Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Bird Photography Bootcamp

I've learned a lot this month. I recently strayed from my usual and traveled to Costa Rica. I went there with professional nature photographer, Bill Gozansky, who set me up at the La Laguna del Lagorto lodge, deep in the rainforest. He was my guide and teacher for four days. We packed in three full days (from sunrise to sunset and sometimes after sunset) and one half day at the lodge. While I was able to photograph a variety of animals, birds were greatest number, especially tiny birds.

I am a wading bird photographer, so my training has been relatively narrow when it comes to birds. Going to Costa Rica to photograph birds was kind of like a powerlifter deciding to become a runner.  I basically attended a "bird photography bootcamp" that challenged my skills in many ways and made me re-evaluate my photography techniques.

One challenge was background, an important element of bird photography. In the rainforest, everything is lush and green which can be very pleasing as an out-of-focus background. But it can also be very busy and contrasty. My first piece of learning was finding the right position and waiting for a bird to land in the frame.

Most of the birds I photographed were small, quick and unpredictable.  It wasn't until I examined each image from home that I began to see my errors. What I thought was a great shot ended up being placed aside as I noted an out-of-focus head and in-focus torso. Despite attempting to keep the focus directly on the bird's eye, sometimes I just didn't hit it right.

The other experience I had that was so unlike my typical bird photography days here in south Florida was the use of flash, which was almost entirely necessary. The rainforest can be very dark and shadowy and clouds often filled the sky. Low lighting was typical. While I never connected with flash photography for birds well, this experience, along with advice from Bill helped me to overcome my "fear of flash". The result was a collection of new images of beautifully colored birds that I can proudly display.

What resonated most was that I need lots of practice and I need to always be comfortable with my camera and lenses, especially the flash. Nothing about camera equipment should be intimidating to you if you want to be the best photographer you can be. My take-home message is: learn your camera, try new things such as flash, various focus modes, or if you haven't yet, use manual mode. The camera is a mere tool that you require to re-create your vision, you are in total control of it.