Photographing wild animals and birds is often about managing the conditions and anticipating what is about to happen next. Long hours in sometimes uncomfortable environments can be punctuated with moments of great activity and excitement. Its these times that a wildlife photographer must be on their game. These moments are rare, capturing them on camera, rarer still. Today's range of high speed digital equipment improves the odds but not everyone has access to high end gear that shoots 12 fps at 3500 ISO. So what else is there? Here are my four B's which I use on every photo-shoot.
The 4 B's
Be Patient - Time is a two way thing, yours and your subjects. We are all busy, even wildlife is on a schedule, but unlike wildlife we tend to rush through rather than flow through our environment. The results are discordant and wild animals will sense this and flee or at least become very alert. Move slowly, quietly, randomly, be patient.
Be Connected - Use all your senses, especially look, listen and feel. Understand what is going on in the scene around you and not just in the world of the subject you are focusing on. Your subject is aware of its connection to all things in nature and will read your connection to guide its behaviour, be connected.
Be Relaxed - Breathe slowly before and during each shoot. Make a conscious decision to relax, feel the tension dissipate and leave your body. Tension in your body will cause jerky movements and if your subject doesn't take flight you will more likely blur the resulting image by forcing the shutter, be relaxed.
Be Ready - Use your understanding of what is happening around you to anticipate what will happen next. This will prepare you to capture the moment when the opportunity presents, be ready.
Cameras and lenses - As a wildlife and primarily bird behaviour photographer, I look for three things in my choice of equipment:
My golden rule when it comes to reach is 600mm focal length and it doesn't matter how I get it, whether it be crop sensor, extenders, zoom or prime glass. I find 600mm hits my comfort zone for bird photography as it is possible to fill the frame with the subject on most occasions, which is my ultimate goal. I am disinclined to crop away valuable pixels during post processing so wherever possible I make the compositional adjustments in the field and 600mm gives me the go forward in that respect.
Fast is best when it comes to capturing behaviour and 10 fps + is my preference here. The camera bodies I use or have used in recent times, Nikon D4, Canon EOS 7D Mark 2 and the Canon EOS 1DX all offer that frame rate or better. I really like the 7D Mark 2's unobtrusive shutter sound as it rips through the frames, followed by the heavier sound of the 1DX. I have noticed that some birds are startled by the rapid clapping noise of the Nikon D4's mirror at close quarters and I adjust my technique by firing off incidental bursts to habituate subjects to the sound of the shutter as they approach.
You may have great reach and a blazing frame rate but if you can't mobilise your rig it will probably just gather dust. In making a selection I'd suggest that primary equipment should be light enough to carry easily and hand hold as necessary as it is more likely to accompany you into the field. If you plan to do mostly stationary tripod/hide photography then the Sigma 300-800mm f5.6 EX DG HSM might be perfect for your needs but at 6 kg (13.3 lbs) and without image stabilisation you definitely won't want to be carrying it far or shooting birds in flight hand held.
Sigma 300-800mm f5.6 EX DG HSM (aka Sigmonster) a veritable behemoth at 6 kg (13.3 lbs)
So what would I suggest as a balanced bird photography option for beginners and intermediate (even professional users)? For the money I really find it hard to go past the Canon EOS 7D Mark 2 (x1.6 APS-C sensor) and the Canon 400L f/5.6 (640mm with the APS-C sensor) or 100-400L f/4.5-5.6 ii (896 mm with the crop sensor and a 1.4 x extender). These highly portable combinations provide great reach with a high frame rate and the 7D mark 2 is pretty capable shooting at 800-1000 ISO.
Tripod/Monopod - Next to the camera and lens combination of your choice, a good support system is my second most important piece of equipment because without it I wouldn't be able to stabilise my heavier lenses. I typically use a light-weight Gitzo carbon tripod and Jobu Designs black widow gimbal head with satisfying results. I have recently ordered a Cotton Carrier vest and holster for lighter items and will be reviewing this product in the coming weeks.
Ground pods - Including skimmers, boogie boards, high hat pods and gorilla pods with or without a fitted gimbal head are favoured accessories for making close approaches to migratory shorebirds and maintaining a low shooting point of view. Slowly crawling or sliding to close the distance on timid subjects is an important technique to acquiring intimate behavioural shots and I find it to be the best slow approach option.
Camouflage - I have a range of camouflage products, some more useful than others. I often use a portable light weight kwik camo blind as it conceals my movements if not my presence. I also use a ghillie suit which does a better job at concealing me but its heavier and rarely makes its way into my pack.
Call Playback - I use rather than rely on call playback as a useful technique to attract birds into an area or onto a particular perch. For this purpose I have a splashproof JBL portable bluetooth speaker which I use in conjunction with a an iPhone or other form of playback device. This can be a very effective way of closing the distance between you and your subject however I would caution against its use during the breeding season or to attract threatened or sensitive species for ethical reasons. Also nothing beats the four B's, not even call playback.
Comfort - Try and make yourself as comfortable as possible. By this I mean basic comfort, I often carry a portable canvas seat about 15x10cm for use under the blind. In this way I can reduce the size of my form, minimise my movements and improve my ability to Be Ready. Pack some snacks and water as its easier to concentrate if your mind hasn't wandered to your stomach.
Raincoat - Not for me, for my rig! This is one piece of gear that always makes it with me as I don't want to miss a once in a lifetime opportunity because of rain.
Without wet-weather camera/lens protection a heavy down pour like this would have sent me running to the car. As it was I remained under the blind to capture this rarely photographed behaviour of Australian Pelicans drinking rainwater.
Cleaning gear - A small but important component in any field kit is a range of cleaning gear. I carry a lens cloth or two, a cleaner pen and a dust blower. It's minimalist but clean optics equal peace of mind and enhance image quality.
Flash - I am working on my flash technique and keep a Canon 580 EX II on hand for nocturnal work. The Owl shots here were taken using the Nikon and Canon range. I used a better beamer extender for both to carry the light to the subject some fifteen - twenty metres away.