Gone To The Birds

The past couple of weeks I decided to try my hand at bird photography, again. When I first got into photography, birds are what I photographed most of the time. They were plentiful, patient and most of all I didn’t need a model release to use them! Two of the most plentiful birds in our area are the Pelican and Snow Egret, which I call “Florida Chicken” because they are all over the place. Back when I was getting started, I didn’t have a handle on exposure or understand my new equipment very well. I was shooting in either Program mode or Aperture Priority mode. Also, I really wasn’t focused on any compositional rules. I was just hoping to get a photograph that would come out.

Fast forward many years later and I wanted to give it another go. Since most of my photo friends like to photograph wildlife and birds, I figured that I should look at this again. At least now I know my equipment and I also shoot in manual so I can get consistent results. I also have added a few lenses to the inventory since I got started so I have a half a chance to get the subject in the frame bigger than a postage stamp. Currently I’m using a Nikon D300 with a 80mm-400mm lens. Since this is a crop sensor body at 1.5x I’m getting 600mm out of this lens. Granted it variable aperture, but some of the other pros that I have talked with are using f/8, which kind of surprised me. They tell me that f/8 ensures that the feather detail will be sharp and since we are shooting with such a long focal length and getting as close to the subject as possible, blurring the background is easy.

The other pro bird photographers that I have talked with, showed me their Gitzo carbon tripod ($800), a Wimberley head ($800), Nikon 600mm lens ($10,000), Nikon teleconverter ($500) and of course a Nikon D3X ($8,000). So for over $20,000, you too can shoot birds. Ya, right and we haven’t even talked about the flash, cords, and brackets if you use one.

While I was out on a field trip with one of my photography classes, I thought I would try and grab a few while the students were working. These first two were taken in Venice, Florida at the South Jetty. It’s quite a beautiful place. If you are looking for a place to go see the sunset, you need to put this place on your list. I didn’t have my 400mm lens with me at the time so I used my 18mm-200mm lens that was on the camera. These birds are only a few feet away and are tempered to humans, as this is also a popular fishing spot. It was around noon so this meant harsh lighting conditions. As I looked around, here was my first victim subject.

Pruning Pelican – Spencer Pullen © 2012

I have not been acquainted with the Audubon Society so to be honest, my bird knowledge consists of this, if it flies and has feet, wings and a beak, it’s probably a bird! This was with no flash. I got lucky as some of the rocks were lighter color and acted as a reflector. I chimped a couple of times to see what the histogram and blinkies were telling me. I divided the exposure and I was pleasantly surprised when I got home that I kept all of the details in the pelican. I got up and walked a few feet and I found an Egret looking for a handout from the fisherman. Now it was going to get interesting, it was noon and a white bird. I decided to shoot for the highlights and hope for the best. I checked the histogram and it looked “OK”. The surf as coming in so I waited until the waves were crashing against the rocks and burned off a frame. I got a couple in before he got tired of me taking his portrait. In post, I noticed that there was a little burn out on his head. I double processed this file through Camera Raw and layer masked the two versions together to help even out the tonality. Here is what I ended up with.

 Eager Egret Looking For A Handout – Spencer Pullen © 2012

Later that week, I contacted a fellow photographer friend and she was willing to show me where the Burrowing Owls were in our area. I had seen photos of these guys from other photographers, but I wanted to give this a go myself. This time I was prepared as I had the 400mm lens on. We arrived at the location at….you guessed it, noon! At least when you are used to working in adverse conditions, you get good at working with what you are dealt. The nest is on private property so we had to stand at the edge of the road and hope that our lenses were long enough. I put the camera up to my eye and it was then I could see why you need a 600mm lens with a teleconverter. The 400mm did OK, but I would have liked to fill the frame a little more. As we were shooting, my guide noticed that there was an owl popping his head up by the drainage pipe across the property that was right next to the road. I made my way over there to see what I could get. Now I had a new problem. I was so close to this little guy that the lens wouldn’t focus. So me being me, I walked out into the road. The minimum focusing distance on this particular lens is eight feet. It was a busy street and we had to look over our shoulder to keep an eye on the on coming traffic. I rattled off a few and here is one that I was happy with.

 He asked, “Are you my Momma?” – Spencer Pullen © 2012

I couldn’t get over their yellow eyes. I guess that is how they hunt in the dark. I walked back over where the main nest was to see what else I could get. It looks as if someone made a make shift perch for them out of a piece of iron and some kind of handle. I moved back and forth to get a decent background. Some how the concrete siding wasn’t getting it. As I moved, a bush came into view and made this look more naturalistic.

 Here’s Looking At You – Spencer Pullen © 2012

These were taken in Punta Gorda, Florida. There are a couple of nests around so I’ll have to revisit before they move on. For my first real “birding” experience I was happy with the outcome. The exposures were decent and with some minor Photoshop work, I was able to get a pleasing photograph. I have found that my years of doing corporate photography have really helped me with this type of photography. Working in challenging situations and since we are actually taking portraits of these creatures, I can use some of my Photoshop techniques that I use on people on birds. This looks like this will be a fun addition to what I’m doing now and I look forward to photographing with other bird photographers so I have a clue what these things are.

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean


  1. Spence
    From someone who competed in Bird photography for twenty years; the good shot is the “hand out egret”. I quite enjoy the balance between the white bird and the stop action wave, the comment from the judge I would hear first is that the bird is looking out of the picture (less space ahead of the bird than behind). Bear in mind mine is a very small window on the world of photography…….You have to be able to use your images for many other purposes! My comment is only relevant if you want to make wall art or compete with old men with big egos.
    I enjoy seeing what you are doing from time to time, keep up the good work I look forward to your next post.
    Ted Appel

    • Spencer

      Thanks Ted for taking the time to look this over and replying. I got that feeling when I have been to other locations with official bird photographers and they are sizing up each others glass. I enjoy taking photos, some turn out better than others. I’m sure that if I entered a competition, it wouldn’t turn out well. I guess I still have the magazine mentality when photographing things. Thanks again…


  2. Just wanted to let you know how much your photography class has inspired me. I look forward to taking more classes with you and going on more field trips. Thanks

    • Spencer

      Thanks Ruby! I’m glad that you are enjoying the classes and field trips. We’ll have to see what the art center wants to put on the schedule next. Thanks…


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