering good image quality.

American Robin

My retreat from the world of real bird photography was completed by the fact that I focused all of these images manually using LiveView, as is my preferred way of shooting landscapes. Even then, using a shutter speed of 1/1250th sec at f5.6, I captured plenty of blurry images. These little critters sure are twitchy!

Finally, as if to prove that I am not a complete fraud as a bird photographer, I walked to my local park, where I managed to photograph this great blue heron as it perched high in a tree.

Great Blue Heron

No bird-seed trap was used with this beauty. But I did have my camera on a tripod and focused manually. But, then again, herons are such big, slow-moving birds that even I can photograph them.

(Click on an image to view it in a lightbox)



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