How to improve your bird photography, part 1 composition

All anyone really gets to see on my blog, is my best shots of wildlife and landscapes.
I don’t normally keep, let alone post my mistakes and failures for all to see , that is until now.
Some examples are intentional for this series, others are just plain bad form.
In this series of articles we will look at some of the most common mistakes we make that, all though for many, may not  completely ruin the image, certainly detract from what it could have been had we been more careful and been PATIENT.

Everyone makes mistakes  and in this first series we are going to cover 4 common mistakes  we need to correct if we want to excel at our art.

1. Bad composition.

2. Bad posture of your subject

3. Bad timing

3 Unwanted distractions

Part 1  Composition. 

First up we will look at  composition, from how we position ourselves for the shot to the aspect ratio or how we crop and frame our finished image.

The Photographers posistion

The ideal position in most cases for birds is going to be lining the camera up on your subject at the same height  level as the head of the bird.
This often means getting down low when shooting over water and sandy beaches.

This often means getting a wet bum.

Below Steve on the right and I on the left have chosen this washed up log to use as a rest for 3 reasons.
1. Keeps our bums off the wet sand while giving us a low profile .
2. Puts us low to the ground
3. Gives us a semblance of cover.

untitled-3711-Edit-Edit

 
Steve used this log to break up his profile to kind of conceal himself and scored a back rest at the same time lol.

Tara the White-fronted Tern (Sterna striata)

 
If you cant find cover  do what ever you have too, to get down low.

Not every one can get down onto the ground and get back up and its getting harder for me as each year passes .
May I suggest to purchase a small but stable unfolding stool to sit on.

Me laying down on the job.

Tony-3955

 
This is not the way to do it and wont work on many birds 😀

Lake Rotorua-1422-Edit

 

Cropping and positioning .
The composition of this Male Wood Duck is pleasing, the viewer is looking right at the bird.
I was down low to take the shot initially and then in the processing stage I cropped the bird so that the eye was in the top third of the image.
The early morning light on the bird add impact to the shot as well.

Male Wood Duck

 
pāteke or Brown Teal

pāteke or Brown Teal-9987-Edit

 
If for some reason you cant get down low  it may be possible to raise the bird up to eye level, in this case I asked my new assistant to raise the bird up, it helps if it is fluffy and cuddly  as Louise shows, she’s more than pleased to oblige me lol.

Lousie the duck cuddler

 

Next week we will look at the birds posture.

Finally with winter here, its full speed ahead for my winter workshops on birds and landscapes in the greater Wellington area.

For INFO  check out my workshop pages here

 

 

 

April the month of seasonal transistion.

Well April has bittern-ed the dust and we have past the first quarter of 2017.
The seasons here in New Zealand are moving past late autumn and into the start of winter.
Things are slowing down in the birding world as the migratory birds have headed off up to the northern hemisphere to breed and do some sun bathing, leaving us behind with our local birds.
Being out with the camera during the winter months means  shorter days and getting home at a more decent hour at night  and an hour or more extra sleep in the morning, much more civilised for this budding photographer I’m thinking.

The month of April
April started off with Phil the Bittern still  being the new kid on the block so its was up to Foxton in the Manawatu to visit him.

Phil was waiting for us and he put on a great display.

matuku the Australasian bittern -0779-Edit
A Bitterns territory can cover many tens of miles, so the bird may be in a certain spot one day and miles away the next, never to return to that very spot  , so NEVER EVER look a gift horse in the mouth when I comes to Bitterns.

Take the opportunity when it comes and make the most of it, tomorrow may produce  nothing more than  a Bittern taste in your  mouth.
Ok no more bittern jokes, I promise.

Spot the Bittern, Phil’s temporary home on the Manawatu Estuary. 

Foxton, Manawatu
Phil is out in the open here so with no grass  directly in the way of his head and neck, so one can get away with using the cameras multi point focus system and you will get great results , we will look a bit later on how to acquire focus when birds are in tighter cover in our next article.

matuku the Australasian bittern -0925-Edit

I got three opportunities  with Phil  and then he was gone and has not been seen since.

