THE COOLEST VISITOR TO MY FEEDER, THE EMERALD (AKA BLUE-THROATED) TOUCANET. I CHOSE A PERCH ESPECIALLY FOR THIS SPECIES TO GIVE A DEEP FOREST KIND OF LOOK TO THE IMAGE. IF YOU HADN’T READ THIS POST, I DON’T THINK THERE’S ANY WAY YOU WOULD GUESS THAT THIS WAS TAKEN AT A FEEDER SETUP.
Since we moved into our new house about three years ago, we’ve made an effort to attract wildlife, principally in the form of hummingbirds and local and migratory songbirds, by using feeders and planting native and garden flowers and fruit trees and other plants that would attract these creatures. We live in a farming area where the local cloud forest was cut down decades ago, as is the case in most of highland Costa Rica outside of parks and preserves. As a result, we thought we would get a few species that are especially at home in open farmland. We’ve been surprised, however, to find that the altered habitat in the area, which contains tiny pockets of secondary forest and scattered native trees in pastures, is home to some really colorful creatures. We’ve seen sloths nearby, a side-striped palm pit viper on a nearby farm, and even a keel-billed toucan on our banana plants in the backyard one day.
And this year, our bird feeders really took off. We use a couple of simple posts with some holes drilled for replaceable perches and some nails on which to hang bananas and sometimes leftover papaya and oranges too. Since we’re located in a transition zone between higher cloud forest and lower cloud forest transitioning into rainforest, we get highland species and some surprisingly lowland-type species as well. This has meant an amazing diversity of birds at our feeders that rivals or even surpasses many of the lodges I visit regularly for my photo tours (note to self: turn house into eco-hotel next year). Here’s what we see at the feeders on any given day: flame-colored tanager, blue-gray tanager, grayish saltator, buff-throated saltator, rufous-collared sparrow, white-eared ground sparrow, melodious blackbird, Passerini’s tanager (a surprise at our elevation), summer tanager (migrant), Baltimore oriole (migrant), blue-crowned motmot, and emerald toucanet.
With this amazing species list, I’ve been itching to get out and do some photography. I spent September and the first half of October redesigning my Deep Green Photography and Foto Verde Tours websites and finally finished. So, for the past few days I’ve turned my attention to documenting the bird diversity at my front yard fruit feeders. Well, actually I hoped to do more than document; my idea was to experiment with some new techniques for bird photography at feeder setups and hopefully to produce some nice images ranging from classic portraits with a twist to action photos. And I wanted to produce a portfolio with a diversity of image styles in terms of composition, lighting, and backgrounds. Forging one’s own style is important in photography but in my opinion portfolios where every image looks the same, even when each single image is excellent, can get tedious pretty quickly. So, my goal was to produce a dramatic and diverse portfolio that hints at the habitat of my avian subjects while at the same time keeping them in line with my own style as a nature photographer.
CATCHING A BLUE-GRAY TANAGER IN FLIGHT ISN’T EASY. I RELIED ON THE PHOTO TRAP HERE AND USED A HIGH ISO TO ENSURE A FAST SHUTTER SPEED AND A DARKISH BUT STILL GREEN BACKGROUND. TWO OFF-CAMERA FLASHES SET IN HIGH-SPEED SYNC MODE HELPED ILLUMINATE THE BIRD AND FREEZE ACTION. CAREFUL PLACEMENT OF THE FLASHES ENSURED THAT THE FLASHES WOULD DO THEIR JOB BUT NOT MAKE THE PICTURE LOOK FLASHED.
So, taking pictures of birds right in your front yard sounds easy, right? You’ve got birds, you’ve got branches, and you’ve got a camera so get out for an hour and shoot! Well, not quite! All told I probably spent a total of 40 hours on this project. Here is the equipment I needed to make the pictures displayed on this page:
Once I had gathered all materials, I needed to plan the types of shots I wanted for each session. For some I wanted a more open branch to catch interactions as the birds would wait their turn at the feeder. For others, I tried to get the birds taking off from the branch that served as a staging perch to the fruit feeder. And for others I wanted more classic portraits so I chose branches and compositions that would show off the birds posing and perching. For the toucanet pictures I made a special outing for some larger branches for this larger bird.
From there it was a question of checking my composition, paying close attention to the backgrounds I wanted (for some I liked the almost smooth green look but sometimes I wanted something with more elements and some almost black tones) and setting up the equipment. Then I proceeded to set up the blind around the camera. I discovered it’s much easier to do this than to set up the blind and then have to move everything if I wasn’t happy with my angle or composition! By the way, the backgrounds in the images are all natural (that is, they are not printed backgrounds as is common in setup photography for hummingbirds). The backgrounds are the out of focus vegetation of trees and shrubs and vines on the farms around our house.
After all the preparation, the trickiest part was handling the varied exposures I would would get. Literally, my exposures could vary by 3 to 5 stops in a question of seconds as things went from harsh sunlight to filtered overcast light (the best) to very low light as clouds moved through and enveloped me in misty, whiteout type conditions. This is the typical weather in the Costa Rican highlands during October. For this and a few other reasons, I chose to incorporate flash into the equation.
