What did you photograph in the lockdown, Daddy? My Bird and Critter Photography technique.


As regular readers of this somewhat irregular blog might remember, over the last couple of years I have favoured sports photography more and more, specifically rugby league and the awesome Toronto Wolfpack. Obviously, along with all other professional sports, rugby league has been shut down during the pandemic, leaving some of us with long telephoto lenses, fast cameras – such as my D500 – and nowhere to shoot. Even once sports open up again it is very unlikely that we will get to see the Wolfpack in Toronto this season, after all a team that plays in an English league is not going to fly to Toronto to play home games if no fans are allowed to watch.

So that begged the question, what was I going to shoot to replace my sports fix? Well, one of my other hobbies – I have many – is birdwatching. A few years ago we set up some feeders in the garden and I began to shoot the birds that arrived for their meals. We stopped feeding them once the gophers and mice joined the party and the lawn began to look more like a meadow of clover and sprouted millet. So this year we decided to turn a small area in the backyard into a feeding station and see what we could attract. Also, the lockdown coincided with the songbird / warbler migration season, when so many species of warbler pass through Southern Ontario on their way north. This gave me a couple of weeks to see what else I could capture with the gear that I would normally use for sports.

Female American Goldfinch
Female American Goldfinch

I also used this time to learn and practice some new techniques, to work on my focusing and my reaction speed to creatures who weren’t just going to sit around and wait for me to get myself organised. I had to be ready to respond as soon as the birds appeared, with my camera settings already sorted out and my line of sight and focus points worked out in advance.

House Finch
House Finch

Generally I would set the camera to Manual mode, with Auto ISO switched on. Aperture would be wideopen – the Nikon 200-500mm performs just fine at f5.6 – and my shutter speed was usually between 1/500 and 1/1000. Because the ISO performance on the D500 is so good, this meant I could set and forget the camera while being ready for any light condition. For a great explanation of this technique, you should visit Steve Perry’s Back Country Gallery site where he has a ton of really informative videos.

The time I would definitely change my shutter speed was when I was capturing birds in flight. The barn swallow pictured here flies very fast and in very unpredictable patterns. So my shutter speed for him was 1/4000, but the aperture and ISO settings stayed the same. I also used the Group focus pattern on the D500 as opposed to the single point AF for perching birds and I always use back-button focus. Barn swallows fly too fast for the human eye to discern any meaningful details, so shutter speed has to be high. Next time I might even go to 1/8000 for these birds. This shot made Birdwatching Magazine’s Photo of the Day, so the technique works.

Barn Swallow
Barn Swallow

It’s not just birds who turn up when there’s food to be had. Squirrels are less welcome but extremely persistent in their attempts to empty the bird feeders, but there’s no denying that they are photogenic, especially in the early morning with the sun backlighting them.

Backlit Squirrel ready to leap onto the feeder

But the overall cuteness prize has to go to the humble chipmunk. A regular visitor to the feeder, he helps to clean up the spilled sunflower shells. Unfortunately due to allergies in the family we can’t provide peanuts to our menagerie, so no classic pictures of a chipmunk trying to eat a whole peanut sideways!

Chipmunk
Chipmunk

There are only so many shots I can put into a single blog post, but for a closer look at the many bird photographs I took this year, please feel free to check out my Flickr photostream. If you want to know more detail about the techniques I used, leave a note in the comments.

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