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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On The Wing

A look at the many facets of avian photography and techniques for getting colorful, inspiring images

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Bird Portraits

For bird portraits, Klapheke mostly uses long lenses on his DSLRs, 500mm and 600mm, frequently with a 1.4x teleconverter. Sometimes he adds an extension tube to allow for closer focusing (600mm superteles normally have a minimum focusing distance of around 18 feet).

Snow geese in winter morning mist at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Klapheke points out that when you're using such a long lens, your depth of field gets compressed. "When shooting a small bird that fills the frame of a long lens," he says, "you have to really stop down. I shoot between ƒ/8 and ƒ/16 on close shots. Lighting is pretty much ambient, and we like nice white overcast days to extend our shooting time."

Klapheke says that one flash accessory bird photographers use all the time is the Better Beamer by Walt Anderson of Visual Echoes, adding, "Most of the time this is used for fill-flash and to get that ever-important catchlight in the bird's eye."

Cautions Klapheke, "You can't sneak up on a bird, so you have to create an environment where the bird will come to you."

Regarding blinds, Klapheke says, "I'm usually shooting out of a blind, be it a permanent one on our workshops in Roma, Texas, or using a Doghouse, or a great poncho blind by Kwik Camo. Most of the time, I set up a perch. A good place to set up a perch is where your birds are used to going, typically where a feeder is. But before we get to a perch, the birds must be comfortable coming to the area, even when feeders are present. The main thing that makes birds comfortable is the presence of a staging area, typically a tree, where the birds can land and survey the scene around a feeder or perch, before committing to flying down. Keep in mind where that staging tree is when positioning yourself and allow for light over your shoulder and wind; birds land into the wind. These things affect how you'll set up your perch near the staging area. You would like the bird to land facing you and with the light on its face."

Harris' hawk, Roma, Texas
Continues Klapheke, "Birds do need a reason to land, and most likely that's food. It can also be a water drip, especially in dry climates. You can make a water feature easily out of a lid, or you can even scoop out the ground and line it with a plastic bag. Birds like dripping water, and you can make that happen with a milk jug that's pierced with a tiny hole. If you're keeping your regular feeder, position the perch in between the staging area and the feeder. I like to remove the regular feeder and replace it with a smaller, more controlled feeder, usually a tray feeder. One tip is to make access to your feeder small enough so only one bird can feed at a time. While one bird feeds, another is likely to sit on your perch, waiting."

Klapheke explains that food to attract birds varies by bird and by area. "Many things work besides feeders. You can dab peanut butter on the back side of your perch, or staple orange slices on the back of a large perch, to attract woodpeckers, for example. The combinations of food and perches are endless and depend on what your subject birds prefer. With peanut butter, be warned–you better get the shot quickly before the bird feasts, as it will have 'peanut butter mouth' just like a little kid!"

Another consideration is the size of the perch. "A good perch is commensurate with the size of the bird's grip," says Klapheke. "Small birds look better on smaller perches. Your perch will look better with some greenery, which you can add to larger perches with a handy staple gun and some florist tubes to keep the greenery fresh. If the greenery is actually part of your perch, make sure the leaves are small, as to not hide the bird.

Northern cardinal, Roma, Texas
"A leafy or thorny perch can be trimmed only at the area you want the bird to land on," adds Klapheke. "That brings up the main theme of getting birds to pose for you on a perch: control. You want to control the area around the perch–staging; the way the bird approaches the perch–wind and light; where the bird lands–trimming the perch; how long it stays–controlling the food source; and, of course, the background–distance. Alan Murphy's CD The Guide to Songbird Set-up Photography is a great resource that explains a lot of scenarios in detail.

"In South Texas, we found a kingfisher on a pond," recalls Klapheke. "Kingfishers are extremely skittish and don't care for humans. So we set up a Doghouse blind for a few days empty, in a position where the morning light would be over our shoulder. We then waded into the pond and stuck a pole in the mud. Onto this pole we tied a perch and some greenery. Then, we needed a controllable food source. Of all things, we inflated a baby pool, filled it halfway with water and added minnows. The pool was then tied to the bottom of the pole, where the kingfisher would have to dive into the light to reach. We–in most of my stories, the 'we' is Alan Murphy and me–got into the blind in the dark before dawn and waited. The funny part of this story is that the first day, the kingfisher arrived in the morning dark and ate all of our minnows! So we had to improvise and plan some more. The solution was to take camo cloth and cover the baby pool. Fishing line ran from the cloth into our blind. The next morning, the kingfisher arrived at morning dark, but was frustrated as it couldn't reach the minnows. The second the morning light hit the perch, we pulled the fishing line, and off came the cloth. The result was a happy kingfisher and happy shooters."

Adds Klapheke, "That's why I love bird photography. You really have to outwit them!"

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