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Bird Photography Advice from Nature Photographer David Bernstein

Gear Talk Photographers Tips & Tricks

As the weather gets warmer and daylight hours are lengthened, those who have been stuck inside for the long winter months are ready to begin exploring the great outdoors once again with camera in tow.  I caught up with local wildlife photographer David Bernstein to answer a few questions regarding his experiences. Bernstein started out using a humble Rebel series camera and over time grew into being what he calls a “photo-naturalist”, taking pictures of landscapes and creatures large and small. He especially loves photographing birds and has graciously shared a few tips for those of us looking to brush up on our skills or begin a new photographic hobby.

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Kymberly: How did you get into bird photography?

David: My father is a very talented photographer and I guess you can say that his passion for photography rubbed off on me at an early age. He built a darkroom in our house and gave me one of his old Pentax 35mm cameras around age 5.  My favorite things to photograph were squirrels and birds in the yard. For my 7th or 8th birthday he got me a cheap, used 300mm lens so I could get “better” shots of the sparrows.  Fast forward to 2008, after a hiatus from photography, I was taking my dog for a walk in the park and I noticed a really odd/cool-looking duck in the stream. I had never seen a duck like that before and I was determined to figure out what it was.  I went back the next day with my Canon Rebel, which had a 250mm lens attached, and luckily the duck was still there. I posted the photo to BostonBirds, a local bird forum I found online, and asked if someone could identify it.  Someone was kind enough to do so and informed me that it was Hooded Merganser. Somehow this one bird sighting got me hooked.  From that point on, I was determined to see what other birds I could find and, naturally, try and photograph them all. This one event sparked the rejuvenation of my love for photography, and soon enough I was shooting all the time and investing in better gear and lenses.

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Kymberly: Where do you go to bird watch locally and how far have you traveled in respect to bird photography? Is there a dream location that you hope to get to one day?

David: The great thing about birdwatching is that you don’t really need to go anywhere to do it – you can do it in your back yard! My house sits on a tiny 6,700 sqft of land in Boston, there a total of 2 trees in my yard, and yet I have managed to see 42 different species of birds here.  Imagine how many you can see if you live outside the city and on a larger plot of land!

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Massachusetts is a great state for birding and there are lots of wonderful places to go. Plum Island, in Newburyport, is an incredible place for birding and it is considered by many to be one of the top 10 or 20 birding locations in the whole country.

Even in the tiny city of Boston (geographically) there are quite a few great places. Arnold Arboretum is always an exciting place to look for birds, especially with the great diversity of trees they have there. Also, places like Revere Beach, Rumney Marsh, and Concord’s Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge are nice places near the city to find a good variety of both land and sea birds.

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My wife and I love to travel, and despite her not being a “birder” or photographer, she understands that no matter where we go I will always bring my camera and a bird ID book for that particular region or country.  We just returned from a trip to the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica which was easily one of my dream locations.  For the first time ever, this was a trip where my wife was excited to go bird watching!  Although the main focus of the trip was to relax and surround ourselves with nature, the fact that there is such diverse bird-life and wildlife in Costa Rica certainly factored into our decision to go there.  The ultimate trip I dream of is an African Safari.  Literally, every bird I see there will be new to me, and seeing and photographing the big game animals would be unbelievable.

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Kymberly: What are you looking forward to this year and are there any special migrations?  Where is best spot for seeing these specific migrations?

David: The spring Warbler migration is an event that excites every birder in the US.  The Warblers are a bird family that consists of many brightly-colored and patterned, small songbirds. Most of them are quite a bit smaller than the common sparrow you probably see every day. These tiny birds fly all the way from Central and South America to their breeding grounds in Northern US and Canada. The peak of the migration typically lasts for a few weeks in May, after which the majority of the warbler species are not seen again until the fall, on their way back home, south of the US.

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Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge becomes packed with birders on the weekends in May.  One Saturday, last year, there were no less than 100 birders all shoulder-to-shoulder in the “Dell” looking at the warblers in the trees above. There were easily another 50-100 birders walking around the rest of the grounds as well.

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Plum Island, due to its geographical location, is an incredible migrant “trap” and some really rare and interesting warblers, as well as other migratory birds, can be found there from May to August. You will find birders there year-round, but it really picks up at this time.

You can also find the nearest wildlife santuary and find out more about seasonal migrations by entering your zip code on the Mass Audubon website.

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Kymberly: What sorts of things do you look for when composing your shots?

David: Typically the number one rule for all wildlife photography is to make sure you can see the animal’s eye, and that it is your sharpest focal point. If you can photograph a bird doing an action, like catching an insect, or catching a fish with its talons (the bigger birds), that always adds interest to the shot.  But because most birds are small, love hiding in dense brush, are extremely quick, and can fly, sometimes just getting that nice “portrait” is great! Trust me, it is by no means easy… I have snapped-off hundreds of thousands of shots, and there are still many birds that I want to get better shots of that refuse to cooperate with me.

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Lighting is the most important key to any good photograph, regardless of the subject matter, but bird photography presents you with many other challenges you must face before you can even consider your lighting.  One challenge is that most birds are very small, and they want to be as far from humans as possible –  even just moving slightly to get a better angle on a bird can spook it and cause it to fly away.  Because of this, one really needs to use a lens that is at least 400mm.

