Photographing Baby Birds: It Takes Presence, Patience, Luck and Skill – Guest Article by Steve Russell
Spring is one of my favorite times of year because this is when baby birds make their predictable appearance at parks and wildlife refuges. There is no guarantee that they’ll be around long, though, due to the speed at which they grow and the ever-present dangers they face from lurking predators. Just seeing the little fluff-balls and taking snapshots is a treat, but quality photographic opportunities for well-lit portraits and action shots may be fleeting especially when you consider the ever-changing weather and light conditions. Making the most of these opportunities takes presence, patience, dumb luck, and a little bit of skill.
Presence. It has been said that ninety percent of getting good shots is just showing up. I live near a big park with a small lake and I keep an eye on the weather and time of day and ride over on my bike for the last hour or two of light every chance I get this time of year. Sometimes magic happens, sometimes it doesn’t, but the only thing for certain is that staying home assures me that I’ll get nothing.
Patience. I’ve done this enough to recognize when the light, subject, action and background magically align and believe me, it’s worth waiting for. I saw it the other evening after an hour of little worth shooting. With the sun nearing its lowest ebb, I found myself facing directly into the light on the wrong side of an asphalt path, which was for the time being inhabited by three families of Canada Geese including 14 babies with many of them piled together trying to catch some shuteye. So, I took on my “goose whisperer” persona and tip-toed ever so slowly within inches of the snoozing babies to the other side of the path under the watchful eyes of the wildly alert and fiercely protective parents who graciously let me pass. I got down on a knee with the sun now to my back, zeroed in on one subject and patiently hoped for an eye to pop open. It finally did in the nick of time and the result was a portrait of a gosling beautifully bathed in even, golden light with the setting sun reflected as a catch light in its eye.
Luck. About two weeks ago I was standing with the setting sun to my back, a little bit frustrated that the goslings in front of me were already in the shade of a towering tree, when suddenly “Dad” became agitated at a goose slowly approaching on the lake. He began ruffling his feathers (so THAT’S where the phrase came from!) and charged out squawking loudly with his wings flapping and neck lowered until he chased the intruder away. With the low-angle light, the trees reflecting a lime green color on the lake forming the backdrop to the evenly lit angry goose, I clicked a series of exciting shots of the angry goose in flight. Dumb luck.
Skill. While I could not have planned for or anticipated either of these situations more than five seconds ahead of time, fortunately, I had adjusted my camera settings to have a low enough ISO and deep enough depth of field to afford a fast enough speed to freeze the action and create sharp images. I was able to shoot the goslings on the path in one-shot focus mode and quickly shift to AI focus mode for the flight shots at the touch of a pre-programmed button with my ring finger while simultaneously clicking the shutter button with my index finger. I have to say, though, that my many missed shots under similar circumstances over the years have helped me learn to get this right.
It’s hard to beat baby birds as subjects in wildlife photography. I flew 3,000 miles to an Orlando breeding marsh (see my last blog) in part to shoot the gawky baby egrets, but even ubiquitous species like Canada Geese and Mallard Ducks stand out as babies and families and they are a shutter click away at many local parks and refuges. What rich opportunities they offer this time of year for portraits, playfulness, family interactions and action. And what better way to honor nature’s Mother’s and Father’s Days than to capture their essence on camera.