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Photography Article

Article 10

An introduction to capturing wild birds on film

By Rob L. Suisted

(Originally published in New Zealand Outdoor magazine)

It was bloody vile - projectile vomit a la pure fish oil! Fortunately, most of it now lay on the ground in front of me, but the small bit that had glued itself to my sleeve more than made up for the bit of goo that hadn’t; especially it’s odour!

This was not bird photography at its best, but it certainly ranks well in my memory. Of course, I had only myself to blame - I’d been crawling through the damp knee high Bulbinella herb field that sat atop Enderby Island, in the NZ Sub-Antarctic region, searching for a lonely giant petrel chick to photograph. Many people will less affectionately know these birds as ‘Stinkers’, I suspect largely from their famous scavenging ability, however they are remarkable birds nevertheless, and this was partly the point I was keen to illustrate.

I’d watched, over a couple of weeks, a small gathering of giant petrel nests as the youngsters developed. The chicks really had little to thank their mums for though, whether by mismanagement or design, many of the nests sat right out in the bitterly cold roaring forties; no cover to speak of. The rather big balls of light grey down with honking great beaks sat patiently through sun or hail waiting for mummies to return from sea with their next feed.


My mistake was thinking......newly hatched, covered in down and unable to walk equalled easy pickings with the camera......I’ve got better respect now having experienced the 2.5 metre stream of luke warm nauseous fish oil they can propel in self defence.




Yellow eyed penguin. Example of how to use a small depth of field (focus) to lift a subject out of the background (and foreground in this shot).
Olympus OM4Ti, 400mm lens, Kodachrome 64.

Mostly though photographing birds is thoroughly enjoying. If there was such a thing as a memory per photo index I’m pretty sure that bird photography would score about top. I think I’ve got more great memories from getting good bird photos than from most other subjects.

Whether it’s the characters of the birds themselves, or the fact that they and other animals seem to add another dimension to our outdoors, I’m not sure, but I am clear that they’re very satisfying to capture on film, not to mention just watching.

I recall sitting next to camp, high in the Southern Alps, one warm evening watching a raucous, but respectful family group of keas playing around on the rocks next to my tent. The light was almost gone as I sat watching their mischievous foolery, especially that of the two juveniles (given away by the yellow markings around their eyes & beaks).


Filming was a fruitless exercise in the last orange light of the sundown so I sat enjoying the spectacle amongst the tussock. The two young birds must have only just learnt to fly and were certainly loving the freedom from their burrow.

Both were harassing the heck out of each other and I recall one move that would have had my younger brother proud! One vindictive feathered sibling casually walked up behind it’s mate and swung a ‘round house’ kick straight for the back of his head. What looked like expert timing, that surprised me even more than the offender, saw the imminent victim wheel around and grab the ‘kick boxer’s’ foot firmly by the beak! Now, balance is a delicate thing with only two feet; but even more so when one foot is in the mouth of your brother.

The next minute or so was a remarkable display of payback as one young kea gleefully frog marched it’s sibling backwards into humiliation.



Gannet flying over ironsands. Dynamic shot of Gannet in it’s environment. Attention paid to composition of waves and flax in foreground. Dark background gives excellent contrast to focus attention on the subject.
Olympus OM4Ti, Zuiko 135mm lens, Ektachrome 100.


Another amusing incident I recall was after a hard night on the turps at the Nelson Creek pub, on the West Coast. A group of us had just spent a week in the surrounding hills chasing roaring stags with reasonable luck, so a good nights imbibing on the local brew was a necessary fixture. Course no one was too concerned about accommodation and in the wee hours we stumbled numbly across the road into the local domain to spread out bivvy bags. In the half light of a very cool morning, our pounding heads were treated to a painfully shrill cry from Paul. He’d been dreaming, dreaming he’d been riding a horse down the main street of a wild west town when a portly barmaid rushed out of the saloon and wrestled him from his horse by his ear! Sitting bolt upright in his sleeping bag uncovered the problem - one of the local wekas (ground dwelling wood hen) had latched on to his earlobe and was trying to drag him off as though he was tucker! Craniums thumping, we tried to laugh - gently!

Well, that’s enough of my reminiscencing. I guess it’s a reflection on how important birds are to our outdoors experience. So, how can we be more successful in catching these characters on film?


I’m not going to cover the full on, hard core type bird photography that requires months of preparation and construction of hides that teeter precariously in high trees to photograph the nests and young of lesser know common spotted sparrows.

Advice I’ll give here is aimed as practical information that most people can use to improve their current photos of birds like keas, wood pigeons, moreporks etc. when they come across them on normal trips into the hills.

There is no doubt that tremendous images can be derived from using hides, if you’re lucky and patient, especially with species like hawks but it’s beyond the interest of most people. Hides can nevertheless be exciting - one person I know was cramped into one while photographing a harrier hawk when the bird landed on top - the first thing they knew about it was a razor sharp talon grasping through the hole the camera poked out of - several centimetres from their face!


Royal Albatross, Enderby Island. This shot uses fill-in flash to catch the evening’s sunset and bird in correct exposure. The result produced a good contrasting background to perfectly outline the bird’s form.
Olympus OM4Ti, Zuiko 24mm lens, T32 flash, Kodachrome 64

Let’s look first at some of the techniques. Right, golden rule number one, in my book, is that the birds’ eye must always be in focus. Other bits can be out, but if the eye is not crisp and clear the photo will die. This is a hard and fast rule, I’ve never found an exception, so always concentrate on this aspect first. Because the birds’ eye has so much power over the final image we can consider enhancing it’s effect. This is relatively easy with the use of a camera flash.

