Deep Green Photography

TECHNIQUE -- Bird Photography, Getting out of the Rut

Blog, TechniqueGreg Basco25 Comments
 hairy woodpecker bringing food to nest

All of us go through a period of low productivity in our photography; we get stuck in a rut. Maybe we’re doing the same thing we’ve always done or perhaps we can’t envision how to do something different than what every other photographer is doing. Even though I used to be a moderator on the birds forum at NatureScapes (I stepped down because of time limitations) and seem to have a certain reputation as a bird photographer, I haven’t done much bird photography in the past few years. I’ve worked with a lot of workshop clients of course, but in my own limited photography time I’ve been busy with more landscapes and plants for a coffee table book project on Costa Rica’s protected areas. Perhaps this is a natural transition because even in my bird photography, I’ve always tried to do things a little differently.

There is a lot of chatter on the Internets these days about whether modern bird photography has become stale and if and how one should try to break out of the mold. Let me state that I don’t know that I agree with the characterization that bird photography has become stale. A number of bird photographers have helped to popularize a certain style emphasizing birds on attractive perches or in neat settings, in mostly frontal light with little shadow, and set off against clean backgrounds. This style can show off very well the beautiful details of different bird species and even hint to a certain extent at the habitat of said species.

Followers of these photographers, to varying degrees, have sometimes taken this approach to be the gospel of what comprises a good bird photograph. Photos that don’t subscribe to this style often are deemed to be simply incorrect or less worthy than others. I think it’s this misguided application of a bird photography dogma that has made many bird photographers feel boxed in. The spread of this dogma is surprising because many of the photographers who have helped to shape the currently popular style do appreciate different takes on bird subjects and even incorporate some different styles in their own photography.

A well-executed bird photo in the currently popular style described above is a good bird photo, no two ways about it. Just the property of being similar in approach to many other bird photographs does not mean that a great shot in this style is not a great shot. Done well, these photos show off the amazing beauty of the world’s avifauna. If you are shooting for stock with the intention of selling your images for bird guides and the like, composition, mood, and interesting lighting likely take a big backseat to simply showing what the bird looks like. Frontal lighting and a clear view of the bird are key if this is your intention.

Given the prevalence of this approach to bird photography, there are a lot of bird photos out there that look similar to one another. Indeed, as one scrolls through the bird galleries on a forum or on many photographers’ websites, everything starts to look the same, and anything different immediately jumps off the screen. But just as being similar doesn’t mean being bad, simply being different doesn’t mean being good. Yet I think that there is intrinsic value in trying something different. We all have photographers we admire in different genres. But would we prefer to copycat their images or to learn something from their approach and technique and then add our own personal touch or style? I know I prefer the latter in my own photography, and I imagine most photographers will agree.

So, how do you make a good and different bird photo? Put differently, how can you produce something that satisfies you as a photographer in trying to be different but also is accepted by photographic peers and the viewing public as being a pleasing, visually exciting bird photograph? In this blog post, I offer five ideas on how to get creative in your bird photography. Please note that I am not suggesting that incorporating any or all of these five ideas in a bird photo will make it better than a good bird photo in the popular style. None of the ideas here constitutes a condemnation of the currently popular approach. (Lawyers may recognize the previous sentence as a disclaimer. It is, so please, nobody sue me!) Nonetheless, note that if everyone followed my advice below and started making bird photos in this style, we’d probably be having the same conversation but we would be trying to break out of the different/creative mold 

As always, a little reminder that I work hard on the site. So, if the spirit moves you, consider buying your next gear through the affiliate links on this site; you pay the same, and I make a little something to keep the site going.


Five Ways to Make Your Bird Photos Stand Out

#1 Focus on Composition


The best photos in the popular style will boast pleasing compositions. Nonetheless, I mention composition here because I see many bird photographers buy a good camera and a big lens and then use them to produce frame-filling images of a bird with a clean background. With good equipment and good technique, this is not that hard to do for many species. More importantly, it rarely makes for a very interesting photograph. Sure you have the nice colors and details of the bird but in a more abstract sense, all you have is a big, vaguely roundish to oblong shape on top of a horizontal line with little negative space. This is not all that intriguing in terms of composition.  Thinking about composition when taking your photo, however, indicates that you are thinking like an artist, which makes sense. After all, isn’t it the beauty of birds that attracted us to photograph them in the first place?

