Free as a bird - an avian photography primer
Published in - Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXII. NO. 2. April, 2002

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They come in all shapes and sizes and have fascinated artists down the ages. With nearly 1,300 avian species in the Indian subcontinent, these flying masterpieces are automatic subjects for wildlife photography. But more than their sheer abundance, it is their vivacity, exquisite colours, varied sizes and above all, the gift of flight that captivates people even moderately interested in nature.

Birdwatching is probably the world’s most widespread wildlife involvement. Of course, some of us choose to observe birds on television, others from the comfort of their balconies, some (impatient and uninformed) imprison them in cages. The more inquisitive tend to pick up a pair of binoculars for a closer look into their private lives, and yet others try to capture these extremely mobile life-forms on film.

Birds epitomise freedom. And the aim of a bird photographer should be to freeze a ‘moment’ in a bird’s life, rather than just the ‘bird’. This, to my mind, is the essence of good bird photography.

Even when one is armed with the correct attitude and temperament, bird photography is a challenging endeavour. Consistently successful bird photography requires an understanding of the subject and equipment, an enormous amount of patience and lots of good luck. And, lest I forget, a generous amount of time!

PREFERRED PARAPHERNALIA: Knowing your subject and its behaviour is half the battle won. The other equally crucial half is familiarity with the gadgets involved. For a successful photograph, the photographer must choose the right film, camera, lenses and then hone in on the correct aperture, focus and composition. All this requires skills that are sharpened with experience so that shutters are tripped without shake and exposures are taken that include that magical ‘something’ called mood. While this entire process might look discouragingly complex to a beginner, in truth much of it becomes second nature and is, eventually, almost a reflex, like driving! But it is vital that in the early stages, a conscious effort is made to pay attention to every little detail so that ultimately the camera becomes an extension of your hand and mind.

Technological advancements now offer you innumerable choices. The most preferred camera format for amateur and professional bird photographers is a 35 mm. SLR (single lens reflex) for its versatility and light weight. Most SLR cameras come with a TTL (through-the-lens) meter that reads light to determine the best aperture setting and shutter speed. Amongst the metering options available are the center-weighted, spot and multi-segment. A spot meter offers definite advantage while shooting birds against high contrast backgrounds.

The lens is an extremely important component in any photographic endeavour. Most successful bird photographers never compromise on lens speed (widest aperture) or lens quality (sharpness, lenses made of high quality low dispersion glass). For birds, the shortest focal length that one should buy is 200 mm. Ideally a serious bird photographer would like to possess telephoto lenses longer than 300 mm. The fast (wide aperture), fixed focal length lenses (300 mm., 400 mm., 500 mm., etc.) are extremely sharp; they are notoriously expensive and are often beyond the reach of hobbyists.

However, the introduction of moderately fast zoom lenses (70-300 mm., 100-400 mm., 170-500 mm., etc.) have made life easier for all types of photographers. They are relatively sharp and reasonably priced. Moreover, people who can’t afford prime telephoto zoom lenses (manufactured by standard camera companies viz. Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Minolta, etc.) have a cheaper but reliable alternative in the form of Tamron and Sigma, both of which are internationally recognised lens manufacturers.

Additional facilities that can broaden a photographer’s repertoire are lenses with an auto-focus feature, depth-of-field preview (allows you to see what is in or out of focus at the selected aperture), motor drive (cameras capable of shooting multiple frames per second), a cable release socket (for triggering the shutter without touching the shutter release button) and a TTL (through-the-lens) flash. A must for any serious bird photographer is a sturdy tripod (often attached to the barrel of a tele-lens). A tele-converter is a comparatively inexpensive accessory that can be fitted between the camera body and the prime lens. A 1.4X or 2X tele-converter increases the focal length of a 300 mm. lens to 420 or 600 mm. respectively, at less than 1/15th of the price.

