Guest tutorial by keen birder and nature photographer, Michael Schmid.
The photos I take are totally self-indulgent. I haven’t formally studied photography, nor have I harboured an ambition to have my photographs published. However, because my images are publicly accessible on Flickr, I’m surprised and delighted to have many published in magazines, books and, most exciting of all, on an Australian stamp.
My main area of interest is birds and some refer to my style of portrature as ‘bird on a stick’ photography. Some may consider it boring and static—I do sympathize with that opinion—however, consider this: even images containing only the three elements can still contain a powerful narrative. For example, a bird drinking from a dripping tap with dry earth in the background can tell a story about drought and tenuous survival.
I believe an enduring love of nature has given me an understanding of how superbly adapted birds are to their chosen habitats. Also, my studies in visual arts have allowed me a deeper appreciation of the aesthetic beauty of birds. Through exposure to modern artists such as Brâncuşi, Braque et al. who strove to express the essence of a subject in its simplest and most elegant form, left an indelible impression on me. Birds embody form, function and beauty—perfect design.
When I create an image, it is a meditation on the wonder of the creature held briefly in my viewfinder—a way of seeing its truest self.
Here are some of the practices and a few tips that have had an impact on my photography.
Learn to recognize the calls of the birds you are targeting. Plan to be in the field in the early morning or late afternoon when the light is more even. Shoot RAW to allow better post production options. Shoot in manual mode and practice changing shutter speed, aperture, ISO and AF points while looking through the viewfinder. This is daunting at first, but worth persevering with.
Use a tripod when practical. Have the sun at your back and try pointing your shadow in the direction you are shooting. Get on the same level as your subject. This may mean laying on the ground or standing on a chair. For your trouble, you will create a more intimate portrait. Focus on the subject’s eye. This is the first point in an image that a viewer will engage with. A catch light makes the eye look more alive.
Busy backgrounds can be a distraction so avoid areas of high contrast behind the subject. For example, highlights on lush dark green leaves. Sometimes a step to the side or crouching down is all it takes to get you a smooth background. Try to avoid having the sky as a background. Have at least a basic understanding of the depth of field you will achieve with your lens at different focal lengths and apertures. Ideally, the subject will be in sharp focus and the background nicely blurred. In some conditions, it will be difficult to get the entire subject into focus. This is acceptable as long as the eye is sharp. Take as many shots as possible and deal with them in post processing.
Choosing which RAW files to process and which to discard.
Files should not have any blown highlights or clipped shadows. I look for a sharp file in which the whole bird is visible. I prefer the bird in profile or with its head turned slightly toward the camera. If the bird is, for example, a Red-backed Kingfisher, choose an image in which the eponymous feature is visible. If the subject bird has a characteristic posture like a Fairywren with its typically cocked tail, then that’s the file to pick. Finding ‘the shot’ among the potch is the payoff for me—usually accompanied by yahoo’s and air thumps.
Straight from the camera images will lack the dynamism of the scene you originally witnessed. Much of this can be recovered through processing, but don’t be tempted to push it too far. You can easily end up with an unrealistic image. I carry out the usual adjustments with restraint and will often lighten the eye a little. Image processing software makes it simple to remove distractions in the background, sharpening and local adjustments if required.
Michael’s refined style of portraiture reflects art and is an excellent refrence for natural history, biology, and birding in general—capturing clearly the identifing characteristics of a species. For this reason, his work is often featured on database sites such as BirdLife Australia and in publications like The Complete Guide to Australian Birds (Viking, 2018).