By Emil Powella
Have you ever told yourself that if you could travel to exotic destinations, you’d be able to shoot the kind of amazing photographs that you see on social media? Well, for most of us, the opportunity to visit exotic places is seldom possible. But we can all photograph somewhere close to home, and we can all find great photographs.
Like many of you, I live in a conventional subdivision. I do enjoy the luxury of having trees behind my house, but most everything else is pretty normal. As a photographer, my challenge was to utilize what I had in order to set up a fun bird studio.
My backyard photography is mostly songbirds with the occasional hawk or owl venturing in. My wife, Nancy, has been a lifelong birder, and she has feeders filled with good seed strategically placed to attract different kinds of birds. We also maintain several birdhouses that attract a lot of bluebird activity, as well as hummingbird feeders during the hummer season.
Some of the ideas I used for this studio came from a YouTube video posted by David Akoubian.
My deck is at second-story level, which puts me looking into the trees at about 25 feet up. That’s where I’ve created my bird studio. I’ve salvaged several tree limbs I found in the woods and attached them to my deck, creating staging areas for the birds as they wait their turn at the feeders.
There are trees about 25 feet behind the deck, which is far enough away to add a soft-focus background to my images. I don’t have as sophisticated a setup as David, but I still am able to create quality photographs that I enjoy sharing with others. In fact, my photos have been used by conservation organizations such as the Keep Georgia Beautiful Foundation, a group for which I serve as the point of contact as part of my responsibilities as a GNPA Conservation Committee member.
These photos will show how I’ve fixed some of the limbs in place and provided multiple natural-looking places for the birds to land.
Deck, looking into the woods.
Closeup of limbs attached to the deck.
Closeup of limbs attached to the deck.
You can also create resting places for birds at ground level, just by mounting a few vertical logs or limbs to metal posts that can’t be seen by the camera.. Strategic placement of the limbs will help deliver excellent photo opportunities.
Regardless of your setting, these concepts can be adapted pretty easily. Give the birds comfortable places to land and stage as they wait to get to the feeders. Observing and learning their habits will make you much more prepared to get the shots you want.
I’m able to photograph birds in the trees behind the deck, as well as those that pose on the limbs I’ve positioned. I can also photograph birds on the deck from inside the house in my kitchen as well. Sometimes that feels a little like cheating, but in rough weather it can sure be nice.
So don’t give up planning and hoping to go to exotic bird photo locations. But while you’re waiting, have fun with the challenge of adapting your deck or yard into a working studio and hone your bird skills right there at home.
As you do, please consider donating photos to our GNPA conservation partners such as Keep Georgia Beautiful and the Wildlife Resources Division of the DNR. These organizations need good photos of local wildlife, and GNPA members can be a valuable resource for them. Plus, members receive credit whenever those photos are used.
Emil Powella is a GNPA member who lives in Lilburn. He serves as the co-coordinator of the Decatur Chapter.
Scarlet Tanager. Photograph by David Akoubian.
By David Akoubian
Each spring, as daytime lengthens and the nights grow shorter, migrating birds return to Georgia. Those that headed south last fall to their winter grounds – some as far away as South America – will begin reappearing in our landscapes, full of color and songs. As nature photographers, many of us strive to capture images of these the birds as they pause on their northward migration, or settle in to take up summer residence.
If you want to make the most of this annual opportunity, here are some ideas to help you attract those birds and bring them closer to your camera…
Black and White Warbler. Photo by David Akoubian.
Whether the birds are returning to their summer breeding grounds or just passing through, how do you get them to stop so you can photograph them? Well, it’s fairly easy – you invite them! Birds prefer environments where they feel are safe from predation, and they will seek out areas that have a safe “feeling.” What do I mean by that? They search for areas where other birds are frequenting, like feeders in yards. Migratory birds as a whole (or at least the Warblers, Vireos and Tanagers) are primarily insect eaters and don’t really land at feeders. Some other birds, like Grosbeaks, will feed alongside your regular birds. But the insect eaters will often fly into a feeder area to see what all the fuss is about. Getting them to stay there long enough for photos is the tricky part.
