Birds are small and fast and often backlit against a bright sky - and all of that tests the photographer.
Bird photography is different to general wildlife photography - it is more specific. Sometimes you'll want fast shutter speed; sometimes you'll want to control depth of field. All the time you will be compromising quality through ISO, and monitoring that.
It's generally all about their speed versus variable light and backlighting; probably the two things photographers need to think about first is the use of exposure compensation, and then using bursts of exposures with an auto-focus setting that will continually focus on the bird as you track it (A1 Servo).
But first that exposure compensation, because mostly you need to decide on it (for a small bird against a bright sky it might be "two stops").
I know many people like prime lenses (a fixed length such as a 300mm) but I still go with the zoom. Give me a 100-400mm (and the option of a 1.4x teleconverter for getting in really close to slow, big targets) and I'm happy.
You will be mostly using fast shutter speeds - perhaps 1/1000th at least to freeze wings. And to do that, you will need to shoot at higher ISO. That's that delicate dance; balancing the higher ISO, which lessens quality, with a shutter speed that gives sharpness. It requires practice and rock-solid knowledge of your camera.
Once again, bird pictures must be sharp, unless you're going for creative effect, in which case really go with the motion and a crazy, slow shutter speed.
But the great thing is that you can practice on an Australian pelican sitting on top of a pole, and the seagulls wheeling around before you go anywhere else.
Part of the key to good bird photography is understanding bird behaviour. The pied kingfisher will probably slap a caught fish around on the branch longer than it has to - long after the fish is stunned or dead. So you probably have time to take a test shot and see if the exposure compensation you're guessing at is enough.
Set yourself a target for the day . . . birds in flight, for example.
But while we are so often obsessed with getting a good close-up, don't forget to put the bird in its environment, too. A pair of African fish eagles perched on a branch may benefit from being just a small part of the frame, with the big sky ahead of them being as much the subject of the picture as the birds themselves.
Before you go, practise in the garden and along the river foreshore.
- fact file *
·Stephen Scourfield was in Africa as a guest of Bench International. Bench International has itineraries throughout southern and east Africa. Phone 1300 237 422, visit benchinternational.com.au or email firstname.lastname@example.org . Bench International is based at Level 4, 55 York Street, Sydney.
·South African Airways flies seven days a week from Perth to Johannesburg and connects to the rest of Africa. SA281 leaves Perth for Johannesburg at 11.45pm and SA280 leaves Johannesburg at 9.20pm, arriving the following day at 12.55pm. See flysaa.com and travel agents.
Â·A clean background, out of focus, really helps to make a good bird photograph. Be aware of backgrounds. Pick your spot very carefully, then move around slightly to make sure you have exactly the right background and colour behind the bird. Â·Get as much distance as possible between perch and background. The greater the distance between the two, the better the picture. Â·Think close-up and think environmental. While you want good, detailed close-up pictures of your subjects, you also want in your portfolio pictures that show them in the big blue sky, or set in the landscape. Â·Key yourself in to bird behaviour and movement. For example, they often fly or hop from cover to perch when they eat. They might land on the same perch over and over, so set up and be patient. When the bird leaves a perch, there's a good chance it will return, or at least work a relatively small home area. Watch until you see the pattern of its behaviour (enjoy being there). Â·Go as long as you can with lenses. Something in the 400-600mm range (even mixing in a 1.4x teleconverter) usually gives enough distance. Â·Think "sharp", and focus on the eye (don't let the camera settle for the point of a beak or feathers off their in the wing somewhere). Â·If you are going for a movement shot, turn your shutter speed down to a 60th, 50th, even a crazy 30th of a second and pan carefully, exactly matching the bird's speed. Â·When photographing waterbirds, try to shoot from a low angle. Â·Be patient. If you are focused on an African sea eagle perched high on a bare tree, there is absolutely no doubt that it will eventually take off from it. Keep the lens on it, keep touching the button and refocusing, watch the light, and when it does take off, don't panic; stay calm and nail the moment. Â·When you have imported your images and you are looking at them on a computer screen, definition in feathers is a good test of exposure. In programs such as Lightroom and Aperture, Recovery in Exposure is a good help to bring out definition in feathers.