The Glossies

Next on my highlight  list was when  the word came down the pipe from Imogen, aka,  Wonder Woman , (so named because she has the knack of finding  rare birds).
This time it was not just one bird, but 15 Glossy Ibis.
Glossy Ibis have been on my wanted list for a few years and it didn’t take much encouraging to get Steve motivated and THE plan was conceived and almost executed to perfection, almost but then the plans of mice and men being what it is ………….

A few Glossy Ibis pop over from Australia for our summer each year, but last year some were recorded successfully rearing young in New Zealand for the first time.

Large groups of Glossy Ibis are a very rare sight here in New Zealand so Imogens find was big news. We believe its most likely that the whole flock were blown over here by Cyclone Claire  from Australia.

As I said we almost executed the perfect plan , we figured out where the birds were likely to be given the tide and we made our way towards the spot but this was as close as we got to these nervous birds.

We cant have enough Glossies so we hope they will stay.

This was as close as we got as the whole flock took to the air seconds after this shot was taken.

Glossy Ibis-

We both felt a little deflated watching the Glossies fly upriver until we could no longer see them, knowing full well that  we could not follow them up there, so we decided to have a look around for some other  subjects that we hoped would prove to be  a bit more user friendly.

First up was a squadron of Lesser knots that had decided not to breed this year and stay on in the land of the long white cloud (Aotearoa)  that is the native name for New Zealand.

A squadron of Knots curling in to land in front of us.

Lesser Knots-

A Royal Spoonbill  flaring away from us was next.

Royal Spoon Bill

And then to top the day off, I got a shot a had always wanted  of a Little Tern on the wing.

We went home that day very happy indeed.

Little Tern-

On the way home we dropped in to Waikanae and were treated to a great sunset .

A young Pied Shag passing over head in the late evening. 

Young Pied Shag

A group of Mallards, 2 weeks from now Duck shooting season will be upon them.

Good luck little Duckies .

Mallards-1774

Silhouette Black Swans on the water. 

Black Swan

 

Staglands Wildlife Reserve

Kath “Hey want to go to Staglands Wildlife Reserve , I will shout”

Tony ” Im in, after all  how could I refuse such an offer lol ” and so it was to be, that Kath and I shared yet another exciting photographic adventure.

It had been many years since I had visited  Staglands Wildlife Reserve and I had often wondered about its value for running workshops up there.
So Kath was to be my pretend student for the day .

I discovered that Staglands Wildlife Reserve ticks most of the boxes for a great workshop venue, consistent wildlife, great amenities, easy access and minimum fitness is required.

Another factor is that most of the wildlife is up close so you don’t need a long lens.

Staglands is  ideal for people who are just starting out,  but also it has some very challenging  situations  for more experienced photographers where they can learn heaps and come to grips with some more advanced techniques for difficult lighting situations.

Kath and I planned our attack and mid morning found us at the beginning of our big day out.
First off we encountered pāteke or the Brown Teal and a male Chestnut Breasted Shell Duck

A male pāteke or brown teal

pāteke or brown teal  -3618-Edit

The male pāteke is a bit more fancy then the female model but thems the breaks.

pāteke or brown teal  -3621-Edit

Chestnut-Breasted Shelducks are native to Australia but a rare sight in New Zealand .

This Male  is well fed and has no intention of migrating back home. 

Chestnut-Breasted Shelduck-3540-Edit

I cannot figure out how they came to be called Chestnut-Breasted Shelducks, got any clues 😀

Chestnut-Breasted Shelduck--2

 

Now I have to admit , one of the reasons I love birds is because Im a real colour junkie, I love light and colour and one of the reasons I wanted to go to Staglands was because of two very special (at least to me )  ducks , the Wood Duck and the Mandarin Duck, both unbelievably colourful birds.

Wood Ducks.

Kath and I found the Wood Ducks first, they were  hiding under the over hanging sedges and ferns  of the pond .
The light was not good as the sun was not high enough in the sky and I knew that my exposure system would want to flood the scene with extra brightness to even out the dark shadowy portions of the image.
So I dropped the exposure settings by 2/3rds of a stop  so as not to blow out the highlights and give me just a little bit more shutter speed.
I took a shot and checked  in the preview window just to make sure I wasn’t out of the ball park.
All seemed well exposure wise,  but my shutter speed was still too low for my liking.

