8.4 Getting Close

With relatively few exceptions, the most common problem for bird photographers in the field is getting close enough to capture a detailed image of the bird.  Even exposure problems due to limited lighting often reduce to the problem of getting close enough for the effective use of flash.  And although there are certainly many instances in which the scenery itself can carry the image and the bird therefore needn’t be especially large in the frame, for hopelessly obsessed bird-lovers the feathered subject rarely seems to be close enough to the camera.  In this section we’ll survey quite a wide variety of approaches to solving this most fundamental of problems.

Fig. 8.4.1 : Getting close usually isn’t this easy.  In this case, the
enterprising tourist was able to get close to these free-ranging
wild birds because they had become accustomed to human
contact.  City parks often have the tamest birds, for precisely
this reason.

    The first task in getting close to the bird is just finding the bird.  For birds that aren’t terribly common in your area of residence, it’s often better to make a special trip to some place where that bird is common, than to try to capture the occasional image of the bird in suboptimal habitat.  As a case in point, I used to spend many hours trying to get just one good warbler photo in my home town; now I instead make a yearly 10-day trip to a warbler hot-spot far from home, where I can get a hundredfold more photos of warblers in a single day than I could back home in an entire season.  It’s a simple matter of efficiency.  It’s more efficient for me to drive nine hours to Ohio and intensively shoot for ten days, than to spend hundreds of hours scouring the local parks in the North Carolina piedmont (where I live) for a few mediocre warbler photos.
    For birds that are common in your home area, there are some definite strategies that you can employ to (hopefully) improve your rate of contact with those birds.  The first strategy is to cast a wide net for information about bird concentrations.  Your local bird clubs or online forums and e-mail listserves are good starting points.  Other birders can be a truly invaluable source of information about recent bird sightings and also about observation sites that you may not know about (especially sites that aren’t part of any official park).
    Within a park or other natural area, a general strategy for finding the species you’re looking for is to seek out the wandering, mixed-species flocks that commonly rove about, especially during non-breeding seasons.  In North America, for example, chickadees and titmice (genus: Parus) often wander about together, and other birds such as warblers and the like sometimes tag along behind them.  So, even if you’re not especially interested in chickadees or titmice, it may be productive to hike around till you find a roving flock of these common birds, and to then seek out the hangers-on that follow in their wake.  Keep in mind also that even photos of common birds can unexpectedly turn out to be exceptional, if they capture the bird in a novel pose or with a particularly striking background.
    An especially effective strategy is one that can be summed up in a single word: opportunism.  My personal philosophy is that by just wandering around photographing the common birds that happen by, I should over the course of enough time also encounter a goodly number of less-common birds without having to specifically seek them out.  In my experience, seeking out a particular species of bird most often results in a depressingly low rate of
return on investment.  When I go out in the field I simply seek out any birds that I can find; in the process, I might also encounter a number of unexpected varieties that in time can swell the species diversity of my portfolio.  The advantage of being an opportunist is that you can avoid the frustration of failing to find the bird you seek, while occasionally reaping the rewards of the chance encounter with an unsought, but highly appreciated, rare sighting. 
    There’s an old saying that
the harder you work, the luckier you get.  This is, in fact, a mathematical truth: as long as a desired event isn’t completely precluded, the more chances you incur the greater the overall probability that it will occur at least once over the aggregate trials (or, more compactly: limn–>inf 1(1p)n=1, for 0<p<1).  What this means for the opportunistic bird photographer is that the more time you spend in the field, the more high-quality photos you should get (on average).  As I look back on some of my own favorite photos, it becomes increasingly clear to me that I owe those images to my large investment of time in the field collecting lucky shots.  There’s no substitute for excessive amounts of time spent in the field.
    While we’re on the topic of time, it’s worth mentioning what should probably be obvious for any experienced bird watcher—that early mornings and (to a lesser extent) early evenings can be especially productive times of the day for bird photography.  We’ve already commented on the potential for sunset images (section 8.2).  The hours spanning sunrise and early morning are potentially more important for many birds that have fasted all night and need to procure calories to fuel their elevated metabolism.  When traveling to an exotic location for the purpose of bird photography, it can be especially critical to put in morning and late afternoon hours.  In the hour before sunset many birds can be on the move in search of roosting spots, or in search of those last few calories needed to keep their metabolism going till morning.  The low angle of sunlight can also be beneficial at these times.
    Although some people consider it
cheating, a great way to increase your contacts with birds is to bring them to you, by drawing them in with bait.  Setting up a birdfeeder close outside your window can be extremely effective at bringing granivores (seed-eating birds) and nectarivores (i.e., hummingbirds) within shooting range. 