A good composition can come in the form of a more loosely framed photograph that includes some surrounding elements. But it can just as easily present itself in a tight graphic shot of a bird’s face (my friend Greg Downing is very good at making great photos in this way). Simply filling the frame with a full body shot of a perched or even flying bird, however, makes it less likely that you will have a pleasing composition unless the bird’s pose itself adds some compositional interest. When I view bird photos, I like to look at thumbnails first. A good photo will jump out because of interesting lines and shape arrangements, even if I don’t know what I’m looking at!

Semi-plumbeous Hawk I photographed this hawk on the grounds of one of my favorite lodges. I ran to the balcony of an empty room on stilts (the room is on stilts, I didn’t run on stilts!) to get an eye level view. I took off teleconverters in order to frame this shot to include a little more of the rainforest habitat rather than filling the frame with just the hawk.

Semi-plumbeous Hawk

I photographed this hawk on the grounds of one of my favorite lodges. I ran to the balcony of an empty room on stilts (the room is on stilts, I didn’t run on stilts!) to get an eye level view. I took off teleconverters in order to frame this shot to include a little more of the rainforest habitat rather than filling the frame with just the hawk.


Coppery-headed Emerald When I was in grad school, I worked at the Missouri Botanical Garden. I always loved looking through books of botanical illustrations in the fantastic library there. For this multi-flash hummingbird shot, I wanted an image that evoked a botanical illustration and maybe an Audubon type drawing of birds. I was happy with the look of this image and the strong composition with the flowing lines of the plants

Coppery-headed Emerald

When I was in grad school, I worked at the Missouri Botanical Garden. I always loved looking through books of botanical illustrations in the fantastic library there. For this multi-flash hummingbird shot, I wanted an image that evoked a botanical illustration and maybe an Audubon type drawing of birds. I was happy with the look of this image and the strong composition with the flowing lines of the plants


Brown-hooded parrot Greg Downing and I set up this perch at a feeder knowing the bromeliads would add a dynamic compositional element. Working my depth of field to include a hint of palm leaves (but not too much!) added interest and even more tropical feel

Brown-hooded parrot

Greg Downing and I set up this perch at a feeder knowing the bromeliads would add a dynamic compositional element. Working my depth of field to include a hint of palm leaves (but not too much!) added interest and even more tropical feel


Tody Flycatcher I took this image a few years ago and still like it today. A touch of fill-flash helped to balance the exposure between subject and background, but it’s the arrangement of the lines that I liked when I saw this opportunity. The branches and leaves and the nesting material in the bird’s beak all add interest to what would otherwise be just another bird on a stick shot.

Tody Flycatcher

I took this image a few years ago and still like it today. A touch of fill-flash helped to balance the exposure between subject and background, but it’s the arrangement of the lines that I liked when I saw this opportunity. The branches and leaves and the nesting material in the bird’s beak all add interest to what would otherwise be just another bird on a stick shot.


#2 Start with the Popular Approach but Add a Twist

The popular style has appeal for a reason; the photos do a good job of celebrating the details and colors of birds. Even when shooting in this style, though, I try to add a little twist. This may be as simple as adding in some off-camera flash to give more texture to a bird’s feathers, choosing a background that is darker or lighter than normal, or placing the bird in a different part of the frame than is the norm. Another useful technique is the “shoot-through.” I see many people give up on an avian subject if it’s obscured by vegetation. This is when I start shooting!


Great Green Macaw This is a nice little portrait of a great green macaw. I had soft light, and the barest touch of fill-flash helped to add some pop to the image. What made the shot for me, however, was waiting for a slight breeze to ruffle the bird’s feathers and for the bird to open its beak slightly. Little things like these can turn a ho-hum bird shot into a keeper.

Great Green Macaw

This is a nice little portrait of a great green macaw. I had soft light, and the barest touch of fill-flash helped to add some pop to the image. What made the shot for me, however, was waiting for a slight breeze to ruffle the bird’s feathers and for the bird to open its beak slightly. Little things like these can turn a ho-hum bird shot into a keeper.


Female Oriole Singing in Cloud Forest I took this image at the feeder in my front yard a couple of years ago. A large but interesting perch, ambient exposure to darken the natural forest background, off-camera flash to give light and texture on the bird and perch, and the non-traditional placement of the calling bird in the frame all led to a bird setup image that has a pleasing, evocative feel to it and is quite a bit different from many others.

