Street Photographer Goes Birding

If you’ve just built a hide in the woods and bought a 600mm lens, please stop reading now. This morning I looked out of my bedroom window and snapped a baby goldcrest with my Canon 5DIII and 40mm lens, using settings unchanged from the night before.

The fact is: I didn’t have time to change the settings. My street photography instinct is to shoot first and ask questions later, so that’s what I did.

I’ve often caught a glimpse of these tiny birds — Britain’s smallest, at around three inches from beak to tail when fully grown. The babies, like the one in my featured image (above) are between one and two inches long. They flit rapidly from twig to twig among the branches of the Scots Pine in front of my house, looking for spiders and small insects.

A skilled bird photographer could get a much better shot, but I’m quite pleased with my opportunistic effort. The settings, as you can see from the EXIF, were 1/2500th second at f/2.8 with ISO 2000. When the bird sat on the exterior door handle I just grabbed the camera and took the shot quickly, hoping for the best. There was no time to lower the ISO, which I’d been using previously for night-time shots outside.

In fact, the high ISO and shutter speed may have delivered a better picture than I could have expected with more sensible settings. They froze the bird’s movements very well. The biggest problem was getting focus through the double-glazed door, but I aimed for the bird’s eye and that, at least, is sharp. Depth of field is pretty much non-existent, but I like the out-of-focus railings of the balcony and the bright light from the river beyond.

So, does the street photographer’s image of a bird differ from one taken by a professional birder? I think it does, and the difference comes from my motivation for taking the shot. I was not out to document the bird’s appearance or to get the perfect shot of what is, after all, a fairly common bird.

I was struck by the bird’s fragility and innocence — not to mention it’s bravery in venturing close enough for me to photograph it with a 40mm lens. Even an adult goldcrest weighs only six grams. It clings to life at the best of times, and perishes easily in a cold winter. I think my photo shows the poignancy of such a life.

Not the First Time
If I see birds in the street (other than pigeons) I’m sometimes tempted to photograph them. Walking along the sea-front at Phuket in Thailand I came across these two Common Mynah birds (Acridotheres tristis) standing side by side, apparently surveying the beach.

Again, I was struck by (for want of a better word) their “personality.” I’m not sure what else to call it. Presence? Aura? Attitude? They’re obviously not “persons” — as no doubt a fully trained mynah bird would be able to tell you — but they seem to be intelligent and clearly in cahoots with each other.

I was tempted to draw speech bubbles (“Look out, it’s the paparrazi. Let’s pretend we’re just good friends”) but I didn’t want to spoil the atmosphere. With the sun going down and the two birds looking out to sea — just like people do — I thought the image would remind us of our commonality with them. Their evolutionary journey has been no less improbable than our own.

At least this time I was armed with a more powerful lens, a 24-70mm zoom, and I had time to adjust the settings: 1/200th second, f/9, ISO800. The smaller aperture has allowed me to get both birds into focus, despite shooting at 70mm. I focused on the closer of the two, then edged slightly forward.

Much as I love seeing them in their natural habitat, I don’t wish to take up bird photography full-time. Other people do it so well. But if I see an opportunity to take a shot which says something about birds and our relationship with them, I’ll take it.

It’s another form of street photography. With feathers.

2 thoughts on “Street Photographer Goes Birding

  1. I think the real lesson for me here is that you had your camera to hand. I live on the edge of a golf course and often stagger into the kitchen in the morning and see photogenic magpies, rooks or jackdaws sitting on the fence ten feet away but my camera is always at least 10 feet away and as soon as I move they disappear 🙂

    • You’re absolutely right, Robin. It sounds like it would be worthwhile to take your camera with you in the morning, just in case!

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