Fig. 8.4.2 : Bribery is sometimes the best way to get what you want.
Carrying a small bag of birdseed with you in the field can sometimes
prove useful for attracting granivorous birds.  I’ve used this trick in
winter in areas where the birds could be heard but not seen. 
Spreading a bit of seed on open surfaces can sometimes bring
them out where you can get photos of them.

Fruit-eating birds can also be drawn in by setting out oranges or other types of fruits; some people have also had luck drawing in orioles and other frugivores by putting out some jelly, though this can be dangerous for hummingbirds because they can get the jelly on their feathers and then get stuck or become unable to fly.  Suet also brings in many birds, including woodpeckers and even some warblers.

Fig. 8.4.3 : For some birds, fruit is a much better form of
bribery than birdseed.  In addition to oranges, I’ve had
luck bringing in various frugivores with bananas,
cantaloupes, and even pineapples.

Away from home, bait can still be used, though some care must be taken to ensure that legal and ethical considerations are observed.  In many parks and wildlife preserves the feeding of any animal is prohibited, and these prohibitions are often put in place to protect the animals.  Feeding fish to waterbirds at a fishing pier, for example, can be detrimental to the birds since it’s likely to condition them to loiter at the pier, where the constant presence of fish hooks can be a serious threat. 

Fig. 8.4.4 : Grains and fruits won’t work for carnivores.  In environments
harboring many carnivorous waterbirds such as herons, egrets, and pelicans,
a good strategy is to pick up a box of frozen sardines from the local bait shop
and let them thaw in a cooler of tap water so you can set them out for any
hesitant birds you may encounter in the field.  I’ve only done this once (in
Florida), but it worked like a charm, and I’ll probably do it again when I
next have the opportunity.

    Zoos and other places with captive birds—while again technically
cheating according to some people—are also great places to get intimate shots of otherwise hard-to-find birds.  For those of us who have to work for a living (doing something other than photography), the time and money constraints typically make a trip to the zoo much more feasible than a trip to Antarctica or Africa.  There are some caveats involved with shooting at zoos, however.
    First, note that some zoos (such as the San Diego Zoo) prohibit commercial use of photos taken of their animals.  Technically, this means you wouldn’t be able to sell your prints or publish your images in a magazine (see Chapter 14 for tips on selling bird photos).  Some might also ban professional (or even professional-looking) photographers, so be sure to call first and ask about their policies).
    A major difficulty in shooting zoo animals is that there will typically be a cage or glass enclosure that you have to shoot through.  Glass can be a problem for flash photography, due to the reflection from the glass; in some cases this can be mitigated by shooting at an oblique angle to the glass, so the light reflects away from the camera rather than toward it.  I generally don’t bother trying to shoot through glass at all, because it’s usually so scratched and dirty that the resulting image would be terrible anyway.
    Shooting through wire mesh, on the other hand, can often work surprisingly well.  The trick is to get as close to the mesh as possible, and wait until the bird is far from the mesh.  Since you’ll be focusing on the bird, which is far from the mesh, the mesh should be rendered out of focus if you use a large enough aperture.  In many cases you won’t be able to tell from the image that the bird was in a cage.  Obviously, you’ll want to ensure that the background contains no visible man-made objects, if at all possible.

Fig. 8.4.5 : Photographing birds behind glass or wire mesh requires some care.
For glass, either don’t use flash, or use an oblique angle to avoid flash glare.
For wire mesh, put your lens as close to the mesh as possible and use a shallow
depth-of-field to render the mesh completely out of focus.  The above photo was
taken through wire mesh, which is so out-of-focus it’s invisible.

