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Autumn Lady’s Tresses Spiranthes spirialis

Between April and September I make a point of looking out for orchids during my constitutionals with Pepper on the common, at this time of year, I’m looking for the Autumn Lady’s Tresses the last flowering plant of the season.

The ALT is a small and delicate plant that can grow to a height of 15cm although the majority around this area are between 6 and 10cm. Being a single stem plant usually, they are extremely hard to spot until they flower and even then they’re not easy!

Yesterday evening I located my first flowering spike of this season, mentally marking its location, I went back this morning to get some photographs. Before I set up my kit I had a close look around and found approximately a dozen spikes at various stages of development, choosing the ‘best’ spike I set up my tripod, camera and other paraphernalia.

The thin high cloud made an excellent softbox, the hazy sun provided a beautify light but the breeze was a pain in the proverbial. Even using my camera bag, shoot through umbrella and hat as a shield didn’t help much, I just had to watch and wait for the wind to die down enough for each exposure.

It’s only when you get really up close and personal that you begin to see just how beautiful the flowers are, they look as they are made up of snow flakes or ice crystals. It’s very tempting to pick a spike and photograph it in the studio to get some ‘stacked’ images, but that’s a no, NO, they must be enjoyed in situ.  


Reed Warblers Acrocephalus scirpaceus


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I went to Upton Warren to get some images of Reed Warblers, not just any images, I had an objective to get an image of a fledgling being fed by an adult – a challenge!

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Having checked out Henbrook Hide, it was out of the question as the reeds have grown and filled the channels obscuring any opportunity to capture images, the only alternative was the ‘standing hide’ on North Moors where there was still some open water.

Having made my way carefully to the hide, I set up the tripod so I could get the best view of the reed bed’s edge, which was a challenge! The challenge being the tall reeds in front of the hide, which caused havoc, confusing the auto focus and needed to be dealt with, suitably sorted with a good thrashing!

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There was a lot of activity in and around the reeds, there must have been a nest nearby as there was a couple of fledglings being feed frequently by harassed, hard working adults. I followed one of the fledglings as closely as I could as it moved around, in and out of the reeds, trying to keep it in focus manually, truly challenging!

While I watched I must have witnessed dozens of ‘feedings’, the adults were very industrious, but the delivery of food to the youngster was incredibly fast; move in, food down the neck, and gone! I did get images of the adult with food, the fledgling waiting for food and even the adult and fledging together but the reed stems masked nearly all feeding occasions and manual focus was a nightmare! The only images I did get of the actual ‘feeding’ were masked by the reed leaves so I can’t really claim to have achieved my objective this time, next time, we’ll have to wait and see.

 

The Skylark Alauda arvensis

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I have enjoyed the song of the Skylarks’ as they rise up over the common for many years but I’ve noticed that we have fewer pairs these days. I can remember seeing five or six birds in the air singing their hearts out as I walked the dog but lately the most I’ve seen at once is three.

About three weeks ago I decided I would get some shots of the Skylarks on Castle Morton common so I’ve been watching them every time I’ve been out with Pepper, observing  their behaviour and trying to see if there was a pattern. I noted that one bird would descend from his singing flight and quite often land on one of three shrubs and then sing again before disappearing into the long grass. The wind direction seemed to influence his choice of perch; the south-westerly breeze usually meant the Hawthorn bush by the track, with a northerly or north-westerly it would tend to use the dog rose beyond the gorse. If it was a still night it could use any of its favoured perches, but tonight the breeze was from the south.

I got into my ‘bag hide’ with my camera and stool around six o’clock and set off towards the Hawthorn bush, positioning myself about mid way between the three favoured perches and waited, hoping it would use one of them.

After an hour or so I heard the Skylark’s song and eventually located it high in the sky above the common, a tiny dot well up wind of me. After a short time it started to descend, quivering wings out stretched still singing, it eventually dropped down behind the bramble clump and out of sight.

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I’d picked the wrong spot to sit and wait!

I was still muttering under my breath cursing my misfortune when suddenly the bird appeared on the Hawthorn bush in front of me and started to sing, I’d got it! Needless to say I was grinning from ear to ear, Cheshire cat had nothing on me!

