This is the second of a series discussing bird photography.
For the second part of my birding series, I wanted to take a second to categorize the styles of bird photography as I have done it, and apply it to a discussion on gear. While there can be any variation of ways people can go about bird photography, planning ahead by considering what my environment and subjects will be helps me determine what sort of gear I will need to take. Otherwise, I tend to prepare for anything, and end up taking a lot more than I need. This applies regardless of what camera I use, although I have found that some cameras are more adept in certain situations than others. In a later post I will go into some in-depth factors and buying advice of some µ4/3 lens options for birding, but in the below sections I will also mention what general type of lens I find is most conducive to the particular style.
The kind of bird photography Catherine and I do the most is tailor-made for µ4/3 because it takes advantage of the smaller form factor. We hike, carrying oftentimes just a camera and a manageable lens, and maybe a small pack. Our goal is to try to get as close as possible to any birds we see. It requires fieldcraft similar to hunting, and allows for maximum freedom of movement to shoot flying or perched birds at any direction, any elevation. I call it “stalking,” because stealth, patience and observation matter the most. When we go out into the field we wear camouflage clothing, which allows us to get a bit closer to the birds before they fly away. We move slowly, remain quiet, and are constantly looking up and all around us. We listen and if we spot a tree or bush with activity, we often stop to wait for extended periods of time. We find the birds will oftentimes relax or even come closer when we are still and pretending we are not paying attention to them. Hand-holding lightweight cameras and lenses allows us to adjust quickly and fluidly. Although moving too fast and suddenly will spook the birds, too much fumbling around will scare them off all the same.
The reason why this is such a good genre for cameras like the E-M1 is because the small form factor allows us to move freely and unencumbered for long periods of time without getting tired. In comparison, my Canon DSLR and equivalent focal length lens begin to weigh more and more heavily over time. When stalking, lightness and agility are key, so the lens obviously must be small enough to be hand-carried. The Olympus and Panasonic soda can zooms that reach 600mm equivalent are good starter lenses on a budget. The new Pan-Leica 100-400mm f/4-6.3 to come out in 2016 will, I expect, be a sharper and faster-focusing version of these, and although sacrificing some light gathering speed, its focal range will probably make it ideal for shooting in the changing environmental conditions common to stalking. The upcoming Olympus 300mm f/4 Pro might be a little harder to master, its narrow prime focal length making it harder to scan and zero in on birds, but its extra stop of light will also make it a strong option. The rugged, weather-sealed body and lenses, fast focus speeds and customization for ease of use are additional benefits of the E-M1. One of the best advantages is one that I have mentioned in other posts — an EVF is a great feature for these situations. Lighting and shadows can vary greatly from one photo to the next, with tricky, often backlit scenes that can fool auto exposure metering modes. Seeing the exposure and being able to adjust with a conveniently-placed Exposure Compensation control is a must-have capability that is frankly not as conveniently or easily done on my Canon. The crop factor is an advantage, allowing additional reach and a deeper focal plane that increases the chances that a bird in the branches will be in focus, even if the camera locks onto the branches. I will discuss my techniques for dealing with this in a later post.
Finally, IBIS can be a big help, allowing for hand-held shots at longer focal lengths and sometimes tricky lighting with less need for some sort of support system. It also keeps the viewfinder image steady, which improves aiming and tracking. I should point out that when trying to catch a bird in flight, Olympus’ In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS) isn’t as useful and perhaps even detrimental (I will debate this point in a later post). But close terrain often associated in the stalking situations I am describing can make BIF very difficult, and there generally will be few realistic opportunities to catch a bird in flight this way. Birds will fly, but it oftentimes will be away from you or right past you, gone in an instant into and over trees, and in rapidly changing lighting conditions. In more open environments and when prepared for it (such as waiting for a specific bird to fly and predicting which direction it will go), BIF can be done like in any other situation. Depending on the terrain I will be hiking through, I will prepare my camera settings accordingly, but for most places where I go stalking, I am mentally prepared for a perched or wading bird.