    Even in the wild, there are some locations in which the birds are much tamer than elsewhere.  At many locations in Florida, for example, the birds are so tame that you can literally walk right up to the bird and take its photo from a distance of mere yards or even feet.  Elsewhere, birds tend to be approachable in small city parks more than in outlying suburban parks, because the birds living there are constantly exposed to people and are less wary of them.  Formal gardens can be great places to find granivores, due to the availability and variety of seeds year-round.  Duck ponds where children feed the ducks are likewise very productive.
    For truly wild birds out in the wilderness, a good strategy for increasing your sightings of the bird is to find its nest.  During the breeding season, finding an active bird’s nest is like a give from heaven.  When the chicks are in the nest the adults can be expected to return regularly to deliver food, and these comings and goings provide opportunities for getting the bird in flight.  Finding nests can be very difficult; one strategy for finding them is to follow the birds in the field, and especially take note of any bird that you repeatedly see flying by in the same direction over the course of an hour or so.

Fig. 8.4.6 : Finding a nest can be a godsend.  In spring, take particular note
of any bird that seems to be flying repeatedly to the same location, or that
flies past you going in the same direction.  It could be a parent making
frequent deliveries to a nest full of chicks.

If you do find a bird’s nest, be extremely careful not to endanger the birds by getting too close.  Some birds, such as bald eagles, can be extremely sensitive to the presence of humans close to the nest, and may abandon the nest (and the chicks) if they feel harassed.  Also, walking right up to the tree in which a bird is nesting can lead raccoons to the nest by laying a trail of your scent up to the tree; many naturalists who’ve tried to help out a bird family by removing parasitic cowbirds or cuckoos from another species nest have returned the following day to find that raccoons came during the night and ate the remaining chicks.  Always keep the safety and comfort of the bird at the very top of your priority list whenever you’re in the field, and most especially so at nests.
    In addition to nests, another good find is a favorite perch.  Some exposed snags make such good perches that many different birds can be seen using them over time.  Some birds have a daily routine that places them on a particular perch at nearly the same time every day.  If you find a situation like this, you can set up shop near the perch and wait for the bird to come; landing shots of a bird approaching a perch can be very nice.

Fig. 8.4.7 : If you know the bird’s daily schedule, you can try to get to
where it’s going before it gets there.  For the photo above, I knew that
the birds would be coming in for the 3:30pm daily feeding at the wild
bird center in the Florida keys.  They show up like clockwork every day.

    For waterbirds the way to get close is to approach low by crawling or slithering on your belly up to the edge of the water.  By staying low you can either avoid being seen by the bird, or avoid scaring it away if it does see you; a low angle is also a good one for artistic reasons (see section 8.2).  There are some things you can do to make such a low approach easier.  First, using a frying pan as mentioned earlier can make it much easier to slide your large camera rig along.  Wearing gloves and knee pads can reduce some of the discomfort when crawling on your hands and knees, though obviously your gloves could get very dirty and then be useful later when operating the camera.  While sliding over hard mud or sand, a tarp can be used to keep your clothes from getting too soiled, though doing so quietly can be very difficult.

Fig. 8.4.8 : A frying pan can be useful not only when shooting from a low
angle, but also when approaching on your hands and knees, since you can
slide the pan and its contents along on the ground ahead of you.

    A popular way to get close to birds in the wild is to stake out a photo blind.  I’ve rarely had any luck with this, because there aren’t many blinds in the places where I go, and the’re rarely located exactly where the birds are.  An alternative is to use some sort of portable blind.  Small, lightweight camouflage tents are available from hunting supply stores; these can be can be carried fairly easily in the field and then set up wherever needed, though they tend to be cramped and in the summer they can get quite hot inside.  An even more flexible alternative is to use what might be called a wearable blind—that is, to apply heavy camouflage to yourself and your equipment, so that all you need to do when you find a good location for shooting is to just remain still and effortlessly blend in.  The photo below (courtesy of Fred Hurteau) illustrates this strategy very nicely.

Fig. 8.4.9 : Camouflaging yourself and your photo rig can sometimes be as effective as
using a stationary photo blind, while permitting far greater mobility. 
Photo ©Fred Hurteau, used with permission.

    In some places you can use your car as a blind.  Sitting in the car with your lens resting on the window frame, you can sometimes gain the trust of birds easier than if you were standing outside your car.  The hawk photo shown below was captured this way.  The bird was actually hunting along a busy road when I happened to be driving by.  Over the course of twenty minutes I was able to progressively reposition my car until I was within about 20 feet of the bird.  Note that the background of the image has been replaced in Photoshop; the original background featured a hotdog stand (!).

