Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Post #46 - Balancing birding and photography, a sometimes tricky task....

For some, birdwatching is a hobby, a distraction from all things real world, a chance to commune with nature. For me, its a more like a incurable disease, a passion that consumes me at many points in my day, online if not in the field. I have been birding since age 6, and minus a significant lull during my nightlife-oriented 20s, the interest has generally grown as have I (I turned 37 last week). Five years ago I discovered bird photography for the first time. It has since become my latest addiction, surpassing even birding as my primary focus. Birders can't find enough time to bird, and photographers can't find enough time to photograph, so you can imagine how I struggle to balance the two related but often mutually exclusive pursuits! Here I'll shed a bit of light on the difference between birding and photography and offer a few suggestions for those folks trying to manage a similar juggling act. 

How I like to photograph shorebirds!
Can you identify the circled bird? Hint - its a good one! Answer at end.....

Wait. Stop. What's this rubbish he's talking? How can birding and bird photography be mutually exclusive? I see birders carrying cameras AND binoculars all the time! Well, it's actually quite simple to explain. Here we need to draw a casual distinction between photographing while birding and dedicated bird photography. Let's use an two photos that I took last weekend to illustrate this point. This first was taken while birding Mile Square Park, one of my now frequent Orange County haunts. I was looking for a previously reported Orchard Oriole when this guy popped out of the underbrush. 

Varied Thrush

Recognizing it as a Varied Thrush, a notable bird as far south as Orange County, I did my best to grab a few serviceable frames, mainly for documentation purposes. As you can see, the frame is muddled with branches, strongly backlit, and heavily cropped. In short, it is far from a wall hanger. This was taken with my 400mm f/5.6 lens (on my EOS 7D2), an ideal lens for photographing while birding. Other people use 300mm or 100-400mm lenses for similar purposes. The point is that these lenses can be easily carried with both binoculars and a scope. After I snapped this photo, the bird flushed and I continued my birding without major disruption. Birding was my primary purpose in this instance.

This second shot is of a Lesser Scaup. It took 2 solid hours of patience and maneuvering and several hundred less-stellar frames before I acquired this clean, sharp, full framer. My arms ached from handholding my 500mm f/4 (it weights 8.5lbs, 10lbs with 7D2 attached), and my back was stiff from contorting myself to get as low to the water as possible. At one point, with the camera resting on the ground, I put my chin directly into fresh, mushy goose crap in an attempt to get even lower than I already was. It was a very unwelcome feeling, but ultimately worth it! During these hours my binoculars were in the car. Had any notable bird flown over, it would have done so undetected. In this instance, getting this shot was my primary purpose. Proper bird photography requires equal amounts of planning and patience. It's not so much the fancier, longer lenses (though they really help!), as much as it a dedication to getting the desired shot while ignoring more peripheral distractions. 

Lesse Scaup - Aythya affinis
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D2
1/4000 at f/4, ISO 400

So, how do I balance my desire to see loads of different birds with my desire to photograph a few birds particularly well? The answer is light; I let the sun make virtually all the decisions for me. On any given outing, I am photographically oriented from sunrise until the time the sun gets about 35-40 degrees above the horizontal. At that time the light is usually too harsh for my taste.  I pack up the big camera, and break out the smaller lens and more general birding gear. I bird through the middle part of the day before breaking the big camera out again towards sunset. If the day is overcast, I skip photography all together for two reasons. First, once you get used to shooting in good light, it's tough to motivate to shoot in overcast conditions (unless its high overcast). Second, the clouds give me the excuse to bird! In this way, I do my best to balance the two pursuits. Do I miss some shots since I forgo shooting when it's cloudy? Sure. Do I miss some good birds when I am totally focused on photographing the common ones? Of course, but, hey, there's no such thing as a free lunch, right? This is just my approach. Hopefully someone out there will find it helpful and/or interesting.

As for the highlighted bird in the firs shot, here is how I saw that Little Stint (in Massachusetts!)

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