A few years ago we had our yard certified by the Audubon Society as a Wildlife Sanctuary. To do so, we had to meet certain requirements, like having a food and water source, providing cover, and providing nesting options when possible. Out of all of those requirements, the most important to me is providing cover. We leave brush piles, and have created sections of small trees and shrubs where a bird can hide and feel safe. Once they feel safe, they will explore an area and search for food.
Eastern Bluebird. Photo by David Akoubian.
This is where it pays off for a nature photographer to create an outdoor “studio.” I usually set up only a few feeders, such as a sunflower seed feeder, a suet feeder and another feeder where I place mealworms and suet nuggets inside. Around those feeders, I place “T” bars driven into the ground, each with a stick, branch or small tree trunk attached to them with wire. The birds will land on these strategically placed posts and wait for their turn at the feeder, or in the case of the migratory birds, will pause to check things out. The reason the posts are important is that birds follow a social tier, with the most dominant birds feeding first, thus the term “pecking order.” It’s when birds land on these posts that I capture most of my images. I also have small trees near the feeder that serve the same purpose. Either place is perfect for creating photos of the birds.
I don’t use a blind when photographing birds; I simply sit on my porch drinking coffee and eating breakfast. Birds get accustomed to you sitting there, and they are unaffected by your presence unless you make any sudden movement. My posts are set up from 8-12 feet away from my seating location (I chose that distance because it’s roughly the minimum focusing distance of my Tamron 150-600mm G2 lens).
When I position my posts, I try to create some separation between the post and the background, which in my case is a row of trees and shrubs. I do this to allow the lens to drop off focus fairly quickly, even at my preferred aperture of f8. To accomplish this, I aim to allow a minimum of 4 feet between the objects. Behind the row of trees and shrubs I have a buffer of 20-40 feet, which will give the background a smooth, out-of-focus pallet of color to create the visual separation needed to make the birds stand out.
Cerulean Warbler. Photo by David Akoubian.
I prefer longer lenses, like my 150-600mm at 600mm or my 150-500mm at 500mm, when I am creating images in the “studio” area. This approach provides a sharp subject, then drops off to a smooth color background, creating an almost 3D effect. I shoot in manual mode, at f8, and I begin with a shutter speed of 1/125 of a second, with Auto ISO selected. I use the Auto ISO feature simply because the birds are constantly flitting back and forth between light and dark areas, and the variable ISO will help compensate for this. My subjects are mostly front-lit, so this works really well. But if I am shooting in the evening, the subjects can be backlit, so I will step my exposure compensation up +1 to compensate for backlighting. And while shooting I will use either a monopod or a tripod, because the weight of the lens can cause fatigue and shorten your shooting time dramatically.
As the morning goes on I will increase my shutter speed to an eventual 1/1000 of a second if needed. Usually, though, by the time the light warrants even a speed of 1/500, the light is pretty harsh and I am finished for the day.
To help enrich the studio site, I plant flowers around the yard that will attract insects. That’s because attracting insects means attracting things that feed on insects, which includes birds! I let the flowers die and decay in place as well. Why? Decaying plants attract insects, which attracts the birds. Do you see a pattern? I also don’t use any insecticides or pesticides in my yard because – you got it – I want the insects to be there. Each year I get good number of Scarlet Tanagers feeding on Japanese Beetles in the trees and shrubs in the yard, and that is the direct result of inviting the birds into the landscape.
This process will continue until the birds are ready to fly south for their fall migration. Often I see a greater variety of bird species in the fall than in the spring as numbers increase each year. You can pretty much count on the birds that come through one year to return again the next year, as they recognize a safe place where it’s easy to feed. This past summer alone we saw 27 varieties of Warblers, 5 different Vireos, plus Tanagers and Grosbeaks, all from the back porch.
