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Obsessed with bird photography

Who do I blame for this?


I grew up with parents who were keen wildlife watchers, and rarely spent spare time indoors. Despite my terrible memory of my young life, I recall several wildlife watching experiences. Going to Mull to see Sea Eagles when there were only 2 pairs in Scotland, watching otters at Ardnamurchan whilst being literally eaten by midges. The first time I saw porpoises on a boat trip to Staffa that was so wild the boat couldn't land.


I think I enjoyed those experiences, but they are vague memories.


See my memory was effectively wiped clean by mental health problems. I have tiny snippets of recollection, mostly from around the ages of 8-12, but the rest is missing. I think the enjoyment of a rare sighting or just being outdoors and away from noise and crowds is a remnant of my happy childhood times though.


I started taking photography seriously as a hobby in 2015, and experimented with all sorts of styles and techniques. With a 55-250mm kit lens, my wildlife photography opportunities were limited, but it gave enough of an opportunity to make the effort to find wildlife to attempt to photograph. In reality, I probably HAD to learn more about the subject in order to get close enough to it to get a half decent photo.


I began to realise that there was a huge amount of wildlife on my doorstep. I wished I could get closer to it and take decent photos of it, but for the most part it was a side project to landscape photography.


I guess this photograph was important to my story. I'd seen this Short Eared Owl a few times on my journey to and from work, but in miserable rain one evening in September 2015 it was perched at the side of the road. I grabbed the camera from the car seat and took about 50 photos. All pretty terrible efforts, this one being one of two remotely salvageable efforts.


Short Eared Owl - Canon 600D, Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS, 250mm, f 5.6, ISO400, 1/125th second.


My frustration made me think about how to better capture these unpredictable encounters with more success in the future.


First mistake - the first mistake was the usual rookie mistake of blaming the camera. I invested in a new Canon 70D to replace my 600D. While I'm very happy that I did, and I love my 70D, it did nothing to improve my technique. It focuses a little better, but ultimately it remained let down by the cameraman and the lenses.


Fast forward 12 months and I took a photograph that now sits on my mum's kitchen wall. I took it at the Highland Wildlife Park, and it was the first time I took a successful picture of an animal (albeit captive) in really challenging light. While it was probably 95% accident that it worked out, it was a eureka moment that successful wildlife images were not caught by having the right gear, but instead caught by having the right camera settings and the right technique for the unique set of circumstances in front of you.


Scottish Wildcat - Canon 70D, Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS, 87mm, f 5,6, ISO1250, 1/50th second.


It's not a spectacular photo, but it's sharp and it captures the spark in the cat's eyes. It was also dreadful light. It made me think more about what I was doing. I guess the key thing is that the light conditions you are shooting in affects image noise just as much as your ISO settings. As does the shutter speed for that matter. I'd always read that you should take test images to assess the noise level that your camera can cope with, and not exceed that level when out shooting. Well shooting backlit subjects in sunlight can generate unacceptable noise at ISO200, and yet I got away with ISO1250 here. When shooting birds in fight at ISO1600 or 2000 to ensure a shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second or more, the noise can be acceptable. The fact is that the effect of ISO on noise is NOT constant, it is unique to every set of light circumstances. This was an important discovery.


It's not the camera that is inadequate, it's my skills!


The next light-bulb moment came over the course of two days out at Fowlsheugh seabird colony at Stonehaven. I'd been there a couple of times to photograph the Crawton waterfall, and hadn't realised that the huge colony of guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and puffins was so close to home. I arranged to meet two friends for a walk to see if we could spot early arrival puffins in April 2017. My friend Ian handed me his Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens and said 'swap for a while'. After the terror of holding a lens that cost more than everything I own combined wore off, he started taking me through some tips. The most important one I think was not to assume that shooting with the lens wide open is best - in actual fact it is important to find out where the lens takes the sharpest images, and then adjust everything else to suit.


Puffin - Canon 70D, Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, 400mm, f7.1, ISO500, 1/320th second


How can a lens that cost so much not be great when used wide open? I was surprised, but then perhaps that explains why lenses like a 500mm f4 or the 200-400mm f4 cost over £10,000 - because they DO perform wide open. Such technology is outwith the reach of normal people, and yet normal people take remarkable photographs.


