Before and after editing a difficult photo of a gorgeous ruru.
Taken through a tiny sightline in the foliage at ground level this was the best I could manage given the conditions - yes some laundry is now needed!
Sony A1+100-400 G-master zoom: 348mm, 1/80s, f/5.6, ISO 6400, -1EV uncropped
Even with the best gear, it's HARD to get a great bird photo in the forest. The light is usually low and can also be dappled with harsh highlights and dark shadows. Recently, Zealandia EcoSanctuary asked me for my best tips for photographing in these circumstances. If you've not been to Zealandia, it's a deep valley running roughly north-south so there is little-to-no early and late low-angled daylight and there is a lot of scrubby bush that gives dappled light. There are, however, many rare and endangered birds that we're all keen to photograph!
A lot of folk turn to flash photography to get enough light. I'm anti-flash for most bird photography. It's not good for the birds, especially those with sensitive eyesight, and it usually looks unnatural anyway. Instead of flash photography, there are a variety of things you can try. Some are free and some cost money. Some are practical and some are technical. My favourite advice is always to focus first on the free and practical things. Only once you've exhausted those options should you consider opening your wallet.
Move your feet (AKA Sneaker-Zoom)
Free and practical
Move your feet and try for a different angle. I can spend as much effort looking at the background as I do the subject to see where the highlights and shadows are falling (not to mention distracting leaves and twigs). Do consider getting down and dirty - I find it better to sit on my bum in the dirt and save my knees (and weatherproof pants are the best things since sliced bread!).
Choose your day
Free and practical
You're unlikely to see me at Zealandia on a bright sunny day! Increase your chances of success by visiting on overcast days and in the early morning or late afternoon when the light can be softer (and the birds are often more active). Some of my best photos were taken on days with soft misty rain.
It may take repeated visits to your favourite location to learn what times of day and season work best, as the sun's angles change throughout both the day and over the year.
Expose for the bird
Free and technical
Dappled light can confuse your camera's auto-exposure settings, causing an under-exposed silhouetted bird or over-exposed blown-out highlights. The answer is to expose for the bird rather than the background (spot-metering). You can more easily compensate for an incorrectly exposed background in post-processing, but it is much harder to compensate for a poorly exposed bird.
There are hundreds if not thousands of tutorials already out there on how to do this, and probably for your specific camera too, so I suggest googling the specifics.
You can also use your exposure compensation dial to tweak what your camera is trying to do automatically. Or take the plunge and learn how to set your exposure manually. With a manual exposure, you can set and forget and focus on the composition - it's quite liberating once you get the hang of it.
Don't consider buying better gear until you've mastered the basics of the gear you have.
Increase the light sensitivity (ISO)...
Free and technical
Increase the ISO setting in your camera so that the sensor is more sensitive in the low-light conditions. Like all things to do with photography, this comes with a trade-off. The image will be noisier/grainier. But this is always better than having a photo with motion blur (unless that's what you're going for).
High ISO close-up of a kākā's eye, before and after de-noising with ON1 NoNoise AI.
...and use denoising software -
Costs $ and (only slighty) technical
I personally hate the grainy look, but many use it to great artistic effect. I use denoising software to improve high-ISO images. Denoising has become so good in recent years, it feels like magic. Noise is removed without sacrificing too much detail. Choose from ON1 NoNoise AI, Topaz DeNoise AI, and DxO for top-of-the-line noise reduction or use the inbuilt denoising in Lightroom or Photoshop. My current go-to is ON1. Use the slider on the photo above to see a before and after using ON1 (ISO 6400, heavy crop). Worth every cent!
use Post-Processing editing techniques
Free/Costs $ and can be technical
Photoshop, Lightroom and free alternatives like Gimp gives a world of post-processing options to edit your images. As an example, the ruru at the top of this story was first de-noised and then quickly edited in Lightroom for some basic adjustments and to emphasize the eyes. I then took it over into Photoshop to fill in the overblown highlights using a mix of masking, healing, clone-stamping, and brush work. Once you have these skills in your arsenal, these sorts of edits can be done within minutes and can rescue many flawed photos. Again, there are thousands of tutorials out there on the internet on how to do all these things. I highly recommend Julienne Kost's tutorials from Adobe for Photoshop and Lightroom editing - she's amazing and many of her tutorials are free.
Get the gear to do the job
Costs $$$ and practical
There's a reason serious bird photographers carry around gear the size of a small child that looks like it could find life on Pluto. It does the job. Those huge lenses with wide apertures let in lots of light, allowing shooting in otherwise untenable situations. But gear like that comes at a huge cost - both financially and also physically. If you're in a position to buy it and can carry it (or you have a handy sherpa!), you won't regret it. But do try all the other suggestions first so if and when you do get the good gear you can get the most out of it.
And Last of All, always consider the wildlife first
When you're fussing around with your camera and angles, don't forget to mind the wildlife and their home! Always be prepared to abandon the shot if it means protecting the critter.