The rule of thumb is to try and get  your shutter speed up to  at least twice the speed of the focal length of your lens, I was hitting 150th of a sec at F.8 with the 300 mil lens, so I doubled my speed by opening the aperture up by one full stop, which was F 5.6.
This gave me 300th of a second and I know I can get pretty good sharp static images at that speed , just so long as the subject is not moving around a lot.

You can practice your steadiness till the cows come home,  but if your subject is moving around fast and a lot, your going to need the raw speed to freeze the action.
Thankfully my subject was resting on the edge of the shadows so just to make the most of it , I lay on the boardwalk covered in duck poos  and rested the camera on the wood.
This gave me a very good profile of the bird and kept the camera steady.
I was pleased with the results.


Having the camera set to shoot 2/3rds of a stop under what the camera chose as ideal, I got more speed and did not over expose the bird, as the camera sees the dark background and tires to lighten it up, thus over exposing the bird.
Experimenting and experience teaches us little tricks that save the day.

A Male Wood Duck.

Wood Duck-3427-Edit

A Female Wood Duck

Wood Duck-3363-Edit

The Male again

Wood Duck-3011-Edit

Finally a close up head shot

Wood Duck-

 

I could hear Kath furiously clicking away once, I had given her my settings  and she was away, but being a lady she was unwilling emulate me lying flat on the deck  liying in the duck poos .
How ever Kath had a big smile across her face and when we had finished it was time for lunch.
We decided after lunch to have another go with the Wood Ducks  so back over to the pond we went in search of both the Wood ducks and the Mandarin Ducks which we had been unable to locate on our first attempt .

 

Mandarin Ducks

We finally found the Mandarin Ducks, but this was where it got real tricky, the birds were in an enclosure for the winter and there wasn’t much light at all.

I open the lens to F.4 and upped the ISO to 2,000
This was far from ideal as my depth of focus (the depth of the  area that is in focus) was halved.
Shutting down or sometimes called closing down  the F.stop, is  like squinting your eye,   it lets less light in through the lens to register your image onto the sensor,  but increases the distance from the front of the area of focus to where focus starts to  fade off .
In this case I increased the size of mt aperture from F.8  to F.4.
This increased the speed of amount of light needed for a good exposure by twice, but also lessened the depth of field  by twice as much.

But to take what you get in this business and clikerty click went the shutter

 

Notice that the front of the bird is in focus, but the focus fades quickly as your eye moves towards the back end of the bird.
The area in focus is called the depth of field .
The higher F.stops  you go, the greater that area of focus becomes,  but the less light comes in through the lens to strike the sensor to make a successful on your camera making for a slower shutter speed.
Also the slower the shutter speed, the more likely you are to get motion blur as the subject moves around and you cant hold the camera steady for  the longer period of time the shutter needs to be open, letting the correct amount of light strike the sensor and register your image.
Most lenses  go like this.
F.4…… F.5.6…….F.8……F.11……F16……F22..
Each F.  number called a stop and either halves or doubles  the amount of light that enters through the lens and onto the sensor, the higher F.stop you go halves the light the lower doubles it.

Over all I was pretty pleased with the results considering.

Mandarin Duck.--4
But man it was tough going.

Mandarin Duck.-4693-Edit

 

At this stage we were both fading so we headed back to the car dropping in on the Woodies on the way.

Wood Duck-3004-Edit

 

April is not just all about birds in this country.
The first few weeks of April the deer are in mating mode known as the roar, the highlight of the deer hunters year .

A fine stag roaring his defiance to the world.

Red deer-7236-Edit

 

All in all we had a pretty good April .
I will be starting our winter workshops in another month so if your up to it contact me and we can take you out and start to show you how to master your camera and take wonderful pictures of birds and landscapes.

I hope this article has been helpful and bless you peoples, heaps and heaps. ❤

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three for the price of one.