I came away from that evening's walk both euphoric from having seen puffins and razorbills close up for the first time, but also excited to explore what I could do with this knew realisation about technique and knowledge again being more important than having the most expensive equipment in the world.


A bit of experimenting showed me that my 55-250mm kit lens was indeed hugely inferior to Ian's 100-400mm lens, but that it's poor performance at f5.6 was much reduced at f8 and more so at f9. Compromising on ISO in order to close the aperture resulted in much sharper images, and noise is less destructive when the image is in perfect focus.


A few days later I took my mum and dad to Fowlsheugh, to show off the amazing array of seabirds. I was gobsmacked by the place and had to share it with them. We weren't disappointed It was a beautiful evening, and several more puffins had arrived ashore, looking for the best burrow sites. One pair sat only 6 feet from us, and gave me the perfect opportunity to try my 'new' techniques out.


Puffins - Canon 70D, Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS, 250mm, f9.0, ISO400, 1/160th second.

I got away with a slow shutter speed by lying on my front and resting my elbows on the ground. This let me keep the ISO lower and ensure I could use a smaller aperture to get a sharper image.


Puffin Portrait - Canon 70D, Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS, 194mm, f8.0, ISO200, 1/200th second.


I remain as proud of this portrait image today as the day I took it back in April. Taken with a kit lens using the knowledge I had gained from experience and from Ian's lessons the week before.


Looking through my photo feed on Flickr since this photo was taken, the ratio of wildlife images to landscape images changes dramatically. The realisation that I COULD take good wildlife images spurred me on, and the more I took, the more I learned about the subjects and their habitats. Watching the puffins, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars and kittiwakes raise young, trying to photograph the youngsters and the birds in flight at this amazing location was addictive.


Fulmar in flight - Canon 70D, Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS, 250mm, f9.0, ISO200, 1/1250th second.


Many more days out followed, alone or with friends, exploring new places and species, and the desire to learn more and capture new birds and animals on camera continues. The excitement of spotting a new bird species I haven't seen before is brilliant, but it now means more because I want to learn more about it and work out how best to photograph it. What time of day, the best light, the best locations, the bird's behaviour and how to capture it - rather than just 'birds on sticks' pictures.


Capturing northern gannets at Troup Head was another brilliant experience I cannot wait to revisit next summer. Such charismatic birds, and so close to the vantage point that the opportunities for great photography is unlimited. Birds that bring presents for their mates and show obvious affection for each other when they return to shore - huge opportunities to capture this on camera. They don't mess about when they are squabbling either.


Scrapping Gannets - Canon 70D, Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, 300mm, f7.1, ISO200, 1/1250th second


Another opportunity to use Ian's Canon 100-400m lens - the above image is actually a composite of two photos from a burst of images - the best adult bird and the best juvenile bird from two separate images of the scrap they had. Safe to say the juvenile lost the argument and left the cliff promptly.


I really did get the additional benefit from using Ian's lens on this outing, primarily for the additional reach it offers. I have now invested in a Sigma 100-400mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens which, despite being less than half the price of the Canon, is a brilliant lens. The great benefit of this lens is that it is sharpest right from f6.3 to f9.0, letting me shoot wide open without a loss of quality. The image stabilisation is not nearly as good as the Canon model, and the focus slightly slower, but these are small compromises.

The opportunities this new lens has given me have been brilliant. I lived in Montrose for years without realising that I have some of the best bird habitats in Scotland so close by. There's almost always something new to see and photograph, and the desire to see and capture more, and to learn more, continues at pace.


Turnstone - Canon 70D, Sigma 100-400mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM C, 400mm, f6.3, ISO320, 1/200th second


Curlew - Canon 70D, Sigma 100-400mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM C, 400mm, f6.3, ISO200, 1/1000th second


So yeah, I'm a bit obsessed by it. It's equally about photography and the fascination for the birds themselves. I'd like to begin to focus more on specific species and habitats, and perhaps begin to make more of a photography project out of it. It's difficult though, when there is just so much going on and so many new things to see!!!


I've written all this and I'm not sure what points, if any, I've actually made.


Basically I blame Ian.

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© 2020 By Ben Freeman