Do Not Disturb
African Birdlife|January - February 2021
The stealth factor in photographing birds
Grant Atkinson

I really enjoy photographing birds, for a host of different reasons. If the bird is very small in the picture, I may keep that image purely as a record of the sighting. I also use images of poor aesthetic quality, where the bird is obscured by vegetation or is poorly focused, to identify the species. I can easily take these kinds of images at a considerable distance by using a telephoto lens.

However, if I am trying to take a photograph of a bird that I intend to use in print or for my own website, I find that I need to be far closer to my subject. There are photographic advantages to this: having an image in which the bird is filling enough of the frame can mean less or no cropping, which is key to good print quality. Images taken when the camera is less than 10 metres from the subject typically result in maximum clarity with less atmospheric distortion. Fine feather and bill details are fully revealed.

However, getting ‘close enough’ to wild birds is not always that easy – very few tolerate a direct approach by a person and will simply move away. Here are some steps that I always take and which I believe give me a good chance of getting reasonably close to my subject.

Minimise tripod noise

If I am in a location where I am using a tripod and waiting for birds to appear, I make sure that my tripod’s legs are properly locked and that the feet are firmly grounded. Equally importantly, I make certain that my camera can swivel through its tracking arc on the tripod mount without making any clicking or clunking noises. Those hard, metallic noises inevitably scare birds away.

Freedom of movement

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