Fig. 8.4.10 : A hawk I photographed from my car.  I found this bird
hunting next to the road.  I pulled over and slowly positioned my
car within shooting range.  Because the background included a
hotdog stand, I replaced it in Photoshop.

You can buy special window-mount supports for your lens to use in the car, but I’ve never tried these.  In the few cases where I’ve used my car as a blind, the use of special window-mounting hardware either would have taken too long to set up, or simply wasn’t needed.  Just be careful not to drop your lens out the window (or to accidentally press the electronic window control).
    When approaching any bird, it’s obviously important to try to avoid getting so close that you scare off the bird.  One way to do this is to watch the bird very carefully and study its behavior for any signs that the bird is becoming alarmed.  If the bird continues foraging without taking any notice of you, it’s usually safe to continue approaching (slowly).  If the bird stops what it
s doing and looks at you (even if with only one eye), it’s best to stop your approach, remain very still, and wait to see what the bird does next; it may even help to turn around and face away from the bird, to allay any fears the bird may have that you’re a predator hunting for food.  Depending on how desperate you are to get any photo of the bird at all, you may want to hold off flashing the bird until it again appears relaxed, since flash might scare off an already alarmed bird.  And as already mentioned, always respect the bird.
    There are a number of factors that can influence how approachable a bird is.  As previously mentioned, birds living in city parks tend to be more approachable than the same species living in secluded areas.  Juveniles tend to be more approachable than adults (a good thing to keep in mind in summer).  Predatory birds feeding on large prey items are sometimes more approachable than they otherwise would be (since flying off would probably mean losing their meal). 
The species of the bird matters too: belted kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon) are usually very difficult to get close to, while saw-whet owls (Aegolius acadicus) are reputed to be so approachable that it’s possible to walk right up to the bird and photograph it with a macro lens.  Finally, daily contact with the same individual will sometimes allow you to earn the bird’s trust (to some degree).  In the case of the osprey (Pandion haliaeetus) photo below, I was standing almost directly beneath the bird; most raptors would fly off before you even got close to the tree.  In this case, the bird was a juvenile with a carcass, and had become accustomed to my presence over the course of several weeks. 

Fig. 8.4.11 : An osprey I photographed while standing almost directly beneath it.
Several factors allowed me to get so close.  First, the bird is a juvenile.  Second, the
bird was familiar with me and my camera rig, since it saw me almost every day at
its nest while it was growing up.  Finally, the bird was feeding on a carcass, which
would have been slightly inconvenient to fly away with.

    One strategy that will occasionally pay off is to observe which way a foraging bird or flock is moving, and to position yourself so as to be in the bird’s path.  In other words, let the bird come to you.  I’ve found that birds will often come much closer to me than they’ll let me approach them.  This strategy also has the advantage that it allows you to get some test shots (to fine-tune your exposure and flash ratio) while the bird is approaching you; taking test shots while you’re approaching the bird can often be much more difficult (e.g., when you’re crawling on your belly or have your tripod slung over your shoulder).

Fig. 8.4.12 : Instead of approaching the bird, it’s sometimes better to wait for
the bird to approach you.  When I saw that this sandpiper was foraging along
a narrow strip of land bordering a pond, I positioned myself further along the
shore and waited.  Once it had approached to within shooting distance, I
continued to wait until the bird presented a good pose.  When the bird began
stalking a fly perched on a wooden piling nearby, I knew the right moment was near.