Ever noticed that most good portrait images of people have a bright glint in the subjects eye? It’s called a ‘catchlight’ and it’s existence is intentional. The purpose can be to inject life into the image. You can do the same with a camera flash mounted on your camera to provide fill in flash. The idea here is to have the flash fire a small burst (about a quarter of full power) at the bird. The result will be a nice glint, or catchlight, in the birds eye - helping to liven up the image. Many modern cameras have small built in flashes that are adequate and will do this automatically for you. If you’re photographing on a bright sunny day you can allow the sun to make it’s own catchlight by thinking about the sun’s angle - try to get it coming over your shoulder for good result.


Next is to get a contrasting background. The problem is that many of our birds are not brightly coloured (like keas) and tend to sink into the background when we snap them, creating a confusing, boring image. This is easy to fix though, you’ve got two techniques to help. The first and most obvious is to find an angle that will provide a background that is very different in colour, tone or texture. A nice smooth-textured, grey bird stands out really well against a rough textured green background for instance.

The other technique is to use the smallest depth of field (focus) possible. The goal here is to make the background blurry while the subject is sharp - note that this is really another contrast technique to pop the bird out of the background. A spin-off of this is that it will give you the fastest available shutterspeed - a very important point considering that birds are very fast movers and the faster the shutterspeed the more chance you’ll have of a crisp shot. Also, you’ll probably be using a relatively long camera lens and the extra speed will help ward off the shakes (read last issue if you want to know more). A small depth of field means that very careful focusing is needed.

Pied Stilts in wetland. Illustrates the 3 subject rule described in the text.
Canon EOS, Canon 300mm lens, Fujichrome RDP.

Bird photos tend to fall into two types: birds doing nothing; or birds doing something. Simple, but there is often a tremendous difference between the two types. It’s telling when large international nature photo competitions state on the entry form that they’re not interested in bird photos if the subject is just sitting still. The key message here is that waiting to catch a bird in an unusual pose or activity is well worth it if you can. Alternatively, attempting to photograph a bird in an unusual way also pays dividends; an example is the yellow eyed penguin shot included. Note also how well the subject stands out from the background due to the small depth of field.

I find that birds are one of the few things that are make good subjects in bright sunlight. You’re still presented with the problem of harsh shadows, however, the feathers of most birds come to life in bright sunlight. A good example are tuis - in shade the birds look pure black but as soon as sun strikes their plumage it brings out incredible iridescent greens and blues. Bright sun also helps get a decent shutterspeed to freeze bird motion and camera shake if you’re using a telephoto lens.

The multiple subject guide is a useful point to think about also. If an image has a single main subject (i.e. one bird) the eye will generally settle easily upon it. Things change with more subjects. If a photo has two equal main subjects then the brain tends to have great difficulty in deciding which one to give attention and the viewers’ eye will not settle. If there are three or more subjects normally the brain will happily except these as a group and the image will seem more settled and the eyes will not rove the same. Therefore, if you are photographing multiple birds, try to avoid capturing two in the frame - check out the image of the Pied Stilts feeding on a beautifully calm evening.


Let’s now consider equipment. Lens selection is paramount. Obviously this is the realm of long lenses, however in most cases you will not need a honking great super telephoto lens for most of the birds we commonly encounter on hunting, fishing and tramping trips. Many people own and carry a zoom lens of 80-200mm (and many now 75-300mm) and these are perfect for most species such as wood pigeon, weka, keas, robins, ducks, and moreporks.

My favourite for these is often a fixed 135mm lens. At this lens length a flash gun is still very effective which is useful. Of course I carry and use bigger lenses, however you might think that a more powerful lens is always preferable? They do have limitations. The main one is their close focusing ability, and it is important to know this limit of any lens you use. For example, my 400mm lens is very good, but the problem is that the closest it focuses is only 3.5 metres. This is hopeless for small birds, such as tomtits, because at 3.5 metres they are tiny in the photo. On the other hand, my 300mm lens focuses right down to 1.5 metres which means I can almost fill the photo with a small bird, even though the lens is 25% less powerful. You will have no problem with close focus if you’re using a 1.4x, or 2x tele-converter as the minimum focus distance of the original lens is retained, but the image increases in size.

Autofocus or manual focus? Personally I don’t think there is too much difference between the two, the trick is to be proficient with what you have, and it helps immensely to know automatically which way to turn focusing rings to get the right results.

'Electric Pukeko'. Again, the use of a small depth of field to lift the subject from a background that would have been very distracting if it had’ve been in focus. Contrasting green background helps also to outline the pukeko.
Canon EOS, 400mm lens, Fujichrome Velvia.

Well, that’s about it. I’d love to tell a few more yarns about encounters with birds, like the morning of the blue ducks and the frozen river, or the time a couple of keas picked ‘kidney fat holes’ in raincoat (much like they can do to sheep, bless them), but there’s no space here. I hope these tips are helpful - good shooting.
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This article and images are copyright to Rob L. Suisted - Nature's Pic Images.  All rights reserved.