At the mention of Zen, a Buddhist monk in search of enlightenment might come to mind. When I think of Zen, I think of an approach to photography, especially my own wildlife photography. For me, Zen is a state of mind. A state of quietness and stillness and contemplation when engaging with the natural world and finding beauty in all things. I try and remember that Zen photography is more about mindset than the subject matter.
I completely absorb myself in the process of photographing wildlife and nature and think of nothing else during the process. Time slips away like a flowing river. All that matters is the subject, the light and the creativity. It’s a way of meditation. A way of Zen. Nothing else seems to matter.
Look at the light. See how it forms the shapes, lines, textures, patterns and shadows of the world around us. Notice the colour and quality of the light. Listen to the sounds and the smell of the location. Observe your intended subject. When photographing fungi emerging from the leaf litter, I get down to their level. I can smell their habitat. I can smell the fungi. Feel the wind and sun on your skin. Become part of the location. I spend several minutes getting into a Zen mindset, a Zen zone before setting up the camera.
Set up your camera.
When photographing fungi or botany, I will generally use a tripod or a beanbag. It slows me down. It makes me think. Don’t just point and shoot. Don’t think that you have the definitive shot and fire the shutter. Take your time and really look at your subject through the viewfinder or on the camera’s screen. Try different compositions or exposures or focus adjustments. See everything within the frame. You will almost certainly be more creative and come up with better ideas by resisting the urge to fire the shutter and quickly get the shot.
Look closely at the world every day.
For me, Zen-like observation works very well when photographing wildlife and nature but it’s something that I like to undertake every day. I can’t do it all the time – I’d be walking around in a complete introspective trance. Whenever I am in a wood, meadow, park or wildlife situation I ‘switch off’ and observe. I make mental notes, or use a notebook, to return if the light isn’t right or if the subject ‘isn’t ready’. Or I may have a camera with me and begin my Zen photography process. When you truly open your eyes and your senses there is so much to see. And photograph.
Macro photography generally means close-up photography, usually of very small subjects such as insects, in which the size of the subject in the photograph is the same or greater than life-size. It’s a specialist area of photography and special kit is required, but it needn’t cost the earth. Remember that most compact cameras have a macro mode, allowing the lens to focus at a short distance. Many standard lenses, fixed focal length or zoom, will focus close enough to photograph natural patterns, groups of flowers and fungi and larger insects etc. No further kit is required. Interchangeable macro lenses for DSLRs come in different focus lengths and most can be used as ‘ordinary’ lenses. I own three macro lenses: a 100mm which I use generally. I also use it for other applications: portraiture and for photographing large format vintage glass negatives in order to digitise them. I have a 180mm macro lens which is more unwieldy than the 100mm but has the great advantage of having a longer minimum focus distance: I can stand further away to get a macro shot – ideal for skittish subjects that will flit off if I get too close. My other macro lens is very specialised and difficult to use. It’s a Canon MP-E 65mm and can go up to 5x life size.
Use extension tubes – these are simple metal tubes with no glass, weigh very little and are easy to use. They fit between the camera body and lens and increase the close-focusing of the lens with no effect on optical quality. It’s best to use ones with contacts between camera and lens so the metering system still works. Autofocus remains but it is always best to use manual focus with macro photography. If you buy extension tubes, make sure you get ones for your camera system – Canon, Nikon etc. Mine are third-party but work very well. If you are unsure buy ones made by your camera manufacturer.
Use a supplementary close-up lens – These are magnifying lenses that fit onto the front of standard lenses to facilitate close-focusing without any significant decrease in image quality. Canon make excellent two-element close-up lenses that can be used with any manufacturer’s lenses and work very well with telephoto zoom lenses. Make sure you buy one with the correct filter diameter to fit your lens and they come in different focal lengths. Canon make single element lenses, too, but these aren’t quite as good. Look for the identifier “D” which signifies a two element lens. Supplementary close-up lenses can also be used with macro lenses to great effect. I use a Raynox DCR-250 close-up lens. It clips to the front of a macro or zoom lens to magnify the image by about x3 and works very well.
Invest in a macro lens – The greatest benefit of a ‘proper’ macro lens is that they will provide at least a life-size magnification (1:1). Some will go beyond life-size, up to 5:1 (which makes a spider look very scary). Supplementary close-up lenses can be used with them to great effect and can increase the magnification of the bare lens tremendously.
Choose a focal length that suits you best. 50mm macro lenses have limited use as they force you to set up very close to your subject which isn’t always practical. Your subject may be scared off, for a start. Mid-range 100mm lenses are probably the most versatile and the most cost-effective. Lenses in the range of 150mm to 200mm allow a greater working distance and will also provide a more diffused or blurred background to make the in-focus subject stand out. Macro lenses are designed to provide the best image quality at close-focusing distances but will also focus to infinity, so can be used as ‘ordinary’ lenses.
