Wild Bird Photography – Calibrate Your Birding Lens

One of the ways for you to get super sharp bird photos is to know your gear like you know how crazy you are.

WARNING: This blog may have OFFENSIVE content if you have been feeling miserably lately. You may opt to skip reading this blog in its entirety, else, read at your own RISK!

Recently, my workhorse, the Canon 50D, was admitted to the hospital due to sprained shutter mechanism (one of the consumable/replaceable parts of a Canon DSLR). Advertised by Canon to have 100,000 shutter, I was only able to consume around 65,000 shots when intermittent issues popped up with increasing frequency. First was the black vertical arc appearing on my photos against extreme backlights and the last one was the intermittent Error 30 during 6fps bursts. I must have overused it to the point of exhaustion. But I thought there are 35000 shutters more left for me? Aaah, the beauty of advertising.

To cut the story short, I had the shutter mechanism transplanted with brand new parts. It took Canon Philippines a week to fix it and now I have another 65,000 shutters to boot. My Canon 50D is now back in action.

The core of this blog though was the consequence of having a brand new piece of mechanism in my birding rig. As soon as I got it back to working condition, I suspected that some shots were off in terms of sharpness that I used to have. I thought that the only way to get confirmation of this sharpness issue is to go out birding and have the gears tested and re-calibrated if indeed sharpness was off.

Unknown to many, bodies and lenses that you buy, aren’t perfect. The moment you have your lens mated with a camera, you may have brought with it some problems. The mating of the camera body and a lens produces unique combinations. Sometimes both are perfect combinations, sometimes both needs some tuning so minute imperfections are threshed out. One of the most important concern that a birder needs to look at his gears is ‘auto-focusing’. Having perfect ‘focus’ delivers super sharp images. In bird photography, having a mis-focusing rig, however minute, gives you images that are sharp but are not extremely sharp.

So if you really want extreme sharpness, you should know how to calibrate your camera and your lens to achieve perfect focus. You do calibration when one of these things happen:

  • after you combine a body and a lens (right after you have bought the set)
  • when something in the combination has changed (in my case, some mechanism that might affect focusing was replaced)
  • during some regular tune-ups (I typically re-tune my rig once every 6 months)
  • when you suspect sharpness is an issue

The good news is that, it is very easy to have your rig finely tuned to achieve perfect focusing. First, you just need to know if your camera body has some feature that allows you to calibrate auto-focus. My Canon 50D has one and it is called Micro Focus Adjustment (MFA). I would suggest at this point that you check your camera’s user’s manual if indeed your camera supports this. If you camera doesn’t have this feature, sorry, you may have to bring your rig to your service center for proper tuning. If you happen to have this feature, check the manual on how to use the feature. this might differ from camera to camera depending on brand and models.

As a bird photographer though this is how I calibrated my camera and lens upon suspecting some sharpness issue caused maybe by the installation of a brand new shutter mechanism.

NOTE: I purposely went to Angono, Rizal yesterday to shoot the Philippine Eagle-Owl and at the same time recalibrate my camera and lens to achieve perfect focusing. This is how I did the tuning:

  1. Mount your gear on a sturdy tripod. You must not move your tripod during the entire calibration process.
  2. There is no better substitute than to use the REAL THING and do it outdoors! Use bird feathers when calibrating your gears. Feather details are what you are after so using a feather would give exactly the same feedback as shooting birds. Since the Philippine Eagle-Owl is readily available yesterday, I ‘plucked’ a feather from it and use it for calibration. Place the feather at exactly just a bit right outside your MFD (minimum focusing distance). If you can’t get a feather, you are not a resourceful bird photographer. I suggest you shoot landscapes and sunsets.
  3. Format your cam’s media card.
  4. Set Timer mode to shoot. 2 seconds would do. Go for 10 if you want.
  5. Set rig to LIVEVIEW, lens at wide open and set to its longest focal length. Zoom in to the feather @ maximum magnification (10x for my Canon 50D). Focus manually or using contrast-detection focusing. This will enable you to have a visual confirmation on the sharpness of feather details via your cam’s LCD screen. Then shoot! Be sure that you produce an ultra sharp image using this process. Repeat Step 5 until you are able to produce a single ultra sharp image. This ultra sharp image will be used as your guide in achieving perfect focusing. Be sure to delete the ones that are not as sharp as can be. Retain only one image that is the sharpest.
  6. Set lens to auto focusing mode. Set the proper limiter (mine @ 3.5 meters) if your lens have these switches. Set lens wide open and its longest focal length (for zoom).
  7. Set MFA to zero and shoot at the feather. Using your cam’s LCD, view and compare the output from your previously saved ultra sharp image that was earlier taken via LIVEVIEW. If you happen to have the same ultra sharpness between the two images, then congratulations for having a perfectly tuned and focusing rig and your tuning is DONE. However, if sharpness is doubtful, you may either increase or decrease MFA setting and repeat Step 7. DO this until you achieve the same level of sharpness as the one you had using LIVEVIEW.
  8. After you are done, only then you can move the tripod. If you have moved your tripod during the process, then you consider repeating from Step 1.

