John: You have some amazing bird images. What is the toughest part about getting a great shot?
Chris: There are a lot of things that go into a successful avian shot. But no matter what style shot, I think the most important factors are planning and visualization. If you plan well, the execution of the shot is relatively easy.
Let’s start with visualization. What is the shot that you want? Do you want a bird on a perch? If so, what kind of perch? Would you like the bird singing or eating? Do you want a bird in flight? And so on. Of course, the shot you want will change depending on the bird and your shooting environment, and will develop “on the fly” (pun intended) during your shooting time. However, it’s important to place a visualization in your mind’s eye.
Once you visualize your shot, planning takes over. To me, the top avian shooters, like Alan Murphy or Arthur Morris, constantly produce stellar images because they plan.
“Planning” incorporates a whole host of factors and objectives. For the image itself planning can include:
- Light (of course!)
- Wind direction
- Type of shot
- What kind of bird
- For the mechanics of getting the shot itself, planning can include:
- Habits of the bird
- Staging area for the bird
- Food for the bird
- Type of perch
- Skittishness of the bird (do you need a blind?)
- Lens size
- Many other factors come in to planning, but you get the idea.
Let’s take a real life example. I was with Alan Murphy in Texas and we wanted a shot of a Kingfisher that was hanging around on a local pond. For our planning, we knew what shot we wanted and we knew the habits of the bird. Here’s what we knew:
- We wanted a perch, so we put one in the water and dressed it up with some moss.
- Kingfishers love fish, so we bought some minnows.
- Kingfishers are very skittish, so we knew we had to have a blind.
- We wanted the sun at our back, and very little wind.
- We wanted the Kingfisher to face us, so we knew we had to put the food source between the bird and ourselves.
- We knew that Kingfishers like to “stage” and survey the scene before flying to a perch, so we set up near a shore tree.
- We had to keep the minnows in one place for the bird to feed, so we got an inflatable baby pool, filled it with water and tied it in front of the perch.
So, after all that planning, we were in a blind before dawn, with the sun to our back, facing a perch that had fish corralled right in front of it. After all that, snapping the shutter when the Kingfisher landed was relatively easy!
There is a funny part to this story. Despite what we thought was a perfect plan, the Kingfisher showed up before dawn and ate all our minnows before there was any light! So the next day, we put a net over the minnow filled pool and strung fishing line up to the blind. The Kingfisher arrived early again but could not get the fish. When the light was right, we pulled the net off from inside the blind. We had a happy bird, and happy photographers!
John: If you had to give a newbie some advice in relationship to bird photography–what would it be?
Chris: Well, in addition to the planning above and the right gear, which we’ll discuss next, I’d say a few things:
Practice and practice some more, and be prepared to fail. Many times. Don’t get discouraged, as good avian shots are hard to come by, even for pros.
When you are comfortable with your camera and your bird, try to get shots that don’t have the “hand of man” in them. Try to eliminate feeders, fence posts and such.
Like all photography, looking at other photographers’ images really helps.
Nothing will accelerate your learning curve faster than attending a workshop or shooting with an accomplished bird photographer.
John: Being a photographer and an owner of a photo gear business gives you a unique perspective. If you had to give advice on buying gear what would it be?
First of all, know that avian photography is expensive. Very. With avain photography, it seems you can never have enough reach. We constantly use teleconverters and search for longer lenses. When Canon came out with their 800mm, scores of photographers dumped their 600mm lenses and moved up despite the cost.
Most avian photographers also have a crop factor camera (like the 1.6 crop Canon 7D) for better reach.
For gear advice, I’d break components down to four areas: camera, lens, tripod and head.
I won’t delve too much into cameras as there are so many out there. If you are just starting though, get a crop factor camera to give you some reach, like a Canon 50D or a Nikon D300. If you think you will shoot birds in flight, make sure and step up from the entry level cameras to get a better autofocus system.
For your lens, I’d try and get the longest lens you can. You may have to stretch, but if you are going to continue in this field, you’ll end up with a 500mm or 600mm down the road. You don’t have to start there, of course. The 70-200 f2.8 works well with a teleconverter, and can get you on the way. One great starter lens is the Canon 400 f5.6. It’s about $1200 new, and will get you some long reach right away, so you can find out if avian photography is your thing. It’s also a great hand-held lens for flight. One warning though: if you are used to shooting a smaller lens, and get a taste of the reach of a 400mm, you’ll be drooling over the 500mm in no time.
