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Bird Photography Essentials

Bird Photography Essentials

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Bird Photography Essentials

283 pages
3 hours
Jul 1, 2018


Bird Photography Essentials features 165 color photos and a discussion of proper birding gear and field techniques. Especially helpful is a long section of 72 Photo Study examples analyzing particular photographs; also, a Gallery of 54 photos and sections on Birding Hotspots and helpful internet sites.
Jul 1, 2018

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Bird Photography Essentials - G. Cope Schellhorn



We are roughly twenty years into the digital camera revolution. Hardly anyone anticipated with what a rush digital photography would come to dominate how people take photographs. Just ask the former employees of Kodak how quickly. And yet, as the old French proverb states, The more things change, the more they remain the same. Well, yes, in many ways things haven’t changed much. However, in some very important respects, particularly electronic and mechanical advances, the changes have been remarkable.

If these changes had not occurred, I would not have pursued bird photography so passionately. I was, nevertheless, greatly impressed by the work of such early masters of bird film photography as Eliot Porter, Steve Young, George Lepp, Bill Coster, Ron Austing, Arthur Morris and several others, both Americans and continentals. Their accomplishments from the ‘70s through 2000 (except for Porter, who comes much earlier) are quite impressive, sometimes almost staggeringly so. At the same time, I was greatly annoyed by film photograph—the limits of the hardware and the fact that so many things were out of the photographer’s control, especially processing.

First, let me briefly elaborate on a few of the major changes digital has wrought. We are now free of the slower ASA (ISO) speeds and dubious quality of earlier film as well as having to rely on commercial processors of color exposures who almost invariably batch processed the rolls of film that came their way rather than treat each frame as a separate, precious entity, as a potential gem in the rough, needing special care to bring out its most outstanding features, And make no mistake in assuming many professional photographers processed their own work. Very few did.

I don’t know about you, but the tremendous technical advances of the past 20 some years make me very happy. Good film wasn’t cheap. And it wasn’t until right before digital that reasonably good 200 and 400 ASA (ISO) film was available. High shutter speed is vital to capturing active subjects and doubly important to Flight photography. It is difficult to underestimate its importance. Today’s DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras have relatively little graininess at ISO 400 (and beyond). Usually what is there can be removed adequately with computer software.

Until around 2005-6, digital cameras offering 10MBs or more of pixels on the frame/sensor were very expensive. Since then camera prices have fallen appreciably. Now it’s possible to buy an entry-level DSLR with 15-18 MBs or more for five or six hundred dollars. And don’t be fooled by hype. These cameras have good resolution and are capable of producing professional-quality shots, just like their more expensive cousins. Largely, it is the quality of the accompanying lens which counts the most. These less expensive DSLRs do lack many of the bells and whistles of higher-end models, and they are not as rugged, but they will usually do the job at hand quite nicely.

(1) AMERICAN AVOCET, Twin Lakes, Willcox, Arizona. Canon EF 300mm f2.8 L lens with 2x teleconverter (600mm), 1/1600 sec. at f/5.6, ISO 200.

Today’s DSLRs have better, more accurate, TTL (Through the Lens) metering performance than early DSLRs and older SLRs. And autofocus capabilities are also better, adequate but certainly not perfect, if there is such a thing. Rechargeable lithium, long-life batteries have taken the place of the short-lived carbon and alkaline double A variety. All around handling is generally more ergonomic, easier and quicker. Solid state materials are now more rugged and more carefully conjoined than their predecessors. This just might be the Golden Age of Digital Photography.

Now what has not changed? What I believe to be the three most important considerations affecting professional-quality photography, including bird photography. These are (1) the right equipment for the job at hand, (2) good camera and field technique and (3) proper attitude. To achieve a nirvanic product, all three must work perfectly, harmoniously together each time the photographer pushes the shutter button. Alas, perfection is hard to achieve on earth no matter how hard we try. Often we have to settle for a final exposure which is perhaps good but not as good as we had hoped.

(2) ROSEATE SPOONBILL, High Island, Texas. Canon EF 400mm f5.6L lens, 1/1250 sec. at f/5.6, ISO 400.

You will find a discussion of these considerations (and their accompanying problems) in later chapters, but suffice it to say here that each one of the above Big Three is necessary to master if you wish to take professional-quality photos consistently. I’m assuming you do. If you are interested in a more casual approach, that is understandable. Not everyone is seeking professional results. But keep in mind your return in product quality over time will mirror the effort you are willing to spend. The more study and effort, the more likely you will be pleased with your results. That is true of learning and practicing any craft or art, whatever its name might be. Simply stated, the more you photograph, the better your photos will get. That will become obvious to you as well as to others. Nothing about bird photography and nature photography in general is more valuable than field craft learned over time as well as the huge benefit and advantage of increasing familiarity with your equipment.

As a matter of fact, professional bird photographers tend to avidly study their competition. They spend a lot of time ogling other photographers’ work, hoping to learn something they don’t know, perhaps a technique that offers superior results in certain situations. Almost all professionals study other professionals in their field. That is one way to learn, however; it does not, and cannot, replace actual field experience.

Soon you will discover, if you have not already, that most birders, including bird photographers, are conservationists at heart and in practice. Many are actively involved in studying and protecting avian fauna and its habitats. Sadly , bird habitats of all kinds, wetlands, tall grass prairie, short grass prairie, extended forest tracts, mountain highlands et cetera is disappearing or being severely degraded all over the world at an alarming rate. For example, Crucial to the long range migration of many species are rendezvous and staging areas along the way. These are fast disappearing. More must be done immediately to protect these sites.

