Beyond the BackyardCircle B Bar ReservePhotography Tips

Tips for Photographing Birds at the Circle B Bar Reserve

Join Us for a Nature Hike at the Circle B Bar Reserve.  Bring your DSLR, your point-and-shoot, or just yourself, and join us for a morning’s walk at the Circle B Bar Reserve. My dad and I will share some of our favorite birding locations and photography tips. Meet outside the Nature Discovery Center on Saturday, January 8, at 8:00am so that we catch the early birds! All ages and skill levels welcome. Sign up at the Circle B Bar Reserve. Don’t forget to check out some of our Circle B photography by clicking the Circle B Bar Reserve and Dyeyo’s Pictures links.

In conjunction with the photo walk that my dad and I are conducting at the Circle B Bar Reserve today, I thought I would jot down some thoughts about photographing at the reserve.  Maybe they will be of some use to people visiting the reserve for the first time.

  1. Be quiet and be patient. The birds at Circle B are used to people walking on the trails, and some are fairly tolerant of people.  Others will fly as soon as they see you.  Be quiet, so that you don’t scare them.  You have to be patient, too.  Sometimes a bird will fly right in front of you, posing perfectly for a picture, and then fly away before you get the shot.  Just keep standing there.  Often the bird will return.  Or maybe you’ll see a different bird that you wouldn’t have noticed if you hadn’t missed the first bird.  Walk slowly and watch for movement in the trees.  The big birds in the ponds are the easiest to spot, but the trees are full of small warblers, gnatcatchers, and sparrows.
  2. Don’t place the bird in the middle of your picture. A thick stack of pictures with one bird after another centered in the frame is kind of boring.  Try placing the bird off to the left, or off to the right.  There’s a rule in photography called the “rule of thirds”.  Consider dividing your picture into thirds, both horizontally and vertical.  Generally, if you place your bird along one of those 1/3 lines, the composition will be pleasing when you look at it later on the computer. 
    Roseate Spoonbill - follows the Rule of Thirds (see gridlines in animation)

    Roseate Spoonbill - follows the Rule of Thirds (see gridlines in animation)

     
    Roseate Spoonbill - centered and boring

    Roseate Spoonbill - centered and boring

    When possible, catch the bird walking into the frame, not flying away from it.  Notice how the Spoonbill above is walking to the right, and I positioned him on the left, so he has some visual space to walk into the frame.  Try to catch the duck that is swimming toward you instead of away.  If the eagle is flying in circles over your head, concentrate your shots on him when he is flying toward you.
  3. Go early. The birds wake up at sunrise and are most active before about 10am.  Time your trip to coincide with their active period and you will not regret it.
  4. Observe the birds and learn as much as you can about them. Birds are funny little creatures and the more you learn about them and their habits, the better pictures you will take of them.  Did you know that a bird will often stretch its wings after it preens (picks at its feathers)?  That the American Coots (the black birds all over the ponds right now) will sometimes line up in a row and do their little walk/run/flight across the lake surface one after another?  That the Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers (tiny birds that hop around in the vegetation right along the trails) are so tolerant of humans that they will just about hop in your face?  Learning all you can about the birds will make you a better bird photographer.
  5. Approach the birds slowly.  When I see a cool bird in front of me, I always want to get closer.  But I’ll usually stop and take a picture right away, in case the bird flies away.  Then I will slowly and carefully move the camera closer, taking pictures at intervals until I reach my desired distance (or until the bird flies!)  A far-away bird picture is better than no picture!
  6. Listen.  You will often hear the birds before you see them, especially the little birds.  Try to learn some of their calls.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers sound clips of bird song, and you can buy bird call CDs as well (see below).
  7. Take some videos. A picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words, and a video sometimes is worth a thousand pictures!  A lot of point-and-shoot and even some DSLRs support video recording.  Try it!  It’s hard to capture the amazing number of American White Pelicans in still shots, but by using video, you can record how wave after wave of birds fly in and land.
  8. Watch the sun angle. If you see a really great bird, pause a second before you hit the shutter button.  Is the sun in front of the bird?  Behind the bird?  On the bird’s side?  Each of those light angles can make for a dramatic photograph, but they can be challenging to expose properly.  A good easy rule to remember for front-lit photographs is “shoot into your shadow.”  Locate your shadow and aim your camera in that direction, moving around the bird (as much as possible) so that your shadow points at the bird.  Doing this will give you a photograph where the bird is best lit by the sun, and you’ll notice better detail in the feathers and fewer deep dark shadows.
  9. Kneel down. The trick to getting a nice creamy background for your pictures is to place your subject (the bird) in the foreground, with a significant distance to the background (the trees, the lake, branches).  An easy way to do that is to kneel down, so that instead of looking down on a bird and its immediate surroundings, you look at the bird at eye-level and get fewer distracting background elements in the picture.  Sometimes this technique works better than others.  It worked well for me with this Palm Warbler:
    Palm Warbler (taken standing up, looking down at the bird)

