With long daylight hours and the breeding season in full swing, summer is a great time to hone your bird photography skills, says Oscar Dewhurst
Summer is a great time to photograph birds. Many are in breeding plumage, activity levels are high and the long daylight hours mean that there is plenty of time in which you can get out and about. Whether it’s making dedicated trips away from home for specific targets, or focusing on local wildlife, there is a plethora of subjects and ideas you can employ in this season for great photos. With a bit of thought and planning, here are some tips and ideas to make this summer a productive one photographically.
My favourite time of day for pretty much all wildlife photography is dawn and the couple of hours afterwards. Very few people are awake at these times, particularly with the early sunrises in summer, so you are likely to have the place to yourself. This time also coincides with the period of highest activity, with birds singing and actively feeding following the night. The hours just before sunset are also good, with a second peak in activity levels here. Perhaps the most important reason to try to get out early or late, however, is that the sun is low, so the light has a much nicer quality to it. Taking your photographs in the middle of the day when the sun is high will result in harsh shadows and highlights, making it difficult to avoid losing detail in these areas.
Experiment with lighting
Light can turn an average photo into a great one, or a great photo into an average one. I know that sunrise and sunset aren’t at particularly social times in summer (especially the painfully early starts required to get out for dawn), but getting out at these times really is worth it. As the sun is just above the horizon, you can experiment with different light angles from the more conventional ‘over the shoulder’ approach. Shooting into the light can be very effective, especially when there is a bit of mist. Some subjects lend themselves to backlighting more than others; light coming through birds’ wings can look fantastic, for example. Similarly, birds with recognisable outlines make good models for silhouettes. While you’re shooting, keep checking your histogram to ensure that your exposure is correct.
Show some context
Although frame-filling images where feathers are brilliantly detailed and the background is perfectly clean are popular, it can also be good to zoom out a bit and show the bird within its environment. There is more than one way to do this: you can use a telephoto lens but shoot from further away, or use a wideangle lens and shoot from very close to the subject. With the former it is important to make sure the bird stands out and isn’t too insignificant in the frame. The latter method results in the bird appearing larger in the frame, but can be tricky to achieve because often it will require remote releases or camera trapping, both of which have several associated difficulties.
Carry out projects
Projects are fun, and simple to do. Rather than going out with no plan other than capturing what happens to appear in front of you, consider focusing on something. It doesn’t have to be a specific species, although these can work well; it could be focusing on a specific location such as a local nature reserve or farm. It could also include an element of conservation in the story, something that is becoming increasingly more important. Bear in mind that it doesn’t have to be something particularly rare; one of the species to which I’ve dedicated most of my time (photographically) so far is foxes. In fact, commoner species are often preferable as they are easier to find, so you can experiment more with the photos and spend more time taking photos rather than searching for your subject. Local projects are often better than ones that would involve significant amounts of travel as you will be able to spend more time there. If you are trying to get noticed as a photographer, a cohesive, well-photographed project is a very good way to start. In addition, most competitions now have categories where you can enter several images as a portfolio, such as the ‘British Seasons’ category in the British Wildlife Photography Awards.
Capture the action
Summer is a time of great activity. At the moment it’s mid-breeding season, so there are plenty of opportunities to capture some behavioural images, from male birds singing, to courtship displays between pairs, and parents hunting and feeding to provide food for their young. Knowing your subject’s biology well will increase your chances of capturing interesting behaviour, so do your research before getting out there. Another way to maximise your chances is to focus on a project and spend as much time as you can on it. That way, you will be more likely to see and photograph rare behaviours. Make sure you know how to operate and change your camera settings very well – as well as you know the back of your hand; that way, you are more likely to successfully capture the action when it happens quickly!
Ethics isn’t talked about often in technique articles, but I think it should be. Ultimately, people will have different views over various aspects of wildlife photography. While I would hope that the vast majority would disagree with something such as live baiting, there is a broad spectrum of opinions relating to issues such as digital manipulation, photographing captive subjects and baiting (non-live bait) subjects with set-ups. Personally, while disinclined to photograph captive subjects, I don’t mind others doing it, as long as they disclose this information. It is usually obvious when someone posts an image of a tawny owl in daylight flying through a bluebell wood, or a perfect peregrine portrait in flowering heather, that it is a captive subject, and it is implicitly deceitful when this is not disclosed, with the photographer hoping that many do not realise it is not a wild bird. Similarly, photographers performing digital manipulation without disclosing it is the same. With regard to baiting, I am not against it, but would say that you must make sure birds do not become reliant on your food supply, and again, it never hurts to disclose how you captured the image. Ultimately, when it comes to photography, the welfare of the subject should always come first.
