A few months back I was contacted by Keith Brandwood of the Cumberland Bird Observers Club whether I would be willing to offer my time and give a complimentary bird photography workshop for interested club members. I jumped at the chance since I love sharing my knowledge with fellow enthusiasts and it also helps me learn along the way. The date was set for November 24, 2012 at one of the member’s properties in the gorgeous northern suburb of Dural. John, the owner, lives on five acres that he landscaped to attract Aussie native birds. His gardens are magnificent and offer food and shelter for so many species that it is hard to keep tab on them all. Needless to say, that after yesterday he added a new species to his list of 109 seen, bringing the total to 110 species. Not bad for a Sydney “suburban” garden.
John has some feeding stations set-up and he also has strategically placed bird baths, which the birds just LOVE! At 06:00 the group was gathered and after a quick introduction we broke them into smaller groups of five to go along so that birds don’t get as spooked by the sheer number of people around. I did suggest that they may be somewhat more flighty, so be careful, talk softly and don’t wave arms around.
I was so pleased to see so many enthusiastic photographers! They were off shooting in different parts of John’s garden and I tried to spend as much time as possible talking with the folks, discussing processing methods, in field techniques and so on, that before I knew it was 08:30, time for morning tea and I barely took one photo. Of course, that is also because a couple of club members kidnapped my outfit and fell in love with it.
During and after morning tea, most of us stayed around the garden patch immediately near the house as it is here where John has put in a rocky feature with a small pond, bath that uses recirculating water and has a nice low tree with pretty branches right above it, making for nice landing perches. The action was fierce at the main feeder with Red-browed Finches and Crimson Rosellas eating harmoniously, soon joined by Galahs and Brown Cuckoo Doves.
People were laying low on the grass – getting to the best perspective for the birds on the ground level – and were shooting frenziedly. We hope to see many photos in the coming days to be able to judge a mini comp we ran. Best photo of the day by a club member and a visitor. I bet it will be a hard one to judge as so many passionate snappers were actively clicking away.
After all the participants left, I stayed a while to enjoy the water feature and managed to get some very nice photos as well.
Below the photos is a list of the tips I gave to the members and visitors who turned up. The list is not exhaustive, but it covers some basic points that all photographers wanting to become more skilled at bird photography should consider.
- Read your camera manual and learn the basic controls; i.e. how to change shooting modes, apertures and shutter speeds for a start.
- Understand some basics about how exposure works and how the ISO, shutter speed and aperture combinations can be used to your advantage.
- Shoot RAW files and be ready to spend a little time in post processing to optimize your images. (Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom or Elements (Aperture for Apple people) are all good programs to use)
- Learn to read the histogram. This is important to get the best image quality in all situations.
- Learn about your subject(s). Nothing can get you better shots than understanding bird behaviour. E.g. if you watch a perched bird and see it defecate, there is a very good chance that it will fly off shortly after relieving itself and you may get a take-off shot (easier said than done).
- Get eye level with the bird if possible. Nothing is less appealing than looking down at one from a human perspective, or seeing its bum high in a tree.
- Use a fast shutter speed to freeze motion. This means you may need to shoot a higher ISO value to get a fast shutter speed. Learn to expose digital files to minimize noise.
- Aim to get the eye sharp! At least the eye. Even if most other parts of the bird are slightly softer, a sharp eye will make for an overall aesthetically pleasing image than a sharp bird with a soft eye.
- When photographing flying birds, try to capture them flying towards you, not after they just passed you or have long passed you.
- Leave a little more space in front of a bird than behind it when in flight. You need space for it to “fly into”.
- Try to keep yourself between the bird and the sun. In most instances this gives you the best light angle.
- Avoid photographing white birds in the middle of a sunny day.
- Overcast conditions give nice flat lighting all day without harsh contrast. These conditions are perfect for shooting white birds and everything else.
- Most importantly, shoot lots and often – it is the best way to build confidence and experience to make sure you can capitalize on the opportunities during your outings.
- Have lots of fun along the way, this is probably THE best advice!