Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Backyard Bird Photography

My office is a cozy 8ft. x 16ft. nook, between the kitchen and the deck. There is a large sliding glass door facing East, that provides me with natural light and a view into the backyard. Our lot is 1/4 acre, as is our neighbors on either side and there is a wooded easement at the back of the property. All this helps to create the illusion that I live in the country rather than on the outskirts of a major city.

Some of the wildlife I can observe through the sliding glass door includes squirrels, opossums, raccoons, groundhogs and a wide variety of birds. I hung a bird feeder on a pole and positioned it in the yard so that all I have to do is lean over in my chair, just a little bit, to see the feeder and any birds that might be feeding there. The feeder attracts mostly Sparrows, Cardinals, Blue Jays and Chickadees.

While I enjoyed watching the birds the idea of photographing them at the feeder seemed cliche. But what if I hung a backdrop behind the feeder and photographed them while they were still in the air, just before landing on the perch?

It was Good Friday, the weather was beautiful and I had no where I had to be. I filled the feeder and hung a hand painted canvas behind it, securing it to the pole with A clamps.

I mounted a Canon 580EX on a stand and placed it on the right side of the feeder. This flash was about 6 ft. from the feeder and about 1 ft. higher. I zoomed the head to the 85mm setting to narrow the beam and minimize the amount of light spilling onto the background. I was going to use the STE2 infrared transmitter to fire the strobe, as well as control the flash exposure, so all I needed to do was set it for ETTL, set it to slave mode and twist the head so it pointed toward the feeder while the front of the flash pointed toward camera position so the IR receiver on the front of the flash would see the light from the transmitter.

I attached a second Canon flash to a table top tripod and placed in on the ground on the opposite side of the feeder. The settings for this flash were the same as the first flash but the head was pointed up toward the feeder. I now had created a one high, one low, cross lighting for my feathered friends.

I mounted a 300mm lens on my 50D and slide the STE2 transmitter onto the hot shoe. I then mounted the camera onto a tripod. Even with a 300mm lens I still had to get close to the feeder to even hope to fill the frame with little birds. I set up the camera about twelve feet away from the feeder then focused on the perches. I panned the camera to the side so that the perches were not visible in the frame and so that I could capture the birds in flight, just before landing.

This turned out to be more difficult than I had imagined. Even though the birds would land on the support bar above the feeder or on a nearby sapling before going for the feeder, tripping the shutter before the bird landed on the perch took total concentration, split second timing, and just plain luck. For every frame that had a bird in it I had three frames of empty background. Because I didn't want the feeder in the shot I had to pick one side to focus on. Left or right, decreasing my chances by 50%. This was going to take longer than I thought.

The amount of activity at the feeder seemed to have diminished by the time I started shooting. I came to the realization that I was too visible and that I needed some camouflage. I thought about giving up until I could construct a bird blind out of PVC tubing and some kind of material but then I remembered watching our son Wynn make a tent out of deck chairs and a old blanket. A few minutes later I was crouching in my ersatz tent awaiting the next avian visitor.

The House Sparrow was captured at 1/250th at f6.3, ISO 100. The camera was set on manual. I chose a shutter/aperture combination that I thought would be a good balance between stop action and depth of field. I didn't mind if 1/250 allowed a little blur in the wings I knew the short duration of the flashes would make a sharp base exposure. I new there would be some cropping involved so I wanted to keep the ISO as low as possible.

I wanted to make the flash light dominant and have the background dark so I under exposed the ambient by 1,2/3 stops.I was pleasantly surprised with the consistency with which the flashes fired given that IR tends to be erratic out doors, in sunlight. There were just enough hazy clouds to keep the sun from overwhelming the sensors and both flashes were in front of and at 45 degrees from, the transmitter. I did move the transmitter off the camera, mounting it to another small tripod attached with an off camera shoe cord, after I extended the lens shade which blocked the transmitter! I left the flash ratios at 1:1 and let the birds proximity to each flash determine which light would be stronger.