Thursday, May 13, 2010

December 2009 - Coloradoan Xplore Column

If you’re interested in bird photography it’s becoming a target rich environment around Fort Collins. In the last few weeks thousands of migrating geese have arrived joining our resident population. I’ve also seen a growing number of bald eagles showing up at Fossil Creek Reservoir and along the Poudre River east of town. Avian photography has been a seasonal thing for me. I’m not sure why, as they present endless action shots and their interactions with one another can be pretty entertaining. So for the next couple of months I’ll be staying closer to home and enjoying the growing numbers of waterfowl and eagles in our local area.

Birds are active subjects, sometimes finicky and are found in a variety of settings. The type of photograph I want to make dictates my choice in location, time of day, and equipment.

In the Field
Waterfowl use our city parks and open space areas as resting, feeding, and watering locations. These spots tend to be more forgiving for photographers as birds tend to be more accustomed to human traffic and will often tolerate a closer approach. I like these locations for capturing close up portrait images. If you pick a spot, sit down and wait you’ll usually have plenty of natural action play out in front of you. I also like to work locations outside of town. This involves a little more time and effort, but it’s worth it for me. Geese are creatures of habit. They use larger bodies of water (Fossil Creek and Windsor Reservoirs for example) as resting locations and leave en masse twice a day to eat. By watching their direction of travel I can usually locate a field they are hitting each day to feed. Geese are followers, so when one group favors a location there are often large numbers joining in. I then begin knocking on doors to get permission to access the field.

Once I have selected my location I consider two things to determine how and where I set up. The first is the sun. Place the sun to your back or at least quartering behind you. Backlit wildlife images are some of my favorites. However this is often a waiting game and it’s flat out painful to search the sky with the sun in your face. The second consideration is the wind. Try to place the wind at your back. Birds land and take off into the wind and I typically prefer the action coming towards me.

Camouflage is an important piece of equipment when I shoot in field. I’ve used a variety of blinds, but for the most part I find them too restrictive. Portable blinds limit my field of view and are a hassle to move around. I also find sitting inside an enclosure takes away from the experience. Instead I choose to wear camouflage clothing and also cover my camera. I’ve had great luck with this approach as I can shoot any direction and have complete freedom to move and readjust. It’s also a much more intimate experience with wildlife, which I prefer. The key is get to your location well before the birds show up. Trying to sneak up on 1000 pairs of eyes with a tripod and camera is impossible, not matter how good your disguise is.

I mentioned this can be a waiting game. Dress for it. I can tell you from personal experience you won’t enjoy this or stay long if your limbs are going numb.

Behind the Camera
For action shots my choices are all about maximizing shutter speed. For flying shots I want shutter speeds in excess of 1/1000 of a second if I can get them, especially if I’m hand holding the camera. For portrait shots my choices are about choosing an aperture setting to give me the depth of field (DOF) I want in the image. Choosing a smaller aperture setting (f/5.6 or smaller) provides shallower DOF allowing me to isolate the subject. If I want more of the field of view in focus I choose a higher aperture setting (f/11 or higher) to give me deeper DOF. With portraits I also consider my point of view, or the angle I’m shooting. I try to avoid shooting down or at a sharp downward angle if I can. When I place my shots horizontal to the subject or close to ground level they look more natural and I’m much happier with the results.

It’s a great time of the year to experiment and play with your camera. Mix things up and see what results your eye likes best. If you spend a little time learning a location, show up early and plan your shots I’m sure you’ll come away with some great images.

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