Bird Photography 101: Dealing with Skulky Birds


Some birds, maybe a lot of birds, resist coming out into the open for the classic “Bird on a Stick” shot. Instead, they skulk deep in their habitat. Photographing them is tough.

Friday, WC was at the edge of a marsh, trying to photograph the birds that spend most of their lives in the reeds and grasses of a marsh. In North America, the Marsh Wren would be a good example. One miserable morning north of San Diego, WC spent about an hour at a clump of reeds less than three feet across. A Marsh Wren was singing wonderfully from inside that clump, but never, ever emerged for a photo.

WC had a similar experience at Bentanalla Preserve, north of Lima, Friday. The target birds were the spectacular Many-colored Marsh-Tyrant and the interesting Wren-like Rushbird. Neither appeared in the open, giving WC and his camera only glimpses.

Many-colored Marsh-Tyrant, Bentanalla Preserve, Lima

Many-colored Marsh-Tyrant, Bentanalla Preserve, Lima

If the bird won’t give you a clear shot, then try to get the eye in the clear, anyway. Just as the eye should always be the focus point, getting an unobstructed view of the ye strengthens any bird photo. And try to use the reeds to your advantage, making them a frame, In this shot, most of the field marks for the bird are present, and the out of focus reeds in the foreground, while a drawback, are at least minimized.

Wren-like Rushbird, Bentanalla Preserve, Lima

Wren-like Rushbird, Bentanalla Preserve, Lima

Here, the eye is reasonably sharp and the upper half of the bird is framed with reeds. The lower half of the  bird is obscured by a slightly soft reed, and there a blotch of out of focus reeds on the right, but the bird is reasonably clear.

It’s tempting to crank the aperture up to get all the reeds in focus. It’s usually a mistake. The relative small depth of field in a big telephoto lens makes that a challenge, and in-focus reeds distract more than out-of-focus reeds.

The point here is that unless you want to spend a week trying to get a clear shot, you have to make tradeoffs that acknowledge what the bird gives you. Get the focus on the eye, get as much of the bird as possible, use a depth of field adequate for the bird  and use the reeds to frame what you are able to photograph.

At least that’s what WC does.

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