Lessons Learned In Bird Photography, Part I
I've always been fascinated by birds. They range from tiny balls of feathers to awe-inspiring large predators, whose very eyes seem to say "I am smarter than you".
I like observing them, learning about them and their complex social behaviour. And, of course, I've always wanted to photograph them.
Photographing birds can be easy, and it can be extremely difficult. Especially in the last few years, I got to learn a few lessons about that.
The above photo from 2014 was taken in a café, sipping Cappuccino, with the sparrows all around us waiting to get bits from our cake. This is an easy photo to take and can be done even with a smartphone.
But smartphone cameras get out of the equation really quickly, since most birds will stay at least a few metres away from you, and "that tiny out of focus speck in the landscape really is a rare bird" usually doesn't cut it.
Some say that the equipment does not make the photographer, that it is even irrelevant. That it's his or her artistic skill that decides whether you make photos you and others like to look at again and again, or photos that collect dust at the bottom of your hard drive.
Some people never tried to photograph birds in flight.
Don't get me wrong, without at least some artistic skill, patience and a willingness to learn a lot, even the best equipment is basically worthless. But the limitations of equipment became very readily apparent to me as soon as a feathery friend went up into the air, and I tried to photograph him.
There are many limiting factors for equipment in bird photography. You need fast shutter speed, the ability to attach a good (great would be better) telephoto lens, and a sensor that can cope well with ISO noise (because of that fast shutter speed).
But what really matters most, is trying to focus. Did I mention the speed of birds? Some of them even change their direction quite quickly, often with some close background in the scene as well, and that is where many cameras will quickly give up. You may be able to save a photo with (some) motion blur, or with some noise. But not if it is never sharp to begin with.
So, for quite some time, my successful shots of birds in flight were either sheer luck, or relatively slow and large seabirds with nothing but sea or sky behind them.
On such occasions, our Canon EOS 6D (a great camera, but with an autofocus that seems mostly designed for portraits, landscapes and other things that do not move much) could make the fledgling photographer shine.
My wife and I took many photos on that day. Especially the ones with flying birds were extremely difficult. Some, like the little Cape Petrels, I could never get into focus while they were in the air.
Especially after this tour (if you visit Kaikoura, be sure to check out the Albatross encounter), the apparent need for a camera with better focusing capability became clear.
So what is a guy with a hobby to do? Buy a new camera. In the Canon lineup, if you need great autofocus, fast shutter speed and at least some kind of ISO capability without too much noise, your options become limited really quickly, and pricy very quickly as well. Same applies for lenses.
Basically, you can go with the 7D Mark II, or go five times more expensive with the full-frame 1DX.
Observant of my bank account, I naturally went for the crop-sensor 7D.
The step from the 6D's autofocus to that of the 7D MkII was significant. I had never been able to photograph a tiny songbird in the wild. What the above photo does not convey, is how the bird never stayed in a position for more than a second, and just how much foliage and twigs were around it. This is even more true for the following photo.
That the focus sits on the kestrel, and not on any random twig, is basically a miracle to me.
I was amazed by the opportunities my new equipment offered to me. Naturally, I immediately went out and bought a new lens.
Because that's another lesson - when photographing birds, you can never have too much focal length. That focal length, especially when you need it to focus quickly, get good image quality and let in enough light, seems to be an ounce of gold per millimetre. Therefore, 400mm had to be enough for now. But will they be enough?…
Sometimes I (and my wallet) wish I had my interest in another area of photography. Landscape, portrait, even macro.
Birds (in the wild) indeed seem to be among the most demanding subjects to photograph. They challenge you to constantly learn and improve your technique, make cameras and lenses attractive to you which may cost more than some people's car, and do quite well at making you feel like a mediocre photographer. Taking a thousand shots with only a few keepers.
Thing is, this is also what keeps me motivated. Seeing photos from the likes of Ari Hazeghi, and realizing how far away I am from that level of skill, keeps me going. Maybe, one day, I'll get closer to that.