Female Oriole Singing in Cloud Forest

I took this image at the feeder in my front yard a couple of years ago. A large but interesting perch, ambient exposure to darken the natural forest background, off-camera flash to give light and texture on the bird and perch, and the non-traditional placement of the calling bird in the frame all led to a bird setup image that has a pleasing, evocative feel to it and is quite a bit different from many others.


Parakeet Pair I took this shot at a spot where I’ve helped the local lodge manager to set up feeders in the gardens at his house. Orange-chinned parakeets often visit, and I wanted a shot with more than one bird. For this reason, I chose an open perch. This shot is not a contest winner or anything, but having the two birds engaged with each other and curious about the photographer made for a nice little image.

Parakeet Pair

I took this shot at a spot where I’ve helped the local lodge manager to set up feeders in the gardens at his house. Orange-chinned parakeets often visit, and I wanted a shot with more than one bird. For this reason, I chose an open perch. This shot is not a contest winner or anything, but having the two birds engaged with each other and curious about the photographer made for a nice little image.


Curassow I did this little setup of a normally hard to see bird for one of my workshop groups last year. The perch is quite nice and appropriate for the species, but that’s typical of the popular approach when done well. The twist here is the busier than normal background, which is I think is integral to the success of the picture because it fills space behind the bird’s head (the composition would be awkward otherwise) and also gives us a good sense of the bird’s rainforest habitat. A more typical, smooth background would make this image a non-starter for me.

Curassow

I did this little setup of a normally hard to see bird for one of my workshop groups last year. The perch is quite nice and appropriate for the species, but that’s typical of the popular approach when done well. The twist here is the busier than normal background, which is I think is integral to the success of the picture because it fills space behind the bird’s head (the composition would be awkward otherwise) and also gives us a good sense of the bird’s rainforest habitat. A more typical, smooth background would make this image a non-starter for me.


Rufous-tailed Hummingbird at Ericaceae This shot is a case where I’m trying to break out of my own style  I’ve seen a number of photographers recently who are replicating my multiple-flash hummingbird photography style in terms of plant selection, composition, lighting, and backgrounds. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but when I went out last month to do some of my own hummingbird photography for the first time in a couple of years, I was thinking “Do I want to copy myself again, especially when others are copying this style, or do I want to try something different?” I decided to go for a crazy setup with a bunch of plant elements for depth, a wide aperture, and a mix of natural light and fill-flash. I don’t know if the result is objectively better than a classic multi-flash hummingbird shot but I think it stands on its own, and it’s satisfying to me as the result of trying something different.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird at Ericaceae

This shot is a case where I’m trying to break out of my own style  I’ve seen a number of photographers recently who are replicating my multiple-flash hummingbird photography style in terms of plant selection, composition, lighting, and backgrounds. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but when I went out last month to do some of my own hummingbird photography for the first time in a couple of years, I was thinking “Do I want to copy myself again, especially when others are copying this style, or do I want to try something different?” I decided to go for a crazy setup with a bunch of plant elements for depth, a wide aperture, and a mix of natural light and fill-flash. I don’t know if the result is objectively better than a classic multi-flash hummingbird shot but I think it stands on its own, and it’s satisfying to me as the result of trying something different.


Forest Falcon This was one of those encounters that makes bird photography, and nature photography in general, so fun. My friend Doug Brown and I came upon this juvenile barred forest falcon following an army ant swarm in the cloud forest. The shooting was tough as it was late morning direct sunlight. In addition, this area of the forest was light gap that was overgrown with a bamboo thicket, meaning our views of the bird were obstructed. Plus we were getting stung by army ants. But we persisted, and I was lucky to find a window to shoot through. I waited until a cloud floated past the sun and was rewarded with a shot that I think gives more of a sense of the barred forest falcon than any standard clean view would.

Forest Falcon

This was one of those encounters that makes bird photography, and nature photography in general, so fun. My friend Doug Brown and I came upon this juvenile barred forest falcon following an army ant swarm in the cloud forest. The shooting was tough as it was late morning direct sunlight. In addition, this area of the forest was light gap that was overgrown with a bamboo thicket, meaning our views of the bird were obstructed. Plus we were getting stung by army ants. But we persisted, and I was lucky to find a window to shoot through. I waited until a cloud floated past the sun and was rewarded with a shot that I think gives more of a sense of the barred forest falcon than any standard clean view would.


