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Expect the Unexpected: A Vital Factor in Bird Photography

by Scott Leslie | December 1, 2006

© Scott LeslieI had been having a frustrating day working in my floating blind. Birds weren’t cooperating, the wind had come up, and it had started to rain. Enough was enough. After about three hours of lying on my stomach and fighting off mosquitoes I decided to call it quits. Just as I began heading back across the large marsh, I noticed a female Northern Harrier flying low across the water toward me. Just in case, I thought, just in case. So I swung the blind around and pushed some cattails aside to get a clean shot at where I thought the Harrier would pass. Just then, the low evening sun burst through the clouds in shafts of golden light, falling right on the area I had focused my 500mm lens. The Harrier hit the spot just seconds later, allowing me to capture her flight against a perfect background. I shot two or three frames. I quickly reviewed the images on the back of the camera. They looked good. Boy, was I glad I hadn’t given up just five minutes earlier. That’s the thing about photography, especially wildlife photography: some of the best images are made when you’ve gone a little past your “limit” and you make a conscious decision to stick it out for just a few more minutes.

I think it can be safely said that “good things come to he or she who waits.” No maxim rings more true in wildlife photography. When photographers go into the field to photograph wildlife, they go with an idea of what they would like to achieve, but, like a student of Zen, or a keen naturalist, they must be alert and receptive to a surrounding world whose agenda is quite unpredictable in its minute details. So, it’s all about waiting and watching.

Photographers can plan for the predictable big things; sunrise and sunset, autumn colors, spring blossoms, etc. But the special events that we capture are often not predictable to any real degree. Where will the harrier fly next? When will that raft of ducks burst into flight, allowing us to capture them just as they leave the water? When will the warblers be feeding in the sumac tree that is so beautiful? These are small events, unpredictable and brief. But with patience and awareness, we can prepare for unpredicted events.

As bird photographers we must learn as much as possible about the subjects we photograph. This knowledge enables us to know where to focus our attention while photographing. Knowing the behavior, habitats, and daily cycles of birds tunes us in to their lives and enables us to make educated guesses about what they’ll do next. Just the same, often what you thought would happen doesn’t happen when you expect it, so hanging in there a little longer might allow you to get the perfect shot whether you expect to get it or not! This approach has especially helped me with my flight photography of small birds, which are particularly unpredictable.

Be alert to your surroundings

If you’ve ever gone birdwatching with an expert birder (perhaps you are one yourself) you’ve no doubt noticed how they can pick out the faintest flash of color in the trees or notice sundry bird sounds you weren’t aware of in the background. They can “pick out the signal in the noise,” so to speak.

As a photographer it is often best to think like a tracker who is reading the surroundings for evidence of wildlife by using every sensory means (especially sight and sound) at your disposal so as to not miss anything. Everyone has the ability to heighten awareness in this way. Do a quick experiment. Hold your two index fingers at arms-length in front of your face and begin wiggling them. Now slowly move your arms to the side while looking straight ahead. Without looking at them, simply pay attention to both of your wiggling fingers as they move farther and farther to the side. Amazingly, you’ll be able to sense the wiggling over an angle of almost 180 degrees! Such a wide visual field helped warn us of predators in pre-historic times and enabled us to find potential prey of our own. We are at our essence acutely visual animals. This same physiological advantage can be used when we are in the field photographing birds.

The trick to becoming more aware of the things that our eyes actually see (but don’t necessarily register in our consciousness) is to relax the mind and focus attention on your immediate environment, paying attention to your whole visual field and not just what’s in front of you. If you practice this a little, after a while you’ll be noticing more bird life than you did in the past.

Owl in flight by moon © Scott Leslie

To help improve visual awareness of your surroundings and reduce the level of noise you make as you walk through birds’ habitats, try holding a level gaze rather than looking at the ground directly in front of you while being aware of the weight of your footfalls. While quietly walking, constantly scan the habitat you are in, sweeping your eyes over the near and middle-distant landscape to look for the movement, color, and shapes of birds, while opening your attention to any movement that may occur at the edge of your peripheral field. While most people’s attention will be focused on a relatively narrow “tunnel” immediately in front of them, your view will have expanded to almost 180 degrees and you will eventually spot a lot more potential subjects to photograph.

Hearing, like sight, is a crucial part of photographic field craft. Because birds are generally the most vocal wildlife, your ability to tune into the sounds they produce can mean the difference between finding a subject to photograph or not. In some ways our perception of sound works the same way as visual perception. As with seeing, we tend to hear only what we are “focusing” on at any given time, while subconsciously filtering out other sounds. As well, sounds in nature often occur in “layers” depending how loud or close they are. Layered beneath the obvious surface sounds such as a crow cawing are distant calls and songs (or even the flutter of wings) that may go unnoticed. As with sight, our ability to hear birds better can be improved by practicing a better auditory awareness of our surroundings.

The ability to employ these skills will help you enjoy your experience in the field with birds as you become aware of the ceaseless activity and diverse bird life found in areas that at first glance may not appear too promising as a good photo location. Few photographers can travel the world visiting all the hotspots where birds gather reliably and in great numbers. But if you learn to tune in your senses to whatever surroundings you are in at the moment with your camera, you can make many places a hot spot.

As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said:”If you do not expect it, you will not find the unexpected…” Expect the unexpected!

About the Author

Scott Leslie is a photographer and author who specializes in natural history subjects. His work has been featured in Birder’s World, Reader’s Digest, and Photo Digest, among others. His first book, Wetland Birds of North America, A Guide to Observation, Understanding, and Conservation was published by Key Porter Books in the spring of 2006. In 2007, two new books, Woodland Birds of North America, and Bay of Fundy Wild- A Visual Journey Above and Beneath the Waves will be published by Key Porter. Scott also runs bird photography tours through his company Kittiwake Photo Expeditions.

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