Why I photograph birds ?

Ever since I have taken to photography, I never questioned myself about my growing passion for this form of expression, but now the more I go out to make images of birds the more I question myself for trying to be more with birds to observe their behavior and body language. Although still I can’t identify most of the birds from their respective call and body shape, as most birders do, yet their chirps and actions fascinate me, make me follow them, admire and capture their beauty with my camera. I wish if I could respond to their calls and understand their communication skills and get reply to my simple question, why I photograph them.

When I put the same question to a few birders, who also photograph birds, a few of them too had same question lurking in their unconscious minds, but the reply was like “the show must go on”. Perhaps, like me most of them too had have no conscious intention. They simply enjoy the thrill of watching and photographing birds. My question becomes more relevant when I look back to the days when I took to photography seriously and my images began to make a mark at international level. However at times I do compare bird photography with another challenging genre of photojournalism, my favourite. When I took up journalism as my career, those were the days when bosses in media houses used to assign crime beat to the new comers because that enables them to be more alert and quick, inquisitive and work in inhospitable conditions, test their own potential, learn investigation skills and more about different aspects of their profession. When I took to bird photography a bit seriously, in my early sixties and that too after suffering a stroke, it was evidently clear to me that I would be stepping in a challenging arena where I would have to grasp in dark and may find it difficult to satisfy my desire to keep moving and exploring this new world of birds. Soon I realized that bird photography is not easy, especially if you go beyond making only record shots to get the species identified. It is best learned over time, slowly and in stages. Indeed, there’s no substitute for starting out as a dedicated birder, learn to find pleasure from being in the company of birds. I was aware that I would have to follow a two pronged strategy aimed at acquiring information about a variety of birds, their species and behavior on one hand and on the other emphasis would have to be laid on upgrading my photography equipment and skill.

Thanks to the Chandigarh Bird Club (CBC) for helping me in realising my aspirations despite my initial inhibition and limitations. In my heart of hearts I am more thankful to the one who introduced me to bird photography and more so to the guiding spirit who kept motivating me to dispel my inhibitions and continue to be a part of the CBC. Its like getting wings and learn in the company of some of the seasoned birders. I strongly believe that we all learn from each other and we must share our knowledge. To me, like photography, birding is also a stress buster, enhances alertness and the sense of patience. It’s a known fact that birds have inspired many scientists to gift remarkable inventions to the humanity. But the reply to my question does not lie wholly in the scientific aspects of birds. I am aware that bird photography has many technical challenges. Its necessary to understand the equipment, make the complex calculations promptly to adjust the critical parameters, anticipate behavior of birds and be prepared for surprises which may either be rewarding or disgusting. Those bird photographers who, like me, live in urban areas, would agree that we pay the price as we have to go outskirts to see and photograph birds. But still we are lucky for being able to visit some of the near by birding hot spots and be a part of the universally accepted birding activities. Such activities may these be in a group or for an individual, can’t yield desired results if we are in a hurry. I have observed that we must acknowledge the priorities of birds, their rules and ways of going about things. Like a photojournalist or a sports photographer, we must do home-work before encountering a particular situation or an assignment. I have learnt to go well prepared not only with the equipment, but also with adequate knowledge of how these species behave and what are their likes and dislikes. Moving with care and sensitivity is something that many birders enjoy. Also, it forces us out of our usual habits and routines.

Many non-birders assume that bird photography requires a lot of patience. In my opinion spending time with birds is an inherently rich and rewarding experience, but at times it can get uncomfortable. What non-birders don’t seem to get is that when our senses are attuned to birds and the natural environment there are few dull and monotonous moments. At times we are fully engrossed in following, tracking and monitoring what’s happening around. In case, after making a few trips to photograph birds, I begin to feel some pressure and need respite from monotonous routine, I give a break to myself so that I continue to photograph birds with an added zeal. This period of break enables me to introspect and understand what good or bad I had committed in my birding trips. While photographing birds, at times, I try to interact with them, especially when I find one posing for a photograph or giving me enough time to be photographed. Its similar to the interaction we are advised to make with a human being while making a portrait. Such one-to-one interaction, a bit of murmur, gives time to observe, admire beauty and refine technical adjustments. Its also about the profound respect that I have for these beautiful creatures. It makes me optimistic that they will not disappoint me. To me, bird photography is not really about the subjects at all, rather, it’s ‘all about how I make images of birds, my intent and yearning for bird photography. I avoid to envy even those who while shooting in a group try to keep me at a distance fearing my image would be similar to theirs. My primary focus is on accumulation of tokens of self-worth and this seems the reply to my question. 

