Bird photography is a fascinating and rewarding subject. Growing up in South Australia, may father had beautiful open style aviaries, with plants and birds from all around the world. Many bird species co-inhabited a large naturally planted enclosure. As a boy, it was fascinating to watch the interactions between bird species from across the globe. Australian Parrots, African and Australian Doves, temperate Honeyeaters, finches and quails from Africa, Australia and South America. Each had colours and behavioural characteristics unique of their own and it was a delight to watch the play of life and interaction between the various species.
When I started my work as a photographer around the year 2000, I was naturally drawn to the bird kingdom for inspiration and it re-awakened the passion and love I had for dad’s birds growing up. The first thing I found was this was not an easy subject and I spent the next 7 years visiting exciting new locations and gathering the necessary equipment and skills to progress in this chosen field. The first thing that became evident with birds was to get the necessary lenses for good subject capture, as many birds are small and often fidgety subjects at the best of times. Many frames were captured early on of blurred subjects, or birds filling only a distant or fleeting corner of the frame. Although frustrating, it fueled aspirations to capture more intimately the colourful and magical world of birds.
It became essential to forge a deeper connection to nature to get the close shots, capture full frames and natural eye contact with the birds was often a challenge. I used all natural lighting to begin with and all manual metering to control the light and exposure. Although this proved to be difficult and frustrating, I was prepared to lose many good frames to keep the integrity of the craft and shoot manually like in the film days. I was most happy capturing a few great frames for the day and kept photography in the field all about opportune moments and adopting the patience and perseverance needed to be in the right place at the right time.
Small birds are often the most challenging subjects as they are very darty in flight and rarely stay still in the wild. Getting close enough to fill the frame with these small birds like the pardalote below (5 to 6 cm) is rare and often requires a combination between learning characteristics of the individual bird species and the humility needed to get close enough or earn their trust. In the beginning, open style aviaries are a great way to sharpen your skills, as you can get in close and work with existing foliage and natural surroundings. The birds in these aviaries are also familiar with human contact so you can already get more intimate shots. It allows for you to experiment a bit with certain lighting conditions, fill flash, or to master the light manually, which is often a more authentic look with brids.
In the wild it is a whole different ballgame however, with the birds are often very wary of anything they don’t know and usually human contact being somewhat foreign to them. I avoid using a hide or camouflage, with well over 90% of my bird images I have shot being up-front with presence undisclosed. With photography in general you can fall prey to the ‘grab and make mine’ mentality. A lot of frames may be taken without respect for the subject, their personal space, habitat and environmental considerations. I prefer to adopt a more mutual approach with the subject and if respect or trust is developed, the art form becomes more about what the subject gives and what you receive rather than take.
With animals and birds in the wild I like to engaged the subject’s acknowledgement and gauge their degree of agitation or comfortability to be photographed, which creates a kind of mutual continuity in the artform. I even allow for them to direct the course of the shoot, as the images often tell more of ‘their’ characteristic story and not mine. Also, a closer or more intimate connection between the bird and human species is developed, which allows for visual images that are more magical, real or ‘in the moment’.
The beauty about photographing birds in the wild is that any one location keeps you on your toes, with the many varied bird species creating rewarding and challenging moments for the budding and professional photographer alike. I love going to a new location that is brimming with bird life with good weather conditions as nature becomes vibrantly alive and pregnant with photographic potential. New locations keeps the monotony down too, as variety is the spice of life and new bird species or locational sceneries offers new inspiration and renewed vigor for you craft.
Birds When Traveling Abroad or ‘On the Road’
My travels over the years have afforded me many great opportunities to encounter a wide variety of bird species. Often just waiting for a taxi, bus or marveling over a natural sunset or scenery was sweetened the more by a chance encounter with a local bird flying in or paying a visit. Birds from foreign locations may have characteristic traits, behavior or calls that are a new experience, which can help further sharpen your skills or just plain be fascinating or of interest. Individual photographers may have preferences for terrains, climates or geographical districts, yet with the subject of birds there is always something of interest or to challenge your craft, especially in longer or more remotes trips or stays. Continental focuses are great, like Africa, Australia, North America, South America or The UK, yet often these are too general and regional dynamics are better served for a more distinct species focus.
Birds in flight are a subject specialty or area of specific skills in themself. Often very specific equipment or developed skills sets need to be adopted to get consistently good flight shots. Modern digital cameras do much of the work in terms of subject flight or motion tracking, along with metering. This can be a dual-edged sword, in that although it may allow for more time to focus in on composition and capture, it can make for a more clinical or generic look at times. Actually manually metering and focusing on the fly is far more challenging and rewarding art, with much time often spent in the field mastering the subject, terrain conditions, not to mention becoming well seasoned with your equipment or chosen gear. On your travels, this can be rewarding, yet at times frustrating if you failed to pack that ideal lens, filter, tripod or lens mount. Prior preparation to a large degree is always the best approach for foreign locations that just may call for your best technical skills or equipment.
A good way to increase your chances acquiring great bird images that tell a real story from your travels is to frequent the local creeks, rivers, springs or brooks. All birds have to drink at some stage, especially when the weather is hot, so you can get some serious traffic to streams and waterholes. You also get the potential to capture behavioral characteristics unique to certain birds, like a kingfisher fishing, or a small finch washing itself in the water. Certain birds drink alone, in flocks, or some may engage together playfully in watercourses, rivers or streams, so these are great locations to ‘keep it real’ and make for more organic or natural scenery settings.