    Palm Warbler (taken standing up, looking down at the bird)

     
    Palm Warbler (taken kneeling at bird-level)

    Palm Warbler (taken kneeling at bird-level)

  10. Talk to people.  There are birders on the trails at Circle B that come at least once a week, if not more.  There are professional photographers and beginning enthusiasts.  They’re all really friendly.  Talk to them.  Tell them what you’ve seen, ask them what the bird in front of you is, ask if they have seen anything neat today.  When the otters chase up and down the canals, word spreads up and down the trail like lightening.  We’re all there because we love nature, and it’s fun to share it.
  11. Take lots of pictures! You can take hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of digital pictures on today’s flash cards.  So take lots of pictures.  Birds hop, fly, blink…  The more pictures you challenge yourself to take, the better photographer you will become.  Don’t fall into a “I already have a thousand shots of that bird” rut.  You could go every week and take pictures of just that one kind of bird, in different lighting conditions, environmental surroundings, and bird plumages, and I guarantee that you would get different pictures each week.  Challenge yourself to keep trying to find creative ways to capture the beauty of Circle B.
  12. Take your camera out of auto mode.  Almost all cameras have  an “auto” mode, where the camera determines the aperture and shutter speed automatically for you.  It does that by looking at the scene in your viewfinder, assuming that everything averages to a middle tone (like a mid-gray), and picking a shutter speed and aperture to expose that middle tone properly.  The problem is, sometimes the scene doesn’t really average out to a middle tone.  Imagine a group of American White Pelicans out on Wading Bird Way, in the bright sunlight.  The light reflecting off the water, and the bright white feathers of the pelicans, are definitely brighter than a mid-gray.  So you need to add some light to your exposure to keep the whites from overexposing (which look like white blobs).  Now imagine a Fish Crow posing for you on a pole.  His dark feathers are certainly darker than a mid-gray, and so you need to subtract some light to capture the detail in his feathers.  In general, I leave my Canon body on AV mode, which is “aperture priority” mode.  I leave my lens “wide-open” (usually at f-stop f/5.6), which creates a nice blurry background for the birds.  Then I add and subtract light by dialing in exposure compensation for bright and dark scenes.  I find that this method is faster and easier than putting the camera on full manual mode and having to turn knobs for aperture (f-stop) and shutter speed.  But I know some very good photographers who prefer the full manual route.  You should experiment and figure out what works best for you.  Read some of the books I’ve recommended below, or some of the numerous tutorials online, if you want to learn more about this subject.  I especially recommend Understanding Exposure and The Art of Bird Photography.
  13. Go to the Circle B Flickr group site.  Many of the photographers who love Circle B post some of their pictures to the Circle B Flickr group.  Go there before a trip to Circle B to see what kinds of wildlife to expect and where to find it.  Looking at other peoples’ images can help you learn to critique your own pictures.  Did they blow the highlights on the white bird?  Would the flying Wood Stork have looked better if it was higher in the frame?  Upload your own pictures, too.  Use the discussion page to ask questions.  Leave comments for pictures that you like.
  14. Come often. To really get to know a place, you have to come often.  Come at different times in the day (although I prefer morning at Circle B, when the glow of the sunrise casts a warm light on the world for about an hour or two).   Walk different trails to see which birds live where.  Walk the same trails over and over.  Leave Heron Hideout!  You might be surprised how much they change from day to day.  My dad likes to say that “the Circle B never disappoints.  You can’t go expecting to see a particular bird.  Go, enjoy what it offers, and it will always surprise you!”

Recommended Reading

A lot of people ask me how I learned about birds and cameras.  I’ve learned mostly from reading, both books and websites.  Here’s a recommended reading list.  Click the links to find out where you can purchase these books online.