Different not Better

The master of candid photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson had described the camera as a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity. This emphasises the need to understand our photography gear, know its strengths and weaknesses so as to master its operation. Before buying a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera, many photo enthusiasts keep questioning which way to go. Full frame or crop sensor and now their attention is also drawn by the mirrorless camera. I think its better not to discuss the mirrorless for the time being as for many the choice is already confusing. The terms crop-sensor and full-frame refer only to the size of the imaging sensor inside a camera. The full-frame sensor is of the same size of a piece of 35mm film, the 24mm x 36mm format. On the other hand, any size of sensor less than 24X36 mm is called crop sensor. It is also known as the APS-C,(Advanced Photo System). For instance, Nikon’s full frame sensor is of 24X36 mm and the camera is categorized as FX. Its crop sensor (camera body categorized as DX) is of the size of about 24 X16 mm. The crop factor is 1.5 x. Canon’s cameras are also of full frame and those of crop sensor have crop factor of 1.3x and 1.6x.Other camera manufacturers also make crop sensor cameras, but their sizes differ. Both the crop-sensor and full-frame cameras have their own advantages and disadvantages. For instance, in case of a crop-sensor camera of Nikon, the angle of view of a 50 mm lens will be 75 mm whereas on full frame sensor its effective focal length will remain unchanged.

Today, the high-end crop sensor cameras have the potential to provide image quality similar to that of a full frame. But it’s very difficult to point out the difference because it is simply negligible. Thanks to the improved sensor and processor technology. While most of the sports and wildlife photographers as well as photojournalists prefer crop-sensor camera to get an extra reach, the landscape and architecture photographers opt for full frame because of its potential to cover wide area. A crop-sensor camera can achieve similar wide view with a wide angle lens made for a crop sensor camera. The question is, if now the gap between the image quality of both kind of cameras is negligible, why the photographers still feel they would upgrade to a full frame camera. It was in early 2000s that DSLRs began to replace film based Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras.

The initial DSLRs used to have cropped sensor as it was not easy to make full frame sensor because of its high cost. Later on some camera manufacturers began to manufacture full frame cameras based on the standard 35 mm film format. We have among us many photographers who have enjoyed making images with medium format or large format cameras and the availability of full-frame camera is a boon for them. The crop sensor being smaller than the standard 35 mm film format , was considered as an a downgrade. Practical Implications Size-The basic difference between the two is of the size of the sensor as a result of which the camera body size also differs. The crop sensor camera is smaller in size and lighter in weight whereas the full frame camera is bigger and comparatively heavier. Its not that the bigger sensor increases the weight of the camera, but the sensor size increases the dimensions of the camera body and so makes it comparatively bigger and expensive. The lenses of the full frame camera are also bigger, heavier and expensive. The size of the camera sensor makes interesting effect on various aspects like ISO, depth of field, apparent focal length of lenses and dynamic range, but this does not make us judge how good or bad a camera is. They are different. ISO : Higher the number of ISO, greater is the sensitivity of sensor. However, all digital cameras have base ISO which can be 50 or 100 or 200. Today, most of the crop-sensor cameras significantly outshine their forebears from just a few years ago when people did not like to shoot even at ISO 800 or 1600. The facility of Auto ISO is a remarkable addition.

A full frame sensor provides high ISO and better low light performance, a broader dynamic range and yields a higher quality image as compared to that of a crop sensor. Thanks to the ongoing improvement in technology as nowadays even some of the latest crop sensor cameras are capable of high ISO performance. Depth of Field: Remember the bigger is not always better. Depth of field is defined as the zone of acceptable sharpness, which is in front and back of the subject in focus. It can be shallow or deep. The sensor size affects apparent depth of field. When shooting full-frame we get the benefit of a shallower depth of field, which is often liked by the portrait photographers. Those engaged in architecture and landscape photography also prefer full- frame cameras because that gives them wider field of view. Focal Length: It is not a measure of how long or short a lens is physically, but it is the distance in millimeters from the optical centre of a lens to the imaging sensor when the lens is focused at infinity. If a full frame and a crop-sensor DSLR take the same image from the same distance, with the same lens and point of view, the crop sensor camera will capture a tighter field of view than the full-frame camera. The focal length measurements of lenses being based on 35 mm standard, a crop sensor crops out the edges of the frame, which effectively increases the focal length.

Dynamic Range- It is the range of value between light and dark areas. We see wide range of intensity levels in real scene ranging from direct sunlight to shadows. Because of larger pixels, full-frame cameras have a broader dynamic range in general, making them better equipped to capture the full brightness range of a scene that features both extreme areas of dark shadows and bright highlights, as well as mid tones. Many photographers like to shoot landscapes with a full frame camera because they need maximum wide area in the frame, leave aside other factors. However, when one is to choose between the two for landscape photography, the answer is, "It’s your choice." Just to ponder over the issue, if one wants to have maximum depth of field for landscapes, it can be achieved with a crop-sensor camera. Also, while shooting at the same angle of view, on a crop-sensor and full-frame cameras, if the aperture is f/11 on crop-sensor one may have to use f/16 on a full-frame to ensure sharpness from foreground to background. All said and done, no doubt the full frame camera will yield images of higher resolution and would have better low-light performance, but at a considerable price. On the other hand, the crop-sensor camera will help in achieving extra reach at a comparatively low cost. As Nikon has retained “F” mount for its lenses for both kind of cameras, the full-frame lenses will work properly on crop-sensor cameras, but the reverse has limitations. Today, many photo-enthusiasts remain keen to upgrade to full-frame with the hope to improve their image quality. But this assumption is not necessarily true. As said earlier, advancement in technology has narrowed the gap between the image quality and noise levels between full-frame and crop-sensor cameras. In full frame cameras, the sensor space is used to make each pixel bigger. For example, a full-frame camera with 24 megapixels has bigger pixels spread over a larger sensor area than a crop-frame camera with an equal number of megapixels. Bigger pixels absorb more light photons, which increases dynamic range in the photo. Greater dynamic range means there will be somewhat more detail visible in dark areas, and less noise. Therefore, better performance in low light. Here a word of caution. Its not only the high cost, size and weight of the full-frame camera that matters, but also the care with which the images are made. Resolution of most full-frame sensors is so high that it exposes any shortcoming in technique and clarity of image.