This same setup can be adapted to smaller areas, such as a porch or even a common area in an apartment complex. The payoff can be many hours of photographing a variety of birds, which I find extremely rewarding. And most of what needs to be done actually requires less work than maintaining a pristine garden. So consider “letting things go” a little, and in return you’ll find more birds in your area than ever before.
David Akoubian is a professional nature photographer and a longtime resident of Georgia. He has been photographing professionally since 1992, and conducts workshops around the U.S. and Iceland. For more details on David and his workshops, check out his website at www.bearwoodsphotography.com. He is also active on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram.
By John Mariana
From my perspective, successful nature photography is comprised of two very different elements. Understanding the role that each one plays in the process is critical. Capturing the photo is clearly important, but so is our thought process for presenting that image.
The camera, of course, is only a tool. Yes, it is the tool we use to capture nature images, but the tool itself does not create the image or provide the final presentation. Our own in-the-field experiences, our training in composition and the understanding of the elements of “good images” are the critical aspects for the capture. Composition, special light, depth of field, shutter speed and good exposure represent the craft of the capture. These should become second nature to you, so when a special nature opportunity presents itself, you are prepared to capture it.
Capturing moving animals and birds in flight requires good depth of field as well as a fast shutter speed to freeze the action. For flying birds, I typically use f11 at 1,000th of a second to capture sharp details from wing tip to wing tip. I will try to focus on the eye and use focus tracking for multiple captures as the bird or animal is moving. Also, I always shoot images in raw format. You can capture both raw and jpeg images simultaneously, but those raw images will provide many more pixels. And those extra pixels will give you the ability to crop the image and still produce quality prints.
Positioning yourself is also critical, but too often overlooked. Locate a position where the background is simple, distant, or shows an environment that brings special meaning to the capture. Then you are prepared.
Once you’ve captured quality raw images, the next step is determining your final presentation. This step is accomplished with software, not in the camera. Certainly, today’s cameras have very good software for adjusting light, shadows, color and more, but the best method is to simply capture the best raw pixels in the camera and then use software to enhance the captures. I use Photoshop, Topaz Modules, DXO modules and Luminar NEO to enhance my images. Those enhancements involve cropping, sharpening, color enhancement, vignetting, dodging shadows and burning some highlights. I use these tools to bring the eye of the viewer instantly to the main subject. Post processing is the difference between just presenting an image and presenting an image with real impact.
Happy Little Green Frogs
Darcy Elleby Pino conducts workshops in Costa Rica, where I assist her. This image (“I’m So Happy”) was one of several that I captured as a 3-inch tree frog was climbing a Bird of Paradise plant. Timing is everything with these opportunities. I made sure I had good depth of field for the frog’s body, and I darkened the background with a small amount of highlight behind the frog. The face is highlighted to bring the viewer’s eye instantly to the frog’s face. Compositionally, the frog dominates the center of the image, breaking the rule of thirds, but is in the upper third of the image.
Images with instant impact are the most appealing. This image has been cropped, and the highlights increased, so that the viewer looks instantly into the face. This presentation also has increased contrast to emphasize the three-dimensionality of the frog and the entire image. The frog seems ready to jump out of the image. This elicits emotion in the viewer. Winning images are those that have great composition, instant impact and elicit emotion.
The next image (“Hi Honey, I’m Home”) is a composite made from two separate frog photos. I created this image to tell a story and elicit amusement. Still, the image demonstrates the use of highlights, dark background and good depth of field to capture the details. The very dark bakcground creates the three-dimensionality of the frogs.
It is quite easy to capture a beautiful bird when it’s just sitting on a branch. This image was captured at a zoo, of a bird behind glass. However, it’s been enhanced in many ways. Originally, the image contained distracting branches, the background was not appealing, and the light was from above. Using the gradient background emphasizes the erectness of the bird. Meanwhile, enhancing the color of the head and beak immediately brings attention to the upper portion of the bird.
