Essential Tips for Bird Blind Photography

Essential Tips for Bird Blind Photography
(Blinds, Ponds, & Perches)

Bird photography starts with some kind of concealment because most birds do not tolerate close presence of people. To take bird images of exceptional quality that sing with their beauty, you must get close. With small birds that means within ten to fifteen feet, even with large lenses and the digital multiplication factor of some modern digital camera sensors.

A popular blind that offers the advantage of portability is the Rue Ultimate Blind, these blinds offer set-up times within minutes and they can be easily moved to different locations. However, I prefer the hunting blinds from Ameristep; these offer the portability of the Rue blinds but offer greater visibility with their window versus snout style. Their mesh window coverings in various degrees can be Velcro attached to conceal the photographer. Also, the bottom is free of the spring steel rods that are sometimes bothersome with the Rue style. The Ameristep blinds also fold up like reflectors and diffusers and fit it a small back pack for easy carrying. Pocket or cloth blinds are another type that can be used, although I found that these types are also difficult with vision, compared to the Ameristep hunting blinds.

All these blinds can be moved from one location to another, from one feeding station or pond to others. Permanent blinds, of the wood type, do allow even shy bird species to become completely accustom to the blind. The portable blinds mentioned above if move or placed at different locations for short periods of time don’t always allow very sensitive species time to completely accept the presence of the blind. Each bird species has its sensitivity. Some species are very shy while others easily tolerate the presence of a blind.

If you provide feed and water, birds will come. Many types of feeders are available, and hummingbird feeders are also very popular. The main point is to be consistent, and keep feeding them once you start. You can set up feeders for bird photography in your backyard, simply hanging them on a favorite tree. An extra step would be to create some kind of pond for them. Something as simple as a drip system will attract birds. Birds like to bathe and keep their feathers clean. A fresh water pond would provide opportunities to take bathing and drinking images from a well placed blind.

Rural Ranches or properties in the suburbs offer more possibilities for attracting additional species to a pond and feeding station. With the extra acres and/or close proximity to parks or natural wilderness, many backyards and ranches offer the ideal habitats to bring birds within range of your camera. Many ranches and properties across the nation are now creating such locations for photo blinds and bird photography, and offer the possibility of photographing many different species of birds. The southwest and Texas where water is precious, many permanent blinds are set up around ponds or water tanks, especially designed for bird photographers. These places charge fees, and also sometimes offer different photographic seasons, where nesting, young birds, migrates, and adults in breeding plumage can be photographed usually during the spring or fall season.

If you are creating your own little bird habitat for photography, one benefit to consider is to create and use your own perch sticks. Birds coming into feeding stations need a place to land. A place to land free of the feeder itself, so you can create natural images of birds. Although, bird images on feeders are good to round out a story, and for products that cater to the bird feeding industry. With your own perch sticks you can put the bird in the right place photographically–using many types of perch sticks for many types of looks. Also, by using perch sticks from the natural areas surrounding your location, you can create realistic and natural images. You would not want to use evergreens from the Pacific Northwest for perches around a Texas hill country blind and watering station. Perch sticks with lichen offer pictorial elements to a scene or image. Green, yellow, or orange lichen, can create a perch image that is pictorially a notch above an image made with boring or ugly branch. Select your perch sticks with care, finding natural ones that enhance your images. In this way you’re actually designing your image, creating an image that sings with beauty and can be published by a magazine.

By knowing birds and their habitats, you can fit the perch sticks to the species. And even go as far as planting natural plants and trees specific to your area for your own backyard bird photographic habitat. Another advantage of perch sticks is that you can place them wherever you want around the feeder or pond. Tying or taping them to existing tree limbs works well. Hanging them over ponds as stopping areas before the birds land next to the water works well too. Placing them close to the feeder and having them different distances from the feeder will create many different landing and photographing points as the birds come in for food. A third advantage to perch sticks is they can be set up around cavity nesting bird nests. Images of parents returning to the nest with moths, butterflies, and other insects can be captured. Special care must be used in these situations as not to cause the parents to abandon the nest. As with all nature photography, the animal or bird’s welfare must be consider first, and no harm or detrimental behavior changes should be caused by any actions of the photographer.