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Malvern Abbey

Malvern Abbey

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I had intended to catch the ‘Golden Hour’ this morning and get some shots of the Three Counties showground from the hills as the Royal show is in full swing, but I over slept. Not wanting to waste the morning I had a wander around the Abbey in Malvern, something I’d been thinking of doing for sometime now.

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Strange how one tends to ignore the things in front of your nose, things you may be aware of but just takes for granted, like the Abbey in my case. I pass it most days but I’d never really looked at it, until this morning.

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It’s a very impressive building. As most ‘normal’ people were still in bed it was nice a quiet with only the very occasional early jogger to disturb the peace, which enabled me to take my time and find the best view points, even in the middle of the road. As you would expect at 06.00 in the morning the Abbey wasn’t open, a shame as a shot of the stain glass window with the morning sun could be good, something to try for, possibly in the autumn when the sunrises at a more reasonable time.

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I was using the Canon 24mm TS-E f3.5 lens for these shots, which I’ve not used for a long time and was pleasantly surprised at just how sharp that lens is.

Grasshopper Warbler

Grasshopper Warbler Locustella naevia

It was around mid April when I first heard the distinctive sound; you can’t really call it a song, of a Grasshopper warbler while walking Pepper on Castle Morton common. Every day I’ve walked Pepper since then, I’ve noted the approximate position of the bird by his call and watched closely to try and spot him, these birds are elusive to say the least!

The majority of these sound observations centred around two areas of dense thicket of brambles, hawthorn and dog rose. Over time and I became convinced that there were two pairs of Grasshopper warblers on the common. One pair I felt were nesting close to the route Pepper and I take daily and on the 28th April I got my first fleeting glimpse of the bird.

The Grasshopper warblers is not a very distinctive bird, other than its call, its just another little brown bird or LBJ (little brown job), that skulks around in the undergrowth and is very difficult to see, but I became slightly obsessed with the idea of getting an image of one.

Over the last six weeks or so I have spent many hours quietly watching the thicket I believed the birds had nested in, trying to narrow down the location of the nest site. Yesterday having observed both birds entering the scrub with insects in their beaks I decided the time was right to try and get some images. This morning the sunrise was at about 05.00, not that I saw it, I did get up at silly o’clock though and set off with the camera, bag hide stool etc., and settled down with the sun behind me and waited.

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I didn’t have to wait long to see one of the birds as it dived into the scrub, no chance of a shot, but I was feeling optimistic. I heard the distinctive call coming from the other side of a clump of brambles but no visual. After about an hour and a half of comings and goings I heard the call again but this time it was from my right and across the other side of the track. I swung the lens around slowly and just made out the male on the edge of the brambles singing/calling, he was well out of range but I took a record shot as that was the first opportunity I’d had.

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It had been over two hours in the bag hide and I didn’t think my backside was going to be able to stand much more, my hide stool is good, but! I had started to fidget and was just about to call it a day when a movement in the bushes caught my eye; there it was in front of me perched on the dog rose!

The intervening leaves caused havoc with the Auto focus and I had to resort to manual focus but I did get a couple of ‘okay’ images. I was feeling quite elated, the discomfort in my seat forgotten as I concentrated on the bird. It hopped back into the bushes, no longer in clear view but moving around as if foraging. Out it popped again onto the rose and sat there for a few seconds giving me the best view I’ve had of this secretive LBJ – wonderful!

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It then dropped down onto the brambles in front of me and began to call, using manual focus I grabbed a few shots before it hopped up into the Hawthorn continued to call for a few seconds – and then it was gone! 

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What a morning, mission accomplished!

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Tactics

An approach to

Garden Bird Photography

Part seven

Before we get to the tactics I’d like to share a variation on the photo stage/natural perches theme from a previous posting, it’s what I call my ‘Goldfinch studio’. 

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Here I have used an old Teasel head as the perch because many finches and Goldfinches enjoy the Teasel seeds in the autumn, it’s one of their natural food sources.

