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THE ART OF FLIGHT: HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH BIRDS

By David Rennie     11 Nov 2016

Wildlife photographer David Rennie reveals the secrets to capturing the natural beauty of our feathered creatures

The best nature photographers in the world use cameras and lenses that cost the equivalent of a small car, but even amateur photographers can take a good bird shot if they are willing to learn, observe, practice and be patient.

On Golden Pond, Coodanup, Western Australia (1/125’s f11 70-200)
On Golden Pond, Coodanup, Western Australia (1/125’s f11 70-200)

The time of year, the water level, the weather and much more play a part and you must understand it all. Read on for more valuable tips from my own experiences as a self-taught wetland bird photographer.

 

1. UNDERSTAND YOUR PREY

I made a decision early in my career to specialize in three to five birds. I would go out and watch them for days, weeks and months, learning how they spent their time. This made it easier when I progressed to all birds and animals.

Golden Egret, Bunbury Beach, Southwest Australia (1/1000’s f2.8 300mm)
Golden Egret, Bunbury Beach, Southwest Australia (1/1000’s f2.8 300mm)

Birds have ‘tells’ like a poker player. They will move a wing slightly just before they drop out of the sky to catch a fish, or their beak will twitch before they start to dance (golden egret being a great example). Once you know the tells, you start moving before they do and can get great shots on regular basis.

2. FIRST, DO NO HARM

The most important rule and one that you must abide by: Leave the smallest footprint you can. Be mindful that your presence can and will have an impact on the birds. You are not to be seen or heard. Don’t interfere, don’t get too close unless they come to you and don’t use flash—it scares them and hurts their eyes.

Selfie taken with second camera on tripod with handheld remote—it was set up due to a juvenile sea eagle trying to take a claw-full of sniper suit!
Selfie taken with second camera on tripod with handheld remote—it was set up due to a juvenile sea eagle trying to take a claw-full of sniper suit!

If the birds don’t know you are there then you have a greater chance of capturing natural moments. Use whatever you can: hides, bushes, seaweed, rocks. Dress as close as you can to the surroundings; no bright reds!

I use sniper suits so I can move with them. In the morning I could be in a spot as the tide rises and by afternoon be 5 miles downriver. The suits allow for flexibility and getting up-close.

3. BE PREPARED

Learn when the mating season is for the birds in your area—you will have more chances to capture unique moments during this time, such as courting dances, nest building, hunting for food, fledglings’ first flights. These are all amazing moments so if you are limited for time, maximize your chances.

A male osprey with one of about 10 fish the parents will bring back to the nest each day for up to a month, depending on the size and number of chicks
A male osprey with one of about 10 fish the parents will bring back to the nest each day for up to a month, depending on the size and number of chicks

You only get one opportunity and it usually goes by so fast. Always have your camera ready. As you are walking and the light is changing, be sure to change the settings to suit what is in front of you and take test shots to check that the exposure is correct.

4. USE BOTH EYES

Learn to shoot with both eyes open. You can train your brain to focus on your subject with one eye and have the other watching what is happening to the sides. Some of my best shots were taken this way.

This is a right-eye shot—the camera and left eye were watching another group of seagulls arguing when the fight erupted out of normal view
This is a right-eye shot—the camera and left eye were watching another group of seagulls arguing when the fight erupted out of normal view

If you have a large lens, learn to cradle it in your left arm and use your arm as a fast-moving stable rest. You will be able to track the subject better this way when you are lying down, standing and sitting.

Tripods are great if you are staying in one spot, but you cannot move fast enough with them to capture birds in flight.

5. GET THE SHOT

You have to at least get a shot but once you have a half-decent shot then look at ways to get ‘the shot.’ For me, that’s the one that shows off the bird with the least amount of background clutter and with a pose that is more beauty than simply bird.

Shadow Chaser, Bunbury Beach, Southwest Australia (1/1000’s f5.6 300mm)
Shadow Chaser, Bunbury Beach, Southwest Australia (1/1000’s f5.6 300mm)

Shadow Chaser is a common tern, not a bird that people like as much as others, but by waiting for the sun to be perfect and the birds to fly the right way we now have ‘art in nature.’

The shadow has transformed a common shot into ‘the shot.’

6. WORK FOR IT

If you want to capture beauty in a different way, be prepared to work long and hard. I had seen these birds come and land on a small rock between 8pm and 3am (in July, so it was cold in Australia).

Floating Feathers, nankeen night heron, Mandurah, Western Australia (1/160’s f2.8 300mm)
Floating Feathers, nankeen night heron, Mandurah, Western Australia (1/160’s f2.8 300mm)

Wetsuit, booties and sniper suit on, I waited and waited and waited. Three nights later, one landed, I shot and Floating Feathers was captured.

If you want that unique and beautiful image, you have to make it happen. Sometimes it really is no pain, no gain.

7. LOOK FOR A SINGLE SHOT

After coming home from being out in the bush, swamps, rivers or oceans for days, weeks or months, I download the images to my computer to sort.

What I’m looking for is just one shot that speaks to me about that time, the first image I view and think, ‘Wow.’ Then I stop looking, store the rest of the images for later and process the one image.

The Ark, male yellow-billed spoonbill in full mating plumage, Ramsar 482 wetlands, Pinjarra, Western Australia (1/2000’s f4 300mm)
The Ark, male yellow-billed spoonbill in full mating plumage, Ramsar 482 wetlands, Pinjarra, Western Australia (1/2000’s f4 300mm)

The Ark was number 102 of 2,657 images taken on one shoot. I have never looked at the other 2,555 to this day. We can all shoot 10,000 images (and I have) but try looking for just one and suddenly you shoot fewer but better quality.

The Ark was captured in December 2008. After being in the water for an hour and dragging myself to the perfect spot to capture the last bit of moonlight reflecting on the water, I got this one shot and then the shutter noise scared the bird off.

One chance, one moment—this is my favorite image of all.

8. TRY BLACK AND WHITE

If you really want to be a better photographer, one who understands light and dark, shades and contrast (because that’s what it’s all about), then put your camera on mono, (don’t convert from color) and start shooting black and white.

Above the Clouds, spoonbill taken from a chopper at around 300 feet (1/1000’s f7.1 70-200mm)
Above the Clouds, spoonbill taken from a chopper at around 300 feet (1/1000’s f7.1 70-200mm)

You can play back to see what you are capturing, and then adjust to get that stunning richness only black and white can produce. Do this for one month, and you will start to see color in a different way.

9. DON’T BE AFRAID TO EXPERIMENT

I got a bit bored for a few months. I was coming back with more of the same and so I set myself some new parameters. The first one was ‘water drops’—I had noticed the great drops created as birds landed and took off—and then parts of their bodies, white backgrounds and so on.

Each challenge made me learn different ways of capturing the ‘art in nature.’

Legs, little egret, Ramsar 482 wetlands, Pinjarra, Western Australia (1/1000’s f2.8 300mm)
Legs, little egret, Ramsar 482 wetlands, Pinjarra, Western Australia (1/1000’s f2.8 300mm)

Never give up, use every experience to your advantage, look, listen, watch and learn. But above all, spend time rekindling your connection with nature. If nothing else, it is great for the soul.


Photos: David Rennie

David Rennie
David Rennie

David Rennie is an international wildlife photographer and environmentalist from Perth, who specializes in wetland bird photography. He won the inaugural Australian Geographic ANZANG Nature Photographer of the Year award and has twice been named a B&W Spider Fellow. He is also the author of Art in Nature, an ambassador for Ramsar 482 and has been featured on ABC’s Australian Story.

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