It’s that time again, the flowers are starting to bloom, the storks are bringing babies in cloth sheets, I guess spring is in the air. Since the weather has been holding, people are out in droves (I’ve always wanted to use that word somewhere!) taking photos and enjoying themselves before the weather gets really hot and sticky. I had the opportunity to visit the bird rookery in Venice, Florida awhile back. I have been told that this rookery is world-renowned and photographers flock to this place when the birds are doing their thing. The rookery is very accessible and anyone can get some great photos, as the birds aren’t that far away. However, if you have a long piece of glass I would still recommend taking it. This is one place where you will see really expensive lenses and tripods. It’s pretty tranquil and quiet even amidst all of the photographer’s cameras clicking away. There is also a pavilion that has picnic tables so you have a place to rest and eat your lunch that is feet away from all the action. This venue is popular with my students so when I’m teaching classes in the area, this is on the field trip list.
I don’t consider myself a bird photographer, but I try my best when the opportunity presents itself. I actually started out many years ago by photographing birds. They are plentiful everywhere in Florida and best of all, they don’t require a model release! The gear that I used for the following photos was pretty simple, I used my 80mm-400mm lens and a tripod fitted with a ball head. This made it easy as I didn’t have to hold the weight of the camera but also gave me the flexibility of moving the camera however I wanted. This probably isn’t as nice as having a Wimberley head, but one uses what they have or they call in a favor!
When I take students out who are learning the basics of photography such as ISO, aperture and shutter speed, this is a great example to them to try various modes on the camera. Usually in a case such as this, one would want tack sharp photos of the birds in flight. This is going to require a fast shutter speed. There are a couple of different ways to accomplish this. Depending on the experience of the student, I will recommend different settings to try. If the student is just starting out, I don’t like to confuse the poor person with the photographer’s numerical soup right off the bat. To get them comfortable with the camera, I tell them to turn the dial to the photo of the guy running or sports mode. This will program the camera for a faster shutter speed. If the student is more experienced and is past the preset modes, I tell them to use “S” (Nikon) or Tv (Canon). I like to shoot action such as this at 1/1000 – 1/2000. Also, this allows the student to choose the correct ISO to achieve the speed that they have selected. They are actually on their way to learning manual mode, but they don’t know it. I shoot in manual mode all the time myself. I find that my exposures are consistent and if I want to do something special with the scene, I can force the camera to do it.
I believe that the males are in charge of getting the nesting material and finding the food. If you stand there for a while, you can tell when the male is getting ready to take off for one of the needed items. Since the camera is set up for action, all I have to do it press the button and make sure that the bird is on the focus dot. Speaking of focusing systems, I’m not a big fan of matrix (Nikon) or evaluative (Canon) as I have been burned one too many times by the camera deciding to focus on the wrong thing. I have been using spot focus for years and have never looked back. I know where ever that point is in my viewfinder, that is what the camera is going to lock on to, no questions asked.
I like to set the camera up for rapid fire or continuous (Nikon) or burst (Canon) mode. This allows the camera to keep firing as long as the button is held down. I have actually been laughed at by using this method, mostly by older film users. As far as I’m concerned, this is digital and pixels are free. Also, I feel as I would have a better chance of getting the photo that I’m going for in an ever changing situation such as this.
Light is also another consideration. Shooing a subject such as this is a double edge sword. You need enough light to achieve the shutter speed that you want without jacking up the ISO to the moon, but softer light is much nicer as the contrast ratio is much less. This is one advantage having long lenses that open up to f/2.8 vs f/5.6. This gives the photographer a two-stop advantage. With every passing day, camera’s ISOs get better and better, could you imagine going to the drug store and asking for a roll of ISO 3200? Every camera has its limit to what is acceptable for noise. I personally don’t like to go over 400 ISO, but there are many situations I find myself at ISO 1600 just so I can get a photo.
One of the challenges that I find with shooting these kinds of subjects doesn’t come from the camera, but rather in post. Since we are dealing with nature and a bird that is going to do what ever it wants to do, we don’t have too much control on composition. Of course we could move around and get a different angle, but what if there is an annoying twig going right through the viewfinder that is in front of the bird? Wouldn’t it be nice to walk up and rearrange the nest? We could only hope, but we know that this won’t work. We are going to have to deal with what nature has laid out for us. In this case, the nests are elevated to our shooting position so it common that I have a “twig issue” in these photos. This is where you and the clone tool in Photoshop are going to become great friends. Some are easier than others, but it’s still a pain to have to remove such objects and make the results believable. I find that creating a new layer and choosing “Sample All Layers” with the Clone Tool works the best for me. Also, if I make a mistake, I haven’t painted over any of the original pixels.
This last photo is the best in the series in my humble opinion. Luck has a lot to do with photography. Even if you have the best gear, education and light, but at the end of the day if nothing is happening if front of the lens, you’re going to have very few photos. I have been to the rookery many times over the years. I have taken flight shots, mating photos, and so on. After awhile, if you are like me, I was running out of creative things to come up with. I was shooting there with another photo buddy and we were talking through the viewfinder. I have had many discussions through the viewfinder. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, this means having a conversation with someone without taking your eye away from the viewfinder. We were discussing settings and how the light was changing. Just as we were going over things, a heron flew into the nest and was heaving. I thought the bird was going to croak! In a second I saw a tail, then a fish! If I had moved my eye away from the camera, I would have lost this opportunity. I have to say I don’t have one of these in the collection yet. When I got home I was surprised that even the birds tongue is hanging out! I was at the right place at the right time and the camera was set up properly. I wish I could say I’m that good, but I think luck had something to do with it.
There you have it, another successful bird photo outing. There is always something out there to photograph. State parks and zoos have some great opportunities to capture birds up close. Not all of them will be a winner, but you can’t get awesome photos if you never try. Keep the empty camera cards close and burn up that motor drive!
Until next time…
Keep Your Glass Clean