Tips for staying patient with bird photography.
One of my greatest lessons as a photographer started with a single bird perched on top of a cedar post. It was a male northern flicker, to be exact. His golden underside, elegant black spots and vibrant red patch seemed to beckon me to take a photo.
I grabbed my camera to snap a quick photo, but getting a good one became a tougher challenge than I expected. After a solid week, I finally got my shot, but not without a few setbacks—and some real-world education—along the way.
Starting with a Blind
Concealed within my portable camouflaged shooting blind, I thought it would be fairly simple to capture the perfect photo of the flicker perched up on the post. But it wasn’t that easy. The relaxed bird I observed through binoculars did not want me to get closer, even in my blind. Every time I did, he flew from his perch.
Frustrated with my growing collection of blurry images, I knew I needed to change my technique. Instead of getting into the blind whenever I had spare time, I made up my mind to enter before sunrise and wait for the bird to arrive.
This simple change appeased the flicker, and now I could watch him search for morsels to eat as he explored every crevice in the post, pecking with his long bill and probing with his eel-like tongue.
My confidence building, I set out to take my ideal image. The flicker paused midway up the column. It wasn’t the composition at the top of the post that I imagined, but I felt compelled to try for any photo at this point. I slowly began to reposition my lens, and then—gone.
The camera movement startled the bird, and once more I had nothing to show for my efforts. My patience had been tested and I’d failed, so I aimed for the top of the cedar log again. And this time I promised myself that I would wait for the shot to come to me instead of forcing it.
A skilled teacher, the flicker returned to see if I understood the lesson. He bounced all around the post, pausing here and there, teasing me to see if I would move. I didn’t.
Finally, the bird took his spot at the top of the post, just the way I first saw him. As I pressed the shutter release halfway, the autofocus engaged, the gears in the lens adjusted and then
the flicker darted away.
Thus began the final lesson: No noise allowed, not even the seemingly innocuous purr of the lens focusing. I knew I was dependent on my camera’s autofocus system but had never found it a liability. Until this flicker arrived, manual focus had seemed antiquated, so I never acquired the skill. Learning to focus manually took some practice—well, a lot of practice—but it has made me a more proficient photographer.
After six days of ups and downs, I eventually snapped the photo. My skittish subject demanded that I adapt to the situation and acquire new skills if I wanted to succeed. So I did.
Jim's top three tips:
Expand. There’s no rule that says backyard birding must take place in your own backyard. Ask your neighbors and friends if you can sit in their yards to take pictures for a few hours. People are flattered when someone appreciates the birding landscapes they worked hard to design, and different habitats attract different bird species.
Embrace. You can reap the rewards of any weather. Rain, snow and fog add drama and saturate the colors in your
photos. Birds tend to feed heavily just before and soon after a storm, providing you with abundant opportunities.
Engage. Shoot video in addition to still photos. Most cameras capture spectacular video, and many digital picture frames play movie files. Don’t hesitate to switch from still to video mode on your camera when you catch a robin eating a worm or a bluebird taking a bath.