Photography

Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson.  This is a great beginning photography book.  It explains how to create a properly exposed image by varying aperture (f-stop), shutter speed, and ISO.  Byran’s explanations are down-to-earth and pretty easy to understand.  The book is illustrated with many inspiring pictures.  After you read it, go back out to Circle B or just into your own backyard, and take a close-up picture of a flower.  I guarantee that you’ll have a “keeper” image.

The Art of Bird Photography and The Art of Bird Photography II by Arthur Morris.  These are considered to be some of the most authoritative books on photographing birds.  They cover basic exposure theory, then talk about applying it to birds.  Artie gives suggestions for making nice compositions with birds, creating creative bird exposures, and where to find birds (lots of places in Florida!).  The first book covers only film photography, but still is worth a read.  The second book covers digital.

Mastering Canon EOS Flash Photography by NK Guy.  This book covers all things flash-related (focusing only on Canon).  It gives the best explanation I’ve ever read for how to use fill flash and flash as the main light source in a photograph.  It also tells you a bit about how your camera works, with diagrams and details about flash exposure metering and regular exposure metering (did you know they are independent?)

Birding

Birds of Florida by Stan  Tekiela.  This is an awesome beginning birder’s book.  It includes full-page color pictures of birds found only in Florida.  It doesn’t confuse you with birds that wouldn’t normally be here.  Unlike most bird books, which are ordered by family and species, this one is ordered by color.  If you see a blue bird, flip to the “blue” section and page through it to find your bird.  There is information about habitat, nesting, food, and other trivia for each bird in the book.  The book is light and easily fits in your camera bag if you want to take it out hiking with you.  There is an accompanying CD with bird calls that is also good.

The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley.  This is a more advanced bird identification book that includes birds from all over North America.  I’d recommend this one if you are taking a trip outside of Florida.  It’s also great for identifying the less common winter birds.  Sibley’s bird drawing are incredible and well-thought out for bird identification.  He includes all the details for birds that molt into different plumages (change colors) at different times of the year, or as they change from babies to juveniles to adults.  This is my favorite bird reference ever.

The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior by David Allen Sibley. This is a companion volume to Sibley’s bird identification book above.  Rather than focusing on bird identification, this book explains how birds live.  It tells you why the Sandhill Cranes dance, what kind of habitat the Roseate Spoonbills prefer, what the American White Pelicans eat, why the Anhingas swallow their fish whole…  I lost track of the number of times I’ve commented, “oh! that’s why they do that!” while reading this book.

Websites

There’s a lot of great information available free on the Internet for birds and photography.  Here are a couple of my favorite sites.  Check out the Links on my blog, also.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology (http://www.birds.cornell.edu).  Search for information about specific birds, and read about research being conducted.  Watch for the Great Backyard Bird Count in February, too!

Circle B Flickr Group (http://www.flickr.com/groups/995562@N25).  There are plenty of people who love the Circle B Bar Reserve, and many of them upload their pictures to the free online web service Flickr.  You can see what kinds of birds are being seen currently at the reserve (most people also tell you where they found those birds).  Upload some of your images, too!  (Look for Jess under the username “jess at catandturtle photography“.)

Birds as Art (http://www.birdsasart-blog.com).  Read expert photographer Arthur Morris’  educational and entertaining blog about bird photography.  You’ll learn something new every time he updates the site.

Polk County Birds (http://www.polkcountybirds.com).  This is Polk County resident expert birder Chuck Geanangel’s website, containing details about birds found in Polk County. This is a great resource if you think you’ve found a rare bird at Circle B.  If you do, make sure you report it at the Nature Discovery Center!

eBird (http://ebird.org).  Thousands of people across the county log what birds they have seen where.  Ornithologists (bird scientists) use this information to learn about birds and their habits.  You can use the information to determine what birds you might see in a particular area.  Get inspired and start reporting what you see in your own backyard!

BirdBrainz list serve (http://listserv.admin.usf.edu/archives/brdbrain.html).  Birders all over the state e-mail each other about what birds are being seen each day.  Their e-mails are archived on this webpage.  This is a great resource if you want to go find rare birds (like the Snow Bunting in Palm Coast, one of just a handful to ever have been seen in the state.)   You can also post details or pictures about a bird and get help identifying it.

Bird Photographers.net (http://www.birdphotographers.net).  Upload your pictures and have expert photographers critique them.  Look at others’ pictures and learn to critique yourself.  Share information about camera gear and birding hot spots.