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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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Lucky Bird Photos

photo by Ernie Hoffert.

I am a novice when it comes to bird photography. I keep telling myself that one of these days I'm really going to bear down and LEARN how to use my fancy digital camera. Of course that will mean finding the uninterrupted time to read through the manual and the books I've bought--books specifically written for digital photography mouth-breathers like me.

After 20 years of choosing images for Bird Watcher's Digest I know what a good photograph is in terms of focus, exposure, composition, and content. But knowing what a good photo IS and TAKING a good photo are two completely different things.

With the digital revolution in cameras, computers, software, and the associated technologies, anyone with a couple of thousand extra dollars can buy the high-end consumer (often called "pro-sumer"--a blend of the words consumer and professional) cameras and lenses needed to take superior photographs. Some of my professional bird photography contacts are really bummed that it is now so easy to take "publishable" bird images. The technology that goes in to our modern cameras makes them so much easier to use, you can practically point and shoot and get doggone good photos. Auto focus, image stabilization, all kinds of pre-fab settings for certain situations, the ability to see the image you just took on the camera's small color monitor...it's the golden age of nature photography!

Back in ye olde days of yore a person wanting to become a gifted nature photographer had to spend years honing the craft. Cameras shot film. Settings were manual. Just seeing what your images looked like often took weeks while you waited for the processing house to develop your film into prints or slides.

My kids cannot understand this. They grew up in the era of "Let me see what that picture looks like!" Whoops! Aunt Fleda's eyes are closed and Papaw's fly is open. Let's see if we can reverse those two problems and take another shot!
How the world has changed.

Taking good bird photos is not hard. Taking GREAT bird photos is still pretty hard. It still requires lots of skill, a depth of knowledge about your gear, and being in the exact right place at the right time. I have little skill, shallow knowledge of my camera and lenses, and very little time afield, typically.

But every so often I get lucky.

So I am starting a new irregularly appearing feature here on BOTB, called Lucky Bird Photos. Now with my being a editur you might think I'd give this feature a name that did not make it sound like the birds were the lucky ones. But no, I did not even think of that. These will all be bird photos that I got because of pure luck. No skill, no years of experience, no personal sacrifice or physical trauma. Just luck.

Here's installment number 1. A winter willet I photographed last January on the edge of Titusville, Florida. It was coming in for a landing and I just pointed and shot. No planning. No creeping up stealthily. No aiming. No futzing with the dials and knobs. Click! Nice! Lucky!

Winter -plumages willet showing its best field marks.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Flying Birds of Florida

A wood stork flew past me so close that I heard its wings before I saw it! Could not fit it into the frame, either.

With a new camera rig comes all kinds of giddy expectations. Now I'm not expecting to be Artie Morris, Art Wolfe, or even Art Garfunkel, but I DO expect to take better photographs with better gear.

Not so fast my friend.

Digital Photography Rule #13 clearly states:
No matter your perceived level of proficiency in photography, you WILL BE HUMBLED when photographing flying birds.

We've seen my shutterbuggery on still, cooperative birds with the camera set on BURST.
Well, amigos y amigas, it gets worse.

I really, really wanted to create jaw-dropping images of flying birds. So I set the camera on the aforementioned BURST. Click it over to the AV setting, which must stand for AVIAN, which is my subject matter after all. Then, I put the ISO "film" speed on 400 to capture motion.

All set right? Nope.

It's WAY harder to get the 300mm lens on a moving bird than I thought it would be. Even with three-plus decades experience aiming binoculars and scopes at birds, I found that I STUNK at finding the bird through the lens/viewfinder. And getting the camera to focus on the right bird bits.

Our last night in FL we finally had the kind of sunset where the roseate spoonbills would look fabbo, so several of us trekked on out to the Black Point Wildlife Drive at Merritt Island NWR to try our luck. Or lack thereof.

I felt like I was playing a game of pin the lens on the spoonbill. I was twisting and turning and getting buck fever and taking lots of shots of empty sky. This made me respect the truly gifted bird photographers out there all the more. And it made me curse them, too--but in a nice way.

I'd love to blow your mind with a gallery of quit-your-day-job-and-become-a full-time-bird-photographer images. But instead I'll just share these with you. A few are not so bad, I think. In the spirit of full disclosure, I need to say that these were taken over three separate days.

Any tips on in-flight photography are welcomed here. If you share them, I promise to leave you out of the cursing when I get my next chance to take pix of flying birds.

A willet landing along the Merritt Island causeway, showing off all field marks.

A ring-billed gull splashing down in the personal space of a lesser scaup.

Royal tern cruising the Cape Canaveral National Seashore. They do not have to pay $3 to get in. I did.

A brown pelican gives me the hairy eyeball as it flies overhead.

This white ibis was just flying by me, withing camera range. Then, it did something interesting...

It preened its wing in flight! How cool!

Sorry folks, I did not get any decent shots of flying spoonbills, so this will have to do.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Rules of Digital Photography

These days, when the opportunity presents itself, I am learning about digital photography as it specifically applies to birds.

This is not impossible, yet I am struggling a bit and getting a tad frustrated. I SHOULD read the manual, take a digital photography course, and ask for advice from my fellow photographers. At this point I have only accomplished the last "should." I peppered my fellow birder/photogs with techy questions during the Space Coast Birding Festival.

So here at BOTB I will share with you some of the rules I have learned the hard way these past few days and weeks.

RULE #17
Do not leave your camera on "burst" mode (multiple images captured in rapid succession) on a cooperative bird/animal/subject. Burst mode is normally used for flight shots and to freeze/capture subjects in motion.

If you leave the camera on "burst" while photographing a cooperative bird, you will end up with this, before you can say "Digital SLR":