Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Reality of Warbler Photography

Cameras purchased by bird watchers who want to become bird photographers should come with a warning sticker that says:

Bird photography is not as easy as it looks.
In fact, it's not even close to being easy!

You need to be prepared to be extremely disappointed
in the images you'll be getting despite spending all this money.

Don't say we didn't warn you.
And no, there's nothing wrong with your camera.

That sort of fair warning/truth in advertising would go a long way to helping me feel better about the plethora of warbler images I take that look like this:

Or the ones that look like this:

Or this. Great photo of vegetation, perfectly in focus, hiding a blurry bird.

And then, before you figure things out, the bird bolts. Sweet!

But if the birding gods are smiling, the bird does a 180 and stops to check you out for just five seconds more, and you get this (below), an image which is JUST GOOD ENOUGH to keep you coming back, camera in hand, chasing after colorful fleeting things with wings.

Cropping and tweaking results in an image that is good enough for the old blog, but probably won't pass muster for the cover of National Geographic. Still, what a handsome devil this male magnolia warbler is!

Happy shutter-bugging to every bird watcher who is similarly afflicted.

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At 1:38 PM, Blogger Christopher said...

Bill, I'm right there with you on this one. I've had a few birding gods smiling moments, which keeps me snapping away. 99% of what I take is much worse than you 'bad' shots. That's why I keep the camera set on "multi" for shooting, and I just hold the button down (and keep plenty of extra memory with me), and often come home with hundreds of photos each time I go out (I just might have taken more photos of branches and blurry feathered butts than anybody else on the planet at this point). I figure in Photoshop I might be able to rescue an image or two, then delete the rest. I certainly won't be gracing Nat'l Geo with any of my point-and-shoot photography - never mind the caliber of photography that often graces BWD, WildBird, Living Bird, etc.
At least I'll have my memories...

PS. nice shots of the Maggie!

At 1:52 PM, Blogger Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

You mean it's not just me and my camera?

At 2:59 PM, Blogger Kyle said...

I so know what you mean, Bill! Big, slow, gangly things like herons and ibises are one thing... but warblers are more like little bundles of quicksilver that never sit still and seem to have a built-in camera-detection-defense-system. I can't tell you how many times I've come home with a memory card stuffed with nothing but vegetation, blurs and bird butts.

"And no, there's nothing wrong with your camera." (Like my best friend used to tell me, "it's nothing a little talent won't fix." D'oh!)

I've gotta agree with Christopher, though -- that's a nice shot of the Magnolia. Likewise of yesterday's Bay-breasted Warbler.

At 3:32 PM, Blogger rmharvey said...

Now take it a step farther and contemplate what it took for Michael Male and Judy Fieth to put together the Watching Warblers DVD. (I find at least one run through that mandatory as a spring tune-up for my ears and eyes before migration gets going.)

At 3:46 PM, Blogger Julie Zickefoose said...

I love this post! It reminds me of a moment at a festival when a man walked up to me, handed me his camera rig (which is exactly the same as mine) and asked me to tell him what was wrong with it--why his pictures were all so bad and blurry. I took it outside and found a willing hermit thrush, banged out a few photos, and returned it to him. "You took THOSE with MY camera?" he asked (mind you, they were nothing special, but they weren't horrible). Yup. So there's nothing wrong with it? Nope. I showed him a few ways to help steady the 300 mm. lens and wished him good luck and lots of practice.

I'm with you: 99 percent of my warbler photos should probably never make it off the camera. Makes me thankful we're just bloggers.

At 4:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh my God, the timing of this post. I just got a new camera last week with 20x zoom, JUST TO SHOOT BIRDS! The first thing I've learned is there's going to be quite a learning curve. You nailed it, Bill... it's a LOT harder than it looks. And what was I thinking, waiting to get it until the leaves came out... argh!

At 4:50 PM, Blogger KatDoc said...

Hey! Did you swipe my memory card? That's what MY photos of the maggie look like!


At 5:12 PM, Blogger Mary said...

Mine are worse than that. Heck, I saw 38 life birds (mostly warblers)in WVa and I came back with decent photos of a red-winged blackbird and a song sparrow and that's a fact Jack.

You did make me feel better here.

At 7:15 PM, Anonymous Animal Guy said...

Been there, done that...actually I still take pictures like that! Thanks for reminding me that I'm not the only one who struggles to photograph birds.

At 8:58 PM, Blogger Weedpicker Cheryl said...

I would like to say it was skill- but I know it was just amazingly lucky shots I got of a Prothonotary at Magee this year.

It almost makes up for all those empty-branch photos I have taken in the past!

It was great birding with you Bill-

At 9:35 PM, Blogger Erik said...

Don't even bother to do the cost per usable photo calculation, it will just make you more depressed. I took over 250 shots on Sunday alone. After reviewing them in Aperture, I saved 4. Ouch.

At 9:52 AM, Blogger Richard said...

I feel so much better now...lol.

At 7:40 PM, Blogger Joe in MD said...

It is my expectation to see a bird vaporized one day when several photographers simultaneously hit it with their combined flashes.

Are there more photographers or are the lenses just getting bigger?

Finally, someone once said, "There are no bad photographers, just challenged ones -- they show their bad photos."

At 6:36 AM, Blogger Dave Lewis said...

Gotta love the 'stick birds' that half of the shots turn out to be!
Now you know why I specialize in butt shots!

At 2:07 PM, Anonymous Cindy said...

Bill, your post hit the nail on the head...lol. Me to a tee! For the past month a Jaybird and I have been having a contest to see who will win. Him, by avoiding my camera, or I by catching a really good shot. So far he is winning as I am getting shots like those you posted. I am pretty determined though. Today, I set my tripod up in a area he has been coming to the last three days. Got the remote on and crossing my fingers.

At 2:07 PM, Blogger Rondeau Ric said...

I have hundreds of photos of really nice empty perches.

I agree, once in a while, a bird will forget where it is and you can get a (fairly) good photo.

I think we should set up a web site for all bird photogs entitled Butts and Bellies, how to identify warblers in the real world.

At 9:07 AM, Blogger Barbara said...

I'm glad Bill, that I'm not the only one who has a tough time photographing birds. Your shots are great and your commentary terrific. Love the successful ones. And also the unsuccessful for giving all of us out here in cameraland a bit of hope. Love your blog and your pics... Barbara (Beastsandbirds) in Ontario

At 3:17 PM, Blogger Kathiesbirds said...

That would be me and most of my warbler images from New River look just like this!

At 11:11 AM, Blogger NW Nature Nut said...

Oh you are so right!

At 11:15 PM, Blogger MK said...

Bill, I know exactly what you mean. One smart photographer once worte: "a good photographer knows when *not* to take a picture." That is very true. I think for most of us birders it is hard to resist the urge to snap a pic of a colorful warbler we might see once or twice a year at most. But the most important thing to do, really, is to first observe the bird for a while. Get used to its rhythm of foraging through the shrub and then anticipate its next move, so that when it next spends a precious 1.5 seconds sitting still in the sun in perfect lighting you are ready to hit the shutter before the bird is even on the right branch.


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