Deep Forest Pollination This is a multi-flash hummingbird that I’d had in mind for a while when I took it a few years ago. I wanted a strong composition with directional lighting and a dark background to yield a picture that said “hummingbird pollinating a flower deep in the forest.” The lighting scheme is anything but traditional, but I think it looks completely natural and has more emotion than the typical multiple-flash hummingbird image.

Deep Forest Pollination

This is a multi-flash hummingbird that I’d had in mind for a while when I took it a few years ago. I wanted a strong composition with directional lighting and a dark background to yield a picture that said “hummingbird pollinating a flower deep in the forest.” The lighting scheme is anything but traditional, but I think it looks completely natural and has more emotion than the typical multiple-flash hummingbird image.


#3 take photos in “bad” light

I’ve never been a fan of the old adage in bird photography to “point your shadow at the subject.” To me, this often will ensure a fairly flat look devoid of shadow and dimensionality. Frontal light is great for showing off all of the colors of a bird but it obscures feather texture. Not following this rule is in fact what led me to light my multiple-flash hummingbird photos the way I do. I think that looking for angled light can increase apparent sharpness and drama in bird photos.


Great Green Macaw Many influential bird photographers would tell you that this is bad light for bird photography. I was salivating when I saw this dappled light and shadowed background. To me, it really captured the feel of a macaw in the rainforest. I used just a hint of fill-flash to open up a touch of detail in the shadow areas of the bird. I could have used more fill-flash to completely even out the exposure but that would have killed the shadow, and it would have looked flashed.

Great Green Macaw

Many influential bird photographers would tell you that this is bad light for bird photography. I was salivating when I saw this dappled light and shadowed background. To me, it really captured the feel of a macaw in the rainforest. I used just a hint of fill-flash to open up a touch of detail in the shadow areas of the bird. I could have used more fill-flash to completely even out the exposure but that would have killed the shadow, and it would have looked flashed.


Chachalacascape At first glance, this didn’t seem like a promising bird photo opportunity. The flat cloudy light is coming from behind. The bird is an uninteresting species (dull brown and super common to boot!) and is very small in the frame. Exposing properly for the bird would totally blow the white in the sky. These are the reasons I took it, and it got me a very nice honor

Chachalacascape

At first glance, this didn’t seem like a promising bird photo opportunity. The flat cloudy light is coming from behind. The bird is an uninteresting species (dull brown and super common to boot!) and is very small in the frame. Exposing properly for the bird would totally blow the white in the sky. These are the reasons I took it, and it got me a very nice honor


Dry Forest Pelican If I posted this on a bird photo forum, I would be likely to read comments stating that I was in the wrong place as I needed to have the light coming from behind me. I could not disagree more with this kind of statement. To me, a successful bird photo does not mean that we need to see all of the colors and field ID markings of a species. That’s what bird guide books are for! I wanted a picture that showed how brown pelicans inhabit tropical dry forested coastlines in Costa Rica. Shooting into the sun in late afternoon gave me that story and evoked a warm, dry forest feeling. It doesn’t matter to me that the front of the bird is underexposed.

Dry Forest Pelican

If I posted this on a bird photo forum, I would be likely to read comments stating that I was in the wrong place as I needed to have the light coming from behind me. I could not disagree more with this kind of statement. To me, a successful bird photo does not mean that we need to see all of the colors and field ID markings of a species. That’s what bird guide books are for! I wanted a picture that showed how brown pelicans inhabit tropical dry forested coastlines in Costa Rica. Shooting into the sun in late afternoon gave me that story and evoked a warm, dry forest feeling. It doesn’t matter to me that the front of the bird is underexposed.


High-key Stilts Photographing black-necked stilts in a salt pond beside a mangrove estuary in Costa Rica a few years ago, I deliberately walked around so that my shadow was pointing squarely away from the birds! By shooting into the sun, I was able to wildly overexpose the sunlit water, ensuring a proper exposure for the stilts. A hint of fill-flash also helped to open up shadow detail in the birds. The result is a much more interesting and graphic photo (IMHO!) than I would have gotten if I had put the sun at my back

High-key Stilts

Photographing black-necked stilts in a salt pond beside a mangrove estuary in Costa Rica a few years ago, I deliberately walked around so that my shadow was pointing squarely away from the birds! By shooting into the sun, I was able to wildly overexpose the sunlit water, ensuring a proper exposure for the stilts. A hint of fill-flash also helped to open up shadow detail in the birds. The result is a much more interesting and graphic photo (IMHO!) than I would have gotten if I had put the sun at my back


