Wednesday 27 February 2008

How to avoid being arrested for Bad Bird Photography - part 2 of the occasional bird photography series

I tried to be funny, I honestly did.
And it sure isn't my fault that the characters behind 10,000 birds landed three hard funny punches right in the faces of competing blogs (here, here and especially here, in reversed chronological order), rendering any further attempt at being funny on a bird blog pointless (although this is must have caused some sweat-soaked handkerchiefs over at 10,000 birds for sure).
But now that the damage is done, you just gotta roll with the punches and make the most of the worst, which in this case is to re-organize. If funny doesn't make sense anymore, maybe - just maybe - I should give "useful" yet another fruitful and optimistic try and just ignore your snickering. Such are the times now: desperate!

So here goes, the not funny but honest attempt at writing something useful, part 2 of the occasional series on how to avoid having your camera trashed by fellow birders:

Sticks And Stones May Break My Bones But Also Ruin My Picture

We sure all like birds and any picture of a bird is a good one - BUT.

We sure all like birds and any DECENT picture of a bird is a tad better than just any picture of a bird, although any picture of a bird is a good one.

Thus, any birder with a camera will want to take a decent picture of a bird, one that doesn't only show the bird in its pristine beauty as such but also in a setting that suits its beauty.

And here, problems start to arise.

I have addressed the eye-issue before (here, or just scroll down two posts), and today's post also has a lot to do with the temptation of focusing on a bird's eye, but I'll have to get to that a bit later.

The problem I am addressing now - at least it is a problem for me - is that wild birds are often found in equally wild places and are especially fond of vegetative structures. These however tend to hinder any attempt at getting unobscured and clear views as well as pictures of desired birds. In short: those darn sticks in front of birds often mess up the picture.

Out in the field, this is not so much of an issue: simply pay attention to the twigs before the bird and get them out of the way by slightly changing your position relative to the bird, like bending your knees a bit or stretching your neck. But frequently, the theoretical awareness I have towards this issue doesn't prevent me from taking pictures like the following ones.

You may be right in thinking this is a perfect picture of an as yet undescribed species of Umbrellabird, but it may also just be a lousy picture of an Oriole behind a dead leaf. Take your pick.

A Black-throated Blue Warbler using some foliage to mimic a moose - unsuccessfully, but nice try nevertheless.

This - in theory - is a not completely useless photo of a Blackbird (the Eurasian species of thrush, not an American Icterid). But it would have been not quite so far from being neat had I only noticed the tiny twig that's causing a slight pale blur right across its eye and gotten the bird's head a bit off the big twig right behind/above it.

This - again in theory - is a pretty darn good pic of an Eastern Wood-Pewee, except that I completely messed the photo opportunity up by not noticing the massive log across the bird's tail tip. The tiny twig on the Blackbird might be explained away or even excused, but a fiddling huge branch covering up a quarter of the picture? Groan!!

So, where the heck was my problem with these pics?
Why wasn't I paying attention?

The problem is actually very simple and I have sort of hinted towards it already: I am not a bird photographer, I am a birder with a camera!
And as such, I sometimes tend to approach the view-finder of my camera in very much the same way I approach my binoculars or scope.

That's the problem: looking through, not at!

Cleared that up?


Thought so.

Okay, I'll explain.

Think of us humans walking around and looking at the world. We clearly don't have a field of view that's 360° in all directions, instead we are limited to around 180°. However, the surroundings outside of our field of view don't appear as a black area, meaning we're not seeing a black frame around our world. Our visual perception simply stops, from full colour to nothingness, just like that.
Now, if we look at a bird through binoculars, the optical approach is very much the same:
of course the binoculars don't offer a 180° field of view and we can see a black frame around our field of view if we want to, but as soon as we concentrate and look at the bird, that frame disappears and we feel we're looking at the bird with bare eyes, only now it is much closer to us. And then the whole psychological thing about selective human visual perception kicks in. We can't help but focus our attention on the bird's face/eyes and completely blank out features of the view that are unimportant to us.
Like massive fricking sticks covering up the tail tip of a Pewee.

Now, looking through binoculars, this trick psychology is playing on us isn't a cause for serious concern. However, the same effect ruins your shot when you are looking through a camera at the bird.


Problem recognized is problem solved, as we say in German:

The solution is to not look through the view-finder at a bird but to look at the picture you see in the view-finder, including its frame. It is very much like looking at a framed picture in a gallery. Surely, there are a lot of nice things to capture our attention in Botticelli's Venus, but we'd still notice the trees in the background, the horizon, and how it all comes together to form a perfect picture. Because we'd be looking at the whole picture - well, most of us would, I guess.
To avoid that "sticky" problem, it is therefore essential to look at the picture framed by the view-finder as a whole: check the frame and how it corresponds to the position of the bird. Straighten the horizon according to the uppermost side of the view-finder frame. Check each and every corner of the picture for sticks, foliage etc., and when you have thus composed your image setting, switch from looking at to looking through (at the bird), wait for the bird's eye to sparkle or some interesting pose and - take your pic!

