The second of an occasional feature, where we showcase the work of bird photographers. Kevin Lewis has been a regular contribitor to our Readers Gallery, and here offers advice and tips to getting the most out of your bird photography, illustrated with some of his work. Please note that the quality of the images here has been reduced for the web and the originals are high quality images - Editor
Kevin Lewis - a professional amateur photographer
A little background about me is probably the place to start, so to begin with I'm approaching the half century quite rapidly and first picked up a camera back in the late 1970's. I have always enjoyed photography and in my late teens and early twenties always had a camera with me and spent hundreds of hours in darkrooms processing black and white films and prints. I was married in 1982 and with the increasing pressure of work and family life the photography turned into happy snaps on birthdays, weddings and holidays for 15 years.
Figure 1 - Magpie mobbing young Kestrel
My work in the UK nuclear industry takes me all around the country spending a lot of time in hotels reading and playing with a computer. With the arrival of digital cameras I realised that I could be spending my free time a lot more productively and bought my first digital camera in the late 90's. I used to shoot hundreds and hundreds of images of anything that took my fancy and then spent the evenings putting 99% of the images into the trash bin on the computer. Really productive! Now I take my time and take a lot less images but have a lot more 'keepers'.
If I was asked what I liked to photograph my answer would have to be wildlife, but I still enjoy going out and just photographing any subject that appeals to me. I like new challenges and will concentrate on one subject until I get the best image I can achieve and then move onto another subject. I have no reservations about photographing captive subjects and get a lot of pleasure from it but the pleasure of getting a good photograph of a wild animal or bird in its natural environment is very rewarding.
I spend a lot of time on a photographic website called ePhotozine (www.ephotozine.com), this site has provided me with a lot of feedback, good and bad, on my work and has challenged me to improve my work. Through a meeting with some of the other members of this site I came across the Barn Owl Rescue Centre (www.barnowl.co.uk) in Gloucester. The centre is committed to the welfare of wild owl and other birds and to the education of the community into their conservation work. Luckily this centre is local to my home and I now spend a lot of my spare time supporting their work. This has given me access to a wide range of wild and captive subjects and my photographic technique and knowledge of wildlife has increased considerably in the last two years, so:
Tip #1: Practise and experiment a lot, it costs next to nothing to take digital images and unless you know the equipment and the capabilities of yourself and the equipment you will fail to get the best image.
Tip #2: Get to know the behaviour of the subject by observing it; this will increase the chance of getting the shot you want without disturbing the subject.
Figure 2 - A group of little owls were known to visit this area, so by using a car as a hide they could be approached and photographed without disturbing them.
Today, at the young age of 47, I use Canon equipment, the EOS-20D body with a range of lens from 10mm up to 600mm and an assortment of flashguns, tripods and accessories. My main lens until the purchase of the Canon 600mm lens was a Canon 100-400L lens, this zoom lens produces superb results with larger birds and wildlife but when photographing small birds I always had to crop the image to get the magnification and composition I wanted. This cropping means that detail is lost and the final image is only good enough for a small print or for the internet but certainly not good enough for publication, so:
Tip #3: try to always frame the subject in the camera so you do not have to crop the image significantly. In order to do this you may have to move closer to the subject or wait for the subject to come closer to you. Moving closer will increase the likelihood of disturbing the subject so waiting for it to come to closer to you is always better. Please remember we should all coexist with wildlife and not disturb them just for the sake of a photograph.
Figure 3 - A Nuthatch taken after sitting on a bench for a few hours waiting for anything that arrived. Full frame image 1/60sec@f8 Canon 600mm and 21mm extension tube.
A short story from earlier this year illustrates this nicely: I was in a public hide from the early morning photographing a kingfisher that is a very regular visitor to the location. After a visit to fish from a perch, the kingfishers' behaviour changed and it would just fly into the area and then straight off again. I was concerned that I was spooking the bird but I had been to the place before and wasn't doing anything unusual so I put it down to the bird seeing something else it didn't like. What the kingfisher had seen and I hadn't seen was a photographer in a bright jacket sitting on a collapsible chair down in front of the hide! When he got up to leave I heard him move about and I asked him, in a not too polite manner, what he was doing there; his response was 'I wanted to get a photograph of the kingfisher but I don't have a big enough lens so I moved closer but the kingfisher never land on the perches'. I wonder why and I really hope that he is reading this article and just to prove the kingfisher does use the perch here is one of several hundred images!.
Figure 4 - the young female Kingfisher taken after the 'gentleman' left!
The Canon 600mm f4 IS USM lens is my pride and joy and the cause of a lot of shoulder and back pain, it is HEAVY! Using this lens means I can position myself further away from a subject and photograph them whilst they are behaving naturally and still capture them full frame and the limited depth of field nicely blurs the backgrounds. Even with image stabilisation the 600mm lens cannot be used without a tripod or beanbag so even more weight to carry to a location...groan. Personally I think that a tripod or beanbag should be used for almost any photograph with any lens as it reduces the camera movement to a minimum. If the camera moves the distance of ONE pixel relative to the subject during the exposure you have lost a lot of detail, so:
Tip #4: Where possible always use a tripod or beanbag even with stabilised lenses and even at high shutter speeds. Tip #4a: Use wild bird seed to fill the beanbag, useful to encourage small birds.
I use a Manfrotto 055BPro tripod and a Manfrotto 393 head as my main camera support. The Manfrotto 393 is a cheap but very sturdy pan and tilt support for big lenses; it comfortably handles my 600mm and camera and provides a well balanced setup for in-flight photography at a much cheaper cost than the Kirk Cobra or Wimberley options and I would recommend it to anyone. The 055BPRO tripod has also been reliable and stable but lacks a flat plate on the top to support a beanbag when used at very low levels. One of the reasons I will be looking at an alternative soon, so anyone with a recommendation is welcome to email me.
My plans for the future include increasing my involvement with the conservation aspects of the Barn Owl Centre work and to improve on my limited success at getting images published. Other targets include getting commission work relating to wildlife photography and improving my contacts within the photographic community, oh and finally getting my hands on a Canon 1D MkII N camera which will compliment the Canon 600mm perfectly.
Martin Best, a previous contributor, has provided a lot of sensible tips on image exposure and EV compensation and technique, two more that I would like to add are:
Tip #5: take an exposure reading off of a neutral grey subject which is in the same lighting condition as the subject you want to photograph, something like grass is always a good choice, and then shoot in manual mode rather than use Av or Tv modes and the EV compensation. If the subject is lightly coloured manually reduce the exposure by ½-1 stop, if it is dark coloured then increase the exposure by ½-1 stop. Using manual mode in this way will give you better control over the exposure of birds in-flight. Remember the underside of a bird in flight will normally be in shadow so an increase in exposure is usually required.
Tip #6: Be patient and be prepared to wait for the shot you want. The kingfisher hover sequence was captured after about 100 hours of photographing and observing the bird.
Figure 5 - You sometimes make your own luck. A young male kingfisher in a hover, one of six images in the sequence
All images are the copyright of K Lewis, other images can be found at my website at www.photosbykev.com and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish to discuss anything relating to this article.