Today's Guest Blogger: Susan Wilkinson

I would like to start by thanking Rick for asking me to be a guest on his blog. We got in touch on Google+ after I read about his new bird photography class.

Opening image: Eastern Bluebird returns to its perch with an unlucky spider. ISO 100, f/6.3, 1/1000 at 485mm.

My interest in photography began in December 2012 when my husband gave me my first dSLR camera as an anniversary gift. At first I was filled with joy, imagining all the incredible pictures I planned on taking. Up until then, I thought photography was that simple… just point and shoot. Heck, with all the bells and whistles my new camera had, I was sure I would be taking professional looking pictures that day!

Looking back now, I realize that a camera doesn’t know what I want my images to look like;it will never be able to read my mind. If I want the camera to know what my images should look like, I have to tell it. So, for the past two  years, I’ve been learning to “speak its language."

For us to communicate effectively, the first thing I did was let it know that I was the boss. I put it in Manual mode and that’s where it stays. I’ve learned words I never knew before... aperture, ISO, shutter speed, depth-of-field, and I even understand how to read the histogram. I enjoy the time I spend with my camera capturing images of the beauty I see around me. I still have a lot to learn before I’m “fluent in photography”. But, it’s an investment that allows me to express myself artistically and that makes it all worthwhile.

So, why do I photograph birds? My husband has been an avid birder for 25 + years and is able to identify a species by it’s vocalizations. To be perfectly honest, I never paid much attention to birds and when he quizzed me to identify one, my reply was to tell him the color of the bird. As much as I wanted to impress him with being able to identify at least one bird, my brain couldn’t take learning both ornithology and photography at the same time.

I love a challenge, but I’ll be the first to admit... bird photography is one of the most challenging genres. For starters, it requires the patience of a Saint. Birds are not willing subjects. They flit from here to there in the blink of an eye and are spooked by the least little movement. Having to apply everything I learned about photography in a matter of seconds forced me to master shooting in Manual mode. Bird photography does has it’s advantages. Unlike people, birds don’t complain about how they look in a picture, they can be found just about anywhere, and it has taught me to slow down and appreciate things I might otherwise take for granted.

I am proud to say that today I can identify any bird I see without the help of my “resident bird expert” husband and I’m thought of by some as a “bird expert”, too. There are many who even refer to me as a “bird photographer”. So, perhaps that’s not so bad after all.

Above: Killdeer taking to flight. ISO 200, f/8, 1/1000 at 405 mm.

Bird photographers typically shoot using a large aperture for several reasons, one of which is Depth-of-Field (DOF). DOF is the amount of distance between the nearest and farthest objects that appear in acceptably sharp focus in a photograph. By using a large aperture,
(denoted in f/stops), I’m able to: 1. blur the background, 2. separate the bird from the background and 3. have more light reach the camera’s sensor which allows for a fast shutter speed, as well. Most of my images are taken using an aperture of f/4 up to f/8.

Above: Northern Mockingbird. ISO 100, f/8, 1/640 at 420 mm.

When photographing people, wildlife, insects, or even the family pet, the most important thing to focus on is the subject’s eyes. The eye(s) need to be sharp and in focus. This is particularly important when shooting with a large aperture (small f/stop), because of the shallow depth-of-field (DOF). I photograph birds using a large aperture, a single focal point (usually the center point because it tends to be the sharpest) and place it directly on the eye to ensure it is tack-sharp.

Above: American Bald Eagle. ISO 200, f/8, 1/800 at 490 mm.

I try to shoot at eye level to the bird so the person looking at my photograph will connect with the subject. However, birds are not very cooperative. They rarely stay in one place for more than a few seconds, which often means long hours sitting very still and quiet, waiting for that brief moment to finally get “the shot”. Other times, I take what I can get at that moment because I may not have a second chance, which is what I did to capture the image of the Bald Eagle. In a “perfect world” I would prefer to be at eye level with the bird, but that just wasn’t possible. This was the first time for me to see a Bald Eagle in the wild, and it took me an hour, inching slowly, bit by bit, to get close enough for a decent shot. I certainly wasn’t passing up the chance to photograph this regal bird!  

Another key to making exceptional images of birds is to capture the catch-light on the eye. A “catch-light” is simply the highlight of a light source reflected off the surface of the eye.This highlight adds depth and dimension to the eye, and gives the eyes life. For birds, the light source I prefer to use is natural ambient light from the Sun. It is acceptable to use a flash, but only when necessary and in moderation. As you can see in the Mockingbird and Eagle images, the iris and eye color are visible and the bird is perched looking toward the Sun, allowing for a great catch light on the eye.

Above: Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (female) in a territorial display during mating season. ISO 400, f/7.1, 1/1500 at 485 mm.

Bird photography generally requires the use of a fast shutter speed in order to snap a picture before the bird moves out of the frame of focus.The general rule of thumb in photography is to set a minimum shutter speed equal to 1 times the focal length of lens [1/focal length]. However, due to the fact that most bird photographers use telephoto lenses with a focal length of 300 mm+, a minimum shutter speed less than 1/500 is generally not fast enough. Conditions permitting, it is best to set a shutter speed of 2 times the focal length of the lens [1/(2x’s) focal length]. Personally, I use a minimum shutter speed of 1/640, or faster. A fast shutter speed increases the likelihood of getting a photo with a bird in it and helps to minimize motion or camera blur. 

Above: Indigo Bunting (male) in mating plumage. ISO 800, f/6.3, 1/640 at 485 mm.

There are many composition “rules." I generally compose my image by studying the bird’s pose. I start by deciding the orientation that presents the bird best, either landscape or portrait. In this case, I chose portrait. Why? Several reasons...
1. I wanted to keep the bird as the main subject, but also include a bit of the foliage as well.
2. The way the bird is perched and the shape of the stem created a natural frame.
3. I typically place the bird’s eye on an intersecting line using the Rule of Thirds or the “Golden Mean”, 
4. The foliage helps to fill the frame and the contrasting colors make the bird stand out.

Rather than composition “rules." think of them as guidelines. They are intended to help create a pleasing image and enhance the artistic expression in one’s photography. Unlike laws, it’s okay to break the rules of composition. However, if you choose to break them, do it intentionally and not by accident.

The topics covered above are some that I feel are the most important, however,there is much more to photographing birds. Learning to master bird photography requires a lot of time spent in the field watching the bird’s behaviors, learning their habitats, and knowing their migration patterns. Most of all, it requires dedication, patience and perseverance.
Like anything else in life, the more you practice, the better you will become.

So what are you waiting for? Get out there and make your own images of our “fine feathered friends!”

My Bird Photography Gear
● Canon 7D Mark II
● Canon Rebel T2i
● Canon 6D
● Canon EF-S 55-250 mm, f/3.5 -5.6
● Canon 400 mm, f/5.6 L prime
● Sigma DG HSM APO OS 150-500 mm, f/5 - 6.3
● Manfrotto ball head mount
● Manfrotto 055XPROB tripod
● Canon Speedlite 580EX II flash
● Canon Backpack
● Satechi Wireless Digital Timer Remote Control (WTR)

Bird Field Guides (books and apps)
Here are a few of my favorites:
- iBird Pro for Android; (app)
- National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America
- Sibley Guides
- Peterson Field Guides and
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology (online).

“Photography is my passion. Nature, my inspiration. Expressing both…my never-ending motivation.” -

© Notable Nuances Photography by Susan Wilkinson

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Click the image above to learn more about mastering the art and craft of bird photography!