    If you do decide to approach the bird (rather than waiting for it to approach you), there are several important things to keep in mind.  First, many birds are suspicious of long, gun-shaped objects, so be careful about swinging your huge lens or tripod around when you’re within firing distance of the bird.  Move slowly and try to avoid moving directly toward the subject.  If the bird is looking in your direction, then try to avoid staring at it while you approach obliquely.  If there’s a wide-boled tree between you and the bird, it sometimes helps to first move yourself behind the tree so that the bird can’t see you; then walk straight toward the tree (remaining out of the bird’s view), and upon reaching the tree step out very slowly from behind it.  This sometimes allows you to approach the bird far more rapidly than if you had to slowly walk toward it in open view, and the savings in time may buy you a few additional shots before the bird eventually finishes its business (whatever that happens to be) and flies off.
    In terms of actually finding birds to photograph, there are two main strategies: the sit-and-wait approach, and deliberate searching (which usually means wandering around at random).  Which strategy is better depends on the circumstances.  I find that actively searching (i.e., wandering aimlessly) often works better for me, in the types of locations where I go to do my birding.  I typically only try the sit-and-wait approach when I’m at a concentrated food source (such as a berry bush) that I think birds are likely to visit regularly, and even then I usually give up and revert to wandering if they don’t show up within a certain amount of time.
    Around water, searching for birds or following them once you’ve found them can get tricky.  Some people like to do their birding in these types of environments by boat (i.e. in a canoe or kayak), though personally I’m rather hesitant to try this, due to the possibility of water damage to my equipment.  The potential for getting close to otherwise inaccessible birds, however, makes this a very tempting option.  Serious waterbirders have been known to go to great lengths to camouflage their crafts, resulting in floating photo blinds that can get their occupant within literally inches of their quarry.  The photo below (courtesy of Fred Hurteau) illustrates just how cryptic these vessels can be made to be. 

Fig. 8.4.13 : Believe it or not, there’s a boat in this picture!  The heavily camouflaged
boat is
parked at the edge of a lake, and its occupant, also heavily camouflaged,
is wielding a camera with a small lens.  A rig like this can sometimes get you so
close to your quarry that you don’t need a big lens to get a frame-filling shot.
Photo ©Fred Hurteau, used with permission.

    For shallow water (such as in a marsh, or along a lakeshore), the use of a boat may be overkill.  For these types of environments, wading boots can be very useful when trying to find or follow a bird.  I’ve personally used thigh waders fairly extensively while following prothonotary warblers (Protonotaria citrea) around in a marshy area at the edge of a lake, and also for getting better angles when shooting tame ducks at a duck pond.  Though I’ve not yet tried using chest waders, I’d imagine that they could provide even more flexibility in environments with moderately deep water.

Fig. 8.4.14 : Prothonotary warbler photographed at the edge of a shallow pool.
To get this angle I had to wade in knee-deep water; thigh waders kept me dry.  I
followed this individual bird around, off and on, for about eight hours one day as it
foraged in a marshy area next to a lake.  Without the wading boots I would have
been much less comfortable.  Note that after eight hours the bird was still
  but I had to go home because I was dead-tired from hand-holding my huge lens
  all day.  Its the only time Ive had my rear-end handed to me by a three-inch bird.

    It goes without saying that the use of higher-magnification optics effectively gets you closer to the bird—or rather, moderates the necessity of getting as close (physically) as you’d otherwise need to do.  Higher magnification (i.e., focal length) can help only so much, however, and can in some cases be a hindrance.  When shooting over a large distance at high magnification, air turbulence and even impurities (including even swarms of insects) in the air can noticeably degrade image quality; in this way, using higher magnification isn’t exactly the same as being closer to the bird.  On the other hand, higher magnifications may allow you to avoid disturbing the bird, by keeping a more respectful distance.  Keeping a 1.4× and/or 2× teleconverter in your pocket will at least give you the option of using higher magnification when you need it. 
    Keep in mind that the use of teleconverters does come with some compromises.  First, putting on and taking off the teleconverter in the field can be very inconvenient, and increases the chance of getting dust particles into the mirror box that can then migrate onto the imaging sensor, resulting in visible dust spots in images.  Teleconverters decrease the aperture, and for many camera/lens combinations this will disable autofocus capability, or force you to perform autofocus with the center AF point only.  Attaching the teleconverter involves introducing a number of additional glass elements into the imaging light path, which can reduce sharpness and possibly affect image quality in other ways (such as via aberrations—see section 3.3).  Finally, by using a higher magnification you exacerbate the effect of optical leveraging (section 3.5), which effectively magnifies the blurring effect of camera shake.

Fig. 8.4.15 : Pelican perched on the authors camera.
s amazing how close birds will get when theyve
been acclimated to human presence.  This was obviously
one of those cases where a high-power lens was rather
less useful for magnifying the bird
though it turned out
to be useful for supporting the bird!