This year has started with a hiss and a roar.
First I had my Christmas trip report to finish, which took a fair bit of  time, this is the first entire Christmas trip report I’ve done to date and what a relief it was to get it done.
Next up  for years I have wanted to start my own Bible study/ Christian group   on Facebook and early this year I decided was the right time, however there was  a heap of study on early Church history and the Roman and Byzantine empires, up to the end of the middle ages, that I needed to complete  before I could start  my new group.

This has taken me  months to complete, but once I felt I had a reasonable grasp on that period of time, I felt free to launch my Christian group  “A letter to the Ephesians”  here on Facebook ,

So to bring us up to speed, I’m going to cover the three summer months Jan, Feb and March of this year in one post and you lucky peoples  get three months for the price of one lol.

The summer months of 2017
The summer of 2017 in the Wellington area did not even start to feel like summer until early autumn.
This was bad news for the sun bakers and swimmers out there, but great news for bird photographer’s.
Let me explain why.
Heat shimmer is a sure fire, demon killer, of good sharp clear images during the summer months.
On hot days, heat rises in the form of shimmering waves, distorting the air above the ground and wrecking the chances of getting sharp in focus images.
Because of heat shimmer during the summer months, the bird photographer is reduced to photographing early morning and sometimes on cooler days, early  evening.

If you look close at this image below, you can see the effects of heat shimmer .
Everything is distorted, nothing is sharp,  it gets even worse at ground level, esp over rocks and sand and  esp if you have a lens 300 mils or longer.
I will cover how to minimise heat shimmer effects in a future article , summer is not kind to the bird photographer.

Heat shimmer.

Sunset Onoke spit-6604
This year however, we had record low temperatures for the Wellington, Wairarapa and Kapiti/Manawatu areas  and that made it  peachy ,all summer, even out on the sandy beaches.

January. 
First out of the blocks for the year was a mid-January, 3 day workshop, with my mate Bruce.
Bruce and Linda have a wonderful beach house close to the Otaki river mouth on the Kapiti coast, where we launched our exploratory expeditions from.
Bruce is fit and we had 3 days to bring him up a few levels in his camera skills, so we went for it.
We had a heap of fun and got some fantastic images.
With both of us having  spent a great deal of our lives in the mountains  hunting , we have both developed  a certain flavour of humour.
Spending time with mates in the mountains and wilderness, does produce an optimistic upbeat sense of humour, this would be because  often one is forced to find the funny in all sorts of difficult and uncomfortable situations when you battle the forces of nature.
Hence  no opportunity went begging for a good laugh .
At the end of our first night on the coast, we were treated to a wonderful Kapiti coast sunset.

Otaki river mouth.

untitled-4640-Pano-Edit

 

Hot tip.
Use natural features such as the creek to introduce added colour and interest.
The Rangiuru Stream running through the centre of the image draws you into the image as well.

untitled-4615-Pano-Edit
Day 2 had us out looking for Moreporks or ruru  down the coast at a spot I knew had two adults and a young bird near by.

Mrs ruru poses for us during the daytime

ruru-1722-Edit

 

 

Up next was a walk around a local pond to photograph the Grebes or Dabchicks as some call them.

This time of the year Dabchicks  are busy feeding on Tadpoles and Frogs.

New Zealand dabchick or weweia.-900000-2
Later that day we went to the Waikanae Beach.
There is a lot more to bird photography, than just clicking the shutter button.
We practised our stalking skills, inching our way closer and closer on our bums across the sand right up to  a group of White Fronted Terns  out in the open.

When you are the right Tern, you get your turn, to make a Tern. 

White Fronted Terns-4895-Edit
Other Terns had already had their turn and had to take turns to feed their Tern.

White Fronted Terns-4853-Edit
Others were still in the courting stage, a male tries to entice a mate with a fishy gift.

Apparently the way to a females heart is through her tummy as well. 

White Fronted Terns-
We got back just in time for another crack at the sunset

Rangiuru Stream, Otaki

 
Day 3 had us heading south again to Waikanae, the wind had really picked up but we were brave and tried to make the best of it.
The wildlife and landscape photographer looks for the positive in all weather conditions.

It was a perfect day to go fly a kite, a really, really big kite lol

sunsets
A Black Shag on the move.

