Profile: Col Roberts
Col Roberts is ready with his camera, settled on the banks of a waterhole in the vast, rugged, and almost arid Kimberley in Western Australia. It is very early morning and he is waiting for sunrise.
That is when flocks of multitudinous Gouldian Finches will arrive to drink, eat and bathe. He will have just a narrow window of opportunity to study them and take more of his revelatory portrait and action images.
It is amazing what you see, he tells AP, by being at a particular location from sunrise, hour after hour, day after day.
“An example is nesting sites. Inquisitive Gouldians, mostly without female partners, what I refer to as bachelor males, like to land at nesting hollows during the breeding season,” he explains.
“When I see these males land in a tree, it’s action stations as I anticipate they will land at a nesting site and be chased off by the nesting pair. Check out the front cover of my book for an example of an intruder who got the shock of its life when it landed at a nesting hollow and was attacked by the nesting male who exited the nest to grab hold of it.
It was dangling by its wing before it escaped. I got that image because I was at the ready with correct camera settings, fast shutter speed, and anticipating that there would be action.
Another favourite image I’ve captured here is the look of horror on the face of one inquisitive Gouldian. As it turns its tail to fly away from a nesting hollow, the nesting bird came flying out of the log and bit it on the bum!”
Col’s field work has made him an expert, and the first person in the world to photograph and publish all of Australia’s finch species and subspecies. His latest, and sixth book, Gouldian, the World’s Most Beautiful Finch is a masterful work of observation and fine photography about the Gouldian Finch.
Driven to near extinction by overgrazing and bushfires, the colourful birds are now thriving in remote parts of the Kimberley, Col’s backyard. The ornithologist’s tireless quest to photograph them has helped reveal Gouldian personality traits and behaviours that have never been seen before, let alone photographed.
Putting in the work
Observation is the key. There is no substitute for spending thousands of hours in the field and observing, Col stresses.
“Being based in the Kimberley I can observe the birds in every month of the year. Other people will fly up to the Kimberley for several weeks and go home and not have the same opportunity as I do.
When you sit at a particular waterhole, or near a nesting tree, for over 30 days straight, you can’t help but pick up little things relating to birds’ behaviour.
I only make written notes if I have found the behaviour unusual, or it’s never been recorded before, or the time and date of the year when they were feeding upon a particular grass species. All the other information is recorded in the camera’s EXIF data.”
His diligence pays dividends in other ways too. He was able to follow the activity of one Gouldian he identified from a missing feather on its head, and by recording the activity of this one bird, Col was able to disprove the notion that the Gouldian Finch drinks only once each day.
But it’s how he captures the idiosyncratic behaviours and actions of individual birds that sets Col’s photography apart from the rest. And this starts by trying to bring something different to every shot. This is because photographing birds sitting on a stick is the least satisfying form of bird photography, he believes.
“There can be a long time between activities, and when it comes you can often notice subtle distinguishing differences in the bird’s features. I like unusual behaviour, such as birds fighting over nesting sites, feeding on seeding grasses, searching amongst rocks for dead crab shells and parents taking faeces in their beaks away from their nesting hollow – which had never been recorded before – to name a few.
I look for interesting angles and differing lighting situations and I am always ready to fire the shutter when a bird moves, whether it’s taking off, changing its head angle, or fighting with others,” he explains.
Do not disturb
Contrary to usual photographic practice, Col doesn’t use a blind. This is because he believes, the birds know he is there anyway, and especially so when the lens moves.
“Provided you don’t make sudden movements, and you keep a low profile, birds will lose their natural caution,” he says. “I will mostly be sitting on the other side of a waterhole, so the birds have the safety of the water between me and them and ample escape routes to adjoining trees.”
Anticipation and reaction
In the field, it’s key to learn how to anticipate, but also be prepared to react to the unexpected. Flexibility is king, explains Col.
When anticipating a bird’s landing site, Col says he aims to ensure the background is not cluttered and distracting. For example, he’ll often aim for backgrounds that contains Spear Grass as it appears as a beautiful beige or tan colour and gives a smooth background bokeh. Returning to the same site on multiple days, he aims for varying vistas, foregrounds, and backgrounds.
“You also need to make a decision whether to zoom in on one particular bird or try to capture a number in a scene,” he explains. “I mix it up and try all sorts of compositions, from tight portraits to medium width scenes containing several birds, to very wide scenes when I try to show massive numbers of birds drinking at the one time and the interesting action when they all take off. Often, I must move backwards to get the whole scene in view.