Here is the result of my calibration earlier using a real Philippine Eagle-Owl feather in Angono, Rizal. Click on the photo for high-resolution viewing.

Prior to my cam’s shutter mechanism getting replaced, my MFA setting was at +4. Long ago, it was at +8. Now with its brand new shutter, it is at +12.

This is all folks! I hope this article has given you an idea on how to know your gears better.

NOTE: No birds were harmed during the calibration process.

Check out my Philippine birds photos @ Facebook!

Wild Bird Photography in the Philippines – Part 2

This is so far a 3 part series of what wild bird photography is to me. I would probably evolve this series over time to make it current as much as possible.
Wild Bird Photography in the Philippines – Part 1
Wild Bird Photography in the Philippines – Part 3

Previously, on Wild Bird Photography in the Philippines – Part I, I discussed how I got into it and the things one needs to have to start photographing wild birds.

In this article, I’ll list down where you would often find birds. And you bet it right, you probably have been thinking that it is always in a zoo. 🙂 But you may have noticed though that I am prefixing bird photography with the word ‘wild’ in my previous article, and this is because bird photography can also include photographing birds in captivity. It may be cute to photograph birds inside a cage, but wild bird photography is for the real bird photographers.

WHERE THE BIRDS ARE

The next most asked question one would ask me regarding this interest is where I get to photograph these birds. In the Philippines, there are over 600+ species of birds that you can shoot. And the number has been increasing as some new sightings of species that don’t usually range in the country. Some are commonly seen, some seldom seen, and some have never ever been photographed. With the country’s 7100+ islands, one can imagine how dispersed our avian friends are in this archipelago. Some birds can only be found in certain islands in the country. For example, a Tiger Shrike (Lanius tigrinus), which can be found in some Eastern Asian countries, has only been recorded to have occurred only once in Jolo, Sulu sometime in 1887 and this is according to A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines. So if one is really bent on taking chances and going for a Tiger Shrike expedition, one should go to Jolo, Sulu.

So far, I have only been to a few places to do some serious bird photography. The farthest up north I had was in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte and down south was in Negros Occidental. I am hoping to go to more birding sites as I progress.

So where do I find birds?

There are lots of common and unusual places where birds can be found. You just have to know and find the reasons why they are there. First, there are different types of birds, and each type has their specific habitats. For example, there is what we call shorebirds and they are usually found on our shorelines. Second, we have to know why they get attracted to certain places. It could be that there are lots of food and water sources in the area or they may be feeling secured in one particular area.

On the other hand, knowing when birds aren’t in the area can help a lot too. If the area doesn’t have any fruit tree, you would know there is less chance seeing a fruit eating bird. If the area allows rampant hunting, probably some birds will leave if they feel threatened. In most cases though they just get shot so you won’t find birds in there.

So, back to our question, where do we find birds?  I’ll try to list down the usual places where one can find birds.