Black Shag-4750-Edit
We made it back home after three days, tired but satisfied with our efforts.
Bruce was pleased with the new skill he had learnt.
We can learn through reading books, but nothing compares to being shown the tricks of the trade and being able to try them out immediately out in the field.

 

 

Eastern Rockhopper Penguin, South  Wairarapa Coast .

Word started filtering down to us that a Eastern Rockhopper Penguin, moulting on the South Wairarapa Coast had been spotted.
Penguins must come ashore and stay put when moulting for about 3 weeks.
This means a forced fast from food and long boring days staring longingly out to sea.
This would be  the first ever official recorded sighting of a Eastern Rockhopper Penguin in the North Island of New Zealand.
My contacts soon came in handy and after a short exchange of emails, Steve and I had a pretty good idea where the bird was to be found and how long it had been there, so we waited till the bird had basically finished his moult and would be looking his best, then went looking for him.
We found him after doing a great deal of rock hopping ourselves, as the bird had chosen a hidden, quiet place, to moult , away of the prying eyes of the public.
He was tucked away in one of the many  crevices among the rocks looking far from happy.

We had to do heaps of rock hopping ourselves to find our prize .

Rockhopper penguin-5774-Edit

I was over the moon to see my first Rockhopper, a lot more so than the Rock hopper was pleased to see us , but we tried to keep the disturbance to a minimum.
The Rockhopper merely tolerated us as he sat there in his luckless state, still unable to launch himself out to sea where food and freedom beckoned.

My first ever Rockhopper.

Eastern Rockhopper penguin-

 

 
He didn’t seem to have lost too much condition during his 3 week stay on dry land
He left 2 days after this photo was taken.

Eastern Rockhopper penguin--5

 

 
He was not a happy chappie being forced into a 3 week stay on dry land, while his new water proofed outfit for the coming year  was being tailor fitted.

Eastern Rockhopper penguin--6

 

The Rockhopper was totally surrounded by loud energetic fur seal pups, that kept him on his toes with their comings and goings .

Give me a truck load of baby seals any day and they will keep me amused and busy photographing their antics all day long.

They are not the brightest looking creature on Gods planet for sure. lol

New Zealand Fur Seal-
But there is never a dull moment

New Zealand Fur Seal or kekeno-5501-Edit
And they do consider themselves supreme beings  lol

New Zealand Fur Seal or kekeno-5504-Edit

 

February

Next on the list was a photo-shoot where I covered a presentation to our minister of health at Parliament, that was an eye opener.

I cant show images from inside so here is one from the out side.

The Bee Hive,  Parliament the seat of power in New Zealand. 

Parliament

The next day was followed up with a workshop with Anna from Auckland who accompanied her husband Scott, who did the presentation at parliament.

We chose the Zealandia Wildlife Centre in the heart of Wellington city for our workshop, as our Anna had a hankering to photograph the cheeky kākā.

Zealandia is the  place to photograph  kākā , they are so successful at breeding them there completely wild, that they provide many juvenile kākā  for re population projects around the country, Zealandia IS  kākā central.

I love running workshops at Zealandia , no where that I know of, can provide the amazing diversity of New Zealand native birds with such easy assess to them in a wonderful bush setting.

Mr kākā perching at head height.

kaka-7581-Edit
We shared a wonderful, warm afternoon with the kākā and Anna got some great photos .
Anna also had a great time with the Bell birds, North Island Saddleback,  or tiekeshags and Red Fronted parakeets or kākāriki.

 

You get NO points for guessing why they have the name Red Fronted Parakeets 

kākāriki -7545-Edit

 

There are Tuatara at Zealandia , supposed to be the oldest living link to a now extinct line of lizards.

This one seems unimpressed with his valuable lineage.

tuatara
North Island Saddleback,  or tieke

Saddleback or tieke-

 

Very young Pied Shag chicks.

Pied shag

 

kākā are similar to the New Zealand kea, only different  😀

kaka-7375-Edit

 

It was two exhausted, but happy people who staggered back down the track to the car late in the afternoon.

Some private Crake therapy .