My ‘Goldfinch Studio’ set up. Consists of a dried Teasel stem attached to a length of timber with zip ties, which is placed between the two Niger (Nyger) seed feeders and screwed to the old fence. The Teasel heads, which may be baited with a sprinkling of Niger (Nyger) seed, are about or slightly above the height of the feeder pegs and the feeders are in reasonable proximity to the small tree in the hedge, to provide a degree of cover.

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I have been able to produce a number of pleasing Goldfinch images on natural perches using this method

I actively encourage the cultivation of Teasels in my garden as they attract butterflies and other insects, plus the seeds are a natural food for many finches.  


Tactics

Okay, you’ve setup your feeding station having considered; the bird’s needs, the direction of light, at the times you expect to be photographing the birds. With a diverse range of foods and feeders, which you have been maintaining for a month or two and the birds are beginning to visit regularly.

You have organised your shooting position and are now ready to ’have a go’.
 The best time to photograph birds is when they are most active, usually first thing in the morning or around dusk, my preference is the morning as I like the light of the ‘Golden Hour’ at that time of the day, plus I get the added bonus of the dawn chorus to listen too.

As I mentioned earlier, birds do not take stage direction well, so I try to weigh the odds in my favour as much as I can. By this I mean I put out loads of food as a general rule to attract as many birds as I can into the garden, I want them to become accustomed to a high level of easy food on offer. When I want a photo session, I remove most of the feeders the night before once it’s dark, just leaving one Niger, one Black Sunflower, one Sunflower Hearts, one peanut feeder and a suet cage. Hopefully the birds will still visit for their safe and easy breakfast, however, the lack of feeders means they have to queue for the food, some of them will use the adjacent cover, others will use the ‘photo stages’ or perches you thoughtfully provided for them and pose for the camera.

There’s the theory, it doesn’t always work out like that, but that’s what makes this such a fascinating aspect of photography.

During your initial sessions, you will in all probability be excited at the prospect of all your work coming to together and will snap away at every opportunity presented – I certainly did!

The next step to improving your photography is to start being more conscious about the composition of your images to hopefully increase the number of ‘keepers’. Many books and videos have been produced to cover this huge subject of ‘composition in photography’ and I commend you to look into them.

 

Next time I’ll be looking at a basic ‘rule’ of composition which may help improve your images.

   

Equipment

An approach to

Garden Bird Photography

Part six

 

Equipment 

It wasn’t my intention to write about equipment as the choice of photographic kit is a very personal thing, but I’ve been asked many times ‘What camera and lens would you recommend?’ So here are my thoughts for what they’re worth.

Some sage advice given to me many, many years ago by my father has stood me in good stead, he said, “It’s the glass that dictates the quality of your photographs, get the best you can afford.”

Let me lay my cards on the table from the outset, I am a dedicated Canon man and have been form many years having converted from Nikon – there I’ve said it!

Naturally, I am biased towards the Canon range of products, that said, there are a number of excellent brands of camera on the market; Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Fuji to name but a few, so you pays your money and you makes your choice. Before you choose a brand, be aware, that as your interest and skill levels develop, you may wish to up grade your equipment. So consider if your chosen brand has the range of equipment and the interchangeability of their accessories, lenses etc, to meet your growing aspirations.

The basic features you should consider when looking to acquire suitable kit to photograph birds and other wildlife, in my opinion are:


·      Get the very best quality lens you can afford with a focal length of 300mm or more, the Canon 400mm f5.6 is an excellent birding lens

·      Get a DSLR camera body with a cropped sensor, a CMOS sensor will effectively increase your lens’s focal length by up to a factor of 1.6,
so a 300mm lens becomes a 480mm lens and a 400mm becomes 640mm

·      Ensure the camera body supports the production of RAW files as RAW files provide the greatest detail in the images and therefore the greatest flexibility.

In my opinion a good combination of camera and lens would be; a Canon 7D body, either the Mk I or Mk II depending on your budget; combined with the previously mentioned, Canon 400mm f5.6 lens. Other lenses worthy of consideration are; the Canon 100- 400mm Zoom, the Sigma 150-500mm Zoom and the Tamron 150-500mm Zoom, although my personal preference is for a fixed focal length prime lens.