  1. Where There Are Trees/Vegetation. It is almost guaranteed where there are significant clusters of trees and vegetation, there could be birds. Trees can be found almost everywhere but seeing one in significant clusters are becoming of an issue nowadays due to unnecessary tree-cutting. Forests still do represent an ecosystem where trees abound. One can go to various types of forests to photograph birds. There are lowland forests, some can be found in higher altitude, and some forests dot our coastlines. Some are natural and some are man-made. All these types of forests provide an ecosystem where different kinds of birds can thrive.
  2. Near Bodies of Water. Another potential ground where one can find birds are areas near bodies of water such as streams, rivers, lakes, shores, etc. Like any other living things on this planet, birds need water. Even small potholes of water offer birds some comfort. The likelihood of seeing a good number of bird species increases when these bodies of water are near trees and vegetation, or food sources.
  3. Near Food Sources. Another good site where birds congregate are areas where there are enough food for them to thrive. Some birds thrive on nectars so where there are flower, they are also there. Some birds eat insects, so where there are lots of insects, birds could be there. Some birds love fish, and one knows where to find these marine beings. You just have to know a birds’ diet and find those places where they could fatten their bellies.
  4. Where They Can Build Their Nests. Now this is a more difficult place to find as most birds hide their nests from anyone’s view. Some build their nests on rocks, some on the ground, some on the sand, some on a branch of a tree, and some even build on man-made structures such as tall buildings. Some birds don’t even build their nests in the country. J One needs to study more about birds to be able to locate their nests.
  5. Where Humans Are. Some birds have adapted well to people. And where people go, they go there too. These birds usually scavenge human leftovers and wastes.

Virtually, one can find birds almost everywhere but one needs to know certain bird characteristics to be effective in finding specific species.

Wild Bird Photography in the Philippines – Part 1
Wild Bird Photography in the Philippines – Part 3

Check out my album of Philippine birds!

Wild Bird Photography in the Philippines – Part 1

This is so far a 3 part series of what wild bird photography is to me. I would probably evolve this series over time to make it current as much as possible.
Wild Bird Photography in the Philippines – Part 2
Wild Bird Photography in the Philippines – Part 3

I have been thinking if I really do have to write about this as I thought there are too many articles written already that can be found in the Internet about wild bird photography. But some friends and photographers who are not into any of these avian stuff have been asking me questions about it and curious why I am doing things like these. So what the heck, why not write about it? Writing about it would probably give others a glimpse on this madness called avian photography. As one bird photographer friend said, wild bird photography is like being a toy or comics collector. You just want to have all of them. There is some kind of addiction that you will develop when you dip yourself into it. So beware.

First and foremost, wild bird photography is madness. Perhaps what drives me to ‘shoot’ birds is my love of nature ever since I was a kid. Who has not had an avian pet when he was a kid? Who has not drooled over books and magazines loaded with images of the animal kingdom when he was a kid? Another factor perhaps that has driven me into this hobby is the curiosity I had to hunt. Yeah, who has not toyed with a ‘tirador’ (a slingshot) when he was a kid? Or an air rifle for that matter? My father and I were hunting for birds for years when I was in my teens. Furthermore, ever since I was a kid, I love something graphically and visually appealing. All these stuff were part of my childhood experiences and have greatly influenced my appetite for this madness, or shall I say craft? It now happens that bird photography had all the ingredients of the things I love when I was a kid. Perhaps I can say now that bird photography allows me to relive my childhood days in a more meaningful and rewarding way. I now get to hunt and shoot birds without harming them. I also get to marvel at how visually beautiful these wonders of nature are.

In addition to all these, wild bird photography comes with really difficult challenges. There is always an ingredient of unpredictability, of danger, of extreme frustration and happiness, and unlike other forms of photography, controlling the entire photographic situation or scene isn’t guaranteed. I also happen to love wild bird photography simply becuase it is not everybody’s cup of tea. I had always had that urge to try something different. If there are thousands of portrait or landscape photographers in the country, there is only a band of extremely dedicated and talented, close knit group of bird photographers in the Philippines. They call themselves birdnuts. 🙂

So much about my childhood background and my take on this type of craft and let us go into this madness as they say. I’d probably break down this article into several parts overtime so it is more digestable to my non-birding friends. This article will probably give one an idea on where to start if he or she happens to have the same kind of urges as I have. I also will probably be constantly updating this article for things I have forgotten to include, things that I get to experience out there in the field, when some new techniques are developed or when some new breakthrough technology enhances or changes the way things are done with this craft. I also might improve the article with visuals to support the textual information that I share here. I will also try to limit my coverage on scenarios commonly and uniquely found only in the Philippines. Unknown to many, a lot of foreigners have said tha wild bird photography in the Philippines may significantly differ compared to doing it in other countries. I have limited experience with this as I have only shoot a few birds in Singapore and Hong Kong and I can say it is a lot easier to approach birds in those countries than here in the Philippines.

