AFRICAN BIRDLIFE | Setting the stage

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Tips for achieving more creative images

The current array of cameras and lenses available to photographers often means that a great in-flight photograph or a detailed close-up of a shy species is not necessarily sufficient to distinguish your image from that of others. Increasingly, photographers need to extend their creativity and think of ways to improve their craft. This is even more pertinent when it comes to waterhole or hide photography, as each photographer sits in virtually the same area, points their camera at the same subject and is surrounded by the same background and light.

So what can you do to create a special image in these circumstances, one with a different background to the norm, an alternative perspective or more artistic appeal?

You could wait – endlessly – for that special moment or species’ behaviour that no one else has yet managed to capture, or you could start to create your own ‘luck’.

I enjoy looking at the images taken by different photographers and then researching the methods they used to achieve those results. I find their compositions and techniques inspirational and it encourages me to continue to improve my work.

An example of being creative is to use perches for the birds to land on or to use as vantage points from which they can preen or scan their territory. The aim is to find and use natural-looking perches that can elevate an image from the ordinary to being eye-catching and novel. Many of my favourite photographers use this approach to create their memorable images.

There are a number of instances in which you can use ‘perch photography’ to improve the creativity of your images.

When at a hide, look for existing perches that could create something out of the ordinary and focus your attention on these. For example, look for attractive flowers or interesting foliage that could fashion a habitat shot or something a little more arty or eye-catching should a bird land next to them.

First, do no harm

When it comes to hide and perch photography, it is critical to be ethical and to use your good judgement. Do nothing to damage the environment in which you are working or to stress the birds that inhabit it. There are some excellent ethical guides available and before you start I suggest that you read Audubon’s Guide to Ethical Bird Photography. Be aware that this sort of modification/ manipulation of habitat should never be considered in a national park or in areas that have a high protection status. It would be best to work with your set-ups in a garden or, failing that, in a private reserve or area. While there certainly are some bird species that I doubt would ever get viewed well (let alone photographed) without set-ups, I do respect the views of those bird photographers who wish only to take images of birds as they see them. In a nutshell, always be aware that, as stated in Audubon’s Guide, ‘the well-being of the birds and the habitat must come before the ambitions of the photographer’. Enthusiasm has got the better of most photographers on occasion and we have all made errors in judgement, but acknowledging this and abiding by this principle going forward is key for the sustainability of our hobby.

At a waterhole, build a mini bird-bath next to a bush or tree that is well frequented by birds and arrange some landing branches in a natural position next to the bath. Place the branches at different heights and angles to take advantage of the various perspectives and backgrounds. Either lie under your vehicle or use a portable hide and position yourself setting a few metres from the action. You will be amazed at the results once the birds start coming in to drink. At a natural water or food source, search for branches or flowers that you can position at strategic points above and around the drinking or feeding area.

If you are photographing terrestrial birds, either manicure a raised area near the drinking/feeding area or look for your own ground perch and set it up in line with the birds’ usual approach route.

With those ideas in mind, here are a few other considerations to bear in mind.

Check the direction of the light and ensure that your perches are set up to make optimal use of the sun or light conditions. For example, having the sun shining from directly behind you when the birds are most likely to approach gives a good result.

Assess the background behind your perch: the clearer it is, the better. Ideally, try to avoid areas of strong light or with branches directly behind the perch and in the shooting line. Take a few test shots to check that there are no distractions.

Spend as much time searching for the ‘right’ branch or mound as you would for the bird you want to photograph. Selecting a beautiful perch can make a considerable difference to the result.

When choosing a perch, it makes sense to pick substantial ones for large birds and smaller perches for the less imposing ones, otherwise you run the risk of the perch, and not the bird, dominating the image.

You want your photograph to be as authentic as possible, so spend time finding perches that would naturally occur in the area where you are photographing. You wouldn’t want to photograph a forest bird on an acacia branch, for example.

Look for perches that add something artistic: for ‘raised’ perches, branches with moss, small thorns or gnarled bark can work wonders, whereas for ‘ground’ shots a flower, mushroom or manicured grass can do the trick.

Be careful not to select branches that have too many sub-branches or large protrusions because these will often obscure the bird. Inevitably, small birds tend to hide behind them just as you are ready to start shooting!

Get to know the behaviour of the bird species visiting your set-up. Birds often have a routine in terms of how they approach an area. Once you understand the direction from which they are likely to come, where they usually land and at what time they will probably arrive, you can set up your perches more effectively and be there to capture the action.

Be patient! Even if you have a great perch in your set-up, it can take many hours for the bird you are hoping to photograph to land or walk on it, no matter how strategic you have been. For example, on a recent trip to photograph Green Twinspots at Kurisa Moya Nature Lodge in Limpopo, it took me the first day to learn where to focus my attention, when the light conditions were optimal and how and when the birds were most likely to approach the hide. At the beginning of the next day, I spent time finding the right branches (very dainty ones, given how small twinspots are) and positioning them at the correct spots to work for the angle of my hide. After that, it took many hours of simply waiting before I got the images I was hoping to capture.

In another example of how to stage an ‘environment’, I crafted a bird-bath at Limpopo-Lipadi Private Game Reserve in Botswana in a bid to attract a variety of waxbills and canaries. I used a range of branches at different heights to set the stage for images I had not previously been able to capture.

Admittedly, ‘hide and perch’ photography is very different to searching for birds on foot and photographers run the risk of being accused of ‘manipulating’ the shot through the placement of perches (such as the use of flowers to bring in nectar-feeding bird species). I guess we all have different opinions about this and may prefer one approach over the other. I spend most of my time walking in nature and looking to create images as they present themselves in the moment, but equally enjoy the challenge of hide photography and using different strategies to create something out of the ordinary. I believe both have their time and place.