Set up or “Perch” Photography

Welcome to our 3rd issue of the Flack’s Photography newsletter. Thank you so much to everyone who wrote in. It was great to receive so many encouraging messages from birders, non-birders and photographers alike! Please keep the feedback coming and feel free to share the newsletter with anyone you feel may be interested.

At a time when many of us are still living in varying degrees of lockdown, we are being forced to look at more creative ways to photograph birds and wildlife. I hope this newsletter will give you a few ideas of how to do this, as I explore a form of photography that can be easily adapted to your backyard or garden.

This issue focuses on one of my favourite finches and what is arguably Africa’s prettiest; the Green Twinspot, and gives a few tips on how to photograph them and other birds using what is called “Set-up” or “Perch” photography.

Spots & Perches

Tsit! Tsit! The Green Twinspot’s high pitched, insect-like trill announced their arrival; mom, dad and juvenile were moving slowly through the thick undergrowth towards me. The light had only just started to filter through the thick, forest canopy, and I was sitting on a tree stump inside Kurisa Moya’s Twinspot Hide, hoping to get images that were 8 years in the making.

The newsletter’s featured image & one of Southern Africa’s most sought after finches; a female, Green Twinspot, selects the perfect perch to land on before making her way down to feed at Kurisa Moya’s Twinspot Hide in Magoebaskloof, South Africa.

I saw my first Twinspot at this very same location with my friend and exceptional bird guide; David Letsoalo, but before the hide was erected. It was two juveniles, and they only gave us a few seconds and a record shot before disappearing into thin air. Since that first unsatisfactory meeting, I have been somewhat obsessed by these pearl-laden finches and have searched long and hard to find more of them, and take photographs that show off their exquisite colours and mystical, forest environment. Little did I know that this quest was going to be fraught with many failed attempts and much disappointment, as these secretive birds, although locally common, are about as sociable as a bush-pig in a mielie field and even more skittish.

I came close to achieving my goal at Umdoni golf course a few years later. The environmental centre had a feeding tray that was regularly visited by the resident Twinspots, but the environment was just too dark and the surrounding forest too thick for the photographs I had envisaged.

Fortunately, while I was failing at many different locations, Lisa Martus and David (Letsoalo) from Kurisa Moya; an eco-lodge in Magoebaskloof, had been habituating their Twinspots at a hide made specifically for this purpose; giving guests the opportunity to see and photograph these shy, forest gems. Fast forward to December 2018 and I was now sitting on a wooden stool, about to point my canon 5d mkiv and 400mm Mkii f2.8 lens at one of these rarely photographed birds.

The forest conditions made for some moody photographic opportunities. On this occasion, this male Green Twinspot landed in a single ray of light, which had filtered through the canopy and made for a striking image. These tiny seedeaters can be seen from Senegal across to Kenya and all the way down to South Africa.

The only issue from a photographic standpoint was that they were flying directly onto the ground or landing on the hollowed-out log, which acted as a makeshift bird feeder, and where a reliable source of seeds had been provided by the Kurisa Moya team. Consequently, although this was my best sighting of these striking estrildids, the photographs weren’t anything to write home about, and didn’t do the birds or their habitat justice. It was like seeing the Incredible Hulk but not having any photographs to prove his existence (which has happened to me and is very disappointing!).

Despite the non-starter from a photographic standpoint, I used this first day to monitor the bird’s daily habits and learn their behaviour. This ended up being incredibly helpful for the days to follow, as the birds had a routine and knowing it helped with my future planning. For example, if you left the hide before 10am (after 5 hours of waiting), you would miss out on their return to the feeder, and consequently the best opportunity and light for photographs. I also observed that they always moved in from the left, where there was an area of thick tangles and dense cover, which would help me when setting the stage for their return.

After many hours of observation, I embarked on the next stage of my planning; I started to search for small, moss-strewn branches from the surrounding environment, which could act as perches for a few “set-ups” I had in mind. After finding a few good options, I spent the next hour setting them up at specific points above the “bird feeder”, where I thought these diminutive seed-eaters would be likely to land. I also placed them in areas where the background was largely clear or created a pleasing composition. To finish things off, I tested a variation of camera settings to get my shutter speed equal to or above the 1/200s mark and to achieve the correct exposure. After a very long day, my planning was complete, and it was time to head home and wait for what I hoped would be the big day.

