Bird photography lessons at Brazos Bend
“It’s like going to the gym. You gotta do it and put in the work.” That was Andrew, our instructor explaining to our class of five that if we’re going to get good at photographing wildlife we have to put in the work.
I know this. I’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, where he explains that people who are really good at what they do have put in thousands of hours of practice. So that’s why Steve and I are here on this wildlife photography field trip at Brazos Bend State Park, a 5,000 acre Texas state park, which is about an hour outside of Houston.
We have a Nikon D7000 DLSR and it’s the second DSLR camera we’ve had since we married ten years ago. Neither of us know what we’re really doing when it comes to photography and we’ve been shooting in auto mode the whole time. Essentially, we’ve been treating our camera like a point-and-shoot, which is totally wrong, and so every year I try to climb out of that bad habit and set a New Year’s Resolution to quit shooting in auto mode.
It never seems to work. I don’t have enough fingers to count how many times I’ve taken a one-hour class at a local camera store so I can learn the basics, but that doesn’t seem to be working. I pretty much forget about what the instructor says about aperture f-stops and ISO by the time I get home. What does stick, though is the rule of thirds–but that’s about composition and all my years in the advertising/marketing communications field has taught me a lot about what looks good and what doesn’t, so I’ve got that one down and instructors can just quit talking about it, so let’s move on. But for the life of me I can’t get the basics to make sense to me, mostly because I don’t take the time to dedicate myself every weekend to get outside with my camera and take some photos. By the way, I’m not exactly consistent at going to the gym every day either, so there’s that.
I’ve always known that I need to get my instruction in the field, so when we found this class advertised through Precision Camera & Video—our local camera store in Austin—we jumped on it. Plus, Brazos Bend State Park was on our list of parks to visit because, not only is it birdy, but there are also alligators in the park.
The first evening we all met on a park bench under giant live oak trees that were probably over a hundred years old. The dried moss dripped from their wriggly, thick limbs and swayed in the breeze, reminding me of stockings drying on a clothes line–almost dancing. We were at 40-Acre Lake, which is a bit of a stretch if you call it a lake. It’s mostly an expansive swamp marsh area surrounded by Tallgrass prarie and where alligators lurk and wading birds gingerly step through grasses and leaves on the water as they hunt. It was hard paying attention to our instructor, Andrew, as I watched the sun begin to settle in toward the horizon while Black-bellied Whistling Ducks took to the sky to begin their evening shift of feeding.
We were only getting acquainted with each other this evening and signing forms saying that Andrew wasn’t responsible if we got eaten by an alligator. The next day we were going to get up early to begin the class, just after the sun rises. After we all got done signing the forms, Andrew had us go around the table and share our level of experience and what we hoped to get out of the class.
I suppose the first step in changing your life involves admitting you have a problem.
“I only know how to shoot in auto,” I confessed.
“I’ll be getting you to change that,” Andrew said confidently.
And I added, “I need help with shooting pictures of white birds. They come out super overexposed with a blast of white.”
“I can help you with that,” Andrew assured me.
Thank goodness, I thought, believing that I was going to solve all my problems in one day.
Lesson 1: Know what you need to fix
It didn’t take long the next morning to find a white bird to prove my complete incompetence. The sky was blue with only a few, puffy white clouds in the sky, so the sun was shining bright. Everything glistened and birds were busy skulking around looking for food. Soon after we started on the trail around the marsh I was excited to find an immature Little Blue Heron whose feathers were just starting to turn into their deep blue. I guessed at my settings and as predicted, the bird came out blindingly white.
For the past five years or so this is what has been happening when I take pictures of white birds in bright light, particularly at a distance. Clearly “auto” mode does not mean “You will always take awesome photos.”
Every professional photographer just rolled their eyes at me. Go ahead. I totally deserve that eye roll.
I adjusted the little dial on my camera to take down the exposure. It’s not perfect by a long shot, but a total improvement.
I won’t lie. I still didn’t know what I was doing, but I do think I’m getting better. I think. It’s going to take some time—a lot of time—and it’s not going to be just about using the camera. I need to study what I’ve done so I know what to do or not do next time. Usually when I get back home and load the photos on my computer I do a massive dump of all the crummy photos into the trash. But this time I’m hanging on to bad ones as well as ones that somehow, miraculously turned out better than expected. I’m studying the “info” in the photo editing software to become familiar with my settings of both the crappy photos and the ones that seemed to be an improvement. Hopefully, this will stick.
Lesson 2: Wait for a good moment
Photographing birds with a bunch of birders can be a real challenge. I get really frustrated and impatient with myself when I’m on a birding trip with other birders and they want to tick their list and move on. Me? I want to hang around and look for a good moment. I also like to just observe birds even if I don’t have my camera with me. It was refreshing being in a group this past weekend where the objective was to get a good shot and take our time.
The rest of the group had moved on when I found this White Ibis trying to eat a crawdad whole. It took me awhile to get the shot I wanted–sometimes his back would face me, he’d then drop the crawdad then pick it up again, then some reeds got in the way. But finally he moved into a better position and actually swallowed the crawdad whole.
Waiting for a moment is not the kind of thing I could do on a regular birding trip with others around. I would make so many enemies if I stood around waiting. Fortunately, Steve and I tend to travel on our own and hire private bird guides, allowing us to take birding at a slow pace, to spend time observing and to take photos. And some birding tour companies like Tropical Birding recognize the growth of birders who like photography, so they have tours specifically for birders who want to spend time snapping pictures of birds, assuring enough time to set up the shot and wait for something exciting to capture.