This might make it sound like we spend a lot of time in forests, but in our experience deep forests seem much less active, unless we are looking for specific varieties of birds such as woodpeckers or owls. Furthermore, while trees can host a cacophony of birds, deep forest types are usually high up and behind thick leaves. Not only are birds high in trees hard to spot or get clean sight lines to, oftentimes they are mere silhouettes, shaded by the trees against a bright sky background. There are tricks to dealing with this, which I will discuss in a later post, but it makes for a less than ideal result. We get much better luck finding photographable birds in areas where trees, hedges or high grasses give way to open areas or bodies of water. I read somewhere that the edges of forests oftentimes have high concentrations of wildlife, and in many of the locales I am describing, that feature is evident. In the mid-Atlantic States of Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey, where we have done 99% of our birding, we prefer either swampy areas or farmland meadows. The types of birds we generally see are songbirds and waterfowl. Occasionally, we will see birds of prey — Bald Eagles, Ospreys, various hawks and the occasional Peregrine Falcon or Kingfisher — if we are near a body of water containing fish. Our favorite places near our home are only local names and not famous enough to mention here, but some of the larger places we have visited that sport hiking trails include Prime Hook in Delaware and Sandy Hook in New Jersey (across the bay from New York City).
That all said, deep forests are where the owls are, and I can reluctantly admit that while we have heard them, we have as of yet never managed to spot an owl in the wild. Photographing an owl in the wild is one of my goals. I have participated in owl walks — evening events hosted by local wildlife refuges where groups of people are led out to find owls, but these have not worked for me. The ones I’ve been in epitomized everything not to do while stalking, with large groups in bright clothes talking loudly and non-stop, and never really pausing in any one place for long. Maybe other people’s experiences have been different, but if you plan to go onto an owl walk with any seriousness, I would suggest researching beforehand how it was going to be run and what sort of group to expect. It may be better to go it alone.
The stalking style of birding is very spontaneous. Generally, we never know what we are going to see, if anything. There are ways, however, to maximize chances of success. While nothing in nature is absolute, most birds that you will come across in these situations are most active early in the morning or in the evening. Late morning and afternoon generally yield much less activity. Visit birding websites and find the best places. Most parks or wildlife refuges will have websites that mention what the birding is like on their premises, and oftentimes will include counts of what sorts of birds can be seen in what times of year. I have generally found that birds prefer areas with certain criteria (perhaps a food source or a place where they have nested before), and such areas have frequent or return visitors. If an area has birding activity one day, it is likely to have it again on other days. Also, some species of birds will live their entire lives within a certain radius of where they were born. So, sometimes we go back to an area because we spotted a Kingfisher or some other bird in the area previously, and we want to take an opportunity to photograph it more. That isn’t to say that a bird won’t be seen anywhere else, however. During migration periods, we have seen lone birds well out of their expected habitats. Bird knowledge is also most applicable when stalking. Knowing what kinds of birds will be in the area during what times of year, and what time of day and where in the foliage you should look for them, is highly important for success. Being able to recognize specific bird calls can also help, allowing you to identify whether that is a bird you would like to photograph, and where it likely is hiding.
The “Bird Turret:”
You may have seen photographers out with large tripods with bulky gimbal heads, large professional camera bodies, and lenses the size of bazookas. They might have massive flashes with fresnel extenders, placed on flash bars to get them off the top center of the camera. I call it the “bird turret” because it isn’t very stealthy (with one exception), and in fact is in many ways the opposite of the stalking method. I’ve tried this form of photography and have most of the gear to be able to do it (sans the bazooka lens and the optional fresnel extenders), but I don’t really do it very often. For one, it is incredibly heavy — easily reaching or even exceeding 20 pounds for the camera, lens, tripod and gimbal head. These are not kits to hike around with by any but the seriously dedicated. I should also point out that kits like these (particularly the lens alone) can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Furthermore, if the birds are overhead or all around, this type of set-up is too slow and limiting in its traversing range. It sacrifices a certain degree of agility, both in terms of being able to track a bird flying over my position as well as being able to quickly pick up and move to where the action is. Another reason is that while it can certainly be done with a µ4/3 camera (no detriment to doing so), it isn’t taking advantage of the µ4/3 strengths that I described above with the stalking method. Native µ4/3 lenses are small enough that they don’t need a large tripod and gimbal head to support their weight (though there are exceptions detailed below).
None of that is to say this style doesn’t have its advantages with the right gear. In my discussion on lenses later in this series, I will detail the constant compromise between size, performance and price. There are no lenses that offer benefits in all three, so we must sacrifice at least one. This style sacrifices portability and agility for reach, light gathering speed and stability – not an unreasonable compromise at all. If you pay the steep prices for a heavy lens, you will acquire top lens performance, but that price also means investing in a tripod and gimbal head. The reason is more about holding the weight than it is about stability, assuming you are indeed using the highest end lenses for which this style is best suited for. It is true that at super-telephoto distances, even Olympus’ IBIS is not enough to always manage tack-sharp photos, and a good tripod can make a difference. However, the key to sharp bird photographs is a high shutter speed, and the bigger, more expensive lenses with their wider apertures allow for the needed higher shutter speeds. That said, tripod stability can be an important factor if lighting is bad and/or the lens has a lower maximum aperture limiting shutter speeds. There is a comfort and control factor as well. Gimbal heads are excellent for balancing such long and heavy lenses and traversing them with little effort — allowing for tracking birds even as they are flying.
