The photography of birds is concerned with three main types of picture, each of which calls for its own technique and equipment. There are the pictures of nests with eggs in them: then there are the pictures of parent birds at the nest. either sitting on the eggs or feeding the young; and finally there is the most difficult branch of all-pictures of birds in the open country, on the tidal flats by the seashore or actually in flight.
Photographs of just the nest are much easier to take than those which include birds or are of birds in the open.
Nowadays, for photographs of nests and eggs, experienced bird photographers tend to use a hand-held miniature camera-preferably equipped with a long focus lens-in conjunction with a flash mounted on the camera (where the nest is in shadow).
This arrangement makes it possible to take excellent pictures of nests even when they are tucked away in a hedge or a hole. The powerful illumination of the flash allows the lens to be stopped right down to give sharp definition over the whole subject and at the same time to work at a shutter speed fast enough to avoid camera shake.
With this type of equipment it is possible to approach the nest without a lot of fuss and noise, take the photograph through any suitable break in the foliage, and then get away quickly and quietly. The whole operation is unlikely to worry even the shyest bird; some birds in fact will sit tight and if the eggs are the important thing, it may even be necessary to scare the bird off them.
Where possible, eggs in a nest should be photographed in color, and with fast miniature lenses and high speed film this is no difficulty.
However, it is important to get the colors exact; it isn't enough to produce a pleasing picture. Often the only way to tell the eggs of one species from another is by slight differences in the tint of the shell or the color of the markings on it. So the recommendations of the manufacturer of the film about exposure and filter technique should be followed to the letter, especially when using bulb or electronic flash.
It is as well to remember that, for the record, the color and nature of the nest materials grass, moss, leaves, mud - and the liningwool, fur, feathers - are as important as the details of the eggs themselves. So the lighting should be directed-by a white card reflector if necessary-into the nest to light up the interior.
Again, the viewpoint must not be so close that the nest fills the whole frame. To provide a complete record the picture should include enough of the surroundings to illustrate the general character of the nesting site favored by that particular bird-rocky ledge, grassy hollow, undergrowth or open branches.
Made in this way, pictures of nests with eggs take the place of the old fashioned birds egg collections. They convey more information and do no harm to the birds or their young, and they are so much more convenient to store, catalog and exhibit.
In the past, the standard equipment for photographing nests and eggs was a plate camera mounted on a tripod. By comparison with modern miniature camera practice, this method has a number of disadvantages. When focusing close, the depth of field of the lens required to cover a 5 x 4 or half-plate is extremely limited. The only way to get a sharp image is to use the smallest possible stop in conjunction with the swing back. In addition, with lens panel focusing, every movement of the lens in or out alters the scale of magnification and calls for a corresponding movement of the camera support. So a focusing back is essential.
Finally, the long exposures necessary with this set-up demand a tripod-a piece of equipment that can make photography in awkward places a difficult and frustrating business. However, many excellent nest photographs are still being produced by patient specialists who put up with all the disadvantages for the sake of the slightly better quality that comes from working with a bigger format.
Subdued daylight is quite the best type of lighting as it shows up the markings on the eggs and the modelling of the shell to the best advantage. On bright days the direct rays of the sun must be prevented from shining on the subject and the photograph made by the diffused light from the sky.
However, flash illumination has the twin advantages of being independent of weather conditions and dispensing with the tripod. Bulb or electronic flash are equally suitable so long as the film maker's instructions about exposure and filter are followed. With this form of lighting it is important to ensure a clear field for the flash beam as well as the camera lens.
Birds at their Nests
Birds are easiest to photograph when they are busy at their nests, either sitting on their eggs or feeding their young. Once the nest has been located, the photographer can be sure of being able to find the birds when and where he wants them. This is quite the easiest type of bird photography; once the nest has been located, the rest is just a matter of patience and straightforward photography. However, it is almost always necessary to work from cover the form it takes depending on how far the camera is away from the subject. With a miniature camera equipped with a telephoto lens it is possible to work far enough away not to worry the bird, but close enough for a good picture.
With a lens that dictates a closer position, the photographer and camera must be concealed completely in a specially constructed hide.
The hide can always be improvised from branches or other suitable material gathered on the spot, but the serious bird photographer almost always uses a portable erection made up of light wooden struts and covered with cloth or fabric, so designed that it can be put together or dismantled in a few minutes.
The hide is always big enough for the photographer to be able to work in comfort in view of the fact that he may have to spend hours waiting for his opportunity. Every sign of movement must be avoided, so if the sides and front of the hide are made of cloth they must be fixed firmly to prevent them from flapping in the wind.
The hide should be made as comfortable as possible because it may be in use for long periods of waiting. The camera should be set up and roughly focused before erecting the hide, otherwise it will be very difficult to erect the tripod and arrange the camera in the small space available.
The lens should point through a small hole in the front of the hide, and there should be a small peep-hole in a convenient place or a periscope in the top of the hide to give the photographer a clear view of the surroundings of the site focused.