Hummingbirds are perhaps the most difficult bird to capture well. The best hummingbird images show detail in the wings and are difficult to capture. Understandably, depth of field and shutter speed are critical. Place yourself in a position where the bird has been flying and you have a good background and light. Then, patience and timing are required to seal the deal.
Note the sharpness of the wings, the body and the head in this photo. The curve of the stem on the flower brings the eye up around and back to the hummingbird. Capturing these tiny speedsters requires lots of time watching the same flower and waiting patiently as the bird flits around. But if you’ve done your homework, that patience will be rewarded.
From early September to late October, the male elks in Cataloochee Valley, Tennessee, offer a great opportunity for photographers. This is a prime location to capture big bulls as they gather their females. They often butt heads with other large elks to protect their territories. The best time to capture images is the early morning, just as the sun is rising and casting beautiful beams of light. This image is a panorama of three images as the elk turned to look at me. I had positioned myself near the open field because of the light rays there, and I waited. Timing is critical.
Early morning mist often fills the fields before the sun rises high enough to burn it off. This large elk stood very close to the female and searched for other females to add to his group. For this photo, I waited until the bull stopped eating, lifted his head and turned it toward the female. It made for a special moment.
This image was captured during early spring in Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Again, I found the position I wanted, on a hillside with the farm in the distance and the sun creating a burst through the tree limbs. Patience, patience! I knew the location from previous occasions, positioned myself and waited. Eventually, a doe brought her young offspring into the pasture to feed.
One of the most delicately beautiful flowers is the Magnolia. But the special beauty of this flower can be fleeting. Once the bud opens and the flower unfolds, it is pristine for only one day. By the second day the inner areas begin to fall out. I first tried to capture pristine magnolia blooms on the tree, but it’s very challenging to be in the right position at exactly the right time. So, I recommend removing a bud from a tree, taking it home and placing it in water. The next morning the flower will begin to open. Place it in front of a plain background, near an open window with soft light. With the camera on a tripod, make several captures at different levels as the petals are opening. This first image was placed against a white backdrop and the close-up capture emphasizes the beauty of the shape of the flower.
In the next photo, using a black backdrop emphasized the overall shape and beauty of the bloom. It was critical to preserve the detail in all the white areas. This was accomplished by utilizing very soft light from a side window. As the bloom continued to unfold, multiple images were captured. When all the petals have unfolded, a beautiful gold center pod is revealed.
The Magnificent Beauty of Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is one of the most beautiful of all the national parks, and I have visited there at least 50 times. As you enter the valley and look at the 2,000-ft.-high cliffs all around you, you understand why this park is so special. The Merced River runs through the center of the valley, providing great reflections of the famous mountains and waterfalls.
Winter is spectacular in Yosemite. The mountains are covered with snow, creating a stunning three-dimensional look, and the pine trees are highlighted by the clinging snow. Panoramas are the best way to capture the entire scene. Depth of field is critical for all the details from foreground to background. As I studied Bierstadt paintings, I discovered a compositional “must” for photographers. I call it “a place to stand.” When the viewer has a place to “stand” in your image, that viewer will feel the emotional experience of being there. But if there is not a place to stand, the viewer is only looking at an image.
The Coastal Lights
The coasts of Massachusetts and Maine are filled with special lighthouses, stretching from Boston through Acadia National Park in Maine. Morning light is very good for capturing these iconic structures, and late day can be special when the beams from the lighthouses can be seen against the darker sky of sunset. A A tripod can be used to capture several images at different exposures, with a high dynamic range image. This provides details in the shadows and in the highlights. You never want to have photos with “blocked up” shadows or “blown out” highlights.
These are a few of the ways I approach capturing and presenting images. By concentrating on the nuances of these two different steps, I believe you can continue to improve as a photographer.
John Mariana is a well-known photographer and educator who has conducted numerous workshops across the United States, Scotland and Tuscany, as well as volunteering time to speak at functions, museums and photography groups. He has specialized in large print images and published two books. John is also a founding member of the Booth Photography Guild at the Booth Art Museum in Cartersville, GA. You can find his website at: www.marianaphotography.com