THINGS YOU WILL POSSIBLY NEED

(1) Camera. Of course, one needs a camera in photography. Any camera can be used but since this is madness, let us aim for what is the norm for crazy people out there. You would need a birder’s camera. Normally, a birder’s camera is a high resolution, fast shooting camera. Pick the most your money can buy. I currently use a 15 Megapixel Canon EOS 50D DSLR. Its high 15MP resolution allows me to capture more feather details, and have more freedom in cropping to get zoomed in. It also can shoot at 6.3 frames or shots per second. You would need this speed to be able to capture a lot of the bird’s very quick movement. If a single wingstroke takes 1 second to complete, a 6 frames per second camera will allow you to shoot 6 wingstroke positions in one second. You would have the ability to choose which frame you like best. You also may optionally want a camera that is protected from weather and other destructive elements like dust and water. There is often a saying in photography circles “wala sa pana yan, nasa indyan yan” (it is not the gun, it’s who pulls the trigger), I’d say drop this notion momentarily if you want to continue reading. In bird photography, the gear is as crucial as the talent and skills of the photographer. We are not talking here about taking a bird photo. We are talking here about taking great bird photos.

(2) Lens. You can’t go out photographing birds without a lens. I mean without a proper lens. The rule of thumb here is buy the longest, sharpest, fastest, brightest, lightest lens your money can buy. The one with a stabilizer is a big plus. Also, the one with weatherproofing could probably give you more reliability in as many kinds of terrain where you often want to be. I currently use a Canon EF 400mm f5.6L lens as my workhorse. It is the most affordable, it is sharp, it is quite fast and very light. It is not the longest though nor the brightest out there. In fact, my lens could probably be the most affordable serious birding lens that is ideal for those who are just starting bird photography. My lens does not have a built-in stabilizer, nor it is weather sealed.

Typically, you would need the following:

  • a longer lens (one with longer focal lenght) to be able to shoot a small bird from afar.
  • a bright lens (one with a larger aperture opening) to shoot birds in some dark recesses of the forest.
  • a fast focusing lens to shoot a bird in flight.
  • a very light lens so you can carry it for long period of hours walking and roaming looking for birds

Ideally, you might want to have the following:

  • a lens with a built-in stabilizer so you get an added benefit of shooting handheld where a faster shutter speed is desirable
  • a lens with all-weather sealing so you can shoot at any harsh condition you may encounter out there in the field

Personally, unless you are not doing this in the Philippines, I’d set 400mm as my minimum focal length.

(3) Support. If you have an arm and legs as stable as a tripod, you don’t need this. In most cases, you need a good support to stabilize your lens. In addition to having a built-in stabilizer, you need ground support. A stable one. Birders typically use a tripod but can utilize anything of use like a monopod, a sand-bag, your vehicle’s window, a pole, a tree trunk or anything that allows you to place your birding gear at rest in its full weight.

(4) Transport. Optionally, you may need one to ferry you from one birding site to another. You may have that all-terrain amphibious vehicle where you can drive through muddy tracks, cut through rocky roads, or cross a stream or river. 😛 Of course, I am just kidding, but if you can afford, that is my birder’s transport. I’d probably discuss this one on a separate article.

(5) MAP/GPS. You would need a lot of travelling once you get hooked with bird photography. You will often find yourself in places where people don’t go. You will often find yourself where roads end and where roadsigns are nowhere to be found. If you are in the Philippines, most often than not, you will find yourself in some uncharted ground. When you are in this situation, having a map and knowing how to chart your directions save you time. You would not want to get stranded wandering your way out inside a forest. An electronic geographical positioning system or device (GPS) can also come in very handy for you as a birder.