North American birds of all species are facing a panoply of problems and dangers which grow worse by the day, everything from increased pesticide use in the U.S., Central and South America to growing light pollution at night emanating from our cities which blinds passers-by and interferes with navigation. Many thousands of birds are striking tall buildings, commercial wind turbines and other manmade obstructions, especially at night because they cannot spot them in time to take evasive action. And then there is the problem of feral cats and house cats which kill millions of birds each year.

Of the approximately 10,000 bird species in the world, Bird Life International, an alliance of conservation organizations, estimates that 1,200 species, or 12 percent of the total world population, are threatened with extinction in the near future. At this hour, 131 species in America are on the watch list, this in addition to the 80 species deemed officially endangered. There are around 800 species which are commonly sighted by American birders, approximately 935 for all of North America. These statistics tell a disturbing story.

(3) SNOW GEESE, Bosque del Apache NWR, San Antonio, New Mexico. Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L lens, 1/3200 sec. at f/5.6, ISO 400.

Over one-fourth of all American species are at risk. For example, the numbers of many warbler species are plummeting according to bird-count organizations. Is a world which is losing its birds and bees headed in the near future for a catastrophic environmental crisis? Or perhaps more accurately, has it already begun? The contribution to food production made by our birds and bees should not be underestimated. They help immeasurably in keeping an environmental balance which at this time is teetering. Man, the scientific evidence suggests, is playing an inordinately large role in the demise of great numbers of fauna including avifauna. What kind of world do we really want? Will our children and grandchildren ever have the chance to see a California Condor, a Red-headed Woodpecker or even a Bobolink?

These telling statistics are warning us that present bird mortality due to all causes may indeed be warning us what the coal miner’s canary was intended to do. Earth’s ecosystems here and abroad are under massive assault by natural changes which aren’t in many cases natural at all but manmade manipulations for short term gains of one sort or another—gains which in the long term aren’t gains at all. We seem driven too often by anthropomorphic goals which are at best careless and at the worst urged on by greed, gross stupidity and self-aggrandizing. Many of our problems are also caused by a burgeoning world population which is alarmingly out of control. When is the last time a politician has taken the podium to argue we must start reducing the planet’s population in a humanitarian manner?

All birders and bird photographers cherish their opportunities to get out in the good, fresh air and celebrate the awe inspiring beauty and diversity that surrounds them. Too many city dwellers are too locked away from this celebration either by circumstances or ignorance about what they are missing. They are grossly unaware of what is going on, what damage is being done and the significant future repercussions of that damage, which will affect all of mankind. It behooves their interests, as it does all human beings everywhere, to learn the value of their environment, which succors them, and the fact that it is very perishable. They must learn quickly all of us, not just the birds and bees, are in a life or death struggle to protect our natural habitat from planned or accidental abuse. Then perhaps their children and their children ‘s progeny will be able a hundred years from now to stand in a windblown Midwestern field under a clear, blue sky in springtime and hear the Bobolink sing its mating song.

(4) HUDSONIAN GODWIT, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Canon EF 300mm f2.8L with 2x teleconverter (600mm), 1/1250 sec. at f/6.3, ISO 400.

You might find the organization of this work a little different from what you are used to or expected. The first third of the book discusses basic equipment, exposure and focusing. The middle third, called Photo Study, offers over 70 photos, each accompanied by a rather lengthy description and analytical discussion of how each came to be and why it is presented as it is. The last third is an extended Photo Gallery of shots I think you might enjoy. There is a final section called Hotspots which describes some of the better locations in America I have found that offer excellent opportunities for bird photography. I hope this approach offers you the joy of watching an exhibition and, at the same time, an involvement with the questions: What was the photographer trying to do? How well did he do it? And, was it worth doing in the first place? These are questions usually reserved for the art class, and they apply to the art of photography as well.

(5) PINTAIL, Bosque del Apache, San Antonio, New Mexico. Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L lens with 2x teleconverter (600mm), 1/1250 sec. at f/10, ISO 400.

Proper Equipment

DSLR Cameras

Just as you wouldn’t hunt bear with a 22 cal. rifle, you need the right kind of camera and lens to get professional shots of a small bird at 20 to 30 feet consistently. There are good reasons why professional bird photographers favor Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras. These make it possible to use a large array of big lenses with different focal lengths. Point and shoot cameras and all cell phone cameras do not. Long lenses quite literally make your subjects appear larger in the frame, which is what you want, whereas the landscape photographer is interested in an expansive view. Bird photographers are concentrating their subjects close to the center of the frame but not dead center, which is a cliché and usually, but not always unappealing. Most often they want the subject to dominate the frame.

Long lenses (telephoto and super telephoto) often bring a bird into sharp focus at a distance with good size where smaller, short focus lenses cannot effectively reach. Most point and shoots do offer the ability to optically zoom the lens, but the quality of the image is limited and often degraded by a smaller sensor, cheaper quality glass and the disadvantage of multiple lens elements needed to facilitate zooming. This is why it is said that a zoom lens can never be theoretically as sharp in resolution as a dedicated non-zoom long lens. It is true, however, that professional quality zoom lenses, which are expensive, have come a long way in quality of resolution today compared to what was available 30 years ago. Canon and Nikon now make some zooms which are quite sharp at any focal length.

Three important considerations with

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