A male (top) and a juvenile (bottom) Green Twinspot standing on the same moss-strewn perch I positioned above the bird feeder at Kurisa Moya’s Twinspot Hide. The male adds an incredible burst of colour to his forest habitat and I will never get tired of seeing him.

I was in the hide before sunrise, with my faithful, Stanley flask full of coffee and a heart full of hope and anticipation. Would today be the day? What followed was one of my best mornings of bird photography! You got to love it when years of failure and days of planning come together! The Twinspot family arrived at the same times as the previous day, they entered from the left and selected the perches I had laid out for them. It could not have gone better!

Well, that is not exactly true, it could have gone better; the male could have used my perch to do its courtship display, where he holds some nesting material in his beak and bobs his head up and down towards the female, moving in a side-stepping fashion. There will always be that! And I guess that is what I love about bird photography; there is always more to see, learn and photograph.

The male Green Twinspot on the same perch as the female featured in the newsletter. Twinspots are monogonous and sedentary, and therefor this couple has likely been together for a few years and made Kurisa Moya and the Twinspot Hide their home. One good reason to keep on going back to this beautiful eco-lodge!

Perch or Set-up photography

Camera and Lens: This issue’s featured image of a female Green Twinspot was taken with my canon 5d mkiv and 400mm f2.8 mkii lens. The low fstop of the lens and the use of very subtle, fill flash helped give enough light to capture this frame in dim, forest conditions.

Camera Settings: AV mode | ISO 1600 | 1/200s | f3.5 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | Fill Flash

Hints and Tips: “Perch” or “Set-up” photography is the practice of creating pre-defined environments on which you hope your photographic subject (in this case birds) will land or walk onto; from branches to sculpted mounds to flowers or other arty objects. Think natural looking perches that take an image from normal to eye-catching and out of the ordinary. These are usually “set up” where birds are drawn to a specific location by means of water or food.

African Birdlife, a leading publication on birds and bird photography out of South Africa, kindly published my article on this topic in their May/June 2018 issue titled “Setting the Stage: Tips for achieving more creative images”. The below section adds some more in-depth thoughts to this topic.

A Black-faced Waxbill lands on a carefully selected perch to match her dry, thornveld habitat at Limpopo Lipadi Game Reserve in Botswana. The subtle, background shades were a perfect match for this gorgeous species.

Build your own bird bath ~ In dry environments where birds are thirsty and looking for sources of water, there are some great opportunities to build your own temporary bird bath. For example, where birds are regularly visiting a waterhole, they often have specific bushes or trees where they wait before coming down to drink. Consider digging a small hole and filling it with water, right by one of these bushes or trees. You will be surprised by the number of species that will select your bird bath over the riskier option of flying to the waterhole. The next step is to position yourself out of view and at eye level with the visiting birds. I use a portable hide, which provides camouflage and allows me to lie down for this purpose, but you can also consider the cover of a game vehicle. (For your interest, this is the portable hide that I use, which packs up into a very small square and makes it easy to transport; Lenscoat Lenshide.)

Another option is placing perches around permanent water or food sources such as bird baths or seed feeders. And if these are not available you can create your own temporary “drip tray”, which as the name suggests involves positioning a bottle of water, that slowly drips downwards, above a water bath or tray. After a few hours or longer, birds will be attracted to the dripping and come down to drink.

This image of a Golden-breasted bunting was taken with fellow photographer and friend; Anton Kruger, at our “makeshift” bird bath at Limpopo Lipadi Game Reserve in Botswana. Anton kindly invited me to the private reserve for a few days and introduced me to his favourite waterhole; where he had been practising these set-ups in the past.