JUVENILE MALE FLAME-COLORED TANAGER. THIS IMAGE WAS MADE WITH NATURAL LIGHT AND TWO OFF-CAMERA FLASHES. THE FLASHES REALLY HELPED BRING OUT THE TEXTURE IN THE BIRD’S FEATHERS IN THE SOFT OVERCAST LIGHT. WOULD YOU HAVE KNOWN I USED FLASH IF I HADN’T JUST TOLD YOU?
First, flash would help me deal with the harsh shadows when the sun was out, give some nice pop and texture to the images with the bright overcast light, and would help me to deal with slow shutter speeds when it got really dark. Second, flash would allow me to control the tone of the background without having to worry as much about the exposure on the bird and branch. If I wanted to underexpose the background for a darker look, the flash would help me out by adding light on the bird and branch in the foreground. Third, flash would allow me to add some creative lighting (sidelight/backlight) for certain shots. And fourth, flash would help in freezing action for the shots where I wanted movement whether in the form of the birds squabbling on the perch or for the flight shots with the Photo Trap. To have the flash perform all of these functions and still look natural, it was imperative that I use the flashes off-camera in order to place them at the angles I wanted for a natural-looking result.
I WAS REALLY HAPPY TO CAPTURE AN IMAGE OF THE WHITE-EARED GROUND SPARROW. IT’S NOT THE MOST COLORFUL BIRD BUT I THINK HE’S REALLY PHOTOGENIC. FOR THIS IMAGE, I WANTED TO MIMIC THE SHAFTS OF SUNLIGHT THAT FILTER THROUGH THE CANOPY IN A CLOUD FOREST. I WORKED IN MANUAL EXPOSURE MODE AND UNDEREXPOSED THE BACKGROUND VEGETATION BY ABOUT THREE STOPS. THAT MEANS THAT PRETTY MUCH ALL OF THE LIGHT ON THE BIRD AND BRANCH CAME FROM ONE FLASH PLACED OFF-CAMERA. I THINK IT GIVES A VERY NATURAL YET DRAMATIC LOOK TO THIS SIMPLE PORTRAIT.
Though I used manual mode on the camera for the image above, I chose to work mostly in aperture priority on the camera and TTL for the flashes because of the ever-changing light conditions described above. For most of the shots I was in the blind, so I could have used manual mode and made adjustments to the exposure every time the sun came out and the clouds rolled through but, even though the birds are used to us, I wanted to minimize my movements in the blind. Using aperture priority allowed me to stay seated and photograph mostly with the cable release rather than moving around too much. And for the Photo Trap shots, manual mode could have resulted in wildly varied results as the lighting conditions changed; aperture priority ensured that exposures were pretty much right on or at least in the ballpark.
For the flashes, one might think that manual mode (where the power output of the flash is fixed by using the fractional values such as 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64, or 1/128 power) would be a good candidate for this work. In this mode the flash puts out the same amount of light whether placed one inch or one mile away from the subject. In this case, the spot where the subject would arrive was known, and the position of the flashes was fixed. Once again, however, the varying natural light conditions made TTL flash (where the flash output would adjust automatically according to the amount of natural light) a better option. This is one instance where the Canon ST-E2 flash transmitter is really lacking. One can’t control the output of the flashes through the transmitter as with the Nikon SU-800. So, I had to stick with the basic TTL flash settings/ratios that I wanted; doing otherwise would have meant going out of the blind to change each flash too often. This strategy worked out well, and I would basically change my flash settings when changing perches or when I decided I had what I wanted from one session and wanted to go for a different look for a while. Nonetheless, I would have been happy to be a Nikon shooter for this type of photography!
Aside from the elements of the setup design in terms of perches, backgrounds, overall concept for each image, and being able to get the birds where I wanted them, the key challenge was balancing natural light and flash to get the results I wanted. Though I used only natural light on a few images (when the natural light is good, I’m all for it!) the vast majority of the images benefitted from flash. Sometimes I used both flashes placed in front at 45 degree angles. Other times, I placed one of the flashes as a backlight. And when the sun was coming in from one side, I used just one flash as a fill on the opposite side.
As always, post-processing of these images is at a minimum. Some images are cropped to a degree because of the limitations of working from the blind, and on others I cloned out a an extra catchlight in the bird’s eye from one of the flashes. Besides those two things performed on some of the images, the other adjustments were the normal Lightroom image workflow (camera calibration, a bit of noise reduction, output sharpening, etc.).
I hope you enjoy the images and the process behind their making. I will be sharing these techniques and many more on my new small group tours in Costa Rica in June and October 2011. Look for news on those soon at this blog and at the Foto Verde Tours website. You can click on any of the images in the slideshow gallery at any time to visit the gallery page on my main website, where you can see larger images and full caption info.