As to tripods, there is a standard answer we give on workshops: nothing will improve your photography more than a good tripod. It’s best to “buy ahead” with tripods more so than with lenses. If you think you are going to end up with a 500mm, then go ahead and buy the tripod that carries it. Smaller tripods are harder to resell than smaller lenses. In the tripod category I would suggest a 3 Series Gitzo, either basalt or carbon fiber, or 3 series Induro carbon fiber. Is a 3 series overkill for that Canon 400 f5.6? Probably. But you’ll move up, and you’ll want to protect your investment in your lens. One thing good about tripods is their longetivity. My 3 Series Gitzo is 7 years old. I’ve changed camera bodies many times in that time frame.
The last component is your tripod head. If you only want to shoot static birds and don’t think you’ll ever go larger than a 400 f5.6, a good ball head is fine. But if you ever want to shoot birds in flight, no matter what size lens you have, you’ll need a gimbal head. Wimberley, Induro, Jobu and 4th Generation all make fine gimbal heads. Most work for any size lens, from a 70-200mm all the way up to an 800mm.
Come to think of it, of all the components, the camera body is the least place where you have to stretch or “buy ahead”. I’d take a non-pro camera body like a 50D any day, and use the extra savings to purchase a good lens or tripod.
John: If you had to pick one lens and one lens only, what would it be?
Chris: If you’ll let me have a teleconverter, then I would say that if I could only have one lens, it would be a 300mm f2.8. With that lens, I can cover close subjects, and I can get to 600mm easily with a 2X converter. It’s important to have an f2.8 though, as with an f2.8 your teleconverters will not slow down or shut off your autofocus. For both Canon and Nikon, their 300mm f2.8 lenses are among the sharpest, if not the sharpest, they make.
John: Is it true they use fake backgrounds when photographing birds? If so, why? And how do you go about setting that up?
Chris: No, it’s not true we use fake backgrounds with bird photography. (With one exception for hummingbirds). Those nice, blurred backgrounds that highlight our subject bird are accomplished with good lenses and depth of field control. More importantly, when we plan a shot, the correct background is one of the most important factors. You see a lot of jockeying around in avian photography to get the right background, more so than for the subject bird! We do “manicure” our backgrounds sometimes, for example snipping off a bright flower 30 feet behind the perch, or piling up leafy branches to cover up a bright spot.
Hummingbird flash photography does have fake backgrounds, usually a big print of an out of focus plant. The reason? If you are trying to freeze a hummer’s wings, your flash speed is so fast, that if you did not light up a background, you’d end up with midnight black around your subject bird.
Reader Question: The thing I’d like to know most is how to go about getting great images in your own backyard or local park without having to get into all the camo gear and hides.
Chris: The answer to this statement really lies in the type of bird you want to photograph. Some birds, like hummingbirds, tolerate humans just fine. Urban and backyard birds are mostly fine with us as well. But if you want to photograph a shy bird like a Pileated Woodpecker, you’ll need a blind.
Birds around the country have different tolerances of humans. For example, I cannot get within a few hundred yards of the Wood Ducks in my backyard stream, but in Albuquerque I could practically pat them on the head!
Reader Question: I have been stunned by the talent of Fergus Gill, winner of the Veolia Environment Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year for two years running. Both were images he got in his back garden!
Chris: From reading about Fergus, he noted that he was in his garden every day photographing, and his local birds acclimated to him. There is a lot to be said for this technique as to your back yard. The more you are out there shooting, the less the local birds will pay attention to you. Your odds will increase as well! In addition, if you get an abnormal event like a big snowfall, birds will be so focused on food, they will be likely to overlook your presence.
Reader Questions: What if I can’t make a workshop? Do you have any resources for aspiring bird photographers?
Chris: I sure do. For the basics on bird photography, including technical details such as exposure compensation, I would recommend Arthur Morris’ books: The Art of Bird Photography and The Art of Bird Photography II (actually a CD).
If you have your camera basics down and want to learn how to do songbird set-ups, particularly in your own back yard, you can’t beat Alan Murphy’s CD: The Guide to Songbird Set-up Photography. I help Alan with a couple of workshops every year, and continue to be amazed at the setups Alan comes up with. I swear the guy can talk to birds.
I want to thank Chris for his time and if you’re interested in seeing any other work by Chris then make sure to stop by his portfolio HERE.
Learn more about John, view his images and check out his blog here.