Next up it was time for some personal Crake therapy.
Both Steve and I had learnt a great deal more about Spotless Crakes or or puweto as they are called by the Moari, just by being able to watch them up north over Christmas and armed with a that new information and raw  enthusiasm, we hit the swamp with a soul full of hope and pretty soon  gumboots full of water.
I had my spot sorted for the evening  and I settled in for the long haul and gave a few calls on the cell phone. No answers though……..
I had my coffee flask, bananas and peanut butter sammies, to keep me company.

One hour turned into two and still no sign of any activity, but I knew there were Crakes in the area so I stayed put…………………………….. then I heard one answer my call.
Soon I had two calling on their own and I could track them moving around in the dense raupo forest across the water from me and then one simply materialised right in front of me.

There is nothing like a Spotless Crake appearing suddenly, out of the gloom of the raupo, to send your heart racing up into your throat and take your breathe away.
You know, often all you have is a few  seconds to get the shot, before it streaks back into thick cover and its gone for the night.

And suddenly it was right there, on the edge, between darkness and light.

Spotless Crake or puweto--13
Then bless his little soul, he came right out into the open, before wheeling around and darting back into the thick raupo, never to be seen again , leaving, me with a wildly beating heart and praising God lol.

I was happiness filled with this shot .

Spotless Crake or puweto--18
Spotless Crakes love raupo ,this is a prime Crake habitat, a raupo swamp at the southern end of Lake Taupo, its thick and has good cover from flying predators like hawks and full of insects and bugs.

Tokaanu Lake Taupo

 

Next up  was a general get together with Louise AKA (Danger Mouse) and her Hubby Dean aka Oscar,  for a crack at some newly hatched dabchicks on a pond we all visit.
We were joined by a surprise visit from an old friend Danny and the fun began.

Young dabchicks ride on their parents backs, hiding under the wings out of view, until they feel safe, then they poke their heads out demanding to be fed.

Pretty cute eh?

New Zealand dabchick or weweia--5
There was a horse jumping event going on across the paddocks, so i wandered over and took a few shots.
This  was the first time I had tried photographing horses , I really enjoyed the experience, I will be back again when the jumps are on.

Wellington Events  Horse Jumping event-

Wellington Events  Horse Jumping event-8798-Edit

 

Wellington Events  Horse Jumping event--2
Back to the Dabchicks again

New Zealand dabchick or weweia-8722-Edit

 

But wait there is more not many I promise lol

The end of March found Kath and I booked in for a day on the Foxton estuary, hoping to photograph some Bartail Godwits before they return to the northern hemisphere to breed.

Once again word came down the internet pipeline that a Bittern Had been in Foxton just the day before,so the idea was to proceed with plan A (the Godwits)  but keep a keen eye out for the bittern.
As it turned out the Godwits had all left and so had our joy,  when I turned around for some reason, just in time to see the bittern land 300 meters away right on the edge of the swamp.
There we were 300 meters across , 1200 meters around the edge and he was completely out in the open.
Kath I said in my best convincing voice, we got to get round there , you may never get a chance like this again in your life time.
Now Kath may not be  a spring Chicken, but she is made of stern stuff.
We made haste slowly over the sand and mud down and around to the other side of the estuary, not one complaint was heard from poor Kath as she made her way determinedly towards our goal.
An hour later we had manoeuvred our way in and where meters from the Bittern and Kath got some wonderful pictures of a bird, very few people including hard core bird photographers get in this Country.
Bittern over seas might be quite tolerant of humans close by, but not in this country.
Im really proud of Kath with the amount of effort it took to get round the edge of that swamp to get her shots.
When Kath and I got close to the Bittern, we went to town on that bird making the most of it.

 Opportunities like this, do not come round very often .

matuku the Australasian bittern -9977-Edit
You just do not see this everyday.

matuku the Australasian bittern -0302-Edit
Such a graceful bird in flight.

matuku the Australasian bittern --5

One last one , my favourite. 

matuku the Australasian bittern --6
The next post wont be half this long, I promise and for those who read all of it , a great big thank you and bless ya heaps and heaps.

For those who I had the pleasure of spending some exciting times together with our cameras, bless ya even more ❤