Understanding Bird Photography
Photography is an enormous subject about which many books have already been written. I am really writing this website for the birdwatcher who wants to take photographs but also wants to remain a birdwatcher. Rightly or wrongly I do not think that you can have your heart in both; few people really achieve a high standard both as a bird photographer and as a naturalist. The photographer tends to use his camera and film as a way of re-creating something about birds whereas the ornithologist will be recording and writing up his observations and this creative activity will, perhaps, result in a scientific paper.
I try to make my pictures as technically perfect and aesthetically pleasing as possible but I am not prepared to spend the amount of time that a professional or keen amateur photographer would devote. My results are essentially records of habitats and so on, which complement my notes and are even usable as slides for lectures. When it comes to studying the feeding habits of birds I find I have very little time for photography. However, when I was studying the nesting behaviour of the Wheatear, I occasionally used a camera from a hide to record particular points. Cameras are not really an essential piece of equipment: some birdwatchers have never taken a photograph in their lives. Many birdwatchers still use the 35 millimetre single-lens reflex camera. Usually when taking photographs of habitats a 50 millimetre lens is needed but a wide-angled 35 millimetre lens will also give extremely good results. For photographing birds at a distance a long-focus or telephoto lens is essential; lenses with a focal point of 300 or 400 millimetres are most commonly used.
With these lenses a fast shutter speed is necessary, at the very least 1 /250 of a second, together with a fast film. However, as you increase the speed you also increase the ‘grain’ of the processed film emulsion thus losing some of the definition. A useful piece of equipment is a shoulder butt on which to mount the camera, this helps to keep the camera from shaking while still allowing you a great deal of flexibility. If you are in a position to use your camera with a tripod then a slower shutter setting is possible.
Having acquired the basic camera you can build up the remainder of your equipment as and when the money becomes available and the need arises. If you intend to photograph birds at their nest or in more open positions a hide is almost essential. It is possible to buy one but a simple construction is easily within the reach of the average handyman. The photographer must be extremely careful in his approach to the nest and the way he uses his hide. It is important to remember that the welfare of the bird must be your first concern. The Nature Photographer’s Code of Practice is available from the RSPB and the Zoological Photographic Society can also be obtained from the RSPB. Remember, too, that the Protection of Birds Act 1954-67 prohibits the disturbance of birds on the First Schedule of those Acts. The RSPB booklet Wild Birds and the Law gives you the information as to which birds are covered by this law and where you should write for a licence.
Sound Recording Equipment
For me, the tape-recorder used to be a way of recording an event and I used it both for dictating notes in the field and recording bird sound. With a portable cassette recorder and the correct type of microphone it was possible to make adequate recordings in the field for very little expense. Although convenient for handling in the field these smaller tape-recorders did not produce a very high quality recording. Results could be improved, however, by using a parabolic reflector which collects and concentrates more sound than the microphone alone.
Today, however, there is much more sophisticated sound equipment available.
One of the great delights of birdwatching are the sweet and varied songs and calls that some birds can produce whether it is simply the song of a Robin or the raucous chorus of seabirds on their cliffs or the murmur of thousands of ducks as they loaf and feed on some undisturbed lake. Since every species has its individual vocabulary, your ability to identify a bird’s song and its calls can add greatly to your efficiency as a birdwatcher.
There are a number of recordings on the market. A set of these recordings is most useful in early spring for reminding you of the songs and calls of the summer visitors, particularly the ones which are so difficult to differentiate, like the Garden Warbler and the Blackcap or the Sedge and ReedWarblers.