COMPOSITION: Quite frequently, one sees bird images that are correctly exposed and sharp, but lacking visual appeal, making them uninteresting and drab. This missing ‘something’ is usually the dislocation or lack of a focal point in the image – composition makes or breaks a photograph. For some, composing an interesting image can be quite difficult while to others, this comes naturally. Composition is a matter of perspective – the art of conveying the three-dimensional world in the two-dimensions of a photograph. In bird photography, one of the most effective perspectives is to get to the eye-level of the subject. If this fails to add zing to your picture, try separating the bird from its background by reducing the depth of field (opening the aperture), zooming in or out to take in less or more of the surrounding habitat or switching from horizontal to vertical mode.

Familiarity with a bird’s behaviour is invaluable. If this doesn’t work, the camera position can be shifted from left-to-right or top-to-bottom to change both the angle of view and the background. While shooting arboreal birds, it is always better to position the birds in the top half of the frame so that the branches lead the viewer to the subject. Try to leave more space in front of the bird than behind it, and you will see that the bird appears to move in, rather than out of your frame. Avoid placing tree trunks or branches in the centre of the frame. Eliminate unwanted colours or objects from the fore or background by changing the perspective. The basic principles of composition are not difficult to learn. For starters, try to follow the one-third rule. This suggests that when a rectangular format is divided into thirds horizontally and vertically, the points of intersections of the lines mark the points of power – the points where the focus area of the subject has maximum effect.

APPOSITE APPROACH: The high mobility of birds makes them difficult subjects to photograph. Capturing a bird in flight is therefore an immensely satisfying moment for a photographer. India is blessed with a profusion of bird species: sandpipers, herons and egrets prefer to wade along the shoreline, while others like cormorants, gulls and ducks take readily to water. Owls, flycatchers, orioles and leafbirds are at peace within the forests, while vultures, kites and swifts prefer to defy gravity by soaring to great heights. There can be no single formula to approach this vast array of birds, each uniquely adapted to its preferred habitat. However, a thinking photographer, after a few unsuccessful attempts, will be able to devise a strategy that will offer him the best chance of photographing a particular species.

The most successful method of photographing birds of the open country (junglefowl, waders, larks, drongos, avadavats and raptors) is from the security of a vehicle. Birds are less alarmed when approached by a vehicle than by a human on foot. Photographers should always carry a beanbag or a window bracket to support a long lens against the vehicle body. Forest birds (raptors, orioles, bulbuls, babblers, etc.), on the other hand, are best photographed from a camouflaged blind, a safe distance from their nesting or feeding sites. Most birds avoid flying straight to their nest. They land on a nearby perch to inspect the surroundings for predators before heading towards the nest. To ensure minimal disturbance, the blind should be gradually erected over a few days, to give the birds time to get used to your intrusion. Having said this, it is better to photograph the birds on their perch, a little distance away from the nest.

Keeping vigil at waterholes or roosts from the cover of a blind could yield good results. However, before erecting blinds, adequate permissions must always be obtained from the relevant forest department.

ETHICAL PHOTOGRAPHY: The recent boom in bird photography can be attributed to the extraordinary advances in affordable optical equipment. A relatively small investment in a camera that is extremely intelligent and responsive is all it takes to awaken the bird photographer in each of us. While it is wonderful to have more people interested in photography, there is a flip side to the rapid influx of people into the field of nature and wildlife photography. Too many photographers concentrated in the same area can have an adverse impact on birds and their environment. There is no doubt that photographing birds does affect their lives. But by acting judiciously, this effect need not be negative. If our methods are correct and our knowledge adequate, we need cause no more disturbance than a monkey does to a tree on whose fruits it feeds.

In order to make a minimal if not zero impact, one must abstain from nest photography of most forest species. Certain birds like herons, weaver birds, stilts or the ground nesters such as larks, lapwings and pipits inhabiting disturbed areas may be more tolerant to human presence, but in general, most forest species are extremely wary of humans and should be left alone. A close approach or clearance of the foliage around a nest can either cause the parents to abandon the eggs or chicks, or expose the nest to predators. Thus, unless the picture is significant from the conservation viewpoint, nest photography, in this time and age, should be avoided.

The simplest way to avoid the temptation to twist the world to suit your photographic taste is to internalise the fact that the birds’ well-being is infinitely more important than your image. Thus, observing a bird through binoculars from a distance can often deliver more satisfaction than invading its privacy for a picture. In other words, sometimes it’s best just to say “No!” to yourself.