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An alternative to the digital single lens reflex (dslr) camera like the Canon 7D is a ‘Bridge’ camera. The Bridge camera usually has an integral zoom lens and a smaller sensor which can provide excellent reach. I confess I have no experience of these cameras so I’m not in a position to comment, other than to say I have seen many wonderful bird and wildlife                                                         images produced with Bridge cameras. 

A final thought, don’t be afraid to consider pre-owned photographic kit, there is some excellent bits of kit out there which can represent a considerable saving for your budget.

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Probably the biggest cause of spoiled images is ‘camera shake’, particularly when using long lenses. This is a problem that can be overcome quite simply by using a suitable support and the correct technique. Supports range from beanbags to tripods and all manner of solid surfaces between. Personally, my preferred support is a good solid tripod with a gimbal head when using a long lens, which in my opinion is any lens with a focal length of  300mm or more. My second choice is a monopod combined with a simple tilt head, and then the humble but ever so versatile Beanbag.

An alternative to the gimbal head is a ball head which takes a little getting used too but can represent a significant cost saving. As with all photographic equipment it does pay to get the best you can afford.

 

Using a Gimbal Head

Just fitting the Gimbal head to the tripod and then attaching your camera and lens will give you more ‘keepers’ than just hand holding your  camera. However, there is a technique that will enable you to get the best out the gimbal head and, with practice, will enable you to achieve sharp images shooting as slow as 1⁄2 a second.

Firstly, when mounting the camera/lens to the gimbal head, keep the upright arm of the gimbal to the right of the camera/ lens which may be contrary to the gimbal manufacturer’s instructions, ensure the head has totally free movement, up, down and side to side and the camera/lens is balanced so when you let it go, it stays in the same position.

Set the tripod to the required height and place one leg forward towards the subject and ensure it is grounded firmly so there is little or no  chance of it moving. Place your left hand on top of the barrel of the lens, above the point where it attaches to the gimbal, this will help dampen down any vibrations travelling up or down the lens, your right hand will be operating the camera’s controls.

Place your feet slightly apart with your right foot slightly in front, bring your eye to the viewfinder and rest your forehead against the eyecup on the camera. As you look through the viewfinder push against the eyecup with your forehead to create a tension between you and the front leg of the tripod via the camera/lens. In this way, with practice, it is possible to shoot at 1⁄2 or even one second and still get sharp images, providing of course your subject doesn’t move.

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Next time I’ll consider some tactics to employ to improve your chances of capturing bird images.


Photo stages

An approach to

Garden Bird Photography

Part five

 

Photo Stages or Perches

I prefer, where possible, to photograph the birds on natural perches rather than the actual feeder so I make up ‘photo stages’ and encourage the birds to use them.

The first thing is to collect suitable materials for the photo stage/perch and then placing them to get the best possible results.

For the materials, I look for and gather twigs and small branches with interesting colours, textures and shapes when I’m out and about, that 
I can use with the aim of making my images more natural. Small branches and twigs with moss or Lichen are ideal as they add colour and often texture. I look for pieces that can be attached to the poles easily usually with right angle branches.

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The photo shows a typical perch with its attachment, the Long Tailed                  Tits pinched the Lichen for nesting material, spoiled the effect but it went in a good cause.

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I use cable or zip ties to attach the perches as they are quick, easy and cheap, a bundle of ties from ‘Pound Shop’ cost 99p and last for ages. A quick snip with a pair of scissors and the tie is off, making a scene change simple, quick and straightforward.

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My secondary suet block feeder has its own integrated perch fixed with Zip ties and is attached to the party fence post mainly for the benefit of the Blackcaps and the many tits but of course others including the Starlings use it.

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The image after cropping. 

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The position of the perch in relation to the camera and the ambient lighting can be important and needs to be thought about. From your earlier observations you will have noted where the birds come from and where they queue for the food. Try and place the perch slightly above the feeder peg and just to one side so the feeder is out of frame. Having placed the perch now you need to think about its position. If you set the perch at right angles to the camera the birds will tend to be, either facing the camera or have their backs to it. By positioning the perch at a slight angle to the camera you are more likely to get a profile of the bird,

I say ‘more likely’, because birds being wild creatures don’t take stage direction very well and will insist on doing their own thing, but you will be increasing your odds of getting a profile or three-quarter shot.