VoilĂ .

Well, this may be a strange post for some and it is a difficult thing to convey, but realizing the difference between approaching a camera and a telescope was a huge leap forward for my bird photography.

Here are a few more stick-related and commented pictures for your valued entertainment.

This is a happy Crane Creek Woodcock, the living landmine of the forest, and a tough bird to photograph amongst all the fallen twigs and leaves on the ground. Apart from the fact that any picture of a Woodcock is a good picture, there was not much one was able to do, especially with it moving around constantly.

... Until it finally stopped its feeding action to give its beak a rest. But - nasty, nasty - we can clearly see another factor messing around with our attempt at the perfect picture: light and shadow. A bird in the shade is pretty bad, a bird in the shade with sticks in front of it is even worse, but a bird in the shade with sticks in the sun in front of it is downright diabolic!

It was a tough choice during a mayhem migration day at Crane Creek: stick around the woodcock and wait for the sun to move or just leave without a good pic and go for the warblers. Darn, sometimes I am a bit more on the photography side of things and less on the birding side, although it takes a very special bird to pull me over. Like, sigh, a woodcock, as can be seen. If I remember right, I did miss out on a Prothonotary that day, but I won't blame the timberdoodle.

This stick was unavoidable without moving quite a bit and thus risking to flush the bird, but at least I positioned it in a way that would cause the least distraction: in the shadow part of the breast away from head and legs. Even though the stick is still a major bugger, the picture looks okay.

In terms of stickology, I am almost proud of this shot of a Common Grackle gathering wood to burn me at the stake if I don't move away from its breeding site.
Come on, give me some credit, this was a hard shot to get!

This image is meant to show that sticks - or in this case leaves - can sometimes even be incorporated as a nice frame to highlight the bird. Unless of course the bird decides to remain in the shade while the leaves won't.

But sometimes, you just gotta let the bird go...



Anonymous said...

Whatever your level is in bird photography . . . we all run into the bird stick problem! Great reading your in depth post and love your title!

Kathryn and Ari said...

I really love your blog. You have such wit and personality in your narrative voice, and the photos are just lovely. Thanks!

Larry said...

These are interesting points to ponder.-I think the rarity of the bird plays some factor in what is an acceptable picture.

-One of the biggest problems I run into is that my camera focuses on the foliage-not the bird.-The manual focus seems to be too much trouble to use on my point and shoot.-Nice post!

-I have to wait until I have time to read your posts because they have layers of ideas weaved in that could be missed if I rush through it.

Anonymous said...

yes we did indeed miss the pronothany warbler.....and had to drive all the way to rondeau in Canada to get one last year!!!!!



Jochen said...

Mon@rch: Thanks very much! The stick problem is awful, especially with warblers, but then again: who'd mind a challenge or two once in a while?

Kathryn: Wow, that's quite a compliment to get for someone who's writing in a foreign language. Thank you very much, indeed! Nice dog, by the way! Nice dog... and blog as well.

Larry: yes, the rarity is definitely an important point for a birder with a camera (maybe not so much for a bird photographer).
I also tried using auto focus at first but then changed to manual focus. Currently, I switch between both, depending on the situation. If the bird is close, auto focus will focus on the bird's wing and then the eye tends to be slightly out of focus, just another one of the auto focus problems.
And thanks for the comment about the layers of ideas!

Bonjour Laurent, mon ami!! Ca va bien, j'espere? I promise to write an email soon, I really do!! Everything's fine, with the little one and all. Hope the same for you!!

Anonymous said...

I'am working on getting my first Willet on my list you know, this is a long working process, but the cold winters of michigan are helping.....

Thinking about rarity....I think I would be content enough with an Ivory bill woodpecker, even with one or two branches between my camera and the bird.

I need to ask you a few questions about "how to pick a camera for birding with a budget". I m sure you did a ton of research on it already, maybe you have a few advices to post?"


Jochen said...

Nice to hear you're also trying to add a Willet to your life list!
Good luck ... and have fun ;-)

About the Ivory-billed Woodpecker: you know there are a few breeding pairs along the Huron between the Arb and Gallup Park?

And well, I haven't done a lot of research on cameras but a bit and might indeed write a short post about it.

Cheers, Laurent!!

Mel said...

Hi there!
Bad bird photography? Are you talking about my pics??? hahaha, I have a Sony Cybershot 7.1, no fancy lenses or gadgets... not very good pics, but at least I'm learning about birds and nature, which is actually what I care the most, hopefully both my learning and my photography will improve in time ;)

rachelbirder said...

I followed a link here from Kolibrix's blog-hilarious!
I belly laughed all the way through, read some aloud to DuBois

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