(Published February 2008 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)
The high season for birding is upon us. The next few months are a peak time for our feathered friends, and for those human friends who visit southern Arizona to witness the spectacle.
I’m neither a bird expert nor a specialist in bird photography. But I have grown very fond of them since moving to the borderlands.
The birds I’ve photographed are mostly common, either as permanent residents of this area or as migratory visitors. I don’t spend a lot of time hunting for a particular bird to fill an objective, but instead I roll the dice and take what the day provides. Common birds make great photo subjects.
Patience is a virtue when taking pictures of birds. Many photo professionals use blinds and sit and wait like a hunter. My style is an impatient one: I’m a marauder with my finger on the shutter like a gun's trigger. Generally speaking, a hunter's luck is improved by venturing outdoors a whole lot. When arriving at a likely spot, try sitting still and waiting (unlike me) in one spot for 20 minutes or more. Let the birds come to you.
|Mr. & Mrs. Acorn Woodpecker|
I’ve built a selection of bird images due to living near Madera Canyon of the Santa Rita mountains. In south-central Arizona, the geographic sphere of this newspaper, Madera Canyon with its creek is a major birding destination. Any place with a spot of water in this area will support plenty of winged creatures, as long as there also exists good native tree and brush habitat.
Apart from Madera Canyon, some other central borderlands birding destinations are: the lush cottonwood-willow riparian environment of the Santa Cruz River, especially from Rio Rico north to Tubac; the river’s Sonoita Creek tributary from Patagonia downstream; Aliso Springs, Puerto Springs and Sycamore Canyon in the Tumacacori Highlands area, and Arivaca Cienega; Bog Hole in the cinematic San Rafael Valley, Parker Canyon Lake and the famous Ramsey Canyon near Sierra Vista.
Next I'll list a few tips I learned the old fashioned way. These tips mainly involve getting as close as possible to your prey. As mentioned, let the birds come to you.
Use a telephoto. I’m not really big on hardware, as in comparing the length of my lens to the other guy’s, but one piece of equipment is necessary for taking pictures of birds, and that’s a telephoto or zoom telephoto lens. I use zoom telephotos, either a 70-300 mm or a newer 80-400 mm vibration-reduction (VR) lens. The latter lens is a heavy brute and its effectiveness beyond the older lens is marginal. Some birders use the new binoculars with built-in cameras.
|A Roadrunner, "peacock of the desert."|
Specialists in bird photography employ even more powerful and expensive lenses which bring in huge amounts of light and magnification, and require a tripod or a monopod. (In Alaska long ago, I met a bird photographer using a very long lens mounted atop a contraption that was built for holding a camera as if it were a rifle or machine gun, complete with grips for both hands and a gun-like trigger.)
My style is a rapid-fire one, always on the go, with no tarrying about. So, I don't use a tripod at all for birds. I’ve blurred many a shot that way, but I’ve also achieved other great ones which wouldn’t have been possible while lugging a tripod. The VR lens mentioned above is made for that, heavy as it is. My style is to photograph while trekking actively in the wild, avoiding controlled circumstances.
Beauty is close up. Even a common bird looks extraordinary if you can get right next to it. You’ll discover that a plain bird, or the female of a species which is usually less resplendent than the male, displays wonderfully delicate patterns of feather texture and color when viewed in extreme close-up.
|Orange-crowned Warbler upon landing.|
The eyes have it. In the movies and fashion photography, the eyes of the subject are the focal point of the universe. This applies no less to bird photography. If you have a telephoto, you should often be able to get in close enough to capture the bird’s eyes. A point of sunlight reflected from dark eyes is even better. The points of light are tiny but they add dynamic charm to the image. Larger birds of prey such as owls and hawks have the most gorgeous eyes. Capturing them in a picture is mandatory.
Direct sunlight can be good or evil. The best part of birds is their feathers. The way to exploit this beauty is to achieve a side view of the critter using uniform lighting from direct sunlight. Bright sunlight highlights a bird's spectacular feather colors and textures. Luck is needed to avoid the high contrast of direct sunlight and shadows caused by objects and the bird's position. For some bird and hummingbird photography, flash is used; high dollar equipment includes flash extenders.
The surroundings and circumstances make the art. As you acquire more experience, you'll master the skill of capturing a bird with perfect light and clarity, and yet, the image may be static. This is a reference photo. An art photo, to make a distinction, will use the qualities of the milieu, such as colors, shapes, motion, or shadows, to create an effect which enhances the overall image.
Action pictures are best. Good pictures with motion often are the hardest to achieve. In your art photo, the bird will be doing more than just sitting and resting on a twig or fence post; it'll be hunting or flying or playing with a mate. This dynamism will add a flash of borderlands magic.