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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

This Article Features Photo Zoom


Hummingbirds are drop-dead gorgeous–and especially challenging photo subjects. Says Klapheke, "A basic concept of hummer shoots is that your camera won't be able to freeze wing movement, so you have to use your flashes to do so. Your camera is set on 1/200 or 1/250 sec., and ambient light isn't your friend. A shaded area works best for controlled ambient light. You'll need five or six flashes, and the ability to trigger them all at once, with a transmitter or a flash that works as a transmitter.

Booted Racket-tail, Tandayap, Ecuador. Careful planning and the right gear are needed to capture an instant like this one.
Start with a feeder hanging from a reflector arm or other hanger, and depending on your lens (a 300mm lens works great), position yourself about 10 feet from the feeder.

Explains Klapheke, "Your flashes are arranged as follows: two angled toward the feeder, one looking down from above–think "hair light" in a studio–and two on a background. Yes, the backgrounds in most hummer shots are fake. I use prints of out-of-focus plants and attach them to a reflector. Why is this? Well, we've all seen images of fast-moving objects with an entirely black background. The same would be true of hummer shots without a lit background. So, two flashes light up a paper or cloth background to give color to the shot. Usually, flashes are manually set to 1/64 power to give you about 1/20,000 of virtual shutter speed. Lots of trial and error here, as many hummers are different, and ambient light differs as well."

To get the hummer in the frame, Klapheke says to tape off all but one of the feeder's access points. "When the hummer is used to going to one place, pretty quickly actually, remove the feeder and place a flower in its place. Make sure you get a flower that hummers actually go to and one that's local. With a syringe, put hummer solution–4 to 1 water to sugar–into the flower. Before long, the hummer will be lapping it up. One insider tip is to trim the petals of the flower closest to your lens a little, so you can see more of the hummer's beak."

For a full discussion of hummingbird photography, Klapheke recommends Linda Robbins' CD The Hummingbird Guide.


"I think birds in their environment are a little easier than tight shots, but they seem to be less dramatic to me," say Klapheke. "You really have to nail the composition to make a few birds, small in the frame, have a big impact. We have a few tricks to make 'birdscapes' have more impact, like slow shutter speeds and looking for patterns. The 24-105mm zoom is a great lens for this type of shooting, and it's a lot easier to carry around than the 600mm!

Snow geese in snow, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico.
"To find large flocks of birds," he says, "you need a good open area and food. This lends itself to nature preserves or bodies of water–not only the shores and lakes, but water treatment areas. The shorter the lens, the bigger the flock needs to be. You can make a small flock look very large with a long lens. Lighting is the same as for other shots–morning and evening light is best. However, one thing to keep in mind with flocks is that you can really make hay with silhouettes. You have much more leeway with flocks, as you're not trying to get the light just right on a bird's face, with a catchlight. I think flocks are where experimentation shines. You really have no set expectations with flocks and patterns like you do with portraits. This is one place where you can go all over the place and see what you get. With abstracts and patterns, you run into personal preference. There's really no yardstick here."

Regarding shutter speed, Klapheke says, "I think my favorite here is 1/15 sec., depending on light, of course. This gives you some nice blur, but still keeps enough definition so that the viewer knows that birds are in the frame. Fast shutter speeds are good, too, but mainly when birds are so thick that you can't see background or sky. That way you still get a pattern instead of a shot with random birds flying."

Adds Klapheke, "If the birds are just sitting there, you can create movement with zoom blurs."

Klapheke uses a number of different setups to get his graphic and vivid bird photos.This is his hummingbird setup (left to right): AF-S Nikkor 500mm ƒ/4G ED VR lens, Canon EF 600mm lens, Canon EF 24-105mm IS zoom lens.

When he's not out photographing birds, Chris Klapheke runs an online store for photographic accessories for the outdoor mobile photographer, Outdoor Photo Gear (www.outdoorphotogear.com). All the items mentioned in this article are available there. For more of Chris's work, visit www.chriskphotography.com.

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