Lesson 3: Don’t take too many shots
I know this rule sounds weird, but it makes sense for me. When I got my first DSLR camera we were in Belize and I was pretty conservative with pressing the shutter button. Mostly it was because I’m old enough to remember what it was like to shoot with film even if most of my experience was with point and shoot cameras. I remember buying a roll of film that had 24 or 36 shots on it then after a trip you’d take it and put it in an envelope and drive up to a little Kodak booth at the strip mall and wait a week or two to get them back only to have maybe four of the photos come out looking decent. It was expensive and often disappointing. But what was more disappointing was being on a trip in the middle of nowhere and running out of film, so I was always careful about when I pushed the shutter release button. I’d wait for the shot before I’d push that button because I was limited on how many I could take. So it took me some time to get to where I was firing off the shutter on a DSLR like Rosie the Riveter.
Once I started clicking at everything a gazillion times it really became an exercise of “maybe if I keep clicking the shutter button at least one of the photos will come out.” So I turned from conservative clicker to rapidly firing away as I was playing a game of chance. But that meant that I would fill my cards up super fast and have to go through the painful process of editing following a trip. I confess that I’d been easily shooting 600 shots a day. When I would do that on a 10 day trip it adds up, and even though I was deleting it still took time to determine which shots to keep and which to toss.
The “Don’t take too many shots” rule was one of the best things I learned last Saturday. I don’t need six shots of the same bird doing the same thing, particularly if it’s not moving. The only rationale for doing that would be if I were changing my settings. Or if the light moved.
When this Yellow-crowned Night Heron walked out on the path in front of me I was conservative in my shots. I only took eight (really, that’s a small amount compared to what I usually do) and for each shot I made adjustments and ended up with this result:
Lesson #4: Go to the gym everyday
I know this rule to be true. When I was growing up I spent hours playing the piano, practicing scales, repeating the same measures over and over. That’s the only way you get better. I’m just going to have to start using my camera every weekend, even if it’s for just an hour. Frankly, this is going to be the only way I’m going to learn. (I would love to say “every day,” but I still have my day job Monday through Friday.) All the bird and wildlife photographers are putting in the time to be better. This is not the kind of craft that you dial in. You either do it or you don’t. Shooting in auto mode only gets a person so far and you definitely don’t learn anything about the science of light when you’re in auto mode. It’s really more chance and luck when I get a nice shot. Today, DLSRs are so sophisticated and they’re really mini computers in our hands, but sadly, I probably only know 10% of its potential.
So, I’m committing to put in the time. I can’t just set a goal to “get out of auto mode.” I need to put in the work and actually do it. And this past weekend, as frustrating as it was, it actually started to give me confidence in what I’m doing.
Here are more photos from my weekend of learning. And by the way, I am very open to constructive comments and advice from all you photographers out there.
I’m not particularly fond of this next photo. The Green Heron came out nicely but that was at the expense of its surroundings, which came out over exposed. Another important lesson Andrew taught me was that sometimes the conditions just don’t make for a great photo, no matter how hard I try. I was in a very shaded area as was the heron but the sun peaked through occasionally through the forest, complicating it a bit. Sometimes even the best photographers can’t get a great shot when the environment doesn’t cooperate.
This next photo has some nice things and some not-so-great things. If I had a polarizing filter it would have improved the photo, particularly with the water on the ducks’ bills. It would also take down the brightness a notch. What I really dislike about this photo is similar to what’s going on with the heron photo above—the greenery seems over exposed. I can’t really correct it in editing, so I need to work more on the shot. (You can’t Photoshop your way to being a good photographer.) The other thing I don’t like is from a composition standpoint. Those blasted branches are in the way and totally ruin the shot.
This last shot is nice except for the grass in the foreground. I would have preferred to see the whole bird. There are still shadows on the neck I don’t like, but at least there’s texture now on the white. For a white bird this is a tremendous improvement for me, but I was closer than other white birds I’ve captured. I think it’s when I’m shooting at a long distance that I get the blasting white. Anyway, this is not a terrible shot.
I need more classes and in-the-field practice, and better if those two are combined. But it was a fantastic weekend where we discovered a new Texas state park and spent an entire day learning how to use our camera. Seriously, if you have advice I’d love to hear it.
If I’m not out taking photos of birds, you can find me at the gym. I promise.
And for those who are interested, here is the list of birds we saw at Brazos Bend State Park.
Birds seen (and heard) at Brazos Bend State Park
- Black-bellied Whistling Duck
- Mottled Duck
- Least Grebe
- Pied-billed Grebe
- Least Bittern
- Great Blue Heron
- Great Egret
- Snowy Egret
- Little Blue Heron
- Cattle Egret
- Green Heron
- Yellow-crowned Night Heron
- White Ibis
- Black Vulture
- Turkey Vulture
- Mississippi Kite
- Red-shouldered Hawk
- Red-tailed Hawk
- Crested Caracara
- Purple Gallinule
- Common Moorhen
- Mourning Dove
- Yellow-billed Cuckoo (heard)
- Barred Owl (heard)
- Common Nighthawk (heard)
- Red-bellied Woodpecker
- Ladder-backed Woodpecker
- Pileated Woodpecker (heard)
- Eastern Phoebe
- Vermillion Flycatcher
- Western Kingbird
- Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
- Loggerhead Shrike
- White-eyed Vireo
- Blue Jay
- American Crow
- Purple Martin
- Northern Rough-winged Swallow
- Barn Swallow
- Carolina Chickadee
- Tufted Titmouse
- Carolina Wren
- Marsh Wren
- American Robin
- Northern Mockingbird
- European Starling
- Prothonotary Warbler
- Swainson’s Warbler (heard)
- Summer Tanager
- Northern Cardinal
- Red-winged Blackbird
- Great-tailed Grackle
- Orchard Oriole