Late one evening some years ago, while I was photographing a wetland in Trinidad, thousands of migrant Dickcissels descended on a wetland in Trinidad after a mammoth journey from North America. As the light faded, activity intensified but the birds all roosted in an inaccessible part of the swamp. From a distance, it became near impossible to isolate a single bird among the flock, perched low among the swaying reeds in little or no light. Instead I opted for a wide-angle lens and photographed parts of the murmuration against the late evening sky. The resulting image captured the frenetic mood of the moment and remains one of my favorites to this day.
Relying heavily on natural lighting to produce an artistically pleasing image means that wildlife photographers must often think outside the box when light doesn’t cooperate. While some might pack up and move on in low light conditions, the key to making unique and often otherworldly images lies in letting go of the concept of the “standard bird portrait.” Here are some strategies you might try.
Set your camera to either full Manual or Shutter Speed Priority mode to dive into the realm of intentional blurs and the magical wealth of creativity this technique allows.
Use a slow shutter speed to try zoom blur, an effect achievable only with the use of a zoom lens. Results can range from mildly coherent to supremely abstract, but all zoom blurs tend to have a vortex effect. Best suited for low light conditions with stationary subjects, select a slow shutter speed such as 1/20s or 1/8s, focus on your subject and press the shutter button while simultaneously zooming in or out. Early one morning at the shore of a small inland lake on Trinidad while observing several different species of waterbirds feeding in the near darkness, I applied this technique with many different aperture and shutter speed settings. Most of the innumerable images I made ended up in the bin, of course, but such is the nature of experimentation.
Flying birds in low light are perfect for panning blurs, another kind of motion blur. Extreme care needs to be taken to follow the flight path of your subject such that it will remain sharp while the background would be rendered completely blurry. Further reduction in the shutter speed will yield more abstract images with motion blur. Start by setting a shutter speed of 1/100s and gradually try slower speeds.
The key is experimentation, as each situation is different. Fast-flying birds like swallows and sandpipers may not allow for a coherent image at a very low shutter speed, but a lumbering Great Blue Heron may suit that approach rather well. Photographing Scarlet Ibis returning to their roost trees in the late afternoon is one of the stellar attractions of birding in Trinidad, with thousands of bright red birds traversing a predictable flight path in fading light—easy pickings when that shutter speed is slowed down, even after sunset.
In dawn or twilight hours, set your camera’s exposure to the sky and create silhouettes of flying or perched birds with a beautiful backdrop. Although it seems simple enough, an effective silhouetted image must be immediately relatable. It can involve a familiar bird with a unique defining characteristic, such as the distinctive serpentine curves of an Anhinga or the massive underbite of a Black Skimmer, or a scene that is also universally recognizable, like a well-visited location. Without light on the bird, one or more of its defining characteristics should ideally be visible to add interest and context to an already aesthetically appealing frame. Try incorporating the rising sun, uniquely shaped clouds, or even the moon into your silhouette for a more dynamic image.
These tips will help you capture some truly creative photographs, but whatever method you choose, always remember that a healthy dose of respect and knowledge of the habits of your wild subjects are invaluable when outstanding, organic, and original images are your goal.