A veteran wildlife shooter shares some wisdom for getting great bird images
If you're at all interested in wildlife photography, there's a good chance you've seen at least a few of David's images. He's been publishing wildlife images for decades, earning a variety of awards and an impressive stack of bylines. He currently teaches workshops in the UK, but you can also check out his latest book, 'The Bird Photography Field Guide' from Focal Press.
Can you give us a little background on how you started your own career in bird and wildlife photography?
I've been a pro since 1992, but I got into wildlife photography when I was a teenager in the late seventies. When I left school, I knew I wanted to be a professional wildlife photographer, but I couldn't see a way to make it happen, so I got a proper job. I worked for a few years and managed to get a voluntary redundancy from my job, which let me leave with a little bit of money, so I took a chance. When I started up, I was finding it pretty tough to make ends meet. I started a picture agency and marketed other photographers' work. I was marketing the work of 40 or 50 other photographers.
What does your typical set-up look like when you're out on a shoot?
I primarily use a 500mm lens and sometimes a 1.4x converter. I have two camera bodies: a Nikon D3S and a Nikon D7000, which I carry mainly for the crop sensor. The crop gives you an extra bit of reach. It's 16-megapixels so you can crop in a bit more. Reach is obviously very important.
So, it seems that anyone trying to get serious about bird photography would likely put a telephoto lens at the top of their gear wish list.
There's no doubt. Other than a few places, like Florida and the Antarctica, where you can get really close to maritime birds, it's pretty difficult to get the shots you need without one. I haven't really used the do-it-all super zoom lenses, but I'm seeing more of them with people as I'm teaching workshops. It's possible to get great shots with them.
If purchasing a long lens is out of the question, can you provide a few tips for making the best bird images with the glass you already have?
Go down to the park and try feeding the birds. You can also build a little blind in your garden if you have the space. That lets you get close. Finding places with tame birds helps you get in close just to practice actually capturing them. It lets you figure out their timing and their behavior. The practice will help if you do make the leap to a longer lens.
Showing birds in the landscape is something you can do. Composing images as part of the environment is something I do quite a lot myself.
With lenses that long, you certainly need support. Do you mostly use a tripod, a monopod, or a mixture of the two?
I use both depending on what I'm doing, but I use a tripod the most. I travel with a monopod, but now I shoot a lot of video with my DSLR and you need the tripod for that. I shoot a lot from the car using window mounts and beanbags, which are pretty accessible or you can even make them yourself.
When I'm photographing birds in flight, I often hand hold hold the long lens. I can be much more reactive that way and the fast shutter speeds required for that kind of shot helps fight camera shake. I use a quick release plate on the tripod, so if I see something flying toward me, I can quickly unlock it and be ready to get it as is goes past. I keep ready.
What mode do you typically shoot in for your bird shots? It seems like you might find some value in shutter priority mode.
I'm all-manual, actually. When I started, I had a mentor who worked for the ministry of Defense and he was always going out with the army. His job was basically photographing things blowing up. He always used to shoot in manual and he helped me for the first few months. I just started doing what he was doing and I've always done it. I do find that I can react very quickly in any situation in manual. If there's a really white bird in front of me or something, I can react quickly to expose it properly.
How much do you use the high-speed burst mode?
It's obviously very useful. That's one drawback of the D7000 is that the burst rate isn't huge. I'll use the D3S in situations where I need to capture a lot of frames quickly. There's always going to be in those bursts one frame where the bird has its wings in a better position or something like that. There's almost always one that seems to stand out.
What kind of shutter speeds do you need to use in order to capture birds so clearly?
I have gotten things with 1/60th of a second, but most of the time I try not to drop below 1/500th of a second if I'm trying to freeze the flight of a bird. For a bigger bird, 1/500 will get most of the wing, but for smaller, faster birds, I try to get up to 1/1500 or even 1/2000. The bigger the bird, the slower the wing. It's possible to freeze the wings of a humming bird if you catch it just right, but that's where the burst rate comes in again.
Shutter speeds like that must require some high ISO work from time to time. How do you deal with image noise?
I often shoot at quite high ISOs, so I love the D3S for that. I don't have to do a lot of post processing with the images either. I don't mind a little bit of noise in the picture if it's not distracting, so if I think it's acceptable, I tend to not do any noise reduction. I do sometimes use Noise Ninja, though. I don't do it much.
How much patience is required for getting shots like these?
It's more perseverance than it is patience -- keeping going back to a situation until you got what you've set out to get. I think for people who are starting out, it can be easy to give up and go on to other subjects without perhaps getting the shots that they imagined they might. Patience is important as well, but I'm not the most patient person in the world. But I'll keep returning to something until I've exhausted it.
What was the shoot that tested that perseverance the most?
It varies a lot depending on what I'm shooting. There's a night hawk here that comes out at dusk and feeds when it's dark. The time to photograph it is dusk and you have a window of about a half hour from when it comes out until when it gets too dark to photograph. I was after a picture of one of these displaying and I probably went about 40 or 50 times before I got the picture I was after. That was a whole spring. I went out nearly every evening I could. I got it in the end. I think just with that in mind, you should definitely get to know your subject. Find the perches it likes to use and the times of day when they're most active. That background knowledge will really give you a head start.
Is there a certain bird that you've been trying to capture that you haven't been able to?
I've been working a lot on cuckoos this year, which is like your Cowbird. They lay eggs in other birds' nests. I've been trying for a long time now to get a picture of a cuckoo coming in to lay an egg in a nest. When they do that it's all over in a few seconds. They take one of the eggs from the host nest so there's the same number in the nest. That's kind of the final shot in the story I've been shooting that I haven't gotten.
What are some common mistakes you see beginners making that they might be able to avoid?
One of the things I'm always trying to tell people to do is to get down on the same level as the bird. You get a much more intimate picture if you have that eye contact. Often I take people out and I see them shooting down at ducks or birds that come close to us. when you do that, the pictures feel very detached. I know not everyone can lay down on the ground, but if you can get to eye level, it'll make for better photographs.
Another thing is to practice getting the bird's eye in focus. That's one of the most important elements of the image and I see a lot of people struggle with depth of field. If the eye's not sharp, it just doesn't work. If the eye is sharp, it can make up for a lot of other parts being out of focus.
It's also important to learn to use a tripod. I see a lot of people who are only used to shooting hand-held and they struggle with camera shake. Then they have trouble transitioning from a tripod when the situation calls for it, which slows them down. That just comes with practice.
What would you tell someone who was trying to get into bird photography as a profession?
It has gotten undoubtedly more difficult in the last few years. You got all of this new technology and the internet so you think you'd have more outlets. But, at the same time, it's made it easier for everyone to sell their work. There's a just a vast oversupply of images in the market. Lots of people are keen to have their picture in print and don't mind just giving them away for free. The key is to have a really good stock of pictures. So if someone comes to you wanting something, you might be able to supply it. Not being able to get what they want is the biggest turn-off for clients. Also, be a bit different and make your work as striking as possible to stand out so people actually want to use it.