Wildlife photographer Craig McKenzie holds the highest honour from Forest and Bird — an Old Blue award for his outstanding contribution to raising awareness of biodiversity through his photography. He offers us his top tips on how to capture our country’s
GRAB SOME LONG GLASS When you’re trying to get a bird that’s no larger than the size of your fist to fill the frame, a far-reaching telephoto lens (that is, a focal length of 300mm or longer) will bring otherwise small and distant subjects in much closer. As lenses of this type encompass a much narrower angle of view, they allow for shooting from a distance, as well as very simple and focused compositions of birdlife with very few distractions around the frame. If you already own a medium telephoto but want to give bird photography a go, you can still capture magnificent bird images with 100mm or less; seek out more friendly birds, such as the tui or toutouwai (New Zealand robin), which will often approach within a metre or two of people. Or, rather than capturing a tightly cropped headshot, compose a flock of birds as part of a wider landscape instead, such as Muriwai’s gannet colony, where around 1200 pairs nest from August to March each year
FIND THE RIGHT ENVIRONMENT When we photograph birds, we are essentially taking their portrait. But while studio portrait photographers use all sorts of modifiers to soften the output from their lights, when we’re shooting outdoors, the sun acts like an unmodified speed light to often produce harsh, high-contrast light. It is for this reason that soft, early morning and late afternoon light is usually ideal for bird photography, while, on overcast days, the cloud cover acts like a big soft box, bringing out the details and bright colouring of the bird’s plumage without casting harsh shadows — and it’ll often catch a sparkle in a bird’s eye. Just as portrait photographers seek out pleasing, out-of-focus, and non-distracting backgrounds for their shots, we want to isolate the bird and put the emphasis directly onto our subject. If there is nothing immediately behind the bird, our long lenses will yield a creamy blur. The other type of background we should aim for is that with enough detail to give an indication of environment. Anywhere between these two extremes often creates a messy background that distracts the viewer’s attention — light-coloured sticks, grass stalks, and patches of sunlight are particularly problematic. Luckily, the narrow field of vision of a telephoto lens means that we don’t have to move far to get a completely different background and an entirely new effect.
MAKE IT QUICK Sometimes photographers shoot at slightly slower shutter speeds to create a feeling of motion or for artistic flair, but, in all other cases, the aim is to freeze the bird completely. To capture the majestic wing span of a harrier hawk in flight or the green-flecked colouring of a rifleman as it hops from branch to branch, a fast shutter speed is extremely important — you can’t fix motion blur in postproduction. I typically set my shutter speed to a minimum of 1/800 to 1/1600th of a second, and, for best results, utilize 6 to 9fps, in short bursts, too.
Additionally, the high magnification of a telephoto lens exaggerates movement, meaning that we have to pay attention to minimizing camera shake by holding the gear as still as possible. There are a couple of easy workarounds, though: create a solid support triangle with your body while shooting by bringing your elbows in tight to your rib cage, and pressing the viewfinder of your camera firmly up against your eyebrow. Additionally, engage your camera’s and lens’ own image stabilization, and, if the situation allows it, make use of your tripod. While not as quick or agile as going handheld, the ratio of sharp shots will make the delay in using a tripod worthwhile — plus, it’ll reduce the amount of time you’ll spend holding weighty lenses, preventing muscle ache!
IT’S ALL IN THE EYES Portrait photographers also make sure that eyes are sharp, and we need to do the same. However, human portrait photographers have an advantage in that their subjects usually listen! When you’re using your camera’s autofocus, there’s a tendency for it to lock on to the closest, flattest plane available, which is usually the bird’s feathered breast. This, paired with the shallow depth of field that comes with shooting with a telephoto lens, means that often the eyes end up behind the plane of focus and, consequently, not sharp at all. For these reasons, it’s critical to get the autofocus point on an eye. I use single-point autofocus to ensure that I get to choose where the camera focuses and, when necessary, wait for the head to turn towards the camera, which will move the eyes to the same plane as the body, allowing more of the bird to be in focus. Start with an open aperture, which will allow you to keep shutter speed up and catch a shot
with sharp eyes. Then, with some in the bag, stop down for a greater depth of field.
WORK IN THEIR WORLD It is well worth making an effort to get your camera at the same level as your subject; aiming up steeply for a bird high in a tree distorts its body shape, while directing your lens down to birds on the ground or in the water won’t provide an engaging angle. Shooting level to your subjects lends to the feeling that we have entered their world, and it will show in your photography. All birds have their own comfort zones, and if you intrude on these, they’ll feel threatened and fly away. Different birds have different tolerance levels for human interaction — some birds will let people pretty close, especially if they are used to them, and there are also birds that are extremely shy and will not let you come anywhere near them. Wait for the bird to act naturally and take note of their action and behaviour. Time spent watching forest birds will often reveal a perch used consistently; this is particularly true for fantails, who at first glance appear to be constantly flitting about. Watching for a favoured perch and prefocusing on it also works well for kingfishers. In addition, getting to know bird behaviour will allow you to anticipate shots. For example, a bathing bird will often finish with a wing flap, while waders will often feed along the water line. If you remain low, you’re less likely to be seen as a threat, and, in time, the birds you’re photographing might approach quite close. Move well in front of them, lie down, and wait with the confidence that they will eventually come to you. Or, if you have a feeder in your own backyard, you could place a photogenic perch along their route — often birds approach using the same stepping stones.
RESPECT YOUR SUBJECT We must always be mindful of the welfare of the birds, especially in New Zealand, where the majority of our species are threatened and declining in number. Birds New Zealand has an excellent code of conduct for photographing birds, which is available at osnz.org.nz/manual_guidelines. The code recommends becoming knowledgeable to avoid causing stress. You should cause minimal disturbance to the surroundings — preferably, none at all. Use artificial light, including flash, sparingly for photography, especially for close-ups, as the light from an on-camera flash is particularly ugly and unnatural, anyway. Don’t deliberately flush birds to get a good view of the underwing or any other part of the bird not usually seen, and don’t modify a nest site or its surroundings to coerce a bird into a more photogenic position. Bird photography requires knowledge, patience, and skill, but those challenges make the rewards that much greater. The most important thing is to enjoy being out with our unique New Zealand birds. Not all trips yield the photographs we desire, but hopefully we add to our knowledge with each outing.
SOUTH ISLAND ROBIN, NIKON D4, NIKON AF-S NIKKOR 600MM F/4E FL ED VR LENS, 600MM, 1/160S, F/4, ISO 3200
KOTUKU, NIKON D4, NIKON AF-S NIKKOR 600MM F/4E FL ED VR LENS, 600MM, 1/800S, F/11, ISO 640
TUI, NIKON D4, NIKON AF-S NIKKOR 600MM F/4E FL ED VR LENS, 600MM, 1/320S, F/8, ISO 1600