Improving your Widowbird Shots

It is hard to believe that this is Issue 12 of the Flack’s Photography newsletters and we are already one year down the line. Born during the Covid-19 lockdown months in South Africa, these newsletters have been a ton of fun to write and I have really enjoyed the feedback and interaction they have garnered. If I haven’t heard from you already, please send me a note and let me know a couple of topics you may be interested in or what you would like me to write about next.

This month’s newsletter is dedicated to one of my favourite bird families; the Widowbirds! Named after mourning widowers, because of their all black appearance, these exquisite birds are an iconic part of South Africa’s grasslands and undoubtedly one of the most exciting passerines to photograph.

This issue will display some of my favourite photographs of these special birds and share a few tips on how to create images of your own.

A Long-tailed Widowbird glides gracefully across an open grassland at Thurlow Nature Reserve, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. This image really shows off the length of this incredible bird’s tail and captures the wings in all their glory.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 2000 | 1/8000s | f5 | Spot Metering | Exp bias +0.3 | no Flash

Improving your Shots

Although there are other Widowbirds in Africa, I am going to focus on the “fabulous four” from South Africa; the Long-tailed Widowbird, the Red-collared Widowbird, the Fan-tailed Widowbird and the White-winged Widowbird. I have spent endless hours with each species to capture them in flight, in their environment and up close and personal. Each species deserves its own time in the spotlight, as they are equally beautiful and fascinating!

Long-tailed Widowbirds

The Long-tailed Widowbird or “Sakabula” must rank as one of the most recognisable of South Africa’s birds. Its Zulu name means “flirt” or “show off”, which is exactly what these birds can be seen doing as they parade around South Africa’s grasslands. Most international bird photographers that I have spoken to, identify this species as a key photographic target for their trips to South Africa and often ask me when the best time is to find and photograph them.

My answer is always the same; summer and ideally the months of November, December and January. This is the height of their breeding season and when you are likely to encounter them wearing their “Sunday bests” and displaying to nearby females. Don’t come in winter, however, as you will be heartily disappointed, as the males transform into non-descript brown jobs; who are a far cry from their breeding alter egos.

For me, photographing Long-tailed Widowbirds is all about their glamorous tails! Indeed, it is their tails that are known to attract the females, and the longer and more extravagant they are the more likely the birds are to find a mate. Good portraits of beautiful, breeding males are hard to come by, however, as their rear-end appendages are often so long that it is a battle to fit them in and still achieve a pleasing composition. My advice is to step back a bit and give them space, as this will allow you more room for creatives compositions as well as the entire tail.

My favourite “habitat shot” of a Long-tailed Widowbird taken at Rietvlei Nature Reserve, Gauteng, South Africa. After watching this male for much of the morning, I identified one of its favourite perches and positioned myself to capture the shot I was looking for.

The most captivating image of this species is undoubtedly one captured in flight and that shows off the incredible size of the tail and how it often creates a beautiful wave-like structure behind the bird. The bird’s typical display flight is a wonder to behold. The male flaps his wings, hovers slowly forward and drags his tail in a half crescent shape behind him. Fortunately, this is done relatively slowly and repetitively, which gives you a good chance of capturing it with your camera.

This typical flight pose of a Long-tailed Widowbird was captured at one of my favourite places to photograph these birds; the roadside routes around the small, farming town of Devon in south east Gauteng (South Africa). They really are an amazing spectacle to behold!
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 400 f2.8 mkii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1000 | 1/6400s | f5.6 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

My favourite destinations for photographing this spectacular species are; Rietvlei Nature Reserve (Gauteng, South Africa), the roadside routes around the small farming town of Devon (Gauteng, South Africa) and Thurlow Nature Reserve in the Natal Midlands (South Africa). The density of the birds in these locations and the excellent photographic opportunities they produce, is what keeps me coming back to visit them year after year.

Long-tailed Widowbirds fly relatively slowly through the air in pursuit of nearby females. The gentle pace of their flight makes it a lot easier to track them in the camera’s viewfinder, allowing for some exciting “bird in flight” photographs. A good shutter speed is still a pre-requisite to freeze the flight motion of these characterful birds.
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1600 | 1/2500s | f5 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

Red-collared Widowbirds

One of my most recognized images is called “Medusa” and shows a Red-collared Widowbird shaking out its tail feathers on a beautiful, long grass stem at Rietvlei Nature Reserve. The image provides an example of how the striking, black and red colour of these birds can be used to create “high key” images. It also shows how the birds provide excellent photographic opportunities as they are constantly flicking their tail feathers out and flapping their wings to impress nearby females.

