a teatray in the sky

like shooting birds in a barrel

Posted in 5D Mark II, Animals, Baltimore, Birds, Maryland, Photography, Technique and Development by firthefirst on October 20, 2010

bird photography is always a challenge.  they’re small, fast, and easily spooked.  so you’d think it’d be easier to get great shots in a zoo, where the birds are used to humans and confined to enclosed spaces.  not so fast there, mate.  zoos and aviaries often have walk-in aviaries where you are surrounded by netting that prevents birds from flying off into the wild blue yonder.  what the netting also does is it prevents photographers from getting a smooth background blur.  this totally can break an otherwise great photo, and the effect of choppy background bokeh shouldn’t be taken lightly.

depending on your monitor calibration, you may notice the netting interwoven into the foliage just past the beak of the spoonbill in the photo above.  that’s what I’m talking about.  it’s those little details that ratchet down a shot from a photo that could have been taken anywhere, to a photo that was definitely taken in the zoo.  and let’s be honest, that ruins some of the magic.

so how do you get around that?  how do you get shots that look more like the opening shot, or the one just above of the roller?  the key is actually very similar to taking good isolated portraits; it’s all about distance and aperture.

aperture is the easy one, the one everyone knows about.  open your aperture wider, you get more even, pleasing blur (bokeh).  but you’re limited by your lens in terms of how wide open it will go, and even for the best telephoto lenses that is usually f/2.8 or f/4, rather than the massive f/1.2 you see on high-end portrait lenses.

so you learn to use distance.  there are two key distances you need to think about:

  1. the distance between you and the subject
  2. the distance between the subject and the background (in this case, the netting)

what matters is the ratio between these two things.  if you are far closer to your subject than your subject is to the background, you’re going to end up with creamy, pretty bokeh.  if you are further from your subject than your subject is from the background, the background is going to show up, and your bokeh is going to be harsh and distracting.  so get close!

the other thing that gives away the fact that you’re shooting in a zoo or aviary is that most birds have a metal bracelet around one leg.  the great thing about birds, however, is that they love to stand with one leg hidden.  wait for it to hide the right leg, and then grab your shot.

enjoy shooting.

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3 Responses

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  1. Kai Brockbank said, on October 20, 2010 at 10:42 am

    Excellent shots! I particulalry like the spoonbill shot, with its original angle and amazing precision; and the roller photo, with the beautiful light. Also, in the latter, I love the way you’ve incorporated those branches, it gives a lot of contrast and really strengthens the composition.

    • firthefirst said, on October 20, 2010 at 4:53 pm

      thanks for the comments kai, definitely my two favorites from the day as well

  2. photographyfree4all said, on October 21, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    John, these are fantastic shots. And your detailed instruction is so helpful! Thanks for sharing this information and these beautiful shots.


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