Birds and Bird Photography, Cont’d

Where do you go when you’ve written “A Few Thoughts on Birds and Bird Photography,” followed by “More Thoughts on Birds and Bird Photography”? Do you title your next article on birds and photography, “More and More Thoughts on Birds and Bird Photography”? I don’t think so. You puzzle over what to do, and you try to come up with something else (like the unimaginative title above).

Young girl deep in thought

As I look at this photo, I’m reminded of something I wrote at the end of “Bird Photos and Photo Tips at Midyear“: “If nothing much is happening, capture starlings and dragonflies, or musicians and fishermen, instead.” (I also wrote there: “Always bring the camera.”)

In this particular case, as my wife and I made an early evening visit to Elizabeth River Park in Chesapeake, VA, nothing much was happening on the wildlife front. But there were a number of people about, including a young woman and an army of children. And the children were busy doing what children always do in these settings: they were running, screaming, chasing, climbing, and resting on occasion to catch their breath. I captured the girl above as she did just that, crouching on the dock that stretched into the Elizabeth River.

The Great Blue

But a little later on our luck changed, as far as capturing wildlife was concerned. As we walked, we noticed a Great Blue Heron standing on the bank of the creek that flows into the river. There was a fairly dense line of bushes between us and the bird. Using those bushes as a natural blind, which sure beats having to carry and use a portable, I crept forward (I always think about how Green Herons approach their prey as I do this now) and imaged the heron through a small break in the foliage. In this photo, though it might not be obvious, the leaves and branches frame a good portion of the bird much like the dock railing framed the young girl’s face in the photo above. I often look for these natural framing opportunities as frames enhance composition and draw the viewer’s eye to the subject. Eye-level photos do much the same thing (and always provide a more intimate feel).

Great Blue Heron portrait
“Great Blue” portrait

The Photography Discussion, Cont’d

I began to discuss shooting or exposure modes in my last blog, “More Thoughts on Birds and Bird Photography.” I underscored their importance by saying: “Taking pictures is all about capturing images that are well-exposed or well-lit, so shooting mode selection is pretty darn important.” Now, that statement is certainly true. W.H. Majoros, the author of the outstanding web-based book and resource, Secrets of Bird Photography Tools and Techniques, agrees. He wrote that the “very first task in learning to use your DSLR [your camera] is to master the skills involved in obtaining a good exposure.” He then went on to discuss exposure modes. But taking pictures isn’t just about capturing well-exposed images. It’s also about capturing images that are properly focused, that are sharp. Accurate focus and fast-enough shutter speeds are pretty darn important, as well. Indeed, later in his book, Majoros describes the goal of the BIF (Birds in Flight) photographer this way: “to obtain sharp, well-exposed images of flying birds in an aesthetically pleasing pose, with an acceptable background.” He covers all the bases and then some with those words.

Female Mallard duck in flight
Female Mallard

Shooting Modes, Shutter Speed, and ISO

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s continue our discussion about shooting modes, shutter speed, and ISO. I mentioned in my last blog that I shoot in Aperture Priority mode (“Av” or “A” mode). In Av, I not only control aperture, depth of field, background rendering, and to a lesser extent, shutter speed, but I also control ISO, probably best defined as the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. I exercise a good deal of control, then, over the 3 exposure parameters, yet the camera still makes some of the exposure decisions. Over the last few years, I’ve also turned to shooting more and more in Auto ISO. ISO speed is one less thing I have to fuss with or worry about.

Manual Mode With Auto ISO

Lately, however, I’ve begun to explore shooting in Manual mode with Auto ISO. This gives me control over the 2 most important exposure parameters: aperture and shutter speed (think: brightness, depth of field, background rendering, and sharpness). Furthermore, controlling shutter speed is key, especially when trying to “freeze” fast-moving birds. Of course, if a bird is stationary like the heron above, I can quickly and easily adjust that speed. Also, in Manual with Auto ISO, the camera continues to help out, so I’m not fiddling much with settings and feel better prepared for the unexpected. It’s what I used to capture the Double-crested Cormorant below as it took off in front of me. Here, I’d set the aperture to f/5.6 (wide open), the shutter speed to 1/1250, and Auto ISO went up on its own to an untroubling 800.

Double-crested Cormorant in flight
Double-crested Cormorant

Manual with Auto ISO is also what I used to capture the Canada Goose below. As it approached the lake in Lakeside Park, Chesapeake, VA, I had only seconds to prepare. I’d already set the aperture to f/5.6, the shutter speed to 1/1250, and didn’t have to think about ISO. As the goose landed, the only thing I had to do was tweak the exposure (increase the exposure by 1/3 of a stop) by nudging the camera’s exposure compensation dial. I did that to bring out the bird’s darker tones. I also increased the exposure in the cormorant shot above, this time by 1 1/3 stops. I had to do that because the background was so much brighter than the bird. I love how the early morning sun served as a strobe light in that image (and in the Canada Goose image!).

Canada Goose landing
Canada Goose

You Might Be Interested

You might be interested to know that contrary to what I wrote earlier about Aperture Priority being “the gold standard,” it appears that for many advanced BIF shooters that’s just not the case. Colin Franks, a fellow member of the online photography forum,, put things this way: “I used to live in Aperture Priority mode (which I still prefer for street shooting), but now use manual + auto ISO for all my bird shooting.” Fred Amico followed with this comment: “Like Colin, I used to use aperture priority for most of my shooting, until I got into bird photography. For birds or wildlife, using manual mode with Auto ISO seems to work best for me.” Incidentally, many of you enjoyed reading about Colin in “A Few Stories and Anecdotes,” and you were indeed wowed when you looked at his photos. Well, here’s another, a Northern Pintail in landing mode.

Northern Pintail landing
Northern Pintail

And This Just In

Congratulations to the Peregrine Fund and others for their continuing efforts and successes in restoring the once nearly extinct California Condor. There were only 22 birds in 1982. During the recently-ended breeding season, the 1000th condor chick was born on a cliff in Utah’s Zion National Park. I wrote earlier about our visit to “condor country” to work with the folks at the Peregrine Fund and to help with (or at least witness) the release of captive-bred and wild-bred California Condors. I described our experiences in “The Thrill of a Lifetime” and “The Thrill of a Lifetime, Part Two.” If you haven’t read those posts, I encourage you to do so. At the very least, though, please view the short video of condors being released from the Vermilion Cliffs holding pen at the end of “The Thrill of a Lifetime, Part Two.” You’ll be wowed when you look at that, as well.

Quip, Question, Quote

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually.” Abraham Joshua Heschel

And never forget to bring the camera.

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