Tips – Try and use manual focus rather than auto-focus. The depth of field is often very shallow and the camera’s auto-focus system can be confused and doesn’t know what you want to focus on. Use your camera’s depth of field preview button to see what’s sharp and what isn’t. If your subject is moving around, try continuous auto-focus. You may get lucky, especially if you fire a burst of shots. Firing a burst may be a good option when using manual focus, too. When in manual focus once the focus has been found try moving your body, and therefore the camera, very slightly closer and further away to fine tune the focus. Take a breath, breathe out slowly, lock your arms, brace your body and gently press the shutter. If the subject is still consider using a tripod. If you are using a tripod enable mirror lock-up. This means that when the shutter is first pressed the camera’s mirror flips up (the viewfinder goes black), then wait a moment for any in-camera vibrations to subside and press the shutter again and the photograph is taken. Consider using a cable release to reduce vibrations further. Often it is best to photograph butterflies, dragonflies, other insects and spiders first thing in the morning when it’s chilly. They tend to keep still at such times and may also have a coating of dew which can be visually very interesting. Wait for a still day, too. Choose a fast shutter speed, 1/500 sec is a good starting point with an aperture of f/8 to f/16 to get a reasonable depth of field and try and get your subject in the same plane of focus – that is to say parallel to the camera and not at an angle. If your subject is parallel with the camera you stand a good chance of getting the head and tail sharp otherwise it will be one or the other. Practice, practice, practice. Bring a small flower indoors and in a bright room practice with that.
First, attract birds to your garden! – Provide bird food in regularly cleaned feeders positioned near to shrubs or trees high enough to be out of a cat’s leap and fresh, clean water in a bird bath. Check out the ‘how to attract birds and wildlife’ advice from the RSPB.
Your garden is a wildlife stage – If birds come into your garden it can be straightforward to photograph them. With a little craft and guile you can get some very pleasing shots.
Set the scene – I use interesting and natural looking sticks and twigs as well as larger pieces of wood to serve as perches for garden birds. These can be positioned on a workbench – the vice is really useful, tied to something in the garden like railings or a garden chair, or otherwise bodged somehow. I have a couple of articulated arms with jaws at each end that are really useful. Position perches near food: the birds will soon come in.
Get to know your birds – Watch their behaviour. They may prefer to be very close to shrubs or other cover, or a particular sort of perch in a particular place in the garden.
Use props – Consider using props for the birds to perch on. Clay pots, interesting looking watering cans and tool handles etc. Use your imagination to set up an interesting scene.
Go natural – Birds will use natural perches, of course. Keep observing and get to know their behaviour and favourite spots in the garden at different times of the day.
Choose an interesting background – I like plain, out of focus backgrounds without any intruding clutter. If you are using moveable perches, do just that and move the perches so that the background is uncluttered and a few feet at least behind the perch in order to throw it out of focus. Move the perches around or take up a position to vary the background. If a shrub is in flower, make use of that. Sometimes moving the perch or camera a just a little makes a big difference to the composition and the background.
Clock the light – My garden faces east, which means that the sun is behind me in the morning and I’m looking into the bright light in the afternoon and evening. Both front-lit (with the sun behind you) and back-lit (with the sun behind your subject) photographs can work really well. Side lighting can work well, too, to bring out texture in the feathers.
Find a spot – I photograph from both inside the house and from the garden. Often I shoot through an open door and sometimes through the glass. Window glass isn’t optically great and can soften the shot and it must be clean! If the door is open, I’ll be inside the house by a few feet and largely ignored if I stay still or move slowly. If I’m in the garden I’ll usually sit or stand covered with a bag hide. This is a like an unstructured tent which covers me and my camera with a hole for the lens and a netting window for me to see out. It can get hot!
Cameras and lenses and such – One of the benefits of photographing garden birds is that they can come quite close, so you won’t need a very long lens. A 100mm to 400mm zoom is ideal, even a standard 50mm lens can be used to good effect but won’t let you ‘fill the frame’. A tripod can be a good idea because you can set the camera up, pre-focus on the perch where the bird will land, make some test exposures and then simply fire the shutter when the time is right. One you have pre-focused, switch the lens to manual focus so that the focus is locked in. You can always tweak the focus manually if necessary.
Otherwise, use auto-focus set to subject tracking. Canon calls this function “AI Servo”. Nikon calls it AF-C or Continuous Servo. As long as you have the camera’s focus point or points on the bird, the camera will do its best to keep it focused.
Set a fast shutter speed whether you are hand-holding or using a tripod. The bird will sometimes oblige and sit still, but it’s usually a fast-moving ball of feathers. Use a minimum of 1/500sec and the faster the better to freeze the action.
Set an aperture of around f/5.6 or f/8 to achieve a good depth of field to get the bird in focus without having the background anywhere near sharp. For an uncluttered, blurred background try and keep a separation of at least three feet between it and the perch. More is better.
