Bird Photos and Photo Tips at Midyear

It’s midyear 2019—or thereabouts. And as always, I have a bird photo backlog. So I thought it’d be a good time to trot some of them out and display them. I’ll also be highlighting a few photos taken by others and a few “other wildlife” and people photos, too. And I’ll include some of my thoughts on (mostly) bird photography along the way.

My Bird Photography Camera Settings

I’ve brought up single shooting vs. rapid-fire, continuous shooting, 2 different ways of taking pictures, 2 different drive modes. My photo backlog is a result of my using continuous shooting mode, or “burst mode” a lot. But as I mentioned in “The Killdeer Saga, Part 2” (under “Bird Photo Tips”), I’m learning to use single shot mode more often. As a result, I’m accumulating fewer photos, and I’m winding up with more keepers. Having said that, I still rely heavily on continuous shooting.

Drive Modes and Autofocus Modes

I do, however, continue to shoot everything with my camera set to AI Servo (Autofocus- Continuous) and back button focus. Using back button focus enables me to switch seamlessly between the 2 autofocus modes, AI Servo and One-Shot (Autofocus-Single). That way, I’m always prepared to capture both moving and stationary subjects.

Let me illustrate. In this photo of a stationary Great Blue Heron standing on the edge of an inlet that flows into Elizabeth River in Chesapeake, VA, I used One-Shot by hitting, then letting off, the camera’s back button, or “AF-ON” button. The camera locked focus, and I snapped the picture. I used single shot mode here, but then quickly switched to burst mode when I sensed that the bird would soon take off. Again, it’s all about that sixth sense you develop when you spend time in the field.

Great Blue Heron standing

Here, by pressing and holding the back button, I switched quickly and effortlessly from One-Shot to AI Servo. The camera held focus as the bird took flight.

Great Blue Heron taking off

And in the final series of shots, the flight shots, the camera continued to hold focus as I fired away while still in burst mode. This is the last photo in the sequence.

Great Blue Heron flying

Two Stellar Bird Photos

Enough, for now, with my bird photography technique. And we have a few photos to get to. As I was writing the first install of my 2-part series on the Osprey, “Osprey Country,” and after I had just written that Ospreys carry everything, including fish, in both talons, I spotted a great Osprey portrait that illustrates the latter on the “Birding Virginia” Facebook page. Here’s the photo, courtesy of Erik Brito.

Osprey carrying 2 fish
Osprey carrying fish

I love the eye detail, the feather detail, the fish detail, and the dynamism, here. Notice that the fish are being carried head-first. They’re always carried head-first, to minimize drag. My guess is that this Osprey had plunged feet-first into a small school.

While we’re at it, let’s look at another “Birding Virginia” photo, this one courtesy of Brian Smith, whose Facebook page, “Brian’s Wildlife Pictures,” is well worth visiting. I was “blown away” when I saw his photo for the first time. I think Brian was blown away when this photo opp suddenly presented itself. There are any number of bird mating images out there. But Indigo Bunting mating images are few and far between. I’d be willing to bet that this is one of the best.

Indigo Bunting pair mating
Indigo Bunting pair mating

Thrust and Lift

Let’s return to that Great Blue Heron flight sequence. The image below is the one I captured right after the second heron photo above. Here, the big bird finally goes airborne. I like to think of this image as a snapshot of both thrust and lift. I defined those terms in my earlier blog, “Flying Machines,” the second in the series of posts I published on bird flight. Please take a look at that series if you’re interested in learning about how birds take to and master the air. I think you’ll find it interesting.

Great Blue Heron going airborne
Great Blue Heron going airborne

Study in Aerodynamics

Here’s another flight shot, this time of a female Mallard duck making a beeline over the  Elizabeth River inlet pictured above. I was using a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV with Canon EF 500mm f/4 II attached, and the bird flew right by at close range, filling up a good portion of the frame. These moderately frame-filling opportunities do happen every once in a while.

Female Mallard duck in flight
Female Mallard duck

I mentioned in my first blog on bird flight, “Designed to Fly,” that photos like these are studies in aerodynamics. There, I wrote the following: “Note the wedge shape of the bill and head (not unlike the wedge shape of the nose of a plane or a car). Note the smooth surfaces, including on the leading edges of the wings (you can see those closely here). Note those big webbed toes neatly tucked in in the rear to eliminate any drag there.”