#4 motion for emotion

Birds move. Indeed, their ability to fly is a principal reason we are fascinated with them. We see a lot of great images of birds in flight in books, magazines, and on the Internet. When conditions lend themselves to it (which is not often in the rainforest!), I’m always up for a good sharp flight shot. Nevertheless, showing movement as blur also can be very effective in portraying motion and adding interest to bird photos. The technique for good bird blurs is exactly the same as it is for sharp flight shots. We need to acquire the bird, maintain focus, and follow through while shooting as the bird moves across our field of view. The difference, of course, is that we are using a slower shutter speed. The result might be an abstract blur or it might be a decently sharp bird with a blurred background. Adding in flash is a great way to get a mix of sharpness and movement. There is a lot of trial and error involved with this technique, and the probablility of success is lower than blasting away at fast shutter speeds, but the results can lend some drama to any bird in flight image


Egret Dawn I employed flash and a slow shutter speed (1/10 of a second) for this image of cattle egrets flying up a rainforest river at the crack of dawn. Lining myself up against a shaded part of the forest on the opposite riverbank ensured dark water with faint green reflections.

Egret Dawn

I employed flash and a slow shutter speed (1/10 of a second) for this image of cattle egrets flying up a rainforest river at the crack of dawn. Lining myself up against a shaded part of the forest on the opposite riverbank ensured dark water with faint green reflections.


Snow Goose Canvas Here’s a non-Costa Rica image! I took this the day before the Bosque del Apache (New Mexico, USA) workshop that I lead every year with my friends Doug Brown and Keith Bauer. This was during one of the famed blast-offs where thousands of geese suddenly take to the air. This blast-off was triggered by a coyote lurking at the edge of the field where the geese were feeding. I went for a wide view and a slow shutter speed and even moved the camera slightly up and down while panning. The effect gave a canvas-like texture to the image that I really liked.

Snow Goose Canvas

Here’s a non-Costa Rica image! I took this the day before the Bosque del Apache (New Mexico, USA) workshop that I lead every year with my friends Doug Brown and Keith Bauer. This was during one of the famed blast-offs where thousands of geese suddenly take to the air. This blast-off was triggered by a coyote lurking at the edge of the field where the geese were feeding. I went for a wide view and a slow shutter speed and even moved the camera slightly up and down while panning. The effect gave a canvas-like texture to the image that I really liked.


Macaw Motion I had enough light here to pull off a sharp flight shot of this scarlet macaw. But instead of doing that, I stopped down my aperture and lowered my ISO to yield a slower shutter speed. Flash in manual mode added a bit of pop and sharpness to the macaw while maintaining the blurred background that resulted from panning.

Macaw Motion

I had enough light here to pull off a sharp flight shot of this scarlet macaw. But instead of doing that, I stopped down my aperture and lowered my ISO to yield a slower shutter speed. Flash in manual mode added a bit of pop and sharpness to the macaw while maintaining the blurred background that resulted from panning.


Honeycreeper Flight This involved a tricky setup. But let’s just say that I was able to get some honeycreepers to fly around near a feeder (no fishing line or anything involved!). The real hard part was balancing two off-camera flashes with the sunny natural light to obtain a proper exposure while capturing a mix of sharp and blurred motion. It took a number of tries, but I was rewarded with this image that I really like.

Honeycreeper Flight

This involved a tricky setup. But let’s just say that I was able to get some honeycreepers to fly around near a feeder (no fishing line or anything involved!). The real hard part was balancing two off-camera flashes with the sunny natural light to obtain a proper exposure while capturing a mix of sharp and blurred motion. It took a number of tries, but I was rewarded with this image that I really like.


Concentration Including motion in an image does not always mean catching the subject moving. Here is one of my all-time favorite bird images that I have in my collection. While out shooting and working on The Guide to Tropical Nature Photographywith my friend Glenn Bartley a couple of years ago, we came across this fasciated tiger heron fishing in a rushing river in late afternoon light. I framed loosely to take an image that showed silky water with an intensely focused bird. The exposure was 5 seconds or so! I like it because of the complementary colors and the juxtaposition of moving water and stock still subject.

