Getting closer to small subjects: European Bird Photography

Bird photography is a very specialist domain and extremely challenging. But with the Panasonic 100-400 f4.0-6.3 lens I was able to catch even the small European birds. The difficulty was that birds move really quick and fast and their movement is not predictable at all. But I was willing to take that challenge.

During all my time as a wildlife photographer, I’ve had the upmost respect for bird photographers. Bird photography is a very specialist domain and extremely challenging. Unlike other forms of wildlife photography where the animal’s movements may be more slow and predictable, birds move fast and their movement is much less predictable. Add to that, the fact that most European birds are small, in order to photograph them, they require a long focal range lens, and accurate auto focusing skill. Birds make for very challenging subjects to photography.

When Panasonic announced the launch of the 100-400 f4.0-6.3 lens, I knew this was going to be a game changer. This lens has a 35mm focal length equivalent of 200-800mm which is an amazing focal length for wildlife photography, but makes it absolutely ideal for bird photography. The ability to focus on such small subjects and fill the frame meant that I had the right tool for the job available for the first time and at an unbelievably affordable price point. And with the extra advantage that the lens weights less than a kilo. It was the perfect companion for my Lumix GH4.

No surprises then that in 2016 I took a decision to focus on European bird photography. I class myself as a wildlife and landscape photographer first and foremost, not a specialist bird photographer. But I made the decision to focus on bird photography for three main reasons. The first was because it is such a challenging domain both from a camera craft perspective and the focal lengths required to do it justice. The second reason was that I figured if I got get better at shooting birds my wildlife camera craft and skills would also improve and that had to be a good thing for my own photographic journey. The third reason was that after spending the last 3 years focusing mainly on African wildlife, bird photography is so much more accessible. Birds are all around us and I didn’t need to travel far or have any specialist equipment to start photographing them.

My first photographic outings were focused at my local lake, and at coastal areas. Working with the GH4 and the  100-400mm f4.0-6.3 lens was a liberating experience. I could go on photo walks without the need for a tripod. Because I shoot aperture priority mode, and I know that by using my ISO setting as a function of the available light, I let the camera choose my shutter speed. I use a general rule of thumb: if my shutter speed is at least 2 times my focal length I know that handheld my shots will be sharp. The lens has image stabilization which also helps with eliminating camera shake when shooting hand held. But with such fast moving subjects eliminating the need for a tripod allows me as a photographer to work faster and capture the shots I want.

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From these first photo walks at my lake and the coast I was able to get much closer to my subject. This is really important because when you are walking in an open area, the birds are aware of your presence so as you approach they will eventually flee when they feel you are too close to them. The 100-400mm f4.0-6.3 lens was really the lens that got me closer without disturbing my subjects.

As the year progressed and I started to build my portfolio of coastal birds and waders I decided to focus my attention on bird hide photography. Bird hide photographer provides the photographer a specialist access to a bird’s environment, and allows the photographer to be hidden very close out of sight without disturbing that environment. Shooting from a specialist bird hide also allows much more diversity. Hides are normally built in areas where an assessment of the species present has already been done. This means that there will be a core number of species and then in addition seasonal migrants. Hides also allow for more interesting compositions because of the ability to be able to photograph at low angles, or using perches, or mirror pools with reflections. These features also facilitate interesting behaviors such as drinking or bird bathing.

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Using hides has allowed me to build a very strong portfolio of bird images this year. The 100-400mm lens has enabled me to get closer to the subject and get some stunning shots. The highlight for me was towards autumn when the kingfisher became active. I never tire of photographing kingfishers due to their beautifully coloured plumage combined with their fishing behaviours. During fishing they are probably one of the most challenging birds to photograph.

A beautiful avocette.

With bird hide photography there are 4 key things to consider to get a great image; light, subject, composition, and behaviour. Having great light for bird photography is so important. It is probably the most important element in being able to shoot aperture priority mode and getting faster shutter speeds to freeze the action. But light also creates atmosphere, contrast and mood in a bird image, especially with portraits. For example, with the portrait I took of the sparrowhawk, I underexposed slightly, to expose just for the natural light which was on the bird. By doing this I created a much stronger composition giving a more menacing feel which suits a subject like a bird of prey.

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Having interesting subjects also helps with bird photography. Garden birds tend to be the same species (sparrows, starlings, blue tits, great tits etc). But in forests and woodland, woodpeckers are striking birds with incredible plumage colors. They are also extremely active especially when wood pecking.

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Composition is also an important element with bird photography. Many of the basic compositional rules apply, such as the rule of thirds. However one element that is so important and often overlooked in wildlife photography in general is composing for clean backgrounds. Having a clean and soft background makes all the difference with an image.

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Finally, behavior, any time there is a behavior, movement or interaction, you have the potentially for a great bird image. The challenge is to anticipate that behavior which with small fast moving subjects can be very difficult. I have been fortunate to sight some behavior from my hide sessions and for me one of the stand out images this year was a courtship display between a male and female chaffinch where the male offered food to the female. It is interesting to see how the male delicately turns its head to be able to pass the food into the beak of the female.

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Looking at my portfolio of birds this year, I feel a great deal of satisfaction that I decided to focus in this very specific area. Without the addition of the 100-400mm lens, getting such a close insight to the avian world would not have been possible.

Jon's Hints & Tips

Get as close as possible to your object. That makes it way more easier to observe them and catch them in the perfect moment.

Having great light for bird photography is so important. It is probably the most important element in being able to shoot aperture priority mode and getting faster shutter speeds to freeze the action. But light also creates atmosphere, contrast and mood in a bird image, especially with portraits.