Thanks to the advancement in technology, none of the full-frame or crop-sensor camera is better, they are different. Now the camera manufacturers are competing with each other in adding more pixels to their megapixel cameras. Is it a marketing gimmick or do we really need so many pixels. Its high time for the photographers to be conscious of possible compromises, if any. 

The dominant eye!

During one of my talks on similarities and differences between the human eye and the camera delivered to students of photography some years ago, two questions emerged. When I took to bird photography, these appeared more relevant and over the years their explanation got richer in content. Therefore, I avail this opportunity to share these questions and their explanation with birders as well as photo-enthusiasts.

I assume many of us are aware that both the eye and the camera have a lens, an aperture, both receive light and have a system to see that light as an image. Sounds interesting, but there is a need to look beyond it to satisfy the inquisitive minds. The first question is, do we have a dominant eye and the second , while composing photos why we focus on eye, may it be a human eye or that of a bird or an animal. Experts say that about 70 per cent of us have right eye as the dominant eye and rest of the population either have the other eye as the dominant eye or none of their eyes is dominant. Here the dominant eye means the eye with which we prefer to see or say with which we feel comfortable to see through the view finder of the camera. In other words, it enables us to provide a greater input to our brain. Therefore, it is essential for photographers and shooters to be aware of their dominant eye, if any, and they must use it appropriately. If we focus our subject with the dominant eye and with the other keep watching the activities around the subject, it will enable us to be aware of the possible distractions around. Also, there will be no need to keep an eye closed all the time which may be inconvenient and tiring. Some shooters and experienced photographers emphasise the need to shoot with both eyes open as that splits vision.

While we see through the view finder with one eye, we keep watching around with the other. Its a bit difficult, but can be practiced. Shooting with both eyes open is not like getting a binocular equipped with a camera because in that case vision of both eyes will be controlled for space around. The other eye should not see through any optical devise. One may shoot with one eye or with both eyes open, it is necessary to be conscious of our dominant eye. The camera manufacturers have designed camera bodies keeping in mind two aspects. One, most people have right eye as the dominant eye and secondly majority of us are right hander. Its the reason that camera bodies have most of the buttons to their right side. Second question, ever wondered why we focus on eye or why every photo-enthusiast is advised to ensure that the eye is prominently highlighted in an image. I remember, initially I too was advised by some of the experienced bird photographers to focus on eye of the bird and ensure that the eye has catch-light, but it was left up to me to understand why ? To me that was a half backed serving. I know a few bird photographers who would delete those photographs that do not show eye of the bird as a significant part of the body or the eye is without a catch-light. They are right in doing so, but why we should focus on the eye ? The focus system of cameras is designed in such a way that it acts successfully if focused on contrast. The eye, for instance the Iris and the sclera provide good contrast to let the camera focus without hunting. While considering the significance of sharp eyes in a photograph, over the years some camera manufacturers have added a unique feature of AF Face Detection and even AF for Animal Eye.

With a view to quickly facilitate the existing users of a few camera models, a manufacturer had introduced a firmware upgrade for Animal Eye AF. It can’t be termed as a marketing gimmick, because sharp eye holds the key to a good photograph. Another camera manufacturer brought out two new models of its digital camera with similar features and the experts say these have the capability to detect and track even the eye of a dragon fly. This is a technological revolution as its not easy to detect eye on faces of animals having different shapes.

The eyes aptly reflect emotions and personality of the subject. Its like silence speaks louder than words. Apart from this, the eye’s location is such that if we focus on it, we get such a depth of field which makes both nose and ears look sharp. In case of birds, the area around the eye would get good sharpness. Also, the colour and shape of the eye, especially of birds help in their identification, say a male or female. Here a word of caution. Although sharpness of an image depends on several factors, yet emphasis should be to get sharp eye preferably with glitter. Although its important for every photographer to understand his gear, it takes months to understand a camera, its equally important to be considerate about the factor of dominant eye, may it be of the photographer or that of a bird or animal in an image. Remember, camera manuals do tell us how to adjust the dioptre at the view finder, but they leave it to the user to think of the dominant eye.