Concentration

Including motion in an image does not always mean catching the subject moving. Here is one of my all-time favorite bird images that I have in my collection. While out shooting and working on The Guide to Tropical Nature Photographywith my friend Glenn Bartley a couple of years ago, we came across this fasciated tiger heron fishing in a rushing river in late afternoon light. I framed loosely to take an image that showed silky water with an intensely focused bird. The exposure was 5 seconds or so! I like it because of the complementary colors and the juxtaposition of moving water and stock still subject.


#5 include the surroundings

Composing loosely, whether with a wide angle lens or a telephoto lens, is quite difficult because good compositions are hard to find in nature. These types of shots, often called birdscapes, are basically landscapes with a bird or birds in the frame. And like any landscape, the shot needs to have compositional elements and light that would be interesting without a bird in it. Finding and recognizing the right combination of elements at the moment there is a bird in the frame means thinking less like a bird photographer than simply like a nature photographer.

In images that include more surroundings and thus a sense of habitat, I don’t find it important that a species is recognizable. In fact, not only do I find it unimportant, I don’t think that having a recognizable species makes for a better birdscape. Put differently, in my opinion, a good birdscape where a bird species is unrecognizable is not good in spite of this fact; it’s simply a good image. Whether to make the bird recognizable in a birdscape will depend on the photographer’s intent and the lighting conditions. If there is great backlight in a scene, I don’t feel the need to fill in the front of the bird to bring the shadow side up to where there is detail. If the light is more overcast, then simply capturing the available dynamic range will reveal pleasing subject detail.

Understanding exposure will play a key role in successful birdscapes because you’ll need to juggle mixed light situations and possible disparities in light levels between sky and foreground. Where a landscape photographer might do HDR or blend exposures, including a bird in the scene usually means that we will need to get the image in one shot to avoid movement issues. If at all possible when I see a potential birdscape that presents me with exposure issues, I’m thinking of how to incorporate a graduated neutral density filter and/or flash to help solve dynamic range problems


Frigatebirds Nesting This image was a classic example of having to deal with some challenging conditions for a birdscape. First, getting to the island where these birds nest was a chore. I headed out on a boat before dawn and then scaled the most inhospitable island slope I’ve ever encountered before trying to walk on vine roots about two feet off the rocky ground of the island’s top plateau. Cool place but I’ll be very happy if I never have to go there again! Once there, finding a good composition and then waiting patiently for the birds to feel comfortable with me was the next order of business. The sky was quite a bit brighter than the birds I wanted to photograph, so that meant a graduated neutral density filter on my wide angle lens. That helped but then I needed to tame some shadows from the increasingly contrasty light as the sun rose in the sky. On-board fill-flash took care of that problem by softening the shadows on the main bird’s face. After that it was focus and shoot handheld until got something I thought was pretty good. Scrambling down the island hillside was the last challenge, and afterward a nice breakfast before heading out to hike to the top of a hill in a nearby national park for some landscape shooting. Thanks to my friend Fab Tessaro and my son Chris Basco for accompanying me here. Remember how much this morning sucked, guys?  If you ever see me put this destination on one of my Costa Rica workshop tours, don’t sign up!

Frigatebirds Nesting

This image was a classic example of having to deal with some challenging conditions for a birdscape. First, getting to the island where these birds nest was a chore. I headed out on a boat before dawn and then scaled the most inhospitable island slope I’ve ever encountered before trying to walk on vine roots about two feet off the rocky ground of the island’s top plateau. Cool place but I’ll be very happy if I never have to go there again! Once there, finding a good composition and then waiting patiently for the birds to feel comfortable with me was the next order of business. The sky was quite a bit brighter than the birds I wanted to photograph, so that meant a graduated neutral density filter on my wide angle lens. That helped but then I needed to tame some shadows from the increasingly contrasty light as the sun rose in the sky. On-board fill-flash took care of that problem by softening the shadows on the main bird’s face. After that it was focus and shoot handheld until got something I thought was pretty good. Scrambling down the island hillside was the last challenge, and afterward a nice breakfast before heading out to hike to the top of a hill in a nearby national park for some landscape shooting. Thanks to my friend Fab Tessaro and my son Chris Basco for accompanying me here. Remember how much this morning sucked, guys?  If you ever see me put this destination on one of my Costa Rica workshop tours, don’t sign up!