The most general type of bird photography with this setup is birds in flight, birds wading in the water, or birds nesting in open fields. It does require wide spaces for its reach advantage to be effective. This style is best for shooting from a specific vantage where the birds stay a relatively far distance from the camera, because the closer the birds, the harder it is to pan the camera and keep them in frame. There are some great birding locations where this style is a good way to go. A local example (for us) where this sort of shooting is ideal is Conowingo Dam in northern Maryland, where Catherine and I try to photograph eagles hunting on the Susquehanna River. Another would be Bosque del Apache, a lake in New Mexico famous for shooting Sandhill Cranes migrating in the winter. We’ve never been to Bosque, but its on our list.
Preferably, the vantage I shoot from would be close to the car, but there are ways to carry a tripod over distances, making the bird turret more mobile than I perhaps have been making it out to be. For convenience on short distances, I generally carry the tripod already extended, against my shoulder with the legs in front of me, the camera attached and lens resting on my shoulder. Even with µ4/3, this is not recommended for long hikes, though, or in areas with treacherous footing. In those cases, the tripod is stowed away in my pack until I need it. Speaking of packs, it will invariably be much bigger and heavier than what I would use when stalking. In these circumstances, I carry my camera with the use of a Black Rapid pack strap (see Black Rapid Straps with Really Right Stuff Clamps — a Great Combination).
In most cases, a ball head is a good, versatile choice for µ4/3 use on a tripod because of the smaller lenses (should you choose to use this style with µ4/3 gear). It provides about the same level of maneuverability at a fraction of the weight and bulk of a gimbal head. Indeed, the aforementioned small, slow aperture, 300mm maximum zoom “soda can” offerings from Olympus and Panasonic would definitely get a boost in sharpness when used at the distances and slower shutter speeds they are limited to when zoomed all the way out. There is a poor-man’s way to approximate gimbal head-like traversing on a ball head. Attach the camera to the head via an L-Plate in portrait orientation, inset it into the ball head’s drop-notch, and loosen the ball head’s panning mechanism. The resulting movement will be very similar, albeit tighter and a little less fluid, as a gimbal head. Really Right Stuff has come out with a smaller version of its gimbal head, specifically designed for mirrorless cameras. I own their larger version, primarily because I also use it with a Spotting Scope.
Another optional piece of gear for the bird turret is a portable blind. Shooting from a blind is the one exception I mentioned where a heavy lens and tripod can still be stealthy. One use is to hike out into the field to an area of expected bird activity, stake out a good vantage to set up a blind, and sit patiently. It may take some time for the birds to forget a human was there, become used to the blind, and come closer. This combines the best advantages of both the stalking and bird turret styles, and potentially would allow the best photographic opportunities. Many great places for bird photography throughout the States have installed permanent blinds in prime spots.
The “Safari Shooter” and the “Sniper:”
One method in-between the “Stalker” and the “Turret” methods is the use of a monopod. The idea is that a monopod would provide the portability required to hunt with the stability of a turret. The truth is, though, while there are plenty of good uses for a monopod,and there are times when it is absolutely necessary, birding is not among its better functions. A monopod works well when shooting wildlife on the ground, but in my opinion it doesn’t generally work well as a hybrid solution for most forms of birding. Should a bird be spotted overhead (in the trees, or worse, flying) changing elevations quickly with a monopod is not as automatic as it needs to be, causing the user to either adjust the height of the pole (slow), bend down as the head is tilted upwards (awkward), or lifting the whole rig off the ground (defeating the point). If I am going to take a mount with me at all, I prefer to take my tripod into the field over my monopod, because I know that despite its added weight the tripod will allow me to take long exposures or stabilize a super-telephoto distance shot. It frees both my hands to work, whereas I would need to keep one hand on my monopod. Another point, specific to Olympus, is that (with the exception of a few more innovative uses for a monopod) there is a limited window of utility for a monopod in between hand-held photography and tripod photography. This window is rather narrow for me, because I love using my tripod so much, and because the IBIS of the E-M1 allows for hand-held use at greater shutter speeds and distances than with other manufacturers.
