Step Six: Have Patience
The key with bird photography is that there is one word and one word only: patience. The patience aspect is what makes a really good bird photographer, and it’s also where a lot of newcomers lose out. I remember there were so many days in the beginning where I just wanted to quit. Because I would spend eight hours a day waiting for a bird to appear or trying to crawl up to a bird that was there, only to come away without anything to show for it.
One of my all-time favorite shots is proof that the best things are worth the wait. Here, you’re looking at a Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher. It’s a very small very shy bird that always hides in bushes and never comes out into the open. This was my target bird for the entire two days that I was at a certain park. I knew that it was a difficult bird to capture, so I would need to allocate a lot of time to it. You can’t always just rush in and hope to get one shot and be done with it.
On the first day, I spent about four hours just hiding behind a bush with binoculars, observing how the bird behaved, when and where it came out and what its patterns were. I had pretty much everything going against me. In the area the bird chose, there was no chance of light ever coming through because the whole area was covered by trees. So I jotted down a few notes about how it hopped around on certain perches and what equipment I would need to capture it. In this case, that meant that beyond using the right lens as well as my Canon 70D Mark II, which is a crop sensor camera, I knew I would need a flash in order to light up the bird.
The next day, I spent the first two hours very slowly setting myself where I knew I would be able to get some clean portraits of this pretty bird and be close enough that it could be lit up properly by the flash. After I identified the right location, I paid close attention to my background. I was lucky on this particular day that there was a bougainvillea flower creating a beautiful artistic pattern of pink and little textures of greens and off whites behind the perch.
From then on, I stood in the same spot for eight straight hours. I literally call this shot “Wait for Eight” because I did not move except to take a sip of water. For me, this image was a labor of love. Once you keep a certain distance from a bird and don’t move, they don’t perceive you as a threat anymore and slowly start coming out into the open. And that’s exactly what happened. In the eighth hour, the flycatcher came out and sat on the perch for about ten seconds. When I had the focus right, I just pressed the button and let the camera sing. I probably got twenty shots, but this one – with the bird looking so lively in front of just the kind of background I wanted – is the one I’m really happy to have.
After being so desperate in the eighth hour, the only think I can say is that when I got the shot, I got down on my knees and broke down. I’ve learned that moments like these are what mentally make you or breaks you as a photographer. I could have easily come away after eight hours without the bird ever coming out. Would I go back tomorrow and do the same thing all over again? Yes. Absolutely. You have to know your subject and what it requires. I could have shot an easier bird, but you have to create challenges for yourself if you want to step up your game as a bird photographer.
Step Seven: Be Ready for the Unknown
Sometimes getting the perfect shot requires days of preparation. Other times, it’s as simple as turning around and pressing the shutter. In one such instance, I was waiting to do some backlit images of birds. I was there for three hours, and the action just wasn’t happening. The light was getting really nice as it sank lower in the sky, and I turned around and saw these scarlet dragonflies surrounded by surreal light that was bringing out beautiful glowing yellows and oranges. The composition and colors worked so well that I literally turned around and took the shot.
That unknown is what excites me every time I go out to shoot. I know from experience that there is always the possibility that a beautiful moment in nature might appear just when I least expect it. Sometimes what’s happening behind you is just as important as what’s happening in front of you. So an important way to utilize your time in the field is to always keep your eye on your main subject but to never stop looking for opportunities all around you. A long lens brings the world close to me, and as I’m tracking things with my lens, sometimes I’ll happen upon something that hits a nice note. Yes, I’m a diehard bird photographer, but I’m always looking to come away with something unique.
These seven steps will help you to streamline your bird photography workflow and to make the best use of your time in the field. Remember, how you start out dictates what your end result is going to be. For the best results:
- Have a blueprint. You’ll come away with much higher quality images when you actually put a plan in place.
- Only bring the gear needed to actualize your vision. You’ll be much more focused in the field – and as an added bonus, you’ll be less bogged down and a lot quieter, too.
- As a principle of bird photography, always do your homework beforehand. Spending time observing your subject and taking notes is never a waste.
- Once you’re familiar with the behavior of your target birds, you’ll be able to optimize your time in the field by shooting when they’re most active.
- Take advantage of midday downtime to download your images and decide which ones you want to keep so you don’t lose track of what you have.
- Most importantly, have patience and be ready for unexpected moments of beauty. The results, no matter how long the wait, are always worth it.