Man cave (Photo by Don Reimer)
Man cave (Photo by Don Reimer)
My earliest childhood memory of a photo camera was the boxy Brownie Hawkeye owned by my mother. In that era, people mailed their exposed rolls of film to be developed or dropped them at the local pharmacy for shipment. Weeks later we would eagerly examine the typically blurred images of favorite pets, birthday parties and family gatherings. Surprisingly, we would even double-order copies of these same photos to share with others.

When I first began photographing birds as an adult, I took digiscoped photos by pairing my 30x spotting scope with a small hand-held digital camera. Focusing the scope precisely on a standing bird, I simply aligned the camera lens with the scope ring and snapped the shutter. This technique worked well enough with cooperative stationary subjects, such as roosted shorebirds, but couldn’t capture birds in flight.

My present camera rig, a Canon 7D with a 400mm fixed lens, permits decent flight photos and detailed close-ups (on some occasions). Under optimal light conditions, the 7-8 frames-per-second shutter speed can freeze birds in photographic limbo. The versatility of digital photography affords immediate feedback to review and edit images. This review process is instructive about what we can do differently to improve future results. In truth, I use the camera’s delete button a lot!

While I’m not a polished photographer, I’ve acquired some practical knowledge through mere experience and experimentation. But what I’ve learned relates largely to the birds themselves rather than highly specialized camera techniques.

Getting close to birds when possible is a significant factor. Each species has a basic “comfort zone” where they will tolerate human approach without fleeing the scene. Birds accustomed to people, such as gulls and pigeons, are inevitably easier to photograph. Blue-Winged Teals are often confiding toward photographers; their smaller cousin, the Green-Winged Teal, is more likely to vacate during your immediate approach. Discreet judgment is required during nesting season not to crowd birds or disrupt feeding activities critical to their success.

So how do we get closer to our feathered subjects? Let the bird feel safe and natural while you approach. Move patiently and gradually, not rushing toward the subject. Take a few steps and pause. Instead of moving directly at the bird, try approaching from an oblique angle.

For instinctive survival reasons, birds are acutely aware of predators (including humans) observing them. Birds are expert at reading body postures. Therefore they may feel threatened if you stare directly at them or raise binoculars or cameras in their direction. Personally, I feign disinterest when approaching a suspicion-prone bird, and I may temporarily turn my back and face nonchalantly in the opposite direction.

Photo blinds are helpful at times. You don’t need to purchase a camo hunting blind. Being a natural cheapskate, I draped an old bed sheet (complete with customized camera port) across the curtain rods on my Man Cave one winter. Through that mystical porthole, I chronicled the social interactions of visiting eagles, hawks, ravens and gulls competing over a store-bought turkey I’d tethered in the snowy backyard. Your own car will also serve as a suitable roadside photo blind — you might start a new trend of drive-up photography! Some of my best photos were achieved straight out the car window.

Other photo tips? Focus your camera lens on the eye of the bird. Regardless of how crisp or well composed the overall image, an out-of-focus eyeball will detract from the photo. Best photo times are early morning or late afternoon — the “golden light” periods of day when birds are also most active.