You also must keep in mind the lighting situation of these perches. Bird photography usually relies on front lighting to identify birds and show off their beautiful feathers and plumage. Fill flash is also a great way to add a touch of light to make our feathered friends stand out and sing with beauty—adding the light particularly to the eyes to show the light of life. It fact, for all these reasons, fill flash is an essential tool for bird blind photography, a tool that I use all the time. By using a flash extender that attaches to the end of my flash head I get that extra extended reach from my flash. In addition, using an external battery pack helps recycle flashes quickly, and extends flash battery life. This means more successful fill flash images, for birds are always moving, and are rarely stationary for long periods. Another area to pay strict attention to is the background when placing perch sticks. Perch sticks placed in dense foliage will create a busy background and a busy unexciting image. Backgrounds are just as important as the subject, clean diffused, simple natural backgrounds are best. A scarlet red house in the background, even diffused, is not the type of background color for your natural looking bird images. Dark greens and browns are colors that work best—the colors of nature. Light colored backgrounds draw the viewer away from your subject bird, and make it difficult to see birds with dark plumages.

With a portable blind and a rain tarp you can photograph in any weather, getting those dramatic winter images that you see in bird magazines. Take advantage inclement weather, and of the beautiful diffused light of cloudy days that we loved from our film shooting days. With some planning, preparation, and a little hard work over time you can create your own little bird oasis right in your backyard. Feeders and ponds will bring birds to you, and perches properly placed will give you the opportunity to make great lasting images of our avian friends.

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Graduated Neutral Density Filters

Upper Yosemite Falls from the Swinging Bridge—sky exposure reduced with a 3 stop graduated neutral density filter.

Graduated Neutral Density Filters

Graduated Neutral Density Filters are an essential and indispensable tool for the Landscape photographer.

These filters come in rectangle sheets with gray color on the top portion to clear on the bottom portion of the filter, with an area of less dense gray in the middle.  Their purpose is to hold back the brighter areas of an image like the sky, reducing the dynamic range of the image. Since the eye can see a considerably greater range of light than can be recorded by a digital sensor, or film, particularly slide film, these filters help reduce the range of light bringing detail to the shadow areas.

Ring type graduated neutral density filers with a half portion gray are not very useful for most situations, since they do not allow placement of the transition.  With the rectangle sheet type and a filter holder you can slide the transition to the desired place within the image. Even hand holding the filter you still can place the shaded area precisely where you want; this is not possible with the ring type filter which only has center placement—half and half portions, half grey and half clear.

A scene with great contrast and dynamic range, the dilemma is what do you expose for, the highlights or the shadows. A typical scene at sunset or sunrise, where the sky is very bright, expose for the sky, the shadows are typically very dark and hold very little detail.  The graduated neutral density filter can equalize or reduce the range of exposure, so highlight areas are not blow out when exposing for the shadows, conversely shadows aren’t black and devote of detail when exposing for the highlight areas.

These filters come in various degrees of strength, referring to how dark is the gray section of the filter, and how much light is blocked. This measurement is called stops, i.e. two stops or three stops, with three stops being darker or holding back more light than a two stop filter. Neutral Density filters also have another measurement term referring to how gradual the gray area of the filter fades to clear. For hard stop filter, the area of demarcation is sharp with little or no faded area. Soft stop filters have a much greater area of fade from gray to clear; a much greater transition area for a softer blending effect.

Overall, graduated neutral density filters greatly help in reducing the range of light, allowing detail, color, and texture in both the highlights and shadow area within an image.

Many manufacturers make these types of filters including Cokin, Tiffin, and Singh Ray. With many variations and intensities, hard and soft stops, reverse type where the gray density is in the middle section of the filter.

