Thursday, January 21, 2010

Small Bird Photography

Small birds are always a challenge to photograph, they rarely spend more than a few moments in one place and often seek shelter in thick brush. Some birds can be lured out into the open with feeders, but even then it's hard to get clean natural looking images. If you're like myself and live in a large city, you may not have access to a yard where you can set up a permanent feeder. A simple and effective solution is to use a portable feeder station / stage which can be easily transported and setup in any local park.

The set up consist of a few common photography items you may already own, or could use anyway:
  • Light Stand: Any light stand can be used, if you do not already own a stand I'd suggest using the Manfrotto 5001b. Cheaper stands can be found, but none fold up smaller than this model. The 5001B folds down to 19", weighs only a couple of pounds, extends to 7' which is plenty. 
  • Clamps: Which are used to mount perching branches or other props you wish to include in your stage. I found that a 'Superclamp' in combination with a few background clamps work well. Cheap 'A' clamps found in any hardware store can also be used here.
  • Small container used to hold the attractor: seed , orange slice, grape jelly etc.. Size is important, you want the container small enough to allow only one bird to feed at a time. This forces other birds to wait on your near by perching branch, right where you want them. You can use any small plastic jar lid with a hole drilled in it to accept the light stand's threaded stud. I use a 1/4" wing nut to secure it to the stand.
  • Perching branch: Any branch can be used, however look for one with moss, lichens or interesting bark. Ideally you want one main branch with only a few sprigs. If you must remove some sprigs, try to remove them so the broken stub will not show in your image. Also do not break boughs from living plants, there are plenty available on the forest floor, and these often have more interesting details anyways.
 When using this setup place it in an area where your subjects are already active. Start out by placing the light stand near natural cover until the birds become use to it, then slowly walk the stand out into a clear area that offers cleaner backgrounds for your images. Birds like Nuthatches, Chickadees and Gold Finches will soon be swarming all over your feeder and will provide many great opportunities for natural looking images.
     The main advantage with using this portable staging method is control, you can control:
    • Where the subject is likely to perch.
    • The background, which can be changed simply by moving the stand left/right, or raising/lowering the stand height.
    • The light on your subject. You can easily move the stand so that your subject is always front lit adjusting the location as the sun tracks across the sky.
    • The elements in the image. Interesting looking branches can be used and quickly swapped out to give variety to you images.
    • Pests, squirrels will be attracted to seed placed in an accessible area. The light stand restricts their access.
       Before you use this method, ensure the park bylaws do not restrict feeding wildlife. And remember please do not remove any branches from living plants. Take great images, and leave only footprints.

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