Expert Advice on Bird Photography from Someone that is Not Very Good at It
“Oh, for the wings of a dove, men, envious, cry.
What bones, what muscles, have birds and not I,
That give them freedom of the boundless sky?”
- Joel Peters
I imagine you would ask yourself, then, why should I read this?…Well for starters there are good pictures of amazing and unique African birds, and as I said these pictures are really very good, and it is not because of luck, but of patience, years…no…decades of practice and adequate equipment.
Yes, I used to be terrible at bird photography, which was incredibly frustrating, specially because I love birds, I really love birds!
For as long as I remember I’ve been fascinated with this incredible animals. So imagine my frustration at not being able to capture with my camera how striking they can be? The final results of my bird photography were so disappointing that for many years I didn’t even try; that changed a couple of years ago.
So what changed? I’ll tell you, but first a little bit about birds and why they are far away my favorite animals.
From The Bird: A Natural History of Who Birds Are, Where They Came From, and How They Live by Colin Tudge: “All animals are equal no doubt in the eyes of God, and all that manage to survive at all in this difficult world are in some sense “equal.” But some, by all objective measures, are far more impressive than others; and none, not even the mammals, the group to which we ourselves belong, quite match up to the birds. Birds have their shortcomings, to be sure, as flesh and blood must. But they are, nonetheless, a very superior form of life. Above all, birds fly.”
Yes indeed they fly, and you might say well, but there are birds like ostriches or penguins that do not fly. The truth is many birds have abandoned flight, emphasis on the word abandoned, but not before literally conquering every ecosystem in the planet.
The bottom line is that the capacity of flying gave birds a huge advantage over other vertebrates; as a matter of fact there are approximately 8900 living species of birds compared to 3000 amphibians, 6000 reptiles, and 4100 mammals. For birds, the atmosphere is an enormous ocean of air that provides them with quick and direct access to almost any spot on earth. As a consequence, birds can inhabit and take advantage of a greater range of habitats than any other class or organism, plant or animal. According to Joe Carl Welty in The Life of Birds,”birds can eat in almost any “restaurant”; they can choose to build their homes anywhere among an almost infinite variety of sites, frequently beyond the reach of predators. Perhaps as a result of their supreme mobility, birds are numerically at least, the most successful terrestrial vertebrates on earth.”
Of course this ability comes with certain adaptations like specially designed bodies with very characteristic structural bones, superb vision and most importantly feathers. But I’m going to leave it at that, because books are written about each one of these subject, and this post is not about bird biology but why I’m fascinated by them and why I want to master the craft of bird photography.
Back to what changed?
Wildlife photography requires a lot of patience and understanding of animal behavior so you not only know what to expect but you can also understand why animals do what they do in different circumstances. And why is this important? Well in my case I really want to be able to teach something about that specific animal in this case the bird while also capturing the beauty of it.
Another important change is access to the proper equipment. The advent of auto-focus first and later of digital photography, has made wildlife and bird photographers life much easier. We know how hard it is for kids to stay still for a couple of minutes, now imagine animals in general and birds in particular…it can be a nightmare, but thanks to digital photography we can afford to take hundreds of pictures of one subject hoping to get the golden shot.
Keep in mind that long range lenses are a must; most birds will fly or walk away if you try to approach them and even if they don’t the last thing you want to do is disturb them. Finally I learned that when photographing any animal including humans the most important thing is to keep the eyes in focus…out-of-focus eyes and you can say bye bye to that shot…now when photographing birds the area of focus must include the beak. This can be challenging specially when using long range lenses in areas with poor light, but that’s another advantage of digital, the ability to change the ISO to compensate for a low light situation.
I do think though that in this specific case, the magnificent landscape helped me a lot. The African Savanna…there is nothing like this anywhere else in the world.
In fact, Africa is one of the best places to go birding. The continent is second only to South America (3400 species) in terms of number of species, and it offers more rewarding birding than any other tropical regions thanks to the large number of visible species associated with savanna and woodland habitats. Africa is home to two endemic bird orders, 10 endemic families, and of the more than 2100 species in Sub-Saharan region. In this post you see pictures of a very small sample of the almost 1400 species that are restricted to the region.
You can see more birds by visiting Birds of Africa