The larger “P” size filter can also be used as a complete neutral density filter to reduce harsh light areas as well as darkening light colors, increasing color intensity and saturation.

Remember; when that grand scenic with a wide range of light is in front of your lens do not forget this indispensable filter.

Of course, in today’s digital world, you can create the same graduated neutral density effect digitally, that’s worth a whole another post.

Yosemite In Winter

Yosemite in Winter
(Iconic or Non-Iconic Image?)

 How do you create photographs in Yosemite without copying someone else’ photographic style?  How do you avoid the iconic Yosemite image? The view points and vistas are all around you—Tunnel view, Valley view, Sentinel Bridge, Ahwahnee Meadow, and many more special roadside turnouts and locations. Every serious photographer who has visited Yosemite has placed their tripod at these locations.  How do you not copy legendary photographers like Ansel Adams, and many other well know photographers who have made many famous iconic images of Yosemite Valley’s special landmarks.  

In mid February the valley is flooded with photographers all trying to capture that sometimes elusive image of Horsetail Falls. They come from all over the country, and many make it a ritual to come back year after year at this time.  The El Capitan picnic area is jammed packed with photographers’ hours before the magical sunset time.  All these photographers will create a very similar image—images with just a slightly different crop, created using a different zoom settings or with a somewhat different lens choice.

In reality actually, if you’re in Yosemite Valley, as a photographer, you just have to take iconic pictures. The beauty and the awesome grandeur of the place calls to the landscape photographer inside of you–demands that you capture the great earth gesture of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the geological forces that created Yosemite Valley. Why go there and not try your hand at taking iconic images.  

What I am saying though is also to try to create an image that’s your own, non-iconic, that represents your style and vision.  Experiment, try to step out of your comfort zone, if you’re always using a wide angle lens then try a mid zoom for a different landscape composition. Make your photographic weakness, your new strength, by learning some photo technique beforehand, like star trails or painting at night. Or try a composition that does show the valley’s recognizable landmarks; see if you can create a memorable image without them.

Take all your photographic knowledge about light and composition and blend that with solid technique practiced beforehand, freeing your spirit and moving into a special Zen like relationship with your subject. This shouldn’t be hard in Yosemite!

I believe all great photographic images are created when you are in this Taoist state, in complete harmony with the world and your connection and relationship to it.  In this state your vision is expanded: you see more, feel more, and are more alive than before.  Enabling you in the moment to create great images!

If your successful, then, your non-iconic image of Yosemite will become the next iconic image…and along the way, you’ll develop a style and vision that’s recognizable and your own.

“When I am experimenting with a new idea, I’ll determine technical aspects well beforehand, so when I am shooting, I don’t need to think. This let’s me be as receptive to the moment as possible.” – Chris McDonough

 

 

 
“I am not interested in shooting new things—I am interested to see things new.” – Ernest Haas
 

 

 

 

 

 

“To photograph is to hold one’s breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting beauty. It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.”— Henri Cartier-Bresson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quotes from The Tao of Photograph, Seeing Beyond Seeing, Philippe L. Gross and S.I. Shapiro: by Chris McDonough, pg. 110, Ernest Haas, pg. 126, Henri Cartier-Bresson, pg. 106.

Sometimes It’s Magical

(A two month old otter pup gives a love bite to its caring mom)

Sometimes it’s magical. Nature just enfolds visual delights constantly, and if you are lucky and talented you can capture one of these special moments.

What a great day I had last Thursday, at that special place for Sea Otters: Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough. My photography friends and I were greeted with a nice sunny day, an unusual occurrence of late with the winter storms that have been coming into the West Coast in waves.

Viewpoint is a critical component, getting low and down into the sea otter’s visual world makes a big difference in the final image.

Luck, talent, and patience too, especially patience to wait for the right moment, goes into creating a provocative image.

