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Transforming Dull Settings: How to Capture Bird Photos in Ugly Locations

In my last blog post, one of the steps to becoming a bird photographer was learning to capture the bird in its environment. In that single statement lies a great secret of photography: It is the background that makes the photo. Look, for instance, at the photo below of the Australian Dusky Moorhen.

This photo was taken in a small pond in the Sydney Botanical Garden (Australia). As soon as I arrived at the location, I felt there was something special about the water plants. Although they were quite small, from some angles, I could make them look big, as if I were in a huge tropical swamp. I knew, however, that those stunning plants alone would make a rather boring photo. I needed a focal point. Luckily, about half a dozen Moorhens were swimming among the plants. So, I waited until one of them reached the designated location. And there, I got the photo I wanted.

In this example, it is clear how the background makes the photo. But what happens if you cannot find the right background?

Sometimes, you may find yourself in a great location for bird watching, yet as a photographer, you find that the background is not attractive, or even downright ugly. This was precisely the situation I found myself in when I arrived at some bird feeders in the forest of Germany. The area was buzzing with birds, but it became clear that those who set up the feeders, while harbouring a love for birds, had little to no interest in photography. The scenery was ugly.

At first, I thought that the situation was hopeless. But knowing the magic a long zoom lens could create, I picked up my longest lens (800mm equivalent) and searched for the right spot.  

There are two properties of the telephoto lens that could make the magic. The first is the narrow field of view. That is, the longer the focal length of the lens is, the smaller the area your image will cover. With an 800mm lens, I had an angle of view of 2 degrees. In other words, from 10 meters away (30ft), I would have a field of view of about 34cm (1ft). So, all I had to do was find a visually appealing 30 cm and position myself 10 meters away from it.

The second characteristic of the zoom lens that was to assist me in that unappealing scenery was the fact that zoom lenses have a shallow depth of field (DoF). In my case, I had a 6 cm (2 in.) depth of field. This meant that everything outside these 6 cm, including the branches, bricks, and dirt, would be out of focus and blurry and would not interfere much with the subject.

With my zoom lens, all I had to do was find a visually appealing 30 cm (1 ft.) without much distraction within the 6 cm (2 in.) depth of field, lie down 10m away from it and wait for the birds. The Great Tit was the first one that rewarded me with its presence. Note how blurry the background is, it nearly becomes a pattern that enhances the photo. Note also that the bird is about 14cm long. That is the entire image is about 30cm (1 ft)

And just half a meter (1.5 feet) above the previous point, I could find another appealing spot (which you can easily identify in the original photo of the location). Again, the entire image covers a length of less than 60cm (2 ft). As you can see, the zoom transformed the background. In this photo, to make the bird stand out even more, I darkened the background in Lightroom.

A few days later, it snowed, and I returned to the very same place, taking the same position as before. This time, I was fortunate that a flock of Yellowhammers came to visit.

Last but not least. The fact that a zoom lens has a very shallow depth of field means that we can use it to blur not only the background but also the foreground. In the image below, I stood behind snow-covered weeds. These weeds are completely blurred by the lens, adding softness and blurriness to the image for an artistic effect. It is a useful technique. Give it a try and see if you like the result.

So now that you know how to capture bird photos in ugly places, do you have any further questions about bird photography? Let me know, and I will answer them in a future post. If you have not subscribed to my blog yet, please click here and subscribe.


Happy nature exploration!

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