Log Feeders

On my trips out I also keep my eyes open for larger piece of timber, pieces from 50 to 150mm (2 to 6 inches) in diameter and 600 to 900mm (2 to 3 feet) long that could make interesting alternative ‘Log feeders’.

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With the ‘natural’ perches I use on the feeder poles, I also make and use ‘Log’ feeders again with the objective of producing a more natural image.

My log feeder consists of a piece of timber some 600mm to 900mm (2 to 3 foot) with a diameter between 75mm to 150mm (3 to 6 inches). A hole is drilled into one end to take the end of the feeder pole, and three or four 25mm holes drilled along one edge/side of the wood.

 The side holes are for the bird ‘bait’, I tend to use some of my peanut/suet cake which I ram into the hole, but you can use; peanuts, sunflower seeds or hearts or even meal worms or whatever the birds you want to attract are fond of. Once the log has been ‘baited’ it is mounted on the pole and rotated so that the holes with the ‘bait’ are just out of view of the camera.

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The Log feeders can also be laid down horizontally or at an angle on the grass or a bird table, this time the ‘baited’ holes are place on the far side away from the camera. The uses are only limited by your imagination.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next time we’ll look at equipment     

Alternatives

An approach to

Garden Bird Photography

Part four


Alternative Shooting Positions

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Not everyone will be able to use their house as a hide, so what alternatives are there. I do have and use a few of alternatives; firstly I have a position in my garden shed which I use to give me a different perspective for my images at the feeding station. I am able to remove the glass from the window, making it an open hatch through which to photograph the birds, to reduce my visibility from the outside I have a small section of ex-army camo netting suspended in front of the opening.

Another option is a commercial ‘pop-up’ hide. You can purchase purpose designed ‘pop-up’ Dome hides for natural history photography or you can use a Hunter’s blind, a quick search on Google will produce a number of alternatives.

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I purchased an Ameristep ‘pop up’ Hunter’s blind from Cabelas in America via the internet, it cost me just over £45.00 a few years ago it has proven to be most satisfactory as a semi permanent or long term hide.

Another alternative is a ‘Bag Hide’. There are a number of variations of this form of hide available on the market, I have used a ‘throw over’ bag hide extensively over the last few years, its my ‘go to’ option when out in the field as I found them to be an inexpensive, versatile and a extremely effective option.

I use the Outdoor Photography Gear’s lightweight Bag Hide, in conjunction with a sturdy tripod and a lightweight folding chair/stool, a simple and very effective option it is too. However, be aware, if you do use this type of hide you do need to be appropriately dressed for the time of year as you are literally exposed to the elements and the vagaries of the weather.

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Check out Outdoor Photography Gear on the Internet for the details.


Okay, you’ve got your feeding station and your shooting position set-up and sorted you’re ready to get started. You are probably eager to start snapping away, I was, but I suggest you let the birds get used to the new conditions and just observe their behavior.

The time spent ‘observing’ will enable you to learn the birds habits, where they congregate before coming down to the feeders, where they queue for a turn on the feeders and where they dive for when there is danger. It will also give you an insight into how the ambient light falls on the feeders and what affects it may have on your images. The shooting position in relation to the ambient light is important. In an ideal world the light source, the sun, would be behind you to illuminate your subject. 

In my particular case, my shooting position faces Southwest, so during the winter months the sunrise provides very nice ‘sidelight’ from the left hand side and as the sun sets behind my feeding station it provides a strong ‘back light’, not ideal but can be interesting. All this information is invaluable, it will help you when you start to photograph the birds, the more you know about your subjects and the conditions the better prepared you are and the better images you will produce.

Assuming you’ve gone down the feeders on poles route, the observations you’ve made, where the birds queue for a turn on the feeder pegs etc., will enable you to provide suitable ‘photo stages’, that is to say perches, between their collection point and the feeders, where you want the birds to sit for their portraits.

Next time I’ll be looking at making some 'photo stages'

 

Location

 An approach to

Garden Bird Photography

Part three


Location, location, location!