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Another major challenge is that most small birds love to hang out and move around in trees. Trees, bushes and thickets pose a huge challenge because there is almost always a twig or a leaf obscuring part of the bird, or casting a shadow right on its face. Furthermore, trying to use autofocus in these situations can be tough – the camera’s focus may take a while “searching” for the bird through the branches and leaves and, once it does lock-on, the bird has usually hopped or flown to a different spot. It would be great if every bird perched only on wide-open, dead branches, in perfect light, but that just doesn’t happen.  You have to have patience, be keenly aware of where the sun is, and be prepared to get the best shot in case the bird decides to reveal itself from deep with-in the tree or bush.

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Kymberly: What tips and tricks have you learned from others who share in your passion?

David: Patience is easily #1.  Birding, and bird photography more specifically, takes a lot of patience.  You are going to have days where you find every bird you wanted, but not a single one perched in good light, or nothing came out as sharp as you hoped.  Other days the weather and lighting are perfect, but you can’t find any of the birds you were hoping to see. You just have to have patience.  Usually, if you try enough times, the bird you want will eventually perch in good light for you.

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Another important tip that someone gave me early on: get low! Birds are very easily spooked by tall, moving objects. Crawling on your stomach is a great way to get closer to the birds.  I once spent 25 minutes slowly crawling on my stomach, in the sand, in order to get a shot of a Peregrine Falcon perched on a piece of driftwood on the beach.  I managed to get within 15 feet of it, which I never would have been able to do if I had just walked towards it.

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Another tip is do not be afraid to use F/6.3 if you are using a Canon 100-400.  Typically your sharpest setting is F/8, but by stopping down twice you will be able to use a faster shutter speed, which is very important when photographing small, flighty birds. F5.6 is ok too, if you need to use it, but you will find that F6.3 is noticeably sharper.

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Kymberly: What have you done to engage with your birding community and are there any events that you like to attend?

David: The birding community in Massachusetts is actually one of the most active in the country – given the size and population of our state.  A lot of information is shared via MassBird, which is a listserv where birders can post recent or rare bird sightings, share links to photographs they have taken, discuss conservation efforts and request support, etc.  I will often post any unusual or rare sightings I have, as well as share my photos, on the MassBird site.  You also meet other birders everywhere you go.  Eventually, you begin to recognize familiar faces and start to make new friends.

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The Mass Audubon website also has a wealth of information including statewide bird monitoring.  A few more national forums are the National Wildlife Refuge Association which publishes a Birding Community E-Bulletin that is rich with information, as well as the American Birding Association.

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Kymberly: Are there online forums that you are engaged in?

David: MassBird is the main site I use, but I also post a lot of stuff on Flickr.  Also, National Geographic has a section of their website called “Your Shot” that invites wildlife photographers to share their work and hashtag it with the subject matter.  An added plus to sharing is if you get enough ‘likes’ you can be featured on National Geographic’s Photo of the Day.

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Kymberly: What is in your bag now and did you pick those items for any specific reason? What is on your dream list?

David: Currently, I shoot with a Canon 7D.  My main lens for wildlife is the Canon 100-400mm 4/5.6L.  For landscapes I shoot with the Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM.  I use B&W filters on all my glass and love their circular polarizer for my 15-85.  We recently spent 2 weeks traveling and hiking in Yellowstone and my big purchase for that trip was my Gitzo Series tripod. I purchased the larger series 3 because my ultimate goal is to own a 500 or 600mm prime lens, and I wanted to make sure I had a sturdy enough tripod for a lens that large. I paired the Gitzo with an Induro ballhead.

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My “dream gear” is a Canon 600mm IS II paired with a Canon 5D Mark III, both of which I recently rented from Borrowlenses.com.

Other photo and birdwatching related items I carry are:

1) 3 fully charged batteries

2) 3 x 32 gigabyte CF cards, (and a few extra smaller ones)

3) A B&W UV filter and a B&W circular polarizer filter

4) A Rocket Air blower for cleaning lenses and sensors

5) Sibley Guide To Birds (now I have it on my iPhone, so no need to carry the paperback version anymore!)

6) Binoculars / Spotting Scope (depending on where I am)

7) For a bird checklist I use ebird.org.  This is an incredible site run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  You can document and organize every bird sighting you have ever had on their site for free, and you are also contributing to their citizen science project at the same time! They now have an iPhone app for documenting your sightings while in the field called “BirdLog NA.”

Because I am often hiking alone in the woods there are quite a few other essentials I always carry:

1. Small Flashlight

2. Folding Knife / Leatherman

3. Raincoat

4. Drybag (this has been incredibly useful – especially when caught in a downpour in the woods!)

5. Sharp-pointed tweezers (for tick removal)

6. First Aid kit

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Kymberly: What do you do with your pictures after you have taken them?

David: I recently launched my website where my work is available for purchase or just to browse and I also post a lot of my work to Flickr.  I have also been accepted into the Mystic Art Festival as well as the Wickford Art Festival, so you can find me selling my work at both those shows this summer.

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Thank you again, David, for your insight into the fascinating world of birding!  If our readers have any more tips and tricks for shooting or know of any great spots around the country that the BL community should have on their bucket list- please leave your comments below!

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Cortigiano is a food, lifestyle, and event photographer with a contemporary aesthetic. She received an undergraduate degree in photography at Drexel University and has gone on to work as a freelance photographer and teaching artist in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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