Beyond The Campfire was created to encourage readers to explore the great outdoors and to observe it close up. Get out and take a hike, go fishing or canoeing, or simply stretch out on a blanket under a summer sky...and take your camera along. We'll talk about combining outdoor activities with photography. We'll look at everything from improving your understanding of the basics of photography to more advanced techniques including things like how to see photographically and capturing the light. We'll explore the night sky, location shoots, using off camera speedlights along with nature and landscape. Grab your camera...strap on your hiking boots...and join me. I think you will enjoy the adventure.

The Dark Horse Region

The Dark Horse Region
A View into the center of the Milky Way

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Photography For The Birds

A calm demeanor floated above the small lake that morning creating a mirrored smooth surface from which the tall trees lining the edge reflected. The only ripples were those made by my paddle as I floated across the open waters in my Old Town canoe. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a somewhat large bird swoop across a cove and land next to the waters edge. A quick look through my long lens revealed it to be some kind of heron but it was too far away to make out exactly what kind. I turned my canoe toward where the bird had landed and paddled ever so slowly to close the distance. I fully expected whatever it was would fly away as I approached, but to my surprise it remained calm and focused on catching his meal. Amazingly, I drew within about twenty feet or so, and raised my 500mm lens and began to shoot. I was barely far enough away to stay outside the minimum focal distance for that lens. In my viewfinder I saw what appeared to be an immature Green Heron stalking the shallows amongst some tangle of vines and stems. I fired away with the shutter as he appeared totally oblivious to my presence. The results were amazing.

Wildlife photography can be one of the most rewarding and challenging types of photography a person can pursue. It requires not only a good command of your camera equipment, but an understanding of wildlife habits and environment. It requires a measure of patience, stealth, and determination. What I've discovered is that you have to want to do it to be successful at it. Although I do not spend a great deal of time in the field pursuing wildlife, when I have done so I have thoroughly enjoyed the process. It can provide a pleasant change of pace from the everyday photography I tend to do. There are days I come back without a single usable image and there are days I must cull many images just to reduce the numbers to a manageable level. There are also days when great opportunity presents itself and I am not ready, and days where I stumble into a great image without even trying. Wildlife photography is not for everyone, especially those who do not like being hot or cold or wet. However, there is a relatively easy way to break into the field; Photographing songbirds in your backyard.

This article is not intended to be a definitive dissertation on the techniques of birdwatching or bird photography. It is however intended to encourage the reader to give it a try. Equipment required is minimal, but there are certain requirements that will make your attempts more enjoyable and successful. First of all you will need a good zoom lens. It does not have to be some pro-grade f/2.8 500mm multi-thousand dollar engineering work of art. It does however need to have some reach to it. At a minimum, one of the standard 70 - 200mm zoom lenses will work. Something reaching out to 300mm is better. If you have a budget that allows for it and wish to purchase a good quality zoom then you might consider something in the range of 50 - 500mm. Good after-market used lenses in this range are very reasonably priced.

Another good piece of equipment is a sturdy tripod. Although not absolutely necessary, when using a long focal length lens, you will find your images will be much sharper if shot from a tripod. Other than that, what else you use in the field is up to you.

Attracting songbirds to your backyard is pretty easy. Using a general all purpose birdseed will attract a wide variety of subjects, plus any kind of suet or millworms or homemade food stuffs will work. What you should remember is when photographing songbirds, it is best to capture them in as natural an environment as you can, avoiding the cliche images of birds sitting on the edge of a feeder. In order to accomplish this, place your feeder near some overhanging limbs or even consider making your own by cutting a limb or two from that vacant lot down the street and placing them a few feet from your feeder. This will provide the birds a secure place to perch before they approach the feeder. Remember, the feeder is simply used to attract the birds, your pictures should focus on their natural behavior.

Another requirement is to position yourself close enough so you can fill the viewfinder with the subject. This is generally a lot closer than most people realize. Even with a 500mm lens with a lot of reach, you should be within about 20 feet or less to be able to capture those detail revealing images. Using a 300mm lens requires that you get within about 15 feet or so. So how do you do that without spooking the birds?

Well, there are several ways. One of the easiest is to shoot through an open window or door that opens onto a deck or patio. Just setup your feeder close by, hang the perching limbs a few feet from the feeder, sit and wait while you observe through the window. I do not recommend shooting through the glass as that will tend to distort the image and reduce the sharpness. Another way is to setup a blind. Something as simple as a few yards of old burlap, or cheap camo material stretched across a couple of poles will work. The idea is to reduce the visible physical movement which is what scares the birds. You can also purchase one of those pop up camo hunting tents which affords a good deal of portability. They not only protect you from the elements, but are very effective at concealing your movements.

The trick now is to capture the birds. It will usually take a day or two for the birds to find your feeder, but they will find it. Remember, fill your viewfinder with the subject, include some of the environment in the image, shoot using a large aperture as this will blur the background especially with a long focal length lens. Focus on the eyes and use a fast shutter.

Hope this encourages you to give it a try. There is a great deal of information available on the Internet about the subject, so get out there and enjoy.


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