Why it works
For me, this image of a singing wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) is a prime example that shows you can still get good images of common subjects. The wren is the UK’s most abundant bird, with a population of 17 million individuals. Despite that, this is one of my favourite summer images for several reasons. The out-of-focus foliage in the foreground gives the impression that you are almost looking through the ferns, into the world of this tiny little bird. It is also in the middle of belting out its characteristic song, and if you look closely you can see some condensation from its breath. Although I had a converter on, it is still small in the frame, which means there is more environment in the image, but it is still very noticeable. I’m also a big fan of the light; it was taken in woodland, so there is dappled sunlight coming through the canopy, which is responsible for the differing background shades. Overall I just really like the feel of this picture; to me it is very summery and always reminds me of the early morning when I took it.
Summer bird species
Wetlands are a hive of activity at the moment. Many will have breeding colonies of birds such as gulls, waders and terns, giving opportunities to photograph interactions between parents and young, as well as the chaos that ensues when a predator such as a large gull or marsh harrier appears on the hunt for young birds.
Barn owls hunt early in the morning and late in the evening during summer owing to the long daylight hours. Watch from a distance to determine where to position yourself. To avoid disturbing them, try using a portable hide (so long as you have the land owner’s permission) or use a hedgerow to conceal yourself.
Males will still be singing, which provides great photographic opportunities because many species repeatedly use the same song perches. Watch from a distance to begin with and once you have determined where you think they will sing from, position yourself close by and wait for them to return.
These migrate to Europe from Africa each summer, and are one of our most graceful birds with their slight build, bright red beak and clean white plumage. They can be found on many of the UK’s waterbodies. They will often carry out the same hunting route, allowing you to position yourself in advance.
Birds in flowering heather
In August, heather will come into flower and turn a brilliant purple, which looks great in photos. Get out into heathland or moorland and look for subjects such as red grouse, stonechats, wheatears and other birds. Stay on paths though, because many of these species are ground nesting.
Young birds can be great photographic subjects because there will be interactions between them and the parents, such as parents feeding or sheltering them. It is important to make sure that you don’t disturb them, however. If the birds start alarm calling then it would be wise to retreat.
10 simple steps when visiting a seabird colony
- Stay overnight Some colonies are located where you can stay overnight, allowing you to photograph in the best light and when the day trippers have gone home.
- Pack light If you are going to be out for a long time, only pack what you are going to use so that you aren’t carting around unnecessary weight for long periods.
- Slow shutter speeds Experimenting with slow shutter speeds, particularly with birds in flight, can create some different images. Try to keep the head as sharp as possible though.
- Use a wideangle lens Birds at seabird colonies are often very confiding, meaning you will be able to use wideangle lenses. These optics are excellent for showing more context.
- Experiment Seabird colonies are great as there are lots of birds and they are often very tolerant. Once you have got the more traditional images, take some time to try something different. This could be slow shutter panning images of birds flying, or long-exposure wideangles showing the colony as a whole with streaks created by flying birds.
- Wear a cap Arctic terns, which nest at several northern seabird colonies, are vicious defenders of their nest site, and will attack people walking through the colony by pecking at their head. Be warned that this can draw blood, so a cap is essential protection!
- Tripod If using a heavy super-telephoto lens, a tripod and gimbal head are very helpful for minimising camera shake. They are also useful when photographing birds in flight.
- Use flash At either end of the day, flash can be an effective tool when used well. Be alert to signs of the birds being distressed by it, and if they are, stop using flash.
- Dawn and dusk These are the best times to photograph birds as activity is highest and the light is at its best. When the sun is low you can also experiment with silhouettes and backlit images.
- Take your time There will be a lot going on, and so it’s often worth taking some time just to sit back and admire the birds and think about what photos you would like to capture rather than running around trying to photograph everything you see in a mad panic!
- Binoculars I carry binoculars with me as they are much lighter than my camera setup and clearer to look through than a viewfinder. They are invaluable for finding subjects to photograph.
- Telephoto lens I use a Nikkor 400mm f/2.8, to which I often add converters for extra reach. Using a camera with a cropped sensor is also a cheaper way of increasing your lens’s magnification.
- Teleconverters These are another good (and relatively cheap) way to increase magnification. I regularly use both 1.4x and 2x converters, but remember to check that they will be compatible with your lens.
- Wideangle lens I always carry a wideangle lens. These are particularly useful when photographing confiding subjects such as puffins, and can be used to get images showing the birds in their environment.
- Waterproof clothes Getting low down gives images a much more intimate perspective, so wear clothes that are waterproof, or that you don’t mind getting dirty when you’re lying in muck.
Oscar Dewhurst is an award-winning wildlife photographer from London. Currently studying for a Biology Research Master’s at Durham University, he has photographed a wide range of subjects, from urban foxes and bitterns in London to primates in the Peruvian Amazon. See www.oscardewhurst.com.