Air-conditioned Nature Photography
What strange weather we have been having! Seems it rained every day for a month, culminating in some serious flooding, and then.... Summer seriously showed up. Here in early June we are having day after day in the 90s F with those awful "Feels Like" temps over 100 F. That is 37.778 C for my international readers.
Not only is it hot, we are having Blinding Sunstorms™ which you know by now that I hate for taking photos. We have been out a few times, and there is hope for some showers/clouds in the next few weeks to relieve this all this unrelenting good weather. Plus, one of my favorite places is totally flooded and won't reopen for probably a month. Brazos Bend State Park still has water over the roads and alligators everywhere from the rising Brazos River.
The past and present weather is limiting my outside adventures. In desperation, I have learned to take photos from inside the air-conditioned house. Believe me, it is nice. And can be quite productive.
This is my front patio of my townhouse taken in early Spring before the Crepe Myrtle leafed out. That world-class ugly rock came with the house and is now holding up some driftwood and limbs for perches. You can see a hole drilled into one limb; that is for seed and/or suet. There are more holes on the top and the backside of the driftwood. My house has an easterly orientation, which is not ideal, but early morning can have nice light and by late afternoon it is bright shade with no discernible shadows.
Notice the bare branches sticking out of the blue pot and the boxwoods. Birds will often stop and survey the situation before landing. The idea is to entice the birds sit still long enough for a photo.
Because I am inside the sliding glass door next to my breakfast table, sitting in a nice comfy chair with my camera and tripod... waiting. You have to turn off the lights inside the house and not make any sudden movements if birds do show up. But you can drink your coffee and read the news on your iPad until there is some activity.
Don't forget to clean the window glass inside and out.
And my boyfriend Bill Maroldo has a more elaborate set up in his backyard. This was taken from his sunroom/woodworking shop.
The common thread of these outdoor studios is using natural materials. Cut logs, driftwood, branches, rocks. Lots of folks can attract birds to their backyards with feeders and water features, but your photos will not look great if the bird is perched on plastic or metal. Or if the background is busy and cluttered. I see many backyard bird photos on Facebook that could be so much better.
If you don't have tools to drill holes in the wood, sprinkle seeds down into cracks or natural crevices. Put that purchased or homemade suet on the edge of the limbs just out of sight. I know they sell suet holders, but they look awful in a photograph. Except when it is snowing or during inclement weather, birds will find enough to eat. The object here is good photography, not feeding birds.
Stringing peanuts (on wire or strong thread) will slow down the Blue Jays and squirrels enough to gets some photos. Or use a small flat feeder with landing branches around the perimeter. Tie or clamp nice perches to your fence or other structures. You can zoom in on the bird or crop out anything man made. Test and rearrange until you find a suitable arrangement.
And elevate the bird attraction. You want to be as close to eye level as possible with the birds for good photos. Be sure to sit on a low chair or stool in your house. Tripods are required and a remote control shutter release can be helpful.
The coolest part is you can actually frame the shot using that LCD monitor that is worthless in the field because of the glare. And you can look at it wearing your reading glasses if you want.
Blue Jays are bright and colorful and loud and bossy. They LOVE peanuts in the shell and if you make it difficult for them to do the grab-and-flee, you might get a good shot. HEB has the old-fashioned peanuts by the bag.
If you are shooting manually (and why aren't you?) try to increase your f/stop so the bird is in focus and the background is all nice and blurry. Of course, it does depend on the light. It was quite bright for this shot, and if the bird had been facing me or turned, there would have been horrible shadows. I had a high shutter speed (and consequently high ISO) because i was hoping for some wing action when he took off. You Nikon and Canon folks should not be afraid of higher ISOs; newer cameras can handle them fine. Experiment.
If the bird is parallel to the light source, it should look better. A dark, strong shadow across the bird's head or body is unattractive. Wait until the bird is positioned so there are not any black shadows and then take a lot of shots. I mean 10, 15 or more. Shoot in bursts of 3 or 5 or whatever your camera buffer will handle. You can always delete the bad ones.
Even the common White-winged Dove can look rather elegant in the right setting. I love the background on this shot, and the repeating curves of the body and the branch. Until this exercise, I did not know these doves have a subtle shading of gold feathers on the sides of their necks. And the blue eye shadow is to die for.
This guy looks almost ... mystical. The dappled light through the trees made the background ethereal; the trees are at least 40 feet behind him. I like the almost monochromatic look. He is perched on the end of a cross-limb Bill had utilized to hold up the feeder. I did use NIK Collection Color Efex Pro selectively on the perch to bring out the details. The nubs of smaller branches look really interesting.
Even a common House Sparrow can look nice with the right background and lighting; the red blotches are my geraniums in the flower bed behind the perch. You know these birds were a gift from our friends across the pond? Eight pair were released in Brooklyn, New York in 1851 and others later, probably by Acclimatization Societies. It was all the rage for a while, to bring familiar animals to new areas and take exotic animals back to be established in Europe.
Thankfully, we have moved past the idea that areas can be improved by the deliberate introduction of strange species but not before disastrous examples such as rabbits in Australia, Nutrias in Louisiana, and Red vs Gray Squirrels in the UK.
Speaking of squirrels. Some of you like their antics and tolerate them in the yard, others have very strong feelings toward our furry rodents. We discussed this in an adventure years ago A question of Squirrels back when I was still shooting with my bridge camera. For you new readers, if you think you have to have expensive gear and big glass, take a look at what can be done with an inexpensive bridge camera.
But if you feed birds, you will have squirrels. Take advantage of the opportunity.
This young Eastern Gray Squirrel walked along the branch to where we had hung peanuts threaded on a wire. I think Bill used a fishing hook to fasten it. We have found thread isn't very durable as even the birds can break it apart.
And you can see he raised the peanut string hand over hand until he could work the top one loose. Amazing.
Which he proceeded to leisurely eat while balanced on the branch.
Do you feed birds and squirrels in your back yard? Do you have any tips for attracting more birds to my yard? And does shooting photos from inside the house appeal to you? Let me know in the comments below.