Even more than these attributes; it is about having a special spiritual feeling for a place or the animal you are photographing. It’s really all about love!

Sea Otters Of Moss Landing

Sometimes you are privileged to enter into the world of another animal, so it was for me On Valentine’s Day! I witnessed a mother’s love, a mother sea otter’s love and deep imbibing care for her young otter pup.

I saw in the wild for the first time a mother otter pushing mussels and other shellfish to her little one, perhaps for the first time…and it looked at these gifts with curious eyes full of wonder.

Witnessing this moment was incredible privilege, and to capture it forever in an image was just as exciting. I hope these images convey the emotion and feeling that I felt while taking them.

There is something special about sea otters that touches our hearts and stirs our souls… especially the young pups, you can’t look into their eyes and not be moved–their squeaky calls of alarm when they miss place their mothers, calls deep into the being of every person that has heard that sound.

Why do we think sea otters are so cute, so enduring?  It’s their faces, their flat noses and pudgy faces subconsciously remind us of our own babies…

Where do you photograph sea otters? Where can you get up close and capture images that evoke these human feelings? There are many places; my favorite one is Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough.

Across from highway one and the Whole Enchilada Restaurant is a boat dock area where sometimes the otters rest and hang out.  I have even seen them mating here twice.  Because the land area next to the water is low and the otters aren’t far away, you can good images here. The downsides are that they aren’t always there, and good sightings can draw big crowds and attract passersby from the nearby road.

Under the bluffs below Jetty Road is a very good place to see lots of otters, they usually raft up there and you can see twenty or thirty or more sometimes—quite a sight. A must stop for those who have never seen a raft of otters.

The best way to photograph otters is from a kayak. You can get down at water level, and have a less condescending viewpoint in your images.  Photographing from a Kayak does present issues and dangers: choppy and rough water, stiff breezes, and a unbalanced boat, and this could result in a lens and camera body easily in Elkhorn Slough’s waters. Remember wildlife viewing rules prohibit close approach making necessary the use of long telephoto lenses.  

When you encounter an animal in the wild, you represent all of that individual’s cumulative experiences with humans, and you are adding to that experience with your own actions.”*

Elkhorn Safari Tours offer tours up the slough on a flat pontoon boat where you can photograph lots of wildlife and many species of birds, including sea otters that happen to be feeding close by.  I think I have been on Capitan Yohn’s boat at least seven or eight times over the years. Elkhorn Slough is a beautiful and special natural place worth experiencing even without photography.  

Kayak Rentals:

http://www.kayakconnection.com/

http://www.montereybaykayaks.com/elkhorn_slough/

Elkhorn Safari Tours:

http://www.elkhornslough.com/

*Quote from 25th Anniversary issue of Outdoor Photographer Magazine…Steve Werner, Publisher/Editor in Chief, In this Issue section, quoting George Lepp from his new book.

http://www.outdoorphotographer.com/past-issues/december-2010/in-this-issue.html

Birds, Berries, and Bobcat

 

It was a cold and rainy New Year’s weekend; it rained for over 24 hours. While in bed at night, I heard the pitter patters of the rain on the roof of the cabin. And I thought of renewal and the water that would make it happen, and the spring grasses and wildflowers to come. The winter nights were long, and it was very cold. I needed a fire in the fireplace for more warmth and to make the cabin somewhat bearable.

When I finally got outside after the rain was over, the light was magical, and the birds were there feeding on Toyon Berries. There were four hermit thrushes each with its unique feeding style. One would come in and dash out; its feeding style was to grab and run. Another one had eyebrow feathers that stuck out, and it hung out in the open more, where I could get a more open look for my images.

The California Thrashers were there too. You could hear them with their clucks, clicks, and mockingbird sounds. They came in repeatedly for the berries, a big item on their diet. I just love the way they would grab the berries and throw them down their throats.  Capturing a berry in mid air between their beaks was my photographic goal.