That said, having a monopod handy can help when shooting at super-telephoto focal lengths and/or slower shutter speeds, providing extra stability needed for long-ranged shots. Even carrying a monopod on a pack and only using it when needed could be an option worth considering. Situations where a monopod could work well include shooting wading shore birds or waterfowl, such as herons, egrets or ducks (which don’t fly away often unless really spooked, but instead tend to swim away), or when shooting in an open meadow where the birds generally won’t be in high trees. Its better utility for ground-level subjects is one reason why I call the use of a monopod “safari shooting.” Another reason is that I feel a must-have accessory for this style is some sort of anchoring mechanism, commonly called safari clamps, which are commonly used in African safaris and can greatly enhance the versatility of a monopod. Really Right Stuff makes such clamps for their monopod system, but they are currently undergoing some sort of re-design and (as of this writing) are not yet available for sale. These clamps allow the monopod to be as stable as a tripod when anchored to something solid, while not having the weight of a tripod. There are, however, cheaper methods to achieve this, including employing bungie cords or similar jerry rigged solutions to lash the tripod to an object.
Another in-between solution for using long lenses but without a tripod is what I call “the Sniper.” I’ve never done this myself, having neither the heavy lens nor the inclination to drag one through the dirt, but it could be possible to shoot from the ground, perhaps using a bean bag or just the ground to rest the lens. Stability would be good, the low vantage could be interesting, and it would be quite stealthy for a skilled photographer. On the downside, it would still be heavy, you would have to be willing to treat the lens more roughly than perhaps you are used to, and the same interesting vantage would have to be carefully chosen to avoid terrain and vegetation from being in the way.
This is what Catherine and I call shooting birds from the car. This is a surprisingly easy way to photograph hawks and vultures. They’re oftentimes right alongside the road, perched on tree branches, power lines or light posts, looking for roadkill, and most people pass them by without ever noticing them. There are also certain wildlife parks — such as Bombay Hook in Delaware or Blackwater in Eastern Maryland — that are meant to be enjoyed by car. Bombay Hook is a particularly magical destination for birding. Every time we have been there, we have seen some amazing birds, and we generally go there at least once a year.
The advantages to shooting from the car are obvious. It’s not strenuous, and we can easily have any kind of lens and all of our gear and supplies with us, regardless of how heavy that gear is. I can even pull out a full tripod and gimbal head already attached and position it just outside the car, with little effort. Any lens can be used, especially if it is compact enough to be maneuvered from a car window. Generally, while one of us is driving (carefully to avoid traffic accidents), the other is riding shotgun and ready to shoot. When we spot something, we find a safe place to pull over, turn the engine off (to reduce vibration), and shoot out the open window. Sometimes we may find we need to get out of the car to get a better angle. One of the primary advantages to drive-by shooting is that (ironically) birds don’t consider cars a threat, and thus are not as quick to fly away from an incoming car as they are with a human approaching.
An essential piece of gear to have in this case is a bean bag to lay over the window sill and rest the camera or lens on. While it does provide a bit of padding, that’s not the main reason I recommend it. For a person of average height like myself, a bean bag lifts the camera up a little bit to eye level. Bean bags can be filled with whatever is at hand (sand, beans, etc.). Some people recommend bird seed, which can be used to entice birds to come closer if I wish. The bag I use is made of durable material, has a removable plate with a 3/8″ screw for mounting a ball head. I prefer to leave the plate off, as I don’t need the head to maneuver and it only complicates things. However, if you are taller, this would be another means to raise the camera up to eye level. The bag also has plastic buckled straps on the ends to tether to the car’s door handle. Bean bags can be useful to carry around on foot, particularly since it can be left empty (i.e., weightless and compact) and filled with available sand or pebbles when needed. I personally have not done this, however, since I feel such a use would be far more limited than with my tripod.
A variation to drive-by shooting is birding by kayak or canoe — something I have seen others do but have not had the chance to try myself. The appeal is obvious. It would be a fun opportunity to shoot birds from vantages not normally achieved. The splash-proof OM-D bodies would be fine getting a bit wet, as long as they don’t get dropped underwater. I have seen You Tube videos of photographers canoeing with a super-telephoto lens mounted on a tripod and gimbal head, set right in front of them at their sitting height. All they had to do was lay down the ore, take the camera in hand, and shoot. To me, that sounds like a cool way to go about it.