Know your gear and know your subjects….

Netra and I love to photograph birds and over the last 20-plus years we have learned many valuable skills along the way that make our job of capturing these subjects with a higher rate of success. There are so many things that contribute to the capturing of a good bird (or any other animal) image.

It’s not just luck, as much of what the general public often thinks when they see our bird photographs.

Oh! You are so lucky to have gotten that great shot!” I am afraid, it isn’t so, and this blog post from April 2023 does some really good explaining of why we seem to get “lucky”.

Then there is the other often said comment where people say: “You must have an amazing camera!” This is actually one of the most ignorant statements and if you think about the time and effort invested into mastering the skills that make us professional photographers, it is downright insulting! Think about going to a restaurant and having an excellent meal and complimenting the chef that he or she must have a wonderful stove and oven to have made those meals. The chef would probably throw a glass of water in your face!

You see the parallel, right?

Shot at ISO6400, and very slow shutter speed due to the very low morning light, knowing your gear and post processing will allow you to get shots like this. Clear, sharp and full of detail, even at such high ISO. Modern cameras are just worlds apart from what was there 10 years ago.

Yes, the facts are that while you can get away with consumer grade equipment to obtain good quality images, the top end of lenses and cameras make a huge difference in conditions the cheaper gear just does not cut it. Whether it’s low light, adverse weather or high ISO use, the more you pay for your equipment, the more you can do with it. Luck makes up a tiny part of the big picture (pun intended) if you want to capture good quality images, and you can often create your own luck by learning about the bird(s) you want to photograph. You can read about using an online tool to find birds in this blog post.

By good quality, we mean images that are well framed (or cropped), sharp, crisp with good contrast, a good head angle (see the reasons for appealing head angles in this blog post), no motion blur (unless you want that in your shot) and excellent post processing. Let’s face it: digital RAW files need some processing. It’s not cheating when you are adjusting shadows, highlights, curvels, levels, contrast and saturation or you are retouching a few encroaching branches or grass blades. It really is an advanced way of optimising images to make them nicer for presentation. Of course, if you were to put a species of bird into the frame that was not in the original RAW file, then that is beyond the post processing that we would consider acceptable for wildlife photography.

You need to really learn how your equipment works, how you customise the camera for different types of shooting scenarios and how to use your long lenses effectively. Then, to add to it, using high ISO, often in low light conditions to get ANY shutter speed and minimising the noise in the images by good RAW file capture, then post processing (again, I emphasise, it’s not cheating to optimise the image).

This Eastern Whipbird was photographed at ISO8000 in the dark rainforest. Another good result at such high ISO and post processing.

There are still so many folks who simply do not want to set the ISO dial beyond 400, it’s scary. The cameras are getting better and better, the image stabilisation is better as well. To us, if you don’t believe in Photoshop or Lightroom to optimise your images, you may as well forget about using autofocus, fast frame rates and image stabilisation. It’s best you buy an old manual focus film camera and not bother with this amazing technology available to you today. You can’t have it both ways!

You’ll find that once you get into bird photography, you will be hungry for knowledge. The only way to improve your hit rate is to learn about your subjects that you want to photograph. By doing some reading of your chosen species, you can learn behavioural traits, best times of the year to see them in breeding colours, best habitat types and so on. You will also learn tons by going out in the field, observing for yourself, drawing your own conclusions. The old saying: Knowledge is power, is really true in wildlife photography. You can’t beat learning and experiencing if you want to become great at your craft.

At a recent bird club meeting, a friend of mine introduced me to a friend of his who has an interest in spotlighting and seeing/photographing owls. We went for a beer after the meeting, or two, or three, and had a long discussion about habitats, times of the year, calls, using call playback (that’s a long article on its own due to the ethics involved in using calls), and other things. In the end, I offered to share a fair bit of information via PDF files with these guys so they can start reading and educating themselves with owls around our local forests. There is so much information to learn from, that you too, could easily do that.

Netra took this wonderful whipbird shot at a very slow shutter speed and ISO10,000. Yes, ISO ten thousand!

Once you gather experience with different birds, you can pretty much employ simple research techniques to successfully find and photograph most species if you are willing to take your time and learn the behaviours of your chosen subject, its favourite habitats, time of year and so on. Add to that your expert skills you can develop if you go out in the field often enough, and you will be armed for success.

During our five day workshop in Lamington National Park, at O’Reilly’s, Netra and I cover a lot of technical stuff in classroom sessions, besides being out, photographing birds that are somewhat more accustomed to humans. We can comfortably say, that our tour last year was a huge success and we can judge that by the wonderful attendees who were really a great bunch of photographers, but also that some who were able to develop excellent skills in just a few days. The change in their shooting and understanding of gear was phenomenal. That’s what we do. We teach how to get more out of your equipment.

You can also browse our blog repository for more entries that may just help you with your photography.

If you want to learn, why not join us on our upcoming photography workshop at O’Reilly’s at the end of October 2024? Details can be found on the link below:

Stay safe, and we wish you happy photography!

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