Spend time selecting the right perch ~ It is recommended that you spend a lot of time looking for and selecting the right perch, as this is what is going to take your image from ordinary to unique and standout. When I first started employing this technique I spent too little time trying to find the perfect branch, and in hindsight this was a mistake, as many of the photographic opportunities are unlikely to repeat themselves, and hence I missed out on getting it “first time right”. When choosing your perch consider the size of the bird, the surrounding environment and what could create an obstacle to a clear shot. I have found that the smaller bird, the more petite the branch you want to find and similarly larger perches for larger birds. Finding perches that best match the bird’s natural habitat can also increase the authenticity of the scene; for example, thorny branches for dry, thornveld species or mossy, green branches for birds specific to damp, forest environments. Also be careful not to select branches with too many protrusions or side branches, as smaller birds have the knack of standing right behind them and obscuring what would otherwise be a clear shot.

You should also consider the angle or curvature of the branch and how it is placed, as straight branches can be less appealing than diagonal or curved ones. You ideally want to lead the viewer’s eye towards the subject of your photograph. The placement of the branch in relation to the water or food source will also influence how the bird will position itself in relation to the camera. Side profiles where you can achieve focus on most of the bird are much better than front on ones, where acceptable focus becomes difficult. Finally, and possibly a subjective point, I like to find branches that provide some interest; be it thorns, interesting textures, pretty flowers or attractive patterns.

Violet-eared Waxbills are not easy to photograph, as they can be very difficult to get out in the open. When they are thirsty, however, they are willing to make a few exceptions. This male landed on a habitat-specific branch that was placed directly behind a small, temporary bird bath and allowed for a typical, side profile image. Settings: ISO 800 | 1/2000s | f6.3 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0

Check the background ~ Some bird photographers like to select backgrounds that are a single colour and completely unblemished. They may even choose to place canvas or cloth behind their staged scene to get a “perfect” background. That is one way to go, but I prefer backgrounds that have a little more interest and texture and that are from the natural surroundings. Whatever your preference, try to ensure that the backgrounds are far enough away to ensure that they can be blurred by a relatively low fstop, and do not distract from the bird itself. You can also consider looking for opportunities to frame the bird using light or dark backgrounds or help it stand out through subtle backgrounds. You can also look for opportunities to compliment the bird’s colour with matching or complimentary backgrounds or brighten up the scene with distant, colourful flowers or berries. The choices you make regarding the above will greatly influence where you position your perches and yourself, and will make a big difference to the final result.

The Green Twinspots weren’t the only visitors to my perches at Kurisa Moya, with Red-backed Mannikins (pictured above), Forest Canaries, Lemon Doves and African Firefinches being regular visitors.

Pack a good amount of patience ~ As with most photography, “Set-up” photography requires a ton of patience. You don’t just rock up and get the shots, rather you have to spend hour after hour, often in uncomfortable positions, until the birds you are looking for arrive, land where you want them to and then turn their heads to face the camera. The below image of a Jameson’s Firefinch is one example of where persistence beat resistance, as this tiny seedeater was less regular and more skittish than the other birds and far harder to get into the right position. Eventually he grew more accustomed to the small bird bath and came down for a lengthy drink.

A male Jameson’s Firefinch finally made his way down for a lengthy drink, after many days of waiting.

I hope this newsletter gave you a glimpse into the exciting world of Green Twinspots, and possibly introduced you to a few new techniques to improve your images during these interesting times. As much as I enjoy “Set-up” photography and believe it has its place, I will always prefer being on foot and capturing scenes that I stumble across or create through fieldcraft, as opposed to ones that are staged.

The next newsletter will focus on exactly this, as we travel to one of South Africa’s highest 4×4 passes; Naude’s Nek in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, in search of a very special endemic; the Drakensberg Rockjumper. Besides these unique and charismatic birds, this alpine habitat offers some of the best bird photography in South Africa and includes some jaw dropping avian wonders, including Drakensberg Siskins, Layard Tit-babblers, African Rock Pipits, Sentinel Rock-thrushes and Bearded Vultures.

I hope you will join me for this next adventure and as always I look forward to hearing from you! Your constructive feedback keeps the fire burning on this side of the newsletter!