Great for birds, what about photos?

Ask a birder where you can see a particular species of bird and they probably will give you a couple good locations.  Ask a photographer where you can photograph that same species and they may give you a totally different place.  Probably they are all good options but birders tend to value particular sites for different reasons than photographers.

Today I spent the morning exploring the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge.  As you know, I have a love for wetlands and marshes, so I was ecstatic when I discovered that I now live less than 90 minutes from the Montezuma Wetlands Complex.  It’s taken a couple weeks for me to get there but this morning I headed north.

I spent most of the morning exploring the publicly accessible parts of the refuge and saw a fair amount of birds.  Unfortunately, most of these birds were identified through a high powered spotting scope or as I strained to see through my binoculars.  The birds seemed to always be distant and simply inaccessible for a close view.   This meant I had a disappointing morning photographically speaking, as I didn’t take any picture or at least none that will survive the delete button.  So this begs the question, what makes the difference between a good birding location and a good bird photography question?

Birders tend to value simply the presence of birds, high diversity, and often, the possibility of something rare showing up. Photographers are often looking for something a bit different, they need to be able to get close, have a clear view, and diversity is of slightly less importance.  See the below lists for more details:

Finding a great place to photograph wildlife requires more than simply the presence of subjects.  Photographers take a lot more into account including the following:

  • Getting Close – If your goal is to create portraits of individual bird, you simply have to get close.  Even with huge lenses, you still have to be within say 20 feet or so of most birds to capture a frame filling image.
  • Early/Late Access – Since photography is all about light, this is crucial to a photographer’s ability to create a memorable image.  Most wildlife photographers prefer sunrise and sunset as prime times to photograph not only for the quality of light but for the increase activity.  Some places don’t open their gates until 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning well past the prime time for photography.  I have found this to be a problem primarily with state parks in Florida.
  • Angle of Light – As previously mentioned, light is the key to photography and not only is it the quality but the angle that can make the difference between an acceptable and a mind blowing photograph.  Photographers are always focusing on where the sun is, how it will be shining on their subject, where it creates shadows, whether it is front or back lit, etc.
  • Freedom of Movement – By freedom of movement, I mean the ability to get to eye level with the birds.  Typically, I want to photograph a bird at eye level, meaning if its on the ground, I better be laying on the ground.  This proves to be a major issue when you are photographing from a boardwalk down into a marsh or from a car up on a dike down into a marsh.

Next time you are out scouting for new places to photograph, be sure to keep all these factors in mind.  There is nothing more frustrating than showing up ready to photograph only to find the situation far different than you expected.  Keep in mind though, no matter how much scouting you do, weather, light, and wildlife are fickle beasts so remain flexible and you’ll find a way to create memorable images.

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