Waterfall Swallows While out shooting with my friend Jon Fuller early this year, I got this nice little shot that’s basically about a tall waterfall in a cloud forest. The palm tree gives a sense of tropical place, and this would have been a nice photo without any birds. The addition of the diving swallows, which are not recognizable as a species, just adds a little extra element. I considered trying to get in tighter on the swallows but then thought the photo would be better by using my 70-300 mm zoom lens at 70 mm, as this produced a photo that shows little birds bathing in a tall cloud forest waterfall. That’s a better story I think than a tight shot of a bird flying against a whitish background

Waterfall Swallows

While out shooting with my friend Jon Fuller early this year, I got this nice little shot that’s basically about a tall waterfall in a cloud forest. The palm tree gives a sense of tropical place, and this would have been a nice photo without any birds. The addition of the diving swallows, which are not recognizable as a species, just adds a little extra element. I considered trying to get in tighter on the swallows but then thought the photo would be better by using my 70-300 mm zoom lens at 70 mm, as this produced a photo that shows little birds bathing in a tall cloud forest waterfall. That’s a better story I think than a tight shot of a bird flying against a whitish background


Lone Duck I was out with my friend Keith Bauer a couple of years ago scouting for our tropical landscapes photography tour when we got lost looking for a waterfall. We found this creek instead and at the base of a rock face was a lone whistling duck, which is something one doesn’t see very often. It was a nice setting so Keith and I both started with our medium zoom lenses, looking for nice compositions and employing slow shutter speeds (I think this one was 2 seconds or so) to get some blur to the moving water while the duck stayed still. We eventually got to the waterfall and took some good pictures, but this little birdscape was a great bonus 

Lone Duck

I was out with my friend Keith Bauer a couple of years ago scouting for our tropical landscapes photography tour when we got lost looking for a waterfall. We found this creek instead and at the base of a rock face was a lone whistling duck, which is something one doesn’t see very often. It was a nice setting so Keith and I both started with our medium zoom lenses, looking for nice compositions and employing slow shutter speeds (I think this one was 2 seconds or so) to get some blur to the moving water while the duck stayed still. We eventually got to the waterfall and took some good pictures, but this little birdscape was a great bonus 


Palms & Heron While in Costa Rica’s Tortuguero National Park shooting for my coffee table book last week, I had a number of photographic goals. Among them was a shot of the bare-throated tiger heron, a very common and photogenic member of the area’s avifauna. I didn’t want just a tight shot though; I really wanted an image that showed the lush vegetation of the park but included a heron. I was rewarded one morning when the motor failed on the boat I was in. While drifting around waiting for a mechanic to reach us, a tiger heron flew into a palm tree that was draped with a nice green vine. I shot some photos as soon as the heron flew in, but as we drifted away, I was able to include more of the scene for a pleasing composition. For me, it’s an image that really gives the deep forest, Amazon sort of feel that is the essence of Tortuguero. More importantly, my book publisher agreed! 

Palms & Heron

While in Costa Rica’s Tortuguero National Park shooting for my coffee table book last week, I had a number of photographic goals. Among them was a shot of the bare-throated tiger heron, a very common and photogenic member of the area’s avifauna. I didn’t want just a tight shot though; I really wanted an image that showed the lush vegetation of the park but included a heron. I was rewarded one morning when the motor failed on the boat I was in. While drifting around waiting for a mechanic to reach us, a tiger heron flew into a palm tree that was draped with a nice green vine. I shot some photos as soon as the heron flew in, but as we drifted away, I was able to include more of the scene for a pleasing composition. For me, it’s an image that really gives the deep forest, Amazon sort of feel that is the essence of Tortuguero. More importantly, my book publisher agreed! 


Pelican Reef While photographing coastal scenics from an ultralight plane for my coffee table book earlier this month, I always had an eye out for flying birds. I framed this shot loosely and placed the flying birds on the lower right power point for a pleasing composition. The inclusion of the coral reef gives a nice sense of place.

Pelican Reef

While photographing coastal scenics from an ultralight plane for my coffee table book earlier this month, I always had an eye out for flying birds. I framed this shot loosely and placed the flying birds on the lower right power point for a pleasing composition. The inclusion of the coral reef gives a nice sense of place.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post and that it gives you some ideas for your own bird photography. If you want to learn more of these techniques, consider joining me for one of my workshops. And please leave a comment below if you’re in the mood.

Cheers from Costa Rica!

Greg

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Gregory Basco

Greg Basco is a resident Costa Rican professional photographer and environmentalist. He is a BBC/Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Nature's Best Windland Smith Rice prizewinner, and his photos have been published by National Geographic, Outdoor Photographer, and Newsweek.