One of my earliest goals getting into nature photography was capturing images of birds in flight. My dream, as is for many starting out, was ultimately nailing dramatic shots of raptors. The stunning display of a bald eagle pulling a massive fish from the waters, or a frozen moment of two great birds of prey battling in the air for territory are enough to inspire any budding wildlife photographer into action. Once I began to move forward beyond the dream and into action, my next conundrum was how to get the shot. While raptors of a number of species do inhabit the plains and mountains of Colorado, I was in a unique situation where I had voluntarily not owned a car for nearly 20 years by the time I had begun to pursue this interest and aside from 100% chance sightings, how was I to begin to reach that dream if I couldn’t get to where they might be in abundance. Instead of trying to take on the entire kit and kaboodle in fell swoops, I decided to take baby steps towards a dream that is still largely unattained in the way of specific shots.
If it hasn’t been noticed during basic day to day interactions with birds already, when one decides to take early steps into capturing even a simple portrait of a bird in a tree, or foraging on a lawn, one learns quite quickly that the vast majority of birds in the world are quite twitchy, and prefer not to have their picture taken, much less approached to gain said photograph. It might be said that if one has the equipment to do so (a good length in telephoto lens), these are great opportunities to attempt flight images, and while certainly true, one ends up with a lot of images of birds flying away from the photographer, a quite common image in any wildlife photography, the butt shot, and blurry ones at that. One method practiced by many birders is to use a blind of some sort to hide ones presence, but this also makes the lengthy telephoto gear a necessity outside of a LOT of luck, which more often than not with a budding photographer is not a financially viable option. Having begun my own foray into photography with a variety of interests in subject matter, I did make an early purchase of a simple 200mm lens that fit my learner body to work on my concert photography skills, but one finds out relatively quickly that 200mm is quite short for wildlife in general, and birds especially, due to their typically demure size.
I recall having come home from a frustrating late-spring walk in the forest that bore no shots, sitting on my deck ruminating about how I was even going to practice, much less nail shots, if my subjects kept adroitly avoiding me. As I sat and thought about it, My attention was caught by a distinct aural buzz in the air and a breeze blowing by my cheek, what I have now come to call a kiss from one of my favorite subjects, the hummingbird. It was my eureka moment. Now, I don’t say this to encourage general “baiting” in terms of wildlife photography, and have admittedly long struggled with the basic morality of feeding hummingbirds (as it is the only animal that I have ever habitually fed, not even putting out seed feeders for the larger species), but I had kept a feeder out simply to enjoy their presence, and it occurred to me then and there that I had my ideal practice models before me the entire time.
As mentioned previously, birds of most species are quite twitchy around humans, and hummingbirds are no different during initial encounters, however, in my experience with them, they merely need to spend a little time around us and familiarize themselves with us, and then they become quite amiable neighbors. Spending time with any animal, it is a great joy to “get to know them” on such an intimate level, and I dare say that this is one of the main draws to this genre of photography for any wildlife photographer. It wasn’t long before I grew into a new and quite entertaining addiction. Aside from their quite quirky “personalities” that drew me in as I observed them through the lens, I rapidly learned one great advantage of utilizing hummingbirds as a test subject for the larger species, being that while they are incredibly fast in flight, they also have the unique ability to hover in place, providing a spectacular “still” subject that moves at 900 beats or more per minute.
As with any wildlife, it behooves any budding photographer to take time to learn from, and about your subject. This comes from simple observation over time, to reading about basic behaviors from learned sources. This fore-knowledge will help you to gain a better intuition about the animal in general, as well as give you insight on how they may react to a given situation, which adds up to better knowing when to click that shutter for the perfect moment. While in the case of hummingbirds, this will likely lead to 1000 shots taken for each “keeper” as you learn to adjust to their speed and agility and adapt your own style, the same will apply to any subject (though ideally with less stress on your shutter for the big guys), leading to better images in any situation.
While they do remain one of my all-time favorite subjects to photograph when they arrive each year, I have been able to take what I garnered from those early days of chasing them with the lens and finally move into more consistent encounters and captures of the big birds, and animals in movement in general. As I’ve learned over my time with photography (and life in general), the lessons learned from one subject often bleed into and overlap the techniques of photographing another completely different genre of work with a camera, and while it is wonderful to hold great goals and aspirations, one does best starting out to achieve those goals with the littlest things in life.
Stay tuned for the Tips and Tricks on the technical side of capturing images of birds in flight!