Dr. Rosso photographing a Dunlin at Marin Headlands, California, April 2001.
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The Photography Page

The photography utilized to obtain these pictures is pretty straight forward. There is more technique involved than equipment. On this page I talk about the equipment and the technique utilized to get close to some of these birds. I should mention that I have been photographing birds as a serious hobby for many years (since 1967). I also have been fortunate to have the opportunity to learn about photography by working as a studio, fashion, and wedding photographer while working with a few professional photographers as their assistant and lab person. I learned a lot about photography which carried over to nature photography.

The Equipment

I own a variety of camera equipment from a 2 1/4 x 3 1/4 sheet film camera to a 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 Hasselblad. But all my bird photography has been done with Nikon equipment, primarily a Nikon FM2 SLR body with a set of lenses: 105, 180, 300, 400. At different times I have rented a 500mm lens. All of my equipment is at least 15 years old. The only new equipment I have bought is my slide scanner (See below). So I am not up to date on the kind of lenses available today.

In addition to the body and lens I also work with flash equipment. Natural light does not always provide perfect light and using a flash can be very handy. I also use extension rings. These have proven to be the most valuable accessories to my equipment. Extension rings serve to change the focal ability of a particular lens. Every lens has its limit on how close up it can focus. My 300mm lens focuses down to 9 feet. That means that anything closer than 9 feet will be out of focus. To get a good shot of most shorebirds I need to be closer than 9 feet from the bird. And photography of songbirds requires at least a #2 extension ring. (These are not teleconverters. That is a very different attachment.)

For a variety of reasons I use slide film and I try to never use film higher than a 100 ASA rating. I find that detail and color quality are the best with the slower film. I once shot with a Fuji 50ASA film and loved the detail and color of the film, but it was three times the cost of the 100 ASA film.

I have two tripods. One is a mid price Leica tripod and the other is a fairly expensive tripod that I have never developed any skill with. In many situations a good tripod is essential. But when I am photographing fast moving songbirds as the kinglets and warblers below I have to hand hold my equipment.

Another important piece of equipment is the film scanner (I do not use an image scanner). I use the Nikon LS-2000 film scanner. It required that I upgrade my computer but the scanner is great. I have tested it on many of my more difficult slides and it has been able to handle the subtleties of shadow. I tend to shoot my pictures slightly underexposed to increase the intensity of color and that can create difficulties on scanning film. It also does an amazing job with the scratches and dirt on my slides, saving me hours of touch-up.

Once the slide has been scanned I drop the digital image into PhotoShop to prepare it for the Internet.

The Techniques Top

The most important tool in bird photography is knowing the bird. It also helps to have lots of time available. Eliot Porter once told me to allow 35 years to become good at bird photography since that is the amount of time that he invested before he felt he was good.

The techniques vary with the species and the situation so I have included notes about particular shots below.

Golden-crowned Kinglet photographed with a 300mm lens, flash, and using a #2 extension ring to enable close focussing.
Utilizing tools in Photoshop I cut the bird out of this picture, applied a duotone to the background and re-inserted the bird.

The Golden-crowned Kinglet

This photo was done in my back yard during the winter when the kinglets feed more often at lower altitudes. I usually hear kinglets before I see them so I have been notified that they are in the neighborhood and I get the camera equipment ready. I used the 300mm lens because I knew it is hard to get close to kinglets. I also had my flash on since there was a low amount of light that day. I put on a #2 extension ring because I knew that given the size of the bird I had to be pretty close to get a good shot.

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The Dunlin

This is a fairly classic situation. Walking along the beach I spot the Dunlin. I spend some time watching the bird to determine what it is doing. In this case the bird was feeding and didn't seem like it was going away. While keeping an eye on it I lie down and get my camera equipment ready and start to move slowly toward it stopping periodically. Since I already have shots of Dunlins I am waiting until I am fairly close before I start photographing. I slide along the beach while lying down so I keep the lowest profile and I watch the bird to see how nervous I am making it. As it appears more nervous I stop and wait. Since I have good light and it is behind me I don't need to use flash. I put a #2 extension ring on the 300mm lens since I anticipated getting fairly close to the bird.

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The Black and White Warbler

This shot is an example of what can happen when luck and preparation combine to make a good shot. We were on vacation in the woods of Maine during late August, a good time to photograph migrating songbirds. I had come into this particular woods because I had heard some warbler songs which I did not know. Since I was anticipating warblers I already had an extension ring on my 300mm lens. I liked the smoothness of the light so I did not put on a flash. The Black and White Warbler came by very fast. I only managed to take three pictures of it before it disappeared. If I had not previously prepared the camera I would have not gotten any images at all. 300mm lens, #2 extension ring, 100 ASA Fuji slide film.

 

Black Skimmer

This photo represents a very common sense rule in wildlife photography: Photograph the animal, whenever possible, where it is common and feels comfortable around people. This Black Skimmer was photographed on Sanibel Island in Florida. This beach is frequented by many people who generally leave the birds alone. The birds are comfortable around people. My technique is to move slowly and patiently. I used a 180mm lens and a #1 extension ring. The 180mm lens is very sharp and very fast. It is easy to focus. Another rule for me is to not use a lens that is longer than necessary. Another advantage to using the 180mm lens is that I can include the Sandwich Terns and the Royal Terns that are sitting with the Black Skimmer. One of my goals is to get as much information about each subject in my pictures. Information can include who else the bird associates with.

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 Northern Parula Warbler

I considered myself very lucky to get this shot. I had heard the Parula Warbler and I finally found it and watched it for a while. One of my tricks for photographing birds is to find a pattern of their behavior. If you understand the pattern of their behavior then perhaps you can anticipate where they will be and you can plot out how to photograph them. This parent bird was bringing food to its young. The young bird did not wander around much but it did vocalize a lot. This makes it a challenge for the photographer. You do not want to interfere with the feeding process. Ideally you never want your photography to interrupt what an animal is doing. Most of the time an animal is trying to make a living. If you interrupt them you make it harder for them to make their living. I used flash and a Number 3 extension ring. I quickly found out that the bird did not mind my flash photography. I stopped using motor drives when I figured out that many birds do not like the sound of the motor drive, while they don't seem to mind the light from the flash.

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Black and White Warbler

Photographed on the Great Stirrup Cay island of the Bahamas. The mangroves on this island are not tall and when the birds came through they would be accessible for me. Periodically I got off the main path and got underneath the trees. When I was located under the trees in limited space I used my 180mm lens and flash and a #1 extension ring. The bird was moving around quickly but I can focus quickly with the 180mm lens and since it is a f2.8 lens it is easy to focus through (lets lots of light through). The problem of using the flash on a bird that has a lot of white feathers and is fairly close is that the flash can provide too much light on the white feathers. The white feathers bounce a lot of light off of them and you lose the detail of the feathers. Compare the type of image here with the previous Black and White Warbler shot with ambient light.

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