Eye-Level Photography

As I look at this photo and Erik and Brian’s photos above, I think how important it is to capture an eye and, if possible, the specular highlight, or catchlight, in that eye. Photographers will often say, “If I can’t capture an eye, then forget it, I won’t take the picture.” That’s how I feel. And I also think about how important it is to shoot as close to eye level as possible. Here’s what renowned photographer, Richard Bernabe, wrote about shooting at a downward angle in the April 2019 issue of Outdoor Photographer:

Psychologically, it’s condescending and authoritative, implying dominance over the subject instead of equality and acceptance (eye-level perspective) or respect and exaltation (an upward angle). A lower, eye-to-eye connection between animal and lens makes it much easier for the viewer of the image to relate to and connect with your subject.

I can’t tell you how often Richard’s words, here, come to mind.

Here’s a bird example of an eye-level capture.

Juvenile Green Heron preening
Juvenile Green Heron preening

Now, here’s a non-bird example of an eye-level capture. I sat in the grass on my foam kneeling pad to get it.

Cottontail rabbit
Cottontail rabbit

And here’s another. I got even lower, as you can well imagine, to get this one.

Snapping turtle
Snapping turtle

Visual Storytelling

I love taking pictures that tell a story—pictures that go a step or two beyond just aesthetic appeal and that also offer up some sort of narrative. Here’s one such photo. This is a Spotted Sandpiper in breeding plumage as it stopped last month along the banks of the Elizabeth River on its way to its breeding grounds much farther north. It spent quite a bit of time on this heavy equipment tire. Now, if I had a nickel for every abandoned tire I’ve encountered…

Spotted Sandpiper foraging
Spotted Sandpiper foraging

Now here’s a people photograph that tells a story. Benjamin shows up regularly at Lakeside Park in Chesapeake with his drum set, a 5-gallon water jug.

Man drumming on a water jug
Ben and his set

As Ben wasn’t moving, and the focal distance wasn’t changing, I was able to capture him using single shot mode. The photo is a bit cluttered, but here was a photographer friend’s reaction to it later: “The ‘clutter’ is not distracting to me because the main subject is powerful enough to carry the composition.” “Great point,” I responded.

Here’s another photo that I took in the same park. This dad was providing his younger son with a lesson in casting.

Father and son fishing
Casting lesson

Here’s a close-up of the pair.

Father and son fishing
Learning the finer points

Now, this young man was fishing solo from the pier at nearby Elizabeth River Park. It looked like he’d already mastered some of those finer points. Mom was busy kibitzing and blue crabbing at the other end.

Boy fishing from a pier
A young master at work

Great Blue

Here’s our last photograph. We return to take another look at the Great Blue Heron, that large, colorful, and graceful bird—and perfect photographic target—as it takes off from the Elizabeth River inlet.

Great blue Heron going airborne
Departing the inlet

And This Just In

I’ve started a list of photo tips. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  • Be selective, wait until the bird gets a little closer, and don’t shoot if the bird is directly overhead.
  • If the bird is flying away from you, resist the urge and hold up.
  • In consideration of the above—shutter counts matter the way that car mileage matters.
  • If you’re going to take pictures, take pictures, and concentrate on that. Don’t spend time “chimping” or looking at your LCD screen, taking notes, or looking at your phone. You’ll miss golden opportunities.
  • If nothing much is happening, capture starlings and dragonflies, or musicians and fishermen, instead.
  • Don’t turn off your camera until you get back to the car. Again, you’ll miss golden opportunities.
  • Always bring the camera. (I don’t always follow my own advice, here.)

Quip, Question, Quote

We’ll end, here, the way we ended the “Killdeer Saga,” part one of the 3-part series about the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of a local Killdeer family. We’ll wrap everything up, not with a human quote, but with an avian quote. This is a male House Wren singing its delightfully cheery song. I recorded this using my more professional recording equipment. Incidentally, Wildtronics gear, which I used here, is included in a Cornell Lab of Ornithology recording contest Grand Prize package. To me, the Cornell Lab stamp of approval speaks volumes.

Thanks, as always, for reading—and listening. I look forward to your thoughts and comments.


6 thoughts on “Bird Photos and Photo Tips at Midyear

  1. Wonderful photos, Dave, especially the people pics! Love “Ben and his set” and this comment, “The ‘clutter’ is not distracting to me because the main subject is powerful enough to carry the composition.” So very true.

    Sincerely, Marlene


  2. I loved reading this article about small parks and the wealth of birds they may contain. And your photography is stunning!
    Someone asked me recently if an upcoming trip to WV was about birding and I admitted that it was not the primary purpose but that I do look for birds everywhere I go. Many hours have been pleasantly passed just observing, listening, and trying to identify each bird. No matter where in the world I have traveled, I am still thrilled to get home to the familiar woodland birds I see through my windows all year.
    Thanks for sharing your skills and passion, David!


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