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Better Bird Photography

Better Bird Photography

By Andre Nel, Johannesburg.

May, 2019.

National Geographic photographer, Jim Richardson, is famous for saying: “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff”.  However, as the acclaimed English photographer David Yarrow notes, gaining access to stand in front of interesting stuff is the hardest part of the photographic process.  We in South Africa are spoilt for choice when it comes to wildlife.  Birds are particularly accessible to us – many can be found in your own garden, so you can have easy access to great subject material to photograph.  Do not take this privileged position for granted – South Africa is one of the most biodiverse countries on earth and we have a greater variety of birds than the whole of Europe.  From my little house in suburban Johannesburg, I am visited by more than 40 species and if I am prepared to take a short ride in my car, my choice rises to hundreds.  South African photographers looking for interesting subjects need look no further than home and you don’t need a National Geographic budget.  One quiet, humble and elderly photographer whose work I have come to admire is Gerrit Lotz from Tugela Mouth, Natal.  With over 200 species of bird close to his home, he has chosen to specialise on photographing one – the Pigmy Kingfisher.  His seminal portfolio on the bird is both spectacular and unmatched – even by National Geographic.

Bird photographers come from a variety of backgrounds.  I was an experienced photographer simply looking for more interesting stuff to stand in front of.  Gerrit Lotz was driven by his passion for conservation of a little-known species and knew nothing at all about photography when he started.  There are also many ways of accessing birds and it is impossible to favour just one.  Some people like to hike and observe birds as they walk; some like to sit in a hide and others like to drive around.  All of them work – just pick the one that suits you best.  The same applies to equipment.  Some favour an expensive “great white” lens for birds, but cheaper alternative options are becoming available every day.  The key ingredient to a great shot is skill, not equipment.  If you do not believe me, look back at the great work done by Peter Ginn in the 1970’s, photographing birds with moderate focal lengths onto 35mm transparencies.  His work is exemplary, even by today’s standards.

Whatever reasons you have for wanting to photograph birds and whatever equipment you have, you would do well to learn from those who have walked the path before you.  My experience is that people in the field need on-the-spot advice when a great opportunity presents itself and since the biggest errors relate to lighting, background and pose, it makes sense to keep these in mind while you are shooting, because you cannot correct them later.  Ask yourself:  is my lighting appropriate?  Background? Pose?  In practice, paying attention to these “big three” points while shooting will make a big difference.  Let’s start with lighting.

The two photographs above were taken just seconds apart.  The one on the right is a good deal better than the other because there is a catchlight in the bird’s eye.  This small detail makes a huge improvement.  With birds, a catchlight is most easily achieved if the lighting is low, front-lighting.  Bird photographers will sometimes say: “Point your Shadow at the Bird” because of this.  Front-lighting is not the only form of lighting that is good for birds, but it has many beneficial qualities and is a good form of lighting to master.  It is a good place to start.

Background (and foreground) to your subject is also important in bird photography.  Try and chose surroundings that do not detract from your subject, as they do in the following shot.  Background is an important factor that is easy to overlook while shooting – you need to make a conscious effort to review your background in the viewfinder and adjust your shooting position to make corrections.

Finally, pose.  Avoid postures that look awkward and favour viewpoints that show the bird off well.  In particular, avoid photographing birds from underneath – this often happens in an attempt to get close to a bird in a tree.  That pose is rarely complimentary.

With the basics of these three points covered, let me consider some photographs where they have been applied mindfully.

Ravens are notoriously difficult birds to photograph, because they are dark and it is hard to capture detail.  Worse than that, they have a black eye set in black plumage, making detail even harder to resolve.  White-necked ravens, like this one, have a white collar that is easy to over-expose in one’s zeal to get detail in the blacks.  Classic early-morning front-lighting excels in situations like this one.  Combine appropriate lighting with a soft background and an interesting pose and the result is pleasing.  Although the subject is a common bird, the final result is mainly the product of careful execution of three things.

I wish to draw your attention to two additional factors which further strengthen this raven shot – the angle of view and the use of depth-of-field.  Both of these combine to give the image an engaging quality that captivates the viewer.  This illusive quality is hard to define, yet causes the viewer to ponder.  Engaging your viewer is one of the most desirable aspects that an image can have in today’s world, when we are spoiled for choice of powerful images.  In one of his books, David du Chemin refers to these “additional factors” as: “Layers of Awesome” and says that when multiple good points are combined into one shot, the resulting image gets stronger.

Some people have felt that the crop on this image is too tight – what do you think?  Be careful to answer from the heart and not the rule-book.  To me, the tight crop used here brings you into the world of the raven and makes the photograph more engaging.  An expansive crop, showing the bird as master of the sky would also have worked, but that would have been an entirely different photograph, telling a different story.  Not the story I want to tell.  Giving a “bit more” space all round would tell neither story.  It would follow the rule-book and satisfy the “paint-by-numbers” critics, but they are not the people I care to appeal to.  The tight crop I have chosen is intimate and was purposeful.  When you shoot with purpose, it shows and your images tend to be more powerful.

Let’s move on to another image.

Pause for a moment to observe that this image has the same attention to lighting, background and pose as the previous one.  In addition, we have a lovely perch here and some food – two extra bonuses, or “more awesome” as du Chemin would put it.  We have good detail in both the blacks and in the whites.  This is the result of careful exposure setting – avoiding over-exposure of the white patches in particular, while at the same time being careful not to “crush” the blacks into detail-less oblivion.

Note the use of shallow depth-of-field in this shot – the bird’s face is sharp, but focus fades off progressively towards the tail of the bird.  The viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to the sharp area, which is exactly where I want it to go.  How do you like that purposeful treatment of depth-of-field?  Some people have felt that closing down the aperture a couple of stops and putting the entire bird into focus would produce a “better” image.  However, I love this image as it is because it is more engaging and pulls your eye to where I want it and into the life of the kingfisher.  All of the parts that need to be sharp are pin-sharp – eye, beak, fish and droplets of water falling from the fish.  The rest of the image is sufficiently sharp for the secondary role that it plays.  My use of depth-of-filed here has been purposeful.

Consider, by comparison, the photograph above, which does use a smaller aperture to keep the entire bird sharp.  The “message” or “story” of this shot is entirely different to the previous shot.  Here, we have a majestic, almost regal pose that benefits from a different photographic treatment – one that is more formal and therefore less intimate and engaging.  The pose, composition, perch and even the crop are more appropriate to the formality.  Keeping everything in focus is a treatment that is appropriate to this shot.  This is not a better photograph than the last – simply different.  Nonetheless, both shots are purposeful in terms of the photographer’s intent and that is an important ingredient to the success of the photos.

Finally, as far as this portfolio is concerned, consider the hornbill above.  The core elements of lighting, pose, background and even intimacy are all there, but a new and vital element is the ant – because it is so small, it needs to be pin-sharp and needs to stand out against the background.  This requires a paper-thin depth-of-field and the plane of focus needs to include the hornbill’s eye and beak.  Once again, this execution is very purposeful and results in a strong image.

With the photos presented here, I hope that I have shown how a checklist of simple things to remember can be helpful in the field.  Once you have mastered them, you are free to add additional ingredients of interest to create compelling images.  All of these images were taken close to home, on a moderate budget.

Here are some additional images to evaluate against the criteria outlined.