I have a challenge for you this week. Photograph a bird against a fall foliage background. We’re at the peak of autumn color. How hard can it be?
Wicked hard. Everything is working against you, starting with the fact that many birds have already headed south. Those that remain can be skulky and uncooperative, even on a good day. I’m serious. I spent most of last weekend trying to film a chickadee in a maple.
Given my natural tendency to overdo things, I plotted a strategy, opting for three days of filming in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
The North Woods is a mosaic of deciduous trees and conifers. In general, I find more colorful hardwoods east of Baxter State Park and thicker concentrations of dull evergreens west of the park.
The monument area turns dazzling colors this time of year. Furthermore, it was nearing peak foliage last weekend, while eastern Maine was barely getting started.
I offer you this challenge in order to make two points. First, a lot more people are getting interested in wildlife photography. COVID-19 gets some credit — or blame — for leading folks into the woods. There has been a big surge in hiking, biking, camping, canoeing and other outdoor activities. Many of my readers have become more interested in birding during the pandemic.
However, I think COVID gets too much acclaim for producing a bumper crop of birders. Arguably, the trend was evident long before 2020. The same is true for wildlife photography.
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Camera technology has been advancing rapidly, and at the same time people have become more interested. Major manufacturers are in white-hot competition to be the next big thing. More pixels. Higher resolution. Faster autofocus.
While Canon, Nikon, Sony and others duke it out, even smartphones are producing excellent results. The latest iPhones match, and sometimes exceed, the quality of big-name cameras.
Then there is social media. It used to be that most photos ended up in a family album or maybe a shoebox in the attic, unseen and unappreciated until passed on to one’s next of kin.
Nowadays, that perfect photo of a bird, bear, moose or aardvark can be shared promptly with friends on Facebook or Instagram. It’s all digital — no need to pay for film or printing. Take a thousand shots, and then delete the bad ones.
Second, I’d like to emphasize that wildlife photography requires certain skills.
Every camera brand offers automatic settings that let the average photographer achieve average results. However, wildlife seldom rewards average. Critters hide in the shadows or worse.
The hardest thing to do is shoot a treetop bird against a bright gray sky. The camera inevitably chooses settings based on the brightness of the heavens, and not the darkness of the tiny backlit subject. I have a folder full of underexposed birds.
It takes a lot of time and practice to master your camera’s manual settings, adjusting aperture, shutter speed and sensitivity for each difficult shot. I get it wrong half the time, but that’s a vast improvement over a year ago.
Equally importantly, it takes practice to coax cooperation out of uncooperative wildlife. It helps to know how the birds will react to you when you invade their space. Some birds are tamer than others.
American black ducks are apt to fly off the moment they spot you. Mallards are likely to swim up and ask what’s for dinner.
Another example: Each species of shorebird out on the mudflat reacts differently. Ironically, it’s the larger birds that turn chicken. Black-bellied plovers won’t let me anywhere near them, while sanderlings and least sandpipers don’t mind if I’m just a gimme putt away.
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Then there is the ultimate truism: Birds won’t sit where you want them to or hold still long enough for a proper photo. They have no intention of making it easy. In Katahdin Woods and Waters, at one point I was standing under the brightest red maple, surrounded by chickadees. Would any of them actually perch in that tree? Not a chance, the little twerps.
So, here’s my challenge. Photograph a bird against a backdrop of Maine foliage. Feel free to share it.
Oh, and given my tendency to overdo things, you should know that I took this challenge a step further. Instead of photos in Katahdin Woods and Waters, I took video. If shooting one frame is hard, imagine shooting 60 frames per second.
I put the results up on YouTube. Just go to YouTube, search for “Bob Duchesne” and you can judge my success or failure for yourself.