Photography in Lockdown: Photographing Birds

Photographing Birds Blue Tit

Like many a frustrated photographer I have been looking for ways to exercise my creative urges whilst observing the very important guidelines to stay at home and maintain social distancing. In my previous post ‘Photography In Lockdown: Motivations & Limitations’ I suggested that one possible outlet might be to attempt photographing the birds that  come into the garden. This is proving quite a challenge with many things to address, not least of all the birds themselves.

Attracting the Birds

We have had feeders in the garden for a number of years and they have attracted a great variety of species although recently not so many. The once frequent chaffinches rarely put in an appearance and the greenfinches who at one time dominated the feeders have not been seen for several years. I am not entirely sure why this is, although I do know that greenfinch populations have been severely impacted by disease; another part of explanation might be that recently I haven’t been maintaining the feeders as well as I might. Birds do visit, but infrequently and I suspect that they have gotten out of the habit. The first thing for me to do therefore was to attract more birds into the garden. I acquired some fresh bird food and thoroughly cleaned the feeders. I also order a couple of new feeders from Amazon.

Bird Watching

Before shooting with I decided to spend time observing. I wanted to get some idea of which species were visiting and whether there were any patterns in their behaviour. Did they favour a route into the garden for example, was there a particular time of the day that they were more likely to come to the feeder? I spent a few hours each day sitting and watching from the patio.

Photography in Lockdown

The blue tits were the most reliable visitors, with the great tits a close second, followed robins and blackbirds, but very little else came into the garden even though I could see and hear  goldfinches, sparrows, wrens and even woodpeckers in the trees and the allotment beyond.

Equipment for Photographing Birds

The second issue that I needed to consider was equipment. Garden birds are primarily song birds and they are small. This means you need to be close, but of course the closer you get, the more likely it is that they will take flight. There really isn’t any substitute for a long lens and/or some sort of hide.* The options available to me are limited. I have a 80-200mm f2.8 which is an excellent pro quality lens, but even at 200mm on a ‘crop’ (APSC) body, this is nowhere near long enough. Those who specialise in this kind of photography typically have lenses of 500mm or longer, often paired with extenders (teleconverters); serious kit costing serious money, and well beyond my budget.

I do have a old Sigma 170-500mm f5.6-6.3 at my disposal, a lens which I have used to photograph the birds before. It’s not the best to be honest, being a quite soft wide open, still not impressively sharp stopped down, and the auto focus is slow and noisy. The biggest problem with this lens for me however is that it is a Canon fit. Not a problem in itself (I have nothing against Canon), but the only compatible camera body I have at present is an EOS 10D. At some 17years old and only 6MP, this is hardly state of the art. I have persevered with this setup but it has proved frustrating, which brings me on to the next issue – movement

Photographing Birds European Robin
European Robin (Erithacus Rubecula)
Photographing Birds Blue Tit
Blue Tit (Cyanistes Caeruleus)

Dealing with Movement

You don’t have to spend much time watching small birds to realise that they are constantly moving, and moving quickly. This poses a problem in that it is very difficult to keep them in focus and you often have to work very quickly as they rarely hang about. Following the bird around the garden is never going to work. Instead you will need to anticipate where they will land. Point your camera at the feeder, or on a favoured perch and wait for the bird to come to you. Even then the quickness of movement (especially the head) will make getting a sharp image difficult. A key factor here is shutter speed. In order to freeze a bird, even one that is perched (i.e. not in flight) you will need a fast shutter speed; in my limited experience I would say at least 1/250th sec, preferably faster. Of course this often means opening up the aperture, leaving you with a very shallow depth of field further challenging the acquisition of sharp focus, and/or increasing ISO risking more noise, less detail and less dynamic range.

Then there is the issue of camera movement. With a longer lenses camera shake is going to be difficult to control even at faster speeds. For a 500mm a tripod is a must.

Progress

So as you can see, I have found that what at first might seem like a relatively straightforward task is proving quite demanding but there have been some developments. I quickly worked out that the 10D was not really going to cut the mustard and I have now managed to borrow a more up to date Canon body; higher resolution (15MP v 6MP), greatly improved noise performance, faster frame rate and most important of all doesn’t take 2-3 seconds to wake up from standby! This is a huge improvement (thank you Paul).

I have also relocated the feeders having researched where best to site them and I have effectively turned my shed/workshop into a makeshift hide.

Photographing Birds Female House Sparrow
Female House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

Now that I have everything in place I have hit a new obstacle. I seem to be getting less not more visits to the feeders. I think this might be due to the exceptionally mild weather which has resulted in an abundance of natural food. Perhaps when the nesting season really gets under way, the birds will come to rely more on the feed I have provided. It is clear that achieving images of any real quality it is going to take time; time spent in the ‘hide’ and time for the birds to rediscover and frequent the feeders. I shall keep going and I plan to publish an update with a portfolio of garden my bird photography once I feel I have more successful examples to share.

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