The wrentits were very difficult, for they were always feeding from the inside and hardly ever would show themselves on the outside of the Toyon berry bushes. I caught one pecking out from the thick leaves with a berry in its beak, my only successful wrentit image.  

My favorite bird was the flicker. I waited and waited, then I waited some more. I was always listening for flickers for they usually announced their presence with a call.  Yet, the female came in only once during the whole day. But when she did come in the Light was magical, the sun was just peeking out of the clouds, and the light was bright but had a special softness. My images of her weren’t too harsh; they were just about perfect.

There were short bursts of shooting activity, and very long periods of waiting; such is bird photography from a blind. 

During one of the long waiting periods, is when I heard the Bobcat, it was across the canyon from me. It was calling; its call was sort of a rasping and moaning sound. It called for about 10 minutes, so special to hear a Bobcat in the wild. It made my day, for its moaning call touched my soul.

All in all, a great day in the photo blind at the Ramrod Ranch… Someday soon I’ll see that calling Bobcat and capture its heart and spirit in a photograph

Everlasting Moments in Nature

Sometimes when you least expect it, something appears out of nowhere and brightens your life, and leaves you with an incredible moment that will stay with you forever. This is the world of nature, and nature photography, special moments, indelible, forever imprinted within your mind as treasured memories. This morning one of these moments happened to me.

California quail were all around me, cackling and chuckling, in the brush around the pond. From both sides of the little breeze way that separates the brush from directly behind the pond and the sea of brush that leads up the slopes of the hills, I could hear them and occasionally see them as they scurried across the breeze way to the shelter of the thick brush.

I was in my photo blind with my 600 mm lens and digital camera body ready and waiting for them to get up enough courage to come into water at the little pond eight feet in front of my lens. In the early days of July, the mature parents had lots of young ones with them, still with the juvenile markings: a dash of brown and white striped patterns with just a touch of a top notching.

All of a sudden the cackling and chuckling increased in volume, more intense, more urgent, and seemingly coming from all around me, as I sat in my blind waiting. In the back of my mind, I knew something was different about the increased level of noise. Yet, I didn’t react or increase my level of awareness; I just contentedly and patiently waited for the quail to get over their fright and nerves, waiting for them to come on out of the brush and into camera range and view.

Then, it was there, right in front of me: a beautiful gray fox. Yes, not eight feet away, a gray fox. I can’t begin to describe what a beautiful animal it was. This was why the quail were making so much noise. After a moment’s hesitation, it went to the pond and started drinking. It happened so fast, one moment nothing was there, and the next moment it was there before my eyes. The photographer in me started to kick in gear, should I reach back in the blind and grasp my other camera body with my 100 to 400 zoom lens. I did not want to take my eyes off this splendid animal. So when it bent down for a drink, I just started shooting with my 600mm, subconsciously knowing that my f-stop might be too high, and my resulting shutter speed too slow. And what was I doing on ISO 500?

But nothing mattered for the moment as I focused on the gray fox’s head lapping up the precious life giving water. It looked up at me, my flash was going, and would it scare it off? God, I was so close, too bloody close, I couldn’t even keep the ears in the frame as it look at me. Then, in a moment it was off, heading back into the brush. One last look back at me, I switched to vertical, and composed a couple more images, praying that I was in focus. Then, the moment that would last me a lifetime was over, the beautiful gray fox slipped back into the sea of brush where it came from, twenty or thirty heart pounding adrenaline seconds it was over.

Did I compose the images correctly, was I focused on the eyes, did I get enough depth of field, at that moment.  All these thoughts were secondary, for I just witnessed a beautiful animal at home in its environment. For a brief time it shared its life with me, we were connected, and somehow forever joined. I will carry those eyes as it looked back at me and its life spirit with me always in my mind as an everlasting memory.

Upon later reflection, as a friend reminded me, the gray fox too had courage and understanding, courage to come forth out in the open knowing that I was there, and trusting and understanding that I meant no harm.