Thoughts on Birds of Prey Centre shots

Here I have put together some of my thoughts on the photography aspects of the Shipley Camera Club day at York Birds of Prey Centre. It presented several opportunities to use different camera settings and techniques for the different situations we found.

I felt obliged to go on the trip because I was promoting wildlife photography to the camera club and several skills needed in the wild could be practiced. However I don’t think I will go to such places again and now feel that I would have made more of a case for wildlife photography by not going.

Depth of Field

Several of the birds were on perches in front of their wired enclosures. In this particular situation I was not trying to show the plight of the birds but to get a “good” bird shot. Therefore I wanted to minimise the distraction of the background. Using the maximum aperture (smallest number) of your lens gives the minimum depth of field. To make the best use of this minimum depth of field it is then necessary to make the distance from the camera to the background as great as possible in relationship to the distance from the camera to the subject. This can be done by getting in reasonably close to the subject and positioning yourself so that the background is a long way off or by getting in VERY close to the subject so that any background, even though not very far away, is still blurred out of all recognition.

In the example above the focal length was 250mm and aperture f:5.6 which is the maximum for the Canon EF-S 55-250mm lens.

Lens size and depth of field

The diameter i.e. maximum aperture, of the lens you have plays a big part in controlling depth of field. For a given framing the focal length has negligible effect on depth of field.

Aperture

The larger the achievable aperture on the lens the smaller the depth of field and therefore the more blurred the background. With the perched birds in front of their enclosures the largest aperture would normally give the best results but check the results. If you are lucky enough to have a lens with a really larger maximum aperture it is possible that the depth of field is so small that other parts of the bird are too out of focus.

Focal Length

a) When measured from the camera a short focal length lens apparently has a much greater depth of field than a long focal length but for a given framing situation the depth of field of a short focal length lens will be the same as the depth of field of a long focal length lens and so the blurring of the background will be similar. With the smaller focal length you need to get in close to frame the subject and hopefully with the apparent larger depth of field the background is blurred. With a long lens you are further away from the subject to get the framing you want and so the ratio of camera>background distance to the camera>subject distance is a lot less than with the short focal length but the blurring of the background will be similar.
b) Feature distortion varies with the focal length of the lens. With a short focal length you can get close to your subject but be wary of causing feature distortion. With a birds head you can get close and, of course, focus on the eyes. Let’s take the extreme example of a long beaked bird where you have got very close. When compared to the eyes the beak is a lot closer to the camera, in relative terms, than the eyes and as a result the beak will fill more of the frame and appear much larger in comparison to the eyes. With a long focal length the comparative distance of camera>beak and camera>eyes will mean that the beak will appear normal size in relationship with the eyes. (This is why, when doing people portraits, where the head and shoulders or more is in the frame, a lens of 50mm focal length or more is used; 85mm is very popular I believe. Feature distortion is reduced.)

Birds in Flight

If the bird is against a bright sky think about whether you need to overexpose to compensate, otherwise you may get just a silhouette of the bird and any attempt to reclaim detail in post processing may be disappointing. The photo above was taken with +1.5 stops compensation.

For the photographer the best way to take a photo of a birds in flight is when it is coming towards you. It is then easier to keep it in the frame but it can make focusing more difficult because the distance is continually changing. Because the bird’s motion across the frame is comparatively low you don’t need to use a high shutter speed, as a result you can get motion blur in the wings to show the movement and at the same time get a nice sharp and steady eye.

Panning

  • Use panning when the bird is flying across your view. Follow the bird in the viewfinder and take shots as you smoothly follow it across your view.
  • If it is available set the lens to the appropriate image stabilisation setting for panning, otherwise the lens will try to cancel out the movement, on my lenses this is OS2.
  • Use a small set of focus points and get focus on the eye.
  • Use back button focusing to separate focus and shutter firing.
  • Start following the bird in the viewfinder as early as possible.
  • Take several shots. If you start shooting early you will at least get some images even if the bird is erratic and you loose it in the viewfinder. Think about the noise of the shutter, switch to “silent” shooting and/or don’t start shooting early if you think the bird will be disturbed by the noise.
  • Use a small aperture bearing in mind you also need a reasonable shutter speed so that even though you may not get focus on the eye it is still sharp.
  • Use a reasonably fast shutter speed but not one that will freeze the background if there is one. The blur in the background helps to add to the impression of movement.

Practice

With a moving subject it can be difficult to get it in the viewfinder quickly (hence start trying to do that well before you will want to take the shot). And the longer the lens the more difficult it is to do.

I recommend trying to keep both eyes open. Even though it might not consciously be registering, the eye that is not to the viewfinder will provide information that with practice will help you get onto the subject quicker.

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