I have spent many pleasurable hours in our garden in Stanford photographing birds. I think I have achieved a measure of success with these photographs which mostly record their behaviour, especially in the breeding season. I study other photographers’ work and they are a source of inspiration as I try to work out how they get such quality results. The natural evolution leads one to try and control as many of the elements that make up a good image that one can. I have been taking gradual steps towards creating an outdoor studio in the garden and will share some of the experiences and lessons I have learnt.
We have a number of bird baths and bird feeders in our garden and we are fortunate to attract a variety of birds. I am in the process of compiling a book and the catalyst for this was identifying 100 different species seen or heard in the garden. The current garden list is 114 species. We are on the flight path between Willem Appel Dam and the Klein River Estuary at Hermanus and the overhead birds account for a fair number on the list. Anton Odendaal, who has been my birding mentor, says in his Flight for Birders Course that the reason he feeds birds is that occasionally they will attract a raptor, and again we have had our fair share of these with 12 species recorded.
So, what makes a superior photograph of a bird? The process involves understanding this and then replicating it as much as possible in the garden.
Firstly, birds. We have a variety of bird feeders but as we are still weekenders in Stanford, I have not yet implemented the full menu of feeds that I will when we are permanently in Stanford. We have seed trays, nectar bottles, logs with large holes drilled in them for peanut butter and jam as well as spikes for fruit. We do not use suet regularly, or bone-meal and this along with cheese and meal worms will be introduced later. We have an incredible number of birds visiting the garden and no shortage of subject matter. The birds are accustomed to human presence and though they have their comfort boundaries, generally allow close approach. Because there are so many birds in the garden, you tend to attract passers by. Birds must be gregarious, as apart from the raptors, we have had some rare birds (for Stanford) in the garden in the past few weeks – Cut-throat Finch which was completely out of range (possibly an escapee from someone’s aviary) and Black-bellied Starling.
It is also true that since I have started this outdoor studio project, I have spent more time observing the garden birds which means that little now escapes notice.
Bird baths are also a magnet for birds and bathing and drinking birds are extremely photogenic. We have four bird baths and with this project I have designated the largest as a mobile bath. The other three are in undergrowth or shrubby areas and do not have the background desired. My first location, which is under a greengage tree (to offer the bird’s protection and a sense of security) but with a clear background, appears to be a good choice. The bath is deliberately more than 1 metre off the ground so that the water level is just below the level of the camera. The result is you are shooting at the same level as the bird which gives pleasing results with the small depth of water that is in focus.
Secondly, a smooth uncluttered background. The nearest background trees and shrubs should preferably be at least 5 metres away which I have not as yet achieved with the mobile bird feeder. It is better to have uniform colour and my preference so far is green or brown. If there are flowers in the background then blue (potato bush) and yellow (tick berry) work well and are not intrusive. In the one area we have white jasmine and this colour detracts from the images. We have treated wooden pole fencing and their light colour again interferes with the background, as does the grey tree trunk of a karee tree. I cover the pole fence with black material where it is in the camera range, but this is not ideal and I must find a more suitable site to set up my feeders. The other thing to avoid in the background is your neighbours’ walls and roof, especially if they are a light colour. Similarly, it is better to have shrubbery in the background than open sky as there is less interest in a blue sky or a white cloud background (apart from the exposure adjustments you need to make.)
Next is proximity to the birds. Ideally, you should be as close to the birds as possible, preferably so that they will completely fill the frame of your zoom lens. I use a 100–400 lens and the ideal distance is about 3 metres. This area has seen the most development as I have at last constructed a mobile bird hide of sorts. In the past I would sit patiently behind my tripod and wait until hunger and curiosity coerced the birds to come to the feeders. This worked to a degree but certain species are more wary than others and the birds were always aware of my presence so not completely natural in their behaviour. Using the bird hide has been a complete revelation. Though only 3 metres from the birds, they are completely unaware of my presence and go about their business as usual. With the help of Dearly Beloved, the hide is constructed out of an old braai wigwam structure which has been draped in hessian. We may paint some camouflage colours on it, but with the success of the first few days of use, this may not be necessary. The acceptance by the birds of the hide has taken my breath away. It is a whole new experience to watch the birds behaving completely naturally. The only time the birds now scatter is when a hawk or falcon flies overhead.
Perches can make a big difference to your final images. I initially went out with my daughter, Sara, down to the river and we came back with lichen and moss covered branches which I rigged up as perches. These were a limited success and only work in some of the images. The moss and lichen are too light a colour and can be intrusive. In some photos they look too contrived and then possibly the most common mistake is that the perches became repetitive – I would have 6 or 7 species in a portfolio which are obviously photographed on the same perch.
The lesson is to vary the perches, have them natural looking and blending in with the environment, the right size for the birds and a colour that fits in with the bird and background. In future I will rotate the perches on a regular basis.
The lighting and angle from which it strikes the birds is vitally important. The hides, feeders and bird baths are all portable which means I have some control over the lighting. The limiting factor is the background but you can still experiment. Thus far I have photographed mostly in the late afternoon with the sun at a 45 degree angle behind me. The reason I have not done early morning sessions is because I have not yet identified a suitable location with the correct background and cover for the birds to set up the studio.
There is lots more experimentation still to come and I will look at using reflectors and artificial backgrounds to see what sort of results these produce. Off camera flash is another project, especially for overcast days. Photography at the bird bath by necessity is often going to be at midday when it is hottest and most frequently used. My imagination has begun to roam on how a softbox effect can be used on the sunlight and I will experiment with in-fill flash. My reasoning has been that if I begin to create an outdoor studio, I might as well go the whole hog and try to reproduce what the pro’s do in their studios. I have no experience of studios but have read enough to experiment.
The camera, settings I use and post processing are subjects in themselves. Dearly Beloved rewarded me with Photoshop recently, and though I am still learning the beginner’s ropes, there is little doubt this programme makes a big difference to your results.
In summary and as an aide memoir, my findings to date are:
– Make yourself a mobile hide
– Position your feeders and bird bath where the background is not obstructed and has neutral colours. Keep the nearest background structures at least 5 metres away.
– Position your “outdoor studio” to get the best light and make it mobile so you can get the best out of morning and afternoon light.
– Select your perches carefully. They should be natural looking and again neutral in colour. Change your perches regularly.
– Positioning your bird bath just below camera height makes for pleasing images.