This is the first of a series discussing bird photography.
Despite all of the posts I have written thus far covering landscape, macro and travel photography, the type of pictures Catherine and I take the most by a wide margin is bird photography. At the same time as I was getting into cameras several years ago, my wife was developing an interest in birding. As I started exploring different genres of photography, wildlife in particular naturally became one that we gravitated to the most. We have thousands of bird photos stored away. Most of our photography development (and just about all of my wife’s) was shaped in the context of learning through birding (which probably explains a lot about my photographic style and which areas I am weakest in). The main reason why I have only written one post about it so far (The Alien Invasion) is because since shortly before I started this blog, my primary birding kit has been Canon — and this will likely continue for at least another year. Nevertheless, that doesn’t change the fact that our E-M1 has photographed more birds than any other subject — far more than my Canon — and that I have a lot to talk about with regards to our Olympus gear and bird photography.
In one sense, bird photography is easier than other forms of wildlife, because birds are everywhere, and it isn’t hard to attract them and photograph them right out your back window. I would also dare say that no matter where in the world you live, it doesn’t take much by way of travel to get to a place where there will be interesting birds to photograph, even if only for two times a year while they are migrating through. Most places should have numerous species of birds at any time of year. Catherine and I have perhaps a dozen spots within an hour’s drive of our house that are all excellent locales for birding, whether marshlands for waterfowl, beaches for shore birds, or wooded valleys for songbirds and woodpeckers. One of the most exciting things about getting into both photography and birding at the same time was that I had never before realized there was this whole other world all around us. The birds had always been all around; we had just rarely noticed. Suddenly I was seeing the birds more, as if I switched to a “bird lens” that magically exposed their colors, behaviors and struggles.
Finding more elusive or uncommon species can be a challenge. However, while finding and photographing a rare species is great, the subject doesn’t always have to be exotic. More times than not it’s the moment that makes a good photograph, even if the subject is a common mallard duck, sea gull or crow. A beautiful action or pose in an interesting background can make even just a common house finch look amazing. That’s not to say that Catherine and I don’t seek out birds that we’ve never been able to photograph before. We do, and we treasure the moment when we get our first shot of them, but some of our favorite photos are of birds we’ve shot hundreds of times before. Secondly, a photo of a common bird for your locale may be new and exciting for a viewer who lives in a different part of the world. We have Blue Jays in our backyard throughout the year, and a visiting friend from the UK was thrilled to spot the colorful and exotic bird, which she had never seen before. The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (such as the pretty female on the title image of this post) is the only type of hummingbird in our part of the country, and the males are particularly colorful and striking. The prospect of seeing completely new birds adds a new spice to our travels, no matter where we go. The only down side is that it means we must always pack at least one long lens, just in case.
Another aspect that I think (sort of, but not really) makes bird photography easier is that the degree of focus on artistic eye and composition that I struggle with in landscape photography is oftentimes not even allowed with bird photography — particularly as a beginner. Of course, if I have the luxury to control as much as possible the particulars of a bird photo, I will use every bit of it. While some of that luxury can be afforded with experience at fieldcraft, oftentimes I am just lucky to snap the shot before the bird flies away, and what it allows me to take is all I am going to get. Or, the bird stays so far in the distance that regardless of the amount of time I may have, my artistic options are severely limited. In terms of trying to use photography to tell a story, it’s particularly hard to do with birds, as they live their lives in fast motion, and an event may flash by in only a few seconds before it is over.
So, I say composition is (in a way) easier because my recommendation in the beginning is just not to worry about it. Get that bird center frame and capture it while you can. If it’s still there afterwards, then get creative. Once you become more experienced, the need to get that initial shot is less, and the patience and skill in fieldcraft and wildlife photography you will have developed will allow you to feed your artistic pursuit for a better photo. You will find that your knowledge of the birds will allow you to more accurately predict their behavior, and that you can more ably find the vantage that will give you the best chances. While you may miss a great deal, waiting and being prepared for the opportunity will eventually pay off. In sum, you may find that as you become more experienced, the number of photos you take will decrease and your keeper rate will increase.
- Digital memory is cheap.
- What is considered a keeper is too personally subjective to formulate any comparisons, and even from one day to the next one’s tolerance for keeping a photo may change.
- It can depend wildly on photography technique. If you are shooting birds in flight (BIF, hereafter) on burst mode in order to get that perfect wing position and angle, you will end up with a lot of photos. You may choose to delete only those that were out of focus or partially cut-off, you may choose to keep any number that were technically up to your standards, or you may choose to eliminate all but the one you like the best. It all depends on your preference for having dozens of almost the exact same shot.
That all said, bird photography can actually be very challenging. The small size and skittish nature of songbirds make them hard to find amongst high, leaf-covered trees. As with all wildlife, nature is in control. There were times we researched online where and when to find a certain species, or what is the best time to go to a certain wildlife refuge, but when we got there we saw nothing. Another time, we walked out of our favorite brewery (true story) and a beautiful Red-Shouldered Hawk was looking right at us, and let us shoot as long as we wanted without flying away. I should also use that tale to re-iterate that there is a hidden world of birds among us. About a dozen other people walked right past the magnificent bird without ever looking up and realizing it was only twenty feet away. But the main point is that we learned to be patient, and to enjoy our time together in the beautiful parks and wilderness we visited. In time, we almost always found something that would make the trip worthwhile.
So, I am starting a series of posts about shooting bird photography specifically with Micro Four-Thirds. The second post will break down the genre into various types of bird photography as I find it useful to categorize them. For the most part, these definitions are based on the gear used and the means of carrying it. The different gear and locales sometimes call for different techniques, which I will get into in broad details.
In the third post I will also talk about photographing birds in more controlled environments, such as a backyard for wild birds or captured ones in a zoo or aviary. These can be very convenient and bountiful ways to see and photograph birds — both from your neighborhood to places you may never likely travel to. There are ways to prepare for such excursions, but also some interesting morale debates.
The fourth post will contain a more detailed explanation of why I bought and use a Canon 7D Mk II for bird photography. Almost all of my bird photography in 2015, since I have started this blog, was shot with the Canon, while Catherine has continued to use the Olympus E-M1. At first I intended to keep any reference to Canon at a minimum, since this is a Micro Four-Thirds blog, and if I do post any Canon photos, I will mark them as such. However, I think it was an important experience for me to develop my skills in this genre with both of these very different cameras, and to really understand the bird photography performance of the Olympus in the context of comparing it to a system that does it very well. So, I have decided to deviate from the norm in this series and interweave Canon information and example photos. This series of posts will probably be the most detailed, technical, and in-depth discussion I have made to-date on Olympus cameras and lenses. This post will also discuss my hopes for the future of Olympus cameras and its competitiveness in the market as a viable wildlife camera.
Part Five will discuss Olympus OM-D E-M1 and Canon 7D MK II settings and bird photography techniques that Catherine and I have settled on over the years. This will include what we do in tricky situations such as focusing and exposing through trees, and coaxing the E-M1 to capture birds in flight. There are many ways to do photography, but these are simply the means we have favored.
I will then close in the sixth post of the series with the types of µ4/3 lenses that can be used in bird photography. For the ones that I have used (which is not even close to all of them), I will provide detailed reviews, but I will also be providing advice on the usage of the other lenses as well.