(6) Communications Device. In the Philippines, you should not go out birding without one. A cellphone is usually more than enough. Make sure you also have it fully charged or got spare batteries to power it up. In most cases, you will have cellphone signals all over the country. There are only a few dead spots left. You may also want to bring loaded SIM cards of major cell phone operators in the country when going out on very remote places. I usually bring along 2 phones, one is tuned in to Globe Telecoms, the other is on Smart Telecoms. In areas where one doesnt have a signal, most often, you’ll have the other one all tuned in. If you can, you might want to bring extra SIMs for Sun Cellular.

(7) Bird Guide. Aside from avoiding getting lost in some uncharted places, you may want to get the services of bird guides. A bird guide should be able to walk or drive you around a birding site with plenty of knowledge on where you would find the avian friends you would like to photograph. Sometimes, a bird guide can double as your security or interpreter with the locals. Personally, I can’t afford bird guides so I explore on my own when going out there to photograph birds.

(8) Logistics. I am still trying to learn to leave things that I dont need out there in the field. As much as possible, you only bring the essentials and what you will use. I still have the tendencies of over-supplying myself with stuff that I dont get to use out there in the field. Your goal is to lessen the weight you have to carry around while you do your photography. The stuffs I bring also varies per birding trip or sortie. If I get to bring a vehicle, I tend to bring almost everything 🙂

But my backpack and pockets contain usually the following:

  1. enough water
  2. light high calorie food
  3. first aid kit and some essential medicines
  4. insect repellant
  5. extra shirt
  6. enough batteries for the camera
  7. enough memory storage for the camera. I usually bring a 32GB card and an extra 8GB card
  8. a camo veil
  9. a hat
  10. a multipurpose knife
  11. a large garbage plastic to cover my gears just in case it rains
  12. portable GPS device. I use a Garmin 76CXs
  13. and some money

(9) Clothing. I always wear something light, some that easily dries up and with earthy/natural colors that would at least conceal me from birds’ view. I think wearing some camo outfit, if wearing them wouldn’t present a problem, would suit me best everytime I go out there to do bird photography. However, for safety and pre-caution, I’d consider wearing a camo on a case-to-case basis. I always have it in mind that wearing one would usually attract attention and could possibly make me a target. Other people also do get uncomfortable and nervous seeing new faces around in camouflage, so as not to startle them, I’d rather not wear them at all as much as possible. But proper clothing is your goal. You would always want something that will conceal you from the birds while keeping you comfortable and healthy.

(10) Footwear. I wear a mid-cut, waterproofed shoes. Wearing a mid-cut shoes could protect your ankle from getting accidentally twisted. Having a waterproofed one keeps your feet dry so you dont get blisters. Several times, my shoes saved me from possible injuries. I remember one time that I have stepped on some rocks on a sloping  ground that gave way from my weight and caused me to almost break my ankle. The pain was excruciating for a couple of minutes but thanks to wearing a mid-cut shoes, I avoided getting my ankle twisted or broken as it sturdily protected the ankle area. The pain dissipated after some minutes. Had I been wearing a regular shoes that time, I could have broken my ankle. So I have to emphasize, if you want to continue and enjoy bird photography, protect your feet. Otherwise, you won’t get anywhere.

(11) Publication Tools. Of course, you want to show your beautiful bird photos to the world. To be able to achieve this, you need the right tools to identify the birds, and publish your photographs in print or in digitized form. Since I am using a Digital SLR, I am forced to use digital tools to process my photos and have it printed or published over the web. I currently use Adobe’s ACR and Photoshop. I use A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines by Robert S. Kennedy, et al (ISBN 978-0-19-854668-9) to give names to the birds I shoot.

So far, these are the things that you may often need if ever you too would want to try wild bird photography. On Part 2, I would write about where one would usually go to shoot birds.

Hope this article gives everyone a glimpse of what wild bird photography is and how it differs from the usual line of photography that we often see and encounter.

Wild Bird Photography in the Philippines – Part 2
Wild Bird Photography in the Philippines – Part 3

Check out my album of Philippine birds!