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A Bit More About Birds

Photographing wildlife in a not-so-wild place.

June 5, 2017 Birds

Wildlife photography comes with its own challenges beyond most other nature photography. We may have to search for subjects in remote, wild places. When we do find them, animals can be on the move. They are alert to our presence and may not tolerate us. The light, backgrounds and distances between us and our subjects can change quickly. Using a tripod adds to the mix of controls to keep track of. And hand holding the camera decreases the odds of sharp images except in the best conditions. All these variables demand attention for a successful encounter with any kind of creature. And even then, in ideal situations, ten percent keepers is a good day.

That's why we admire stunning wildlife photographs -- we know what it takes to make them. If we can control any of the elements involved, we may have a better chance of coming home with pleasing images. I tried to do that in my nearby encounter with red-winged blackbirds.

Male Red-winged blackbird on cattails

A male red-winged blackbird on cattails calls and flares its wing patches.

The first thing I eliminated was the remote, wild place. I'm almost embarrassed to say there was nothing distant or untamed about a marshy retention pond fifteen minutes from home where redwings were staking their territorial claims. It was an easy location to move around in. The birds tolerated me as long as I was quiet and didn't make fast movements. The sun was always coming over my shoulder on a cloudless day, so the light was predictable. The backgrounds behind the birds stayed much the same from most angles. And the distances between the birds and me were easy to deal with except when they came closer than the close-focusing distance of my lens!

To improve the odds, I chose equipment and techniques I'm comfortable with. I used a tripod and ball head I know well. The pavement was level, so I didn't have to make big adjustments to the camera's height. I never needed to hand hold the camera and lens, so I was always photographing from a sturdy foundation. I chose fast-enough shutter speeds and ISOs to freeze the motion of the birds and medium apertures that helped soften the backgrounds. And I used the AF back button to control Auto Focusing, which is a technique I highly recommend.

All of the advantages over a wild place meant I could give more thought to the compositions and less attention to the equipment. That increased my chances of making more pleasing images in this not-so-wild setting. Someone might say I was cheating. Someone else might say I was smart. I'll say I was happy and I'll leave it at that.


MAKING THE PHOTOGRAPH (Techniques for Photographing Birds)

SUBJECT: Male Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) on cattail

CONDITIONS: Clear, calm, sunny; 75 degrees F

EQUIPMENT and SETTINGS: Nikon D4S, Nikon AF 500mm f/4, Nikon 1.4x AF teleconverter; tripod, ballhead; Aperture Priority exposure mode, Matrix metering, Single-Point Auto Focus using the AF back button, Continuous High shutter mode

EXPOSURE: 1/1600 sec @ f/8, ISO 1250

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