We asked our resident bird expert Gaurav Mittal if he could give us some pointers for coming up with a streamlined bird photography workflow. In this three-part article, he tells us what’s going on in his head when he’s getting ready to shoot and walks us through a typical day in the field, step by step.
Step One: Know Your Vision Beforehand
Oftentimes, when you go out to do bird photography, there is stuff happening everywhere: birds flying, birds interacting, birds that are perched. Amateurs have the tendency – and I used to do the same thing – to say, “Look, there’s a beautiful bird!” and just start shooting at random because afraid that they’re going to miss the shot. But if you take that kind of approach, you’re not going to get the quality of image you’re looking for. On most of my private tours and workshops, people get frustrated that they’re not going to get the hang of it. I completely relate to that.
The first step to getting beyond that frustration, which is also the first step in my bird photography workflow, is to know exactly the type of image you want to make while you’re on the shoot. I decide before I go out whether I’m looking to shoot birds in flight or bird portraits or silhouettes. Each of these genres of bird photography requires a completely different mindset. Once I’ve decided that I want to do – for instance, birds in action – I try to pre-visualize the type of interaction I want to see. You’ve probably heard it said that if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not going to know how to get there. That holds true in bird photography, too. Unless you know what your destination is, you’re not going to be able to decide how to get there.
Taking this first step will dictate how you’re going to approach your subject and the mindset you’ll assume when you’re in the field.
Step Two: Choose Your Gear Carefully
Once I know what type of bird photography I want to do, then I can decide what kind of gear I need. In bird photography, we use a lot of heavy equipment. 500mm and 600mm lenses are extremely heavy, and that’s even before you’ve mounted these lenses on your camera body and added filters, extenders and things like that. So the second step in my bird photography workflow is to think about what camera gear you actually need. Having the right equipment for the right kind of shoot allows you to optimize your images, and it greatly simplifies your time in the field.
When I was an amateur, I would end up bringing all kinds of gear to a shoot, just in case I wanted to do landscapes or birdscapes or some really close up shots. The thing is, carrying a lot of heavy equipment not only slowed me down, but it also made me really noisy in the field. That scares away birds and other wildlife, which is pretty counter-productive.
Furthermore, the more equipment you have when you’re out in the field, the more confused you become. I suggest carrying just a few lenses or one main lens because that forces you to think about what you actually want to shoot.
Step Three: Do Your Homework
Birds are very unpredictable, so I’m never in a rush to start shooting. I usually arrive at the park or wildlife area where I’ll be shooting at least a day or two ahead of time to survey the area. This gives me the ability to set my bird photography workflow based on what type of bird activity is happening, what the mood is like in the park, how the light is at certain times of day, etc.
Whenever you go out to photograph a new bird, it’s imperative to do your homework first. Read up as much as you can about what it feeds on, what its behavior is like and where it dwells. All of these things will inform how you’re going to plan your shoot and will ultimately help you to streamline your workflow in the field.
In this day and age, you can get a lot of great information by searching the name of a bird or park on Google or Wikipedia. If you’re in North America, Sibley’s guide to birds is a wonderful catalog-like resource that explains the features and behaviors of birds as well as where to find them. A famous birding book in India is Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. There’s also a great app by the same name. If you’re in the U.S., iBirds lets you log what you’ve seen throughout the day and can help you if you’re having trouble identifying birds in the field.
To be continued…Streamlining Your Bird Photography Workflow: Part 2.