Try setting your ISO to Auto. The camera will continuously adjust it’s sensitivity to the changing conditions.
On an overcast day, typical settings would be 1/500sec at f/8 at ISO 500. Bright sun these might be 1/1000sec, f/8, ISO125. Use aperture priority to dial in a particular value or shutter priority to put the onus on speed. I always shoot in manual: I dial in the shutter speed and aperture I want and with the ISO in Auto, the camera looks after the exposure.
Set the camera’s drive to continuous high-speed to increase your chances of getting a ‘keeper’. A downside to this technique is that the shutter may make a bit of noise and this could scare the bird.
Finally, always keep a camera handy. You just never know what might come in to your garden and if you have a camera nearby you stand a chance of photographing it.
Long time EWG member and nature photographer extraordinaire Nigel Bewley has put together two photography tutorials for us! This one is about Wildlife in its Environment and the previous one is Birds in Flight . Thanks Nigel!
Take a step back
It’s lovely and impressive to fill the frame with your subject and make a photograph that is a close-up portrait full of detail but without much of the environment – the place where your subject lives. Just by showing a little of the environment puts the photograph into context. Two goldfinches on a feeder? We know straight away that it was likely to have been taken in a garden with the inference that goldfinches are garden birds.
Set The Scene
If you have wildlife in your garden, set yourself up with your camera, make yourself comfortable and be prepared for a wait. It could be that your subject has become used to you or is so busy that it doesn’t care about your presence.
Try using a piece of material to cover yourself as a disguise. It is always a good idea to keep quiet, move slowly and don’t wear perfume or aftershave. Foxes, amphibians in the pond, birds flying into nest boxes or even rats make great subjects that are right on your doorstep.
Use Props And Build A Set
For this photograph of a coal tit I set up a wooden carry-box and various garden tools and scattered some peanuts. Wait for the right light – you will know when the sun makes its way around the garden and is behind you. Some wildlife photographers can be a bit sniffy about this technique and don’t consider it “proper”.
Many, many successful, published wildlife photographs use props and bait. A fox investigating a tipped-over dustbin? A kingfisher perched on a sign that reads “No Fishing”? A squirrel looking through a camera’s viewfinder? All artifice, guile and imagination.
Go Wide In The Wild
Composition often plays a key role in environmental photographs. Get away from placing your subject in the middle of the frame. A successful environmental photograph may simply be a landscape shot where the subject plays an important role in acting as a focal point.
By including some of this red deer stag’s habitat the image tells more of a story about the animal’s relationship with the environment. We can immediately see two things: it’s a stag and it’s in the mountains.
You don’t have to go to the Cairngorms for this kind of photograph. A nearby green space will works just as well. There’s plenty of wildlife around – like this muntjac. Go and look for it. It will be there.
Wildlife exists alongside us and we exist alongside wildlife. Our lives should be in balance with nature. It never ceases to amaze me how wildlife can be part of our lives – it’s all around us and it’s quite valid to document that with people or buildings etc. as part of the photograph. Wildlife, people and buildings. It often works very well.
Tell a story
Consider a series of photographs of the same subject taken over a period of time to tell a story. It could be of a particular tree seen over the year from bare branches to full leaf, a family of foxes and their cubs or the adoption of a nest box – not necessarily by birds – with their comings and goings.
Use your imagination. Use your love for wildlife.
Please obey and respect the current lockdown rules and advice.
Long time Ealing Wildlife Group member and nature photographer extraordinaire Nigel Bewley has put together two photography tutorials for us! This one is about Birds in Flight and the next one is Wildlife in its Environment. Thanks Nigel!
Getting To Grips With Photographing Birds In Flight
Start with Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority.
Select a shutter speed fast enough to “freeze” the bird’s wings in your photograph. Go for at least 1/1000th of a second to 1/2000th of a second. Even faster is better, if possible.
Select an aperture of around f/8. This aperture is likely to be the lens’s “sweet spot” where it is sharpest and you will also get a decent depth of field.
Set an ISO that will allow for the above combinations of shutter and aperture. On a bright and sunny day, start with an ISO of 250.
The most accurate focus point is the central point but it’s tricky to keep this centred on the bird. Activate all of the focus points or at least a cluster in the centre of the frame. Set your camera’s focus to continuous focus. The camera will continuously focus with the flight of the bird. Canon calls this function “AI Servo”. Nikon calls it AF-C or Continuous Servo.
Your camera’s meter will be trying to expose for the bright sky. The bird that you are trying to photograph is not as bright as the sky so dial in around +1 EV of exposure to fool the meter into exposing for the bird and not the sky. If you are photographing a white bird such as a swan, you may need to dial in around -1 EV to stop the bird “burning out” in the photograph.
Look for a plus/minus button and dial in under or over exposure compensation
The dark plumaged lapwing needed +1 EV but the bright, pale barn owl needed -1 EV for a correct exposure
Lots of practice in the garden or, if lock down allows, in the park.