Observations of an Amateur Bird Photographer

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I had posted this on India Nature Watch long time back…

It is the journey. Not the destination.

I used to go to Hebbal lake to photograph birds. What’s the big deal? Only, I was armed with my mighty Nikkor 18-70 MM and I used to wonder ‘Why in the god’s name do the Pelicans appear so distant.’ Yeah. Laugh away. That’s when one of the gentlemen who was armed with something that closely resembled a Bazooka told me ‘Er, you need a bigger lens?’ And I bought myself a Nikon 70-300 G for a little over five thousand bucks. Improvement? Yes. Satisfied. Hell no. Well, my point here is, whether I was trying to photograph birds with my kit lens or my poor man’s telephoto lens, the journey has always been the same. I discovered my inherent ability to get closer to birds. My wife laughs every time she catches me crawling on all fours to shoot birds at ground level. Once in Savandurga I spent more than half hour getting close to a Magpie Robin. I had to crawl through thorny bushes; in fact I managed to cut my calf muscle. And, just a microsecond before I squeezed the shutter, the Robin took off. And in Lalbagh once, a Purple Swamp hen came and stood right in front of me and I had to freeze for well over five minutes. And, resist the temptation to scratch my neck. The journey, my friends, was and still is the same: exciting, fun, and inspiring. So on days when you go back home without a single decent shot, well, don’t be too hard on yourself. It is the journey that counts. Not the destination or that award winning pic.

Let them come to you

I know that all the bird watchers I admire, including Sudhir Shivram, Vijay Cavale have this to say about getting close to a bird: let them come to you. Simple? No! It is easier said than done. Last week in Nandi Hills, my excitement got the better of my judgement and I went chasing a bunch of Orietnal White Eyes. I was exasperated when I realized that there was no way I was going to capture them in a frame. So, I wanted to rest. I found myself a quiet place, surrounded by bush and untouched for the day by humans. I dozed off on a rock. When I woke up after about 15 minutes, I realised that I was surrounded by at least 20 birds! Red Whiskered Bulbuls, Rufous Bellied Babblers, a solitary Jungle fowl, and of course the White eyes. I made it a point to not make any abrupt movements. In fact I did not even feel like taking pictures. I spent the next twenty minutes watching them go about their business. The babblers were building a nest and were busy collecting nesting material. The Bulbuls were just hanging out in pairs mostly. And I also spotted a Scimitar (my first sighting). The White Cheeked Barbets were singing away a heart-wrenching love song… Moral of the story: take a break and don’t run after them. Walk down and relax.

The equipment does/does not matter

Sigh! Just when I was convinced that my 70-300 ‘G’ was why I was shooting crappy pictures, I found someone posting great pictures shot with that same lens! Though it is natural to run to Jayesh and buy that 300 mm F 2.8, in my opinion, every aspiring photographer should start with a point and shoot 35mm film camera. And they should upgrade only when they are sure that their fundamentals are strong as required. I know people that own SLRs (for years!) and can’t tell aperture from apricot. I’d say start with the basic camera. Learn making pictures with it and then, you can conquer the world with your 300… no 600 mm F 4. It is a hard fact to digest I know. I used my Sony 4.5 mega pixel point-and-shoot for a long time and actually got some good pics with it. In fact I became interested in photography only after I got me self a point-and-shoot. The equipment matters, but only when you are clear about what you want from life. You don’t need a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. And, a toothpick is not a replacement for your dentist. Now that I am done with my metaphors and similes… find purpose, equipment will follow.

A backyard in hand is worth two Ranganthittus in your dreams

When I got my SLR (complete with the powerful 18-70mm kit lens), I went straight to Ranganthittu to shoot pictures. I failed to notice that the exposure compensation was +7 or something like that!! I did not even know where my focus was! I was just clicking away from that boat. And I had a smirk whenever I saw those normal humans with their point-and-shoots… Anyway, I finished my adventure at Ranganthittu and was reaching Bangalore when my 70 year old dad called from Chennai.
‘I went for a ‘shoot” I told him.
He grunted and asked ‘shoot what?’
I said ‘Birds dad. Painted storks, Pelica…’
and he cut me in half with ‘Why? are there no birds in your neighborhood?’

Now a days I go sit in the private park that belongs to our apartment complex and spot the sunbirds, flowerpeckers, and Ashy Priniass every day. Every single day. Sometimes I manage a White Cheeked Barbet. A few weeks back it’d rained on a warm Sunday afternoon. After it stopped raining, I went down to the park on an instinct. I spotted six Asian Koels. I also spotted a Barn Owl in the nights. Since I am ending all my gyan with a punch line, let me do an encore here. Frame the Prinia. The flycatcher will follow. Or, better still, if you can’t play in your backyard don’t go to the stadium… 🙂

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