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Photographing birds

Updated: Apr 24, 2022

Avian photography is a journey

It is always extremely rewarding to photograph birds, the reasons are simply because they are very active and provide continuously different poses to capture, with a lot of different behaviour the photographer has endless opportunities of capturing those moments.

Photographing our avian friends is a journey to be explored by every wildlife/nature photographer out there, it is a journey of discovering so much about nature, yourself and the equipment you work with.

A couple of things I have discovered on my journey:

  • Each species do have different behaviour and by learning their behaviour will make things much easier in capturing the right moments.

  • I have learned patience, something I never had, but quickly learned the rewards of being patient.

  • I have learned that luck does exist, although I say it does exist, it does come with being there and be patient, it also comes with learning, learning the behavior of the subjects. The more I went out there to try and capture moments, the more I became patient, that lead to me being more willing to learn about the subjects I photographed and then I started to become lucky.

  • I gained a lot of knowledge about the gear I use by exploring different settings and techniques throughout my journey, one thing that I've learned was that nothing is set in stone when it comes to rules and guidelines. Explore those options of different camera settings & techniques, you will be amazed by how quickly your photography turns into extraordinary images.

Equipment & Gear

Equipment & gear is a topic that can go on for days, and in today's rapid changes with the continuous evolving technology, the photographer will always be behind within 2 years of getting new gear. We all dream of owning the newest and the best but one must be smart about it, and make it work with what you have.

To be successful in avian photography you would need from a good mid-range camera right up to the pro bodies that's available. I have no preference about brands and makes as I have shot with most of them and in todays world it is like driving a different make of vehicle, all of them do get you to your end destination, the key is you must know how it works and be accustomed to it.

- I do shoot 90% of the time with Nikon and it is purely because of my very 1st camera I acquired and all my gear followed in the Nikon brand.

Lenses are probably in my opinion 70% of the success when it come to gear, as you will need a good zoom lens around 400mm + that is fast in focusing and with glass that will give you a sharp image.

Stabilizing your camera setup is equally as important as the camera gear you use, a decent tripod with a quality head or gimble is the way to go, and again there are so many on the market from different brands, but all are to personal preference.

Most of my avian photography I do, I use bean bags that I have custom made for myself with panning plates on my lenses, majority of my bird in flight photography is done handheld but it becomes quite heavy after a while and is not sustainable for a few hours of photographing, it is then when I really do use the tripod.

Pop-up blinds and hides are part of my gear to get close to nests in areas where it is allowed to keep hidden from the birds, I also have a custom build floating hide to photograph at water level in areas where I'm fortunate to use it.

African Shelduck, photographed from the floating hide, giving me the opportunity in getting up close and personal at a low level. The advantage of the floating hide is endless, the birds are more relaxed with it and occasionally tried to seek shelter in or around it.

I am a firm believer in getting as close to the subject as possible and do not bother to photograph any subject outside a 20 to 25m radius depending on the size of the subject, the smaller the subject the closer I try to get.

Once you adopt the habit of getting as close as possible to any subject you will be rewarded with sharper images and much softer out of focus backgrounds helping to make the subjects to stand out in the images you take.

Behaviour is key!

Most of the species have their own repetitive behaviour, when observed thoroughly and learned the subject will provide you with clues of what it is going to do next. To know these clues and signs will give you the advantage to anticipate what it will do next and give you time to prepare for the right moment to take the shot.

A simple example if one look at bee-eaters for instance, they will perch somewhere, once they start with lots of head movement trying to zone in on prey giving you a clear indication that they are on the hunt and looking for a catch, with this behaviour you can be sure they will take flight in a very short period of time and get ready for that take-off shot. They also have the behaviour of returning 80% of the time to the same spot within seconds of the take-off giving you the opportunity to prepare for the landing shot.

Kingfishers almost always do defecate before take-off and also return most of the time to the same spot with it's catch, once you start to know what to look for in behaviour you are closer to get that shot.

Patience get reward!

I have seen so many times people with big cameras walking into hides, sit for 5 minutes or so and pack up and go, with birds be patient they appear out of nowhere, do something great and go and sit still again and do nothing.

Egrets are masters with this, sit somewhere still and look like they will not move for hours, then suddenly they will get down into the water and start hunting and soon you will be rewarded with an image of an Egret with a catch.

The same goes for finding a nesting site and wait patiently, you will be rewarded with one of the parents returning to feed the chicks giving great opportunity to get amazing images.

Enjoy the journey!

Getting out there and to do what you love is always a journey and will be part of you in discovering the rewards of avian photography.

Remember with every image that is worthy of being showcased there are thousands before and in between that was part of your journey in getting those great images.

Stay on the journey and enjoy it, the rewards will come by itself!

#iamnikon #wildlifephotography #birdsofsouthafrica #jacowiidfotografie #avianphotography

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