That’s why over time I’ve used my Canon 600mm fixed lens less and less. It’s great for portraits, but when I want to get a group of birds together, or one flying in to join another one, often the subject is cut off, which can be annoying.
With a zoom I can quickly adjust the focal length and capture as much or as little of the scene as I like. At times I even try wide-angle 16-35mm lens images, and I position the camera and lens close to where I think the birds will drink, and fire the shutter remotely. Some of these low, wide-angle compositions look cool.”
Col is also keen to note that although mirrorless has revolutionised autofocus and that the tracking abilities of the latest cameras are excellent for photographing larger birds like cockatoos and raptors, they still struggle with small subjects such as finches.
As the light changes from pre-dawn to several hours after sunrise, Col has learned how to react quickly. Key is to keep bumping up the shutter speed to capture action with minimum blur.
“Very early in the morning you simply can’t shoot at higher shutter speeds unless you want to put up with noisy high ISO images, which I don’t like,” he explains. “I always keep checking the LCD screen and histogram to see if the image is too dark or too bright. You soon get an understanding of which settings work and which won’t.”
Highlights, especially when the subject is backlit, can also be a problem. Conversely, Col points out, highlights can look quite creative when the sun is low, if the image is not over exposed.
“I quite like the effect of side-lighting and I try and avoid all images taken with the sun directly behind me – I like to mix it up. Again, check the LCD screen and histogram to see what works and what doesn’t. It also helps to shoot only in the first couple of hours after dawn and late in the afternoon.
I like to avoid the harsh midday lighting as much as possible unless I’m capturing birds in flight or birds coming to or from their nests, when I can set a high shutter speed to freeze the wing action. You really need 1/8000s to freeze wing action, although much less on larger birds, other than finches. Having said that, I don’t mind some wing blur in images.
In low light, you have no choice but to use lower shutter speeds. For action I try not to go under 1/1000s, but I much prefer at least 1/2000s, and preferably much more if the light allows.
There is no special planning involved for a photography trip, Col believes, other than the need and desire to get up around 3AM, drive up to sixty minutes to a location, day after day for days, or weeks, or even months at a time.
“Most locations are found close to major roads. There’s not much you can do about safety unless you carry a satellite phone. There is no mobile coverage in most locations in the region. Make sure you have water in a backpack and a reliable portable fridge-freezer in the car.”
To the enthusiast photographer preparing for their first outing, he recommends working out which waterhole or creek crossing you want to try out in a suitable Gouldian habitat ahead of time. “Get up early and be there before sunrise. If there is no activity within the first hour, move to another location.”
In the kit, there is simply no substitute for a good telephoto. You are not going to get close enough to the birds without a long lens.
Currently, Col uses a Sony A1 body with 200-600mm zoom lens and to a lesser extent a Canon R5 with 100-500mm lens.
“I often use a 1.4X extender on both systems. Before these cameras I mainly used a Sony A7RIV with the same lens and Canon EOS 5DSR with 600mm lens or sometimes a Sigma 150-600mm lens.
I love the large number of megapixels of the A7R1V and Canon 5DSR, which allows good cropping on such small birds, but I have to put up with slow frames per second with these cameras – everything is a compromise.
I recently sold my Canon 600mm lens as I wasn’t getting as much use for it and because it’s a pain, heavy to cart around over rough ground. I mainly use the Sony 200-600mm lens now and put up with the limited aperture.
I also love the flexibility of zooms. I have gone through three Sigma zoom lenses. They are relatively cheap, but they can’t stand up to the harsh conditions I operate in.
I’m rough on gear. I place cameras in a backpack and use bubble wrap to separate them. Heat doesn’t seem to bother them in the field but avoid leaving them in a hot car.
And here’s a tip: when travelling to a location in the morning, turn off the car’s air-conditioning as this will cause lenses to fog up. I have missed shots because I have had to wait ages for the fog to disappear.”
When it comes to post-production, Col explains that although he uses Lightroom to do basic adjustments, such as cropping, noise reduction, increasing the shadows and basic spot removal, he will not use it to do enhancements.
“I try and get an image correct in camera rather than postproduction. I really don’t have time to spend hours mucking around on a computer when I could instead be in the field.” It’s a fitting point to end on – Col has prioritised his field work above all else, and the results speak for themselves. ❂