Photography: Birds and the silhouette shot!

I attended a wildlife photography webinar this year when they suddenly became the ‘in’ thing. The key takeaway from the amazing session was that the pictures should not look like they are from an anatomy textbook but have a sort of character to them. Each photograph needs to either tell a story or have a little bit of creativity and art to it. While clicking a sharp shot with the bird-eye in focus is the holy grail of bird photography, anything artistic with birds needs a lot of planning. Birds are not predictable and they can fly. This makes it hard to get the right angles.

I have been a regular visitor to Sultanpur National Park for about 8 years now. In that time I have gotten to know the terrain and light well, especially in the morning hours. I also have a good idea of what kind of birds to find in what part of the park. Through this journey, I have seen the pictures I click get clearer and sharper with better composition and stories.

When I started, most of the shots were bird close-ups and I would get very excited if I could get a few birds in flight. Spotting a rare or a colorful bird was a bonus. However, most of what I would feel good about was moving shots that came clear. I was also clicking with a 70-200 lens on a crop sensor camera.

Phase 2 of this learning journey focused on sharper pictures with some form of composition around them. This was when I had upgraded to a 150-600 lens with a full-frame DSLR. I was spending a lot more time waiting for the right shot, getting the setting right, clicking multiple shots, and carefully processing only the best of what I clicked. I would stick to F6.3 (most open the lens could go) and a shutter speed of about 1/600, using the inverse rule. I mostly let the ISO be on Auto and use a single point focus. I used the AI Servo autofocus mode for clicking birds in flight.

The next symbolic upgrade added a little more variety to what I clicked. The equipment did not change, but the familiarity and ability to react to the situation got better. I also started recognizing more birds and hence would spend time on the rarer ones. Most importantly, I began to understand light and its dynamics. I stopped using the Auto ISO and chose how bright I wanted the pics to be. I still didn’t touch the other setting too much.

The understanding of light allowed me to prepare for shots in advance. I started to anticipate my shots and have in my mind what I wanted to click even before I got there. I found a spot that faced the rising sun that would give this amazing golden glow to the silhouette. That area was also full of large birds that would fly together the moment anyone approached…that was the icing on the cake. Now a lot more changed in how I set up my camera. I played with the white balance as well as the shutter speed since I wasn’t clicking on full zoom. I was also clicking in lower ambient light than I would in the past.

Finally, there comes a day when birds take off the way you want them to or pose at the right angles. The shot on the left is about 300mm of the 600mm lens with a wide aperture and a shutter speed of about 1/600. The ISO was on 400 and I played with the white balance a lot. I slowly walked towards the birds with my camera trained to start clicking the moment they took off. The shot on the right was just after this hungry kingfisher dove into the lake to catch this fish. My lens didn’t focus in time to catch the dive, but then at 600mm, F6.3, 1/600, and ISO 400, I could get this sitting bird sharp enough that a crop could be taken for this shot.

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