It would be good to try and establish what species of birds may be available in your area, a little quiet observation should do it, this will help you decide what food types to provide initially. I would suggest you start slowly by providing one or two feeders with your choice of food and then slowly build up the variety of foods as it can be quite expensive, but naturally that is your choice.

The next consideration is how and where?

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How

For the first few years of feeding the birds, this was before I started to photograph the birds, I hung all the feeders from various branches in the Lilac tree, as my only consideration was to enjoy watching them in and around my garden. However, now that my objective has changed from watching to taking photographs of them, I have had to re-think how to present the feeders.

In recent times I have started to mount some of my feeders on poles to provide a degree of flexibility, the thinking being I can move them around to change the background colours depending on the season and to hopefully compliment or contrast the bird’s plumage.

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Because the feeders are on poles you are able to move them closer to your shooting position, however, if you do do this, recent experience has shown you will need to do it in very small stages and over a period of time, to give the birds a chance to acclimatise to the new positions. Do remember if at all possible to ensure the birds have some form of cover nearby for them to dive into should they be, or feel threatened, in my case there is the neighbour’s weeping Birch or the Lilac tree.

Using the poles has another advantage from the photographic point of view, they allow me to attach different natural perches to them, which help to ring the changes, I prefer where possible to photograph the birds on natural perches rather than the actual feeder. The poles also allow one to experiment by using ‘alternative’ feeders, my ‘log feeders’ being a case in point. The log feeders work on the same principal i.e. they make a more natural looking perch for the birds to use and they provide me with an aesthetically pleasing image – or at least that’s the theory! 

Where

It’s time to think about where you are going to setup your feeding station. We’ve already considered the bird’s need for cover, now we need to try and combine the bird’s needs with your photographic requirements, to achieve a reasonable compromise for your chosen shooting position.

Your particular situation will be unique and very different to mine but the points you need to consider are:

1.    If you intend to be shooting from your house, can you conceal yourself by means of curtains, blinds etc., or do you need to fabricate a screen of some sort.

2.    Will you be using a garden shed or summer house as your ‘hide’

3.    How far away is your feeding station, will your lens cope with the distance, the more you fill the frame with the subject the less you need to crop the final image and the better the results will be.

4.    Do you have a clear view of the feeders and their surroundings

5.    What is the background like, is it full of clutter, will it interfere with the final image.

6.    Remember the bird’s needs are the priority, they must come before your photographic needs, but with a little thought both yours and the bird’s needs can be met satisfactorily.


It may help if I describe my ‘shooting positions’, as my set-up may provide you with some ideas.

My first position is my ‘workroom’, it’s on the first floor, a back bedroom that I use as a small studio and I have a camera and tripod virtually permanently setup so I have immediate access to it when I’m ‘working’.

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I used to have the roller blind drawn about 2/3rds down and some black cloth to cover most of the window, which left a small opening through which to shoot. However, I have recently had the windows replaced with new double glazed units and have had to revise my workroom ‘hide’. I now have a screen to cover the left portion of the window and use a piece of camo scrim, attached with Velcro to the window frame to cover most of the right hand opening half of the window. Whilst not very elegant it works and its simple!

Whenever possible I like to have the window open, shooting through even the cleanest of window glass does soften the focus of the image, however, in the winter months I’d be strung up if I were to let all the expensive heat out! I try to keep the window as clean as I am able, slightly soft focus is a small price to pay compared to the wrath of the family.

Your movements with in the ‘hide’ can have a huge effect on the birds, even those that have developed a degree of tolerance to the human presence, you have to move slowly and smoothly, sudden jerky movements will alert the birds and they’ll dive for cover. It can be hard when a bird you’ve been after for a long time suddenly makes an appearance at your feeding station, in your enthusiasm your natural reaction is to grab the camera quickly in case it flies off and you miss the chance, and of course it does! By making your movements slow, smooth and deliberate, you will stand a better chance of not scaring the bird and getting the shot you wanted. Self-discipline can be hard!

 

Next time we’ll look alternative shooting positions   

© Peter Dawson 2017