My image titled “Medusa” was highly commended in the creative imagery section of Bird Photographer of the Year 2020. It uses a “high key” presentation to create impact and help the Red-collared Widowbird pop off the page. Issue 6 shows the before and after of this image from a post processing perspective should you be interested.

“High key” is defined as something that is intense and “out in the open” and in the photographic world is used to describe photographs that are very bright and contain little to no shadow. This is sometimes as easy as over-exposing the subject by a couple of stops. It can, however, require you to pay considerable attention to the balance of light between the subject and its background, in order to achieve an image that preserves the fine details of the former but blows out the latter.

Black subjects with pale backgrounds lend themselves incredibly well to these types of images, especially if they have a splash of colour to boot. With respect to Widowbirds, often all you need to achieve this look and feel is a cloudy background, spot metering and a little overexposure if necessary. The contrasting colours and the curvature of the Widowbird’s tail can lead to some standout images.

A “high key” image of a Long-tailed Widowbird taken at Thurlow Nature Reserve. Besides cropping the image and increasing the brightness, little else needed to be done as the sky was overcast and lent itself to this type of photograph.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1600 | 1/8000s | f5 | Spot Metering | Exp bias +0.3 | no Flash
A “high key” photograph of a Red-collared Widowbird taken a few hundred metres from my home near Balgowan, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Again, very little needed to be done to this image to achieve the end result.

The wonderful thing about Widowbirds in breeding season is that they can be relatively predictable from a behaviour standpoint. Most of them have a couple of preferred perches from which they observe their breeding battleground and from where they can easily see and chase prospective female partners or competitors. Once you have identified these perches the next thing is to visualise the shot you want to take and position yourself accordingly. In the case of “Medusa” I did exactly that and was rewarded when the bird decided to land on his favourite perch and shake out his tail feathers against a clear, sky background.

Their predictable behaviour also helps with “habitat shots”, as it gives you the opportunity to plan for the shot ahead of time; allowing you to select the right distance from the bird’s perch as well as the framing and composition you hope to achieve. The rest then just requires a good deal of patience! (Issue 4 dealt with some thoughts around capturing “habitat shots”).

My most liked “habitat shot” of a Red-collared Widowbird taken at Rietvlei Nature Reserve, Gauteng, South Africa. This was taken after good summer rains and at a time when the flowers were in full bloom.
Another “habitat shot” of a Red-collared Widowbird taken near the Drakensberg Sun in the central Drakensberg, South Africa. I love how these stunning birds pop out from their environments.

My favourite locations for Red-collared Widowbirds are numerous but include open grasslands in the Central Drakensberg as well as near my home in Balgowan (KwaZulu Natal, South Africa).

A Red-collared Widowbird captured in flight in the Central Drakensberg. I had an amazing time photographing this bird as it flew back and forth from one perch to the next in a beautiful field of yellow flowers. (Edited ~ removed a small grass blade at the bottom of the image and to the left of the bird.)
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 400 f2.8 mkii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1600 | 1/2500s | f4 | Spot Metering | Exp bias +0.7 | no Flash

Fan-tailed Widowbirds

As the name suggests, these Widowbirds fan their tails out, as a means of enticing nearby ladies. While doing this they also flap their wings to add to the performance. Consequently, to capture the essence of this species you ideally want a fanned tail and an out-stretched wing or two.

A Fan-tailed Widowbird looking to impress in a typical display pose; tail fanned and wings out.

I have always found this species to be the shyest of the Widowbirds and very difficult to approach. This was until I went to Thurlow Nature Reserve (the reserve around Midmar Dam in the Natal Midlands) where these birds are as numerous as they are tame! This is a good reminder of the importance of researching and finding the best location for the birds you are looking to photograph.

One of my most popular portraits of a Fan-tailed Widowbird taken at Thurlow Nature Reserve in the Natal Midlands, South Africa. The conditions were cloudy and consequently, I over-exposed the image to bring out the blacks of this stunning species.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 3200 | 1/2000s | f5.6 | Spot Metering | Exp bias +1 | no Flash

Fortunately for me, I now have Fan-tailed Widowbirds a few hundred metres from my home, which has enabled me to spend the required time with them to achieve a few reasonable flight shots. The below image is one of my favourites and was taken with Afromontane forest as a backdrop.

A Fan-tailed Widowbird captured in flight just a few hundred metres from my home in Balgowan. These Widowbirds are much faster fliers than their long-tailed cousins and thus, require more skill and patience to be photographed in flight.