The subject is generally very nervous on its first approach to the nest, and it is wise to allow the bird to feed its young three or four times before starting to make exposures. If the parent hears the slight click made by the shutter on its first visit, it may be scared off for a long time. But when once it discovers that there is no danger from the strange erection that has appeared close to its nest, it will take very little notice of unusual noises.
The best camera for shooting from available cover is a miniature equipped with a telephoto lens- 200 mm to 400 mm on a 35 mm film is ideal. With such a long focal length a firm tripod is essential to avoid camera shake.
Rangefinder focusing is preferable since it allows the lens to be focused at its working aperture, where11s an eye level reflex may have to be stopped down after focusing and the bird may move away in the meantime.
For working from a hide, a tripod-held DSLR with a long focus lens- 135 mm is the best arrangement since it requires only one hole in the front of the hide.
The conventional large-format reflex camera is also suitable since its extra bulk is unimportant.
With a reflex camera taking quarter-plates or 6 x 6 cm films, a lens of about 9 inches focal length serves for most subjects. A telephoto lens of 14 or 17 inches focal length is better for photographs of waterfowl like ducks, geese and grebes on the open water, and waders feeding on the shore at low tide. As nests are usually built in shady places the lens should have a maximum aperture of at least f4.5.
A shutter speed as low as 1/25th second can be used if the right instant is chosen for firing the shutter. At that speed, and with fast panchromatic material, the lens can be stopped down far enough to bring the nest and its surroundings into sharp focus.
In shady locations- for walking at night synchronized flash may have to be used. This should preferably be the flash bulb type because the hum from the charging circuit of an electronic flash is enough to keep many birds away And since the reflector will have to show outside the hide, it should be left in position for some days beforehand (covered with a sheet of transparent plastic) for the bird to get familiar with its presence in the neighborhood of its nest.
Birds in the Open
Stalking birds with a camera in the open country is very much of a gamble; as a rule, the birds see the photographer long before he can come within photographing range. But most of the difficulties of this branch of bird photography can be overcome by attracting the birds with a suitable bait, particularly in winter when other food is scarce.
Garden birds can be tempted to come to a bait of suitable food placed on a bird table or wherever is the most convenient place for photography.
Robins come to mealworms or cake crumbs, blackbirds to soaked bread or raisins; the tit family will cling to a hanging feeder containing nuts. The thrush species (field-fares, redwings, and mistle-thrushes) can be tempted with wild berries. The berries should be collected in the autumn and saved until the birds have stripped the hedgerows.
Large birds of prey like kites, buzzards, ravens and crows can be attracted by carrion such as a dead rabbit, pegged down to prevent it from being carried away.
All these forms of baiting ensure that the bird will remain in one place long enough to be photographed. It is only necessary to set the camera up in a hide and wait for the subject to appear. The hide should be erected several days in advance to give the birds time to get used to it.
Any camera that will take a long focus lens is suitable, but the miniature has many advantages if the bird has to be stalked.
Where a bait is used to attract the bird, one very successful technique is to set up the camera on a tripod, focus on the bait, and then operate the shutter from a distance by remote control. With this technique any sort of camera will do.
A suitable type of control that can be bought quite cheaply consists of a length of fine PVC tubing with the shutter release plunger at one end and a press bulb at the other. If the camera is to work close to the bird, the spot should be baited for some days beforehand and a wooden box with a lens hole in the front should be left at the camera position. When the birds get accustomed to feeding in front of the box which they will do in a day or so- the camera can be set up in side and shooting can start.
The shutter speed to be used for birds in flight varies according to the direction of movement. A bird flying across the field of view and less than 20 feet away may need an exposure of 1/1000 second, but the same bird flying towards the camera could be photographed with a much lower shutter speed.
At the same time, the size of the bird has a bearing on the permissible shutter speed. As a rule, the smaller the bird, the faster it beats its wings and the higher the shutter speed needed. The high speed of electronic flash is useful to arrest the wing action of birds. Use an aperture and flash intensity which allows a certain amount of daylight to be recorded in the background.
When working from a hide it is not easy to judge the moment of exposure as the bird flashes past the small space covered by the lens; a fraction of a second either way makes all the difference between success and failure. Radio Remote Control. An elaborate, but extremely successful method of photographing shy birds in close-up makes use of both radio and photo-electric equipment.
The camera is set up near the bird's nest or a bait and either camouflaged or left in position long enough for the birds to ignore it. A photo-cell-operated shutter release and recycling device are coupled to the camera in such a way that when the bird crosses the point focused by the camera lens it releases the shutter and (if conditions require) fires a synchronized electronic flash. The equipment is switched to ready or switched off by a radio relay triggered by a small transmitter at the operating point. This is to economize in the local battery power while waiting for the bird to arrive. The photographer can be stationed as much as a quarter of a mile away far enough to avoid disturbing the bird. He watches the scene through binoculars or a telescope and switches the circuit on only when he sees a chance of a picture.