Beyond Birds on Branches: five ideas to spice up your bird photography - Part two
Last week we shared the first part of Georgina Steytler's amazing bird photography tips, which you can read here. Here's the second part.
Imagine a bird, like a great crested grebe, its crest rimmed in golden light, set against a dark background? Andy Rouse, one of the world’s best nature photographers, has taken just this image (titled ‘Crests of Fire’), and it is simply stunning.
In fact, if you take a moment to browse through the galleries of the world’s best bird photographers, you’ll likely see many more examples of the power of backlighting to create beautiful images.
The most difficult part of backlit photography is finding the right location. Ideally you need somewhere where the birds are in the early morning or late afternoon light and the background is in the shade (to get that seamless black background). Rivers or small ponds with treed edges are usually the best places to start looking if it’s waterbirds you want to photograph.
Once you have the ideal location, it is simply a matter of positioning yourself to avoid lens flare (you will need a lens hood) whilst shooting into the general direction of the light.
The best light for backlit photography is close to sunset and sunrise when the light is a gorgeous gold. The opportunity might not last for long, but when it does it will be pure magic.
When the golden light is not suitable for backlighting, it’s time to experiment with silhouettes. Silhouettes can make a powerful visual statement. More often than not, the key to a good silhouette is simplicity – that is, clear, colourful backgrounds (and foregrounds if there is a water reflection) with a neat bird outline.
To produce the ideal silhouette, align your bird with the setting sun or a bright, colourful sky. You then expose for the sky, not the bird (the bird being blacked out). Aim for an area of the sky that does not contain the sun (unless you want to be blinded).
Wetlands are a good place to start as they are flat, populated with elegant waterbirds (herons, egrets, stilts, swans...) and dotted with dead branches and trees - which make ideal ‘austere’ perches.
And don’t forget, you can also ‘silhouette’ birds against the moon. If you do try this, make sure to use a large depth of field to retain as much detail in the moon as possible for added impact.
3) Elementary, My Dear Watson
Mist, sand, rain, hail, wind, snow, lightning - why aren’t you out there photographing in it? That’s right. I said lightning! If you think the concept is ridiculous, check out the incredible photography of Hungarian wildlife photographer Bence Mate.
The point is, if you are stuck in the idea that ‘good’ bird photography is only to be done at dawn or dusk, on a clear day, with the sun at your back, you are missing some incredible opportunities to add atmosphere and drama to your images.
4) Slow it down
When was the last time you used a slow shutter speed to deliberately get motion blur in your bird photo? Never? Then it’s time to have a little fun.
There are many kinds of motion blur. Some involve panning with a moving subject, effectively blurring the background, whilst others rely on the partial blur of moving parts (eg wings) of a bird whilst other parts, such as eyes, stay sharp.
And then there is the ‘all out blur’ which amounts to a photographic version of impressionism (or in some cases, abstract art).
For birds in flight, the best results seem to come from using shutter speeds between 1/8 and 1/30secs.
Warning: I hate say this but, when it comes to deliberately creating motion blur, you will fail. No ifs, buts or maybes - 99.9% of the photos you take will look diabolical. So why do it?
Because it’s fun. And because every now and then you’ll get a photo you will love.
Of course, once you venture off the popularist path and start posting blurry shots, you won’t get as many ‘likes’ or ‘follows’ or gushing reviews on social media (most bird photographers hate them). But ask yourself this: are you taking photos to be popular or are you taking them because you love what you do?
My philosophy is simple. I like my photography to be like my life: a constant journey of discovery where you are never quite sure where you will end up but heck, you’re learning a lot and having a darn good time getting there!
So what are you waiting for? Go experiment!
5) Wide angle: Keeping it Remote
And last, but not least: Wide angle. This is a technique that I have never really used myself but I am looking forward to exploring in the future because there is nothing quite like a wide angle shot to give a unique perspective on the world of animals.
To demonstrate the power of this technique I can do no better than to suggest you look at Tim Laman’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2016 winning image of an Orang-utan climbing a tree titled ‘Entwined Lives’. He took the image with, wait for it… a GoPro Hero 4 (remotely triggered from the forest below)!
Now that is a gourmet image that I could dine on for the rest of my life. ❂
About the author: Georgina Steytler is an award winning nature photographer with a passion for ethics and bird conservation. You can see more of her work at georginasteytler.com.au.