White-winged Widowbirds

The White-winged Widowbird occurs in north eastern South Africa and prefers areas of rank vegetation and water, such as moist grassland and marshes, but can also be found in cultivated lands. I have photographed them all over their north eastern range from Zaagkuildrift in the North West Province, to Rietveli Nature Reserve in the heart of Gauteng to Mkhuze Game Reserve in northern Zululand.

A “habitat shot” of a White-winged Widowbird taken at Rietvlei Nature Reserve in Gauteng Province, South Africa.
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 400 f2.8 mkii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1600 | 1/1250s | f4.5 | Pattern Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

Capturing these Widowbirds in flight with their bright white and yellow wing panels has always been one of my main objectives, but is far more difficult than with their slower flying and longer tailed cousins. Ensuring a fast shutter speed and practicing your ability to follow the bird in your viewfinder are key parts of your photographic success. (See Issue 5 if you are interested in hearing my thoughts on “bird in flight” photography)

Finally, a flight shot of a White-winged Widowbird taken at Crake Road on the well-known Zaagkuildrift to Kgomo Kgomo birding route.
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1600 | 1/3200s | f5 | Pattern Metering | Exp bias -0.3 | no Flash

Like the Fan-taileds, these birds also display to their females by fanning out their tails. It took me many years before I took a photograph that effectively captured this display pose. As with all Widowbird images it is important to expose the blacks correctly, so you don’t lose the details. On most occasions I find that spot metering really helps me in this regard, but depending on the light and background you may have to try other metering types and adjust the exposure accordingly. I always look to take a few test shots to ensure that I have what I need for the specific conditions.

A classic breeding pose of the White-winged Widowbird. Like their Fan-tailed cousins, they also fan their tails to attract the opposite sex.
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 2000 | 1/640s | f4 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

Why should you consider entering Wildlife Photography Competitions?

I recently read about a specific photographer who doesn’t enter photographic competitions as he doesn’t want it (or for it to be seen) to influence his ethics while shooting. The premise for this is that competitions drive photographers to behave unethically in the field in search of awards and fanfare. As much as I can understand this perspective, I feel it is a little narrow-minded and throws “the baby out with the bath water”. As much as competitions may contribute to unethical behaviour they are not the the source of it and, given they are well run, can have many other benefits both for the birds and the contributing photographers.

Here are three of the most important ones; firstly, photographic competitions provide a medium through which we can celebrate birds and drive awareness about their beauty as well as their need for protection. Most competitions have a strong link to conservation. Secondly, they encourage photographers to self-analyse their images, push their creative boundaries and by doing so improve their craft. Thirdly, the competitions I enter also encourage photographers to uphold strict, ethical standards in the field and in their post processing efforts afterwards. They have specific rules which govern this. In this way I feel that they discourage bad behaviour as opposed to encourage it.

An image of a Fan-tailed Widowbird taken at Thurlow Nature Reserve, which has been short-listed in BPOTY 2021. Widowbirds seem to bring me a fair share of luck, as this is one of three Widowbird images that has made the cut!

Hence, if you haven’t already, I encourage you to try your luck at entering one or two of them. I only started entering competitions three years ago and now annually submit images to Wildlife Photographer of the Year; Bird Photographer of the Year and Nature’s Best Photography Competition.

I really enjoy the process of selecting images to enter each year. I find that it helps me to be more self-critical and look for the smallest areas of improvement in my own work. Improving my eye for detail and looking for more creative compositions helps me grow as a photographer.

Selecting the right images to submit to photographic competitions is always a challenge. It requires experience and training your eye to identify the smallest issues as well as those images that will stand out from the rest. In terms of selecting the right Red-collared Widow image to enter as “Medusa”, I went for the one which was most unique and had the greatest degree of symmetry and balance.

I also love looking at the incredible images that are being produced worldwide. It is always such an inspiration and drives me to keep improving my own work. Undoubtedly, it is also great to see my own progress and to see if I can improve my standings from one year to the next. In my first year of entering BPOTY, I didn’t get any photographs commended. As disappointing as this was, it just pushed me to work harder and try again.

I don’t do photography to win competitions, I do it because I love birds, love being outdoors and hope to create a connection between people and these incredible animals. That said, competitions have their place and can really aid you on your photographic journey.

I hope my 12th newsletter has excited you as to the potential of Widowbirds and some of the factors you should consider if you want to get great images of them. I also trust that it has given you a few good reasons to try your luck at entering a photographic competition or two. You just never know, the next Bird Photographer of the Year could be you!

Yours in bird photography