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PHOTOGRAPHING BIRDS

In the early years my favourite kind of bird photography was working from a portable hide, moving in close with my favourite lens (300 mm) and spending hours ensconced, an invisible witness to the comings and goings of the birds going about their daily activities without their being aware of being observed. Much of this kind of photography I did at nests, and in the farming environment where we lived this was easy as hides could be set up and left for days without interference. Nest photography calls for special consideration of the welfare of the bird and I usually worked a hide in slowly over a day or two, initially setting it up some distance from the nest to let the birds become accustomed to an unfamiliar object in the landscape, then moving it closer in stages. I made a point of not entering or leaving a hide at a nest unaccompanied. Nowadays this is all old-fashioned, and even frowned on in some circles, but it was the sort of photography that I liked most and in the process one became intimately acquainted with the subjects - I can also attest that the breeding birds that I engaged with went about their business unaware and undisturbed by my actions. Examples of the hides I used are shown alongside; it could be used on the ground, placed off the ground on scaffolding (e.g. at a Black-shouldered Kite nest, visible in the tree on the right), on a canoe, or even on a fisherman’s float-boat, if need be.

Times have certainly changed, though, with the once almost unimaginable development that's taken place in cameras and lenses, and getting close to a bird to photograph it today is no longer the mission it was. Thus virtually all of my recent pictures weren't taken from hides at all but instead they were taken from a car-window, usually using a bean-bag for support, or else simply hand-holding the camera and approaching the bird slowly. Before going further I must mention that I do not use call-up to lure birds in - if I can't get within range without harassment to the bird, I don't get the picture.

I have always used Canon equipment. My trusty Canon 300 mm f2.8 lens was eventually replaced by a Canon 500 mm f4 II lens, with or without a 1.4x extender attached, and/or a 100-400mm II lens. My camera bodies also evolved with the changing technology and you can identify in the photos on this site which were taken by which vintage of camera from the number given below each photo. Thus those taken by the Canon1Ds II body are prefixed with 'WT' (e.g. WT21037), a 40D (their image numbers are prefixed with a 'D'), then two 50D's (prefixed with 'E' and 'F' respectively); a 7D II body (prefixed with 'G'), two 5D IIIs (prefixed with 'H' and 'J' respectively), and a 5Ds (prefixed with 'K'). I have also included in the collection some scanned transparencies which were taken in pre-digital days, their inclusion here being mainly for nostalgic reasons.

Recently, for better or worse, I followed the mirrorless trend and traded in all my old gear for the recently released Canon R5 (pics prefixed 18A) and R6 (prefixed Y0A) bodies, and the Canon 800mm and 100-500mm lenses. It's a steep learning curve getting to grips with all the advantages offered by these new generation bodies and it is still early days for seeing results from them and deciding whether the expensive switch was worth it .....

bird photography
 
 
PHOTOGRAPHING DRAGONFLIES

Photographing perched dragonflies is much easier than photographing birds as these creatures are more approachable than birds, and they tend to remain in one position for extended periods. Also, most dragonflies are only out-and-about when it is warm and the light is good, so bad light is not usually a factor to deal with. The three principal things to get right when photographing dragonflies is to ensure that the background is not distracting, that you have sufficient depth of field to get the whole dragonfly in focus, and that you have the creature nicely lit. A frequent problem is wind and, because dragonflies often perch on flimsy stems, movement is usually the main obstacle to deal with. So there’s almost inevitably a trade-off needed between a high shutter-speed to stop movement and a high f-stop to maximise depth of field. I always use a tripod if I can, and the one I use is a small Manfrotto with a Kirk Enterprises ball-head.

I approach the dragonfly slowly, usually aiming for a side-on, slightly above-angle on the dragonfly, and wherever possible I try and seek out a plain background. Because larger species are less approachable than smaller species, I use the 300 mm lens for them, often with a 1.4X extender (and 25 mm extension ring if necessary).

Dragonflies are often perched in bright sunlight, so I use fill-in flash whenever possible to lighten up the creature’s darker areas. The flash (Canon 680EZ) is set on TTL at -1/3 stop and the camera is set on manual at ISO 200 and 1/250 shutter speed and it uses whatever aperture reading is given by the background. Too much flash results in dark backgrounds which look pretty unnatural in dragonflies.

For the small species (especially damselflies) I use a smaller lens (100 mm or 185 mm macro) and approach much closer, using the camera’s built-in flash for fill-in.

Flying dragonflies are largely a matter of luck, locating an individual that is repeatedly using the same flight path over a water body, setting focus manually on a point along that path and blazing away when it next comes past in the hope that something comes out sharp and in the frame. I use the 300 mm lens handheld for this and I manually set the focus at a point where I think it will fly through, with a high ISO (800) and a high shutter speed (1/1000 or faster). Occasionally luck will have the dragonfly hovering repeatedly at a point and then the camera’s auto-focus (on al-servo) will do the trick.
dragonfly photography