Birds and other critters show stress in different ways to humans and what might seem innocuous to us, may not be to them. For instance, they might freeze rather than fly, their heart-rates sky-rocketing and cortisol levels shooting up, waiting for you to bugger off. But to you it might look like they're sitting there unbothered. There can be telltale signs though, depending on the species, so do your homework too. Be especially careful when photographing a nesting bird - if they get too stressed they may abandon the nest.
And it's worth repeating, when it comes to flash photography, I never use it with birds. Even if it was OK to use, the resulting images rarely look natural with harsh shadows and light coming from the wrong direction, so it's just not worth it. Some cameras and mobile phones are set to automatically flash when the light is low, but this feature can and should be turned off. It's far better to choose when flash is needed and turn it on specifically.
What have you found increases your odds of a great bird photo?
It's all about dreamy backgrounds...
This week on the Art of Birding Wildlife & Nature Photography Challenge, we're tackling bokeh and blur. When I was first starting out as a photographer, I adored photos with a dreamy, buttery smooth background and a subject in sharp focus. But I struggled to replicate the look.
I eventually discovered there is more than one way to achieve it. Two techniques are free and the other costs lots of money. Let's chat about the free ones first!
Regardless of your camera, its settings, and your abilities, its possible to get out-of-focus backgrounds by being smart. No you don't need to get into the physics of why (but it is interesting if that's your thing). The secret is to get your subject close to the camera and ensure the background is waaaay in the distance, like in this photo of a tūī. This was taken at Zealandia (if you're familiar with the sanctuary) on the path leading from the Takahē lawn up to the Weka fence. To the right, the bank falls away to the wetlands There are scrubby trees at eye-height on the edge of the path and below and beyond them are the low-lying wetlands. In the distance are the green hills of the steep West Scarp. I love shooting here! If a bird lands on top of the nearby trees, the background is far, far away and creates a beautiful green blur pretty much regardless of the settings.
You can increase your chances of success by paying attention to your aperture, rather than shooting on Auto. Learning a bit more about how your current gear works may save you an expensive purchase. You want the aperture to be as wide as possible. This decreases the range that will be in focus. To get a wide aperture, you'll need to switch to Aperture priority mode (A or Av) or Manual mode, and set the aperture to the smallest number that the lens allows.
<pedant mode on>For the pedants out there, yes I know that it's actually 1 over the number, and so its the biggest number, but the reality is that people refer to just the denominator.</pedant mode off>
[Update Oct 16, 2020] At the above-mentioned location at Zealandia recently, I took a series of photos in Aperture-priority mode with my 100-400mm lens (set at 400mm) as if there was an interesting bird sitting on the foreground branches. (In this mode, as I changed aperture, the camera automatically changed shutter speed and ISO to ensure the same exposure for all photos in the series). For each photo I narrowed the aperture by a couple of clicks. The largest aperture on this lens is f/5.6, which is not that great but given how far away the background is, it still gives a nice blur. Even at f/18 the background is still nicely defocused (although its unlikely you'd want to use f/18 for wildlife).
You'll start having more reliable success if your lens is capable of apertures like f/1.4 and f/2.8. If you're using a 4/3rds or APSC camera, rather than a full-frame camera, the effective aperture will be narrower (ie the amount of blur will be lessened) even with wide-aperture lenses (this was a sad realization with my 4/3rds camera when I got an f/1.4 lens and I still wasn't getting that blur).
If you find you're frustrated by your gear, even when being smart about how you're shooting, this is when you start considering getting a lens that has a wide aperture. And usually when you start gulping when you look at the price and the weight. They're expensive and they're heavy. Don't consider getting one until you've exhausted all other techniques, such as the ones above, and that you understand what aperture and focus depth mean (otherwise you might not get the best out of your expensive purchase). But if you're serious about getting that look and having the ability to get it when you want it and not just when the conditions allow, it's well worth it. I must admit, I've drunk the KoolAid and don't regret it for a second.
One more affordable option that's worth considering is a Lensbaby lens, like one of the Velvet or Sweet lenses. Not only do they have wide apertures, but they also allow for special effects and can be a lot of fun to play with. You need to manually focus them though. They really are a lot of fun and you can even get them for your iPhone.
And finally, a fun thing to try is making patterned bokeh. You can buy Lensbaby templates to do this, or you can go old-school and cut up some cardboard to fit over the end of your lens. Simply cut a pattern like a heart or a star, ensure the edges are taped so no light sneaks around the edges, and set up a scene with your subject close to the camera and the background far away. Set the aperture to wide if you can. The key is to have something sparkly in the background like the Christmas tree lights in the photo above. You'll need to experiment a bit and you might have to manually focus, but if you succeed, your Christmas cards will be sorted this year!
If you try out any of these techniques, do leave a comment and let us know how you got on.
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Art of Birding Blog by Judi Lapsley Miller
Fine art inspired by the stories of birds and the natural world. Starting with photographs, I let my imagination take me on flights of fancy. What is real and what is imagined is blurred. What is physical and what is virtual is disrupted. Bursting with colour and life.
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