Capturing a Memorable Avian Portrait

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Capturing a memorable avian portrait can be hard. It usually requires a good long lens and excellent fieldcraft. My lens of choice is the stellar (version 2.0) Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM super-telephoto zoom.

Before I acquired my new lens I shot with the venerable (and still incredible) Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM super-telephoto prime lens. This old lens continues to have superb optics but no IS and the MFD sucks at over 3-metres.

Grey Hawk – Cali, Colombia

So what exactly is an avian portrait? Obviously the word avian relates to birds and the photographic portrait usually implies a headshot and not a full body shot. Wildlife photography is a challenging genre requiring good equipment, technical skill and above average fieldcraft. To get a good headshot of a critter means you have to get close, really close. Long lenses help but good fieldcraft trumps equipment every time. You’re not going to find Grizzly Bears, Moose and African game everywhere but birds inhabit most of the world and can be beautiful subjects.

Spectacled Owl – Cali, Colombia

I will admit that I am partial to photographing the raptors—birds of prey like Hawks, Eagles and Owls. I also love tropical birds for their vibrant colours and exotic plumage—Parrots, Macaws, Toucans, Lorikeets and Mot-Mot birds all fall into this latter group. But almost any bird can be a good subject given half a chance. With the possible exception of hobbyist birdwatchers most folks never really get close enough to a bird to fully appreciate their fine detail and beauty. Most seasoned photographers like the challenge of capturing birds in flight (I do too) but there is something extra special about a good portrait.

Orange-winged Amazon Parrot – Northern Amazon River Basin, Cuyabeno, Ecuador

To fill a camera frame with just a bird’s head & shoulders can be extremely hard—and the smaller the bird the harder it gets exponentially. To repeat myself: you have to get close, really close. You can do that by using a long lens—on a full-frame camera that means 200mm or greater (common bird lenses are 300mm, 400mm, 500mm and even 600mm). The longer the lens and the wider the aperture the more expensive this enterprise becomes. First-party lenses in the 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4 range are big, bulky, heavy and very expensive (costing upwards of $10,000 US).

Male Cinereous Harrier – Southern Patagonia, Argentina

First-party lenses in the 200mm, 300mm and 400mm range are more reasonably priced (relatively speaking) at about $2,000 US. I shoot much of my wildlife with a full-frame DSLR but you can gain a further advantage by shooting with an APS-C crop-sensor camera which narrows your field of view by a factor of 1.6x for Canon and 1.5x for Nikon (and gives the illusion of increasing the focal length accordingly). The actual focal length of a lens is fixed but the field of view is altered by the camera’s sensor size. If you’re new to photography you should learn more about this phenomenon.

Female Cinereous Harrier – Southern Patagonia, Argentina

Fieldcraft, not equipment, is the real key to capturing great wildlife photos including the difficult avian portrait. Learning where the birds are, their natural behaviours (including feeding behaviours) and how to approach them is the skill set to be mastered. That is the challenging and fun part of photographing wildlife but it’s not easy. It is essentially the thrill of the hunt without the blood and killing—your trophy will be a beautiful photograph and not a head mounted on your wall. Wildlife photography is a solitary activity and allows you to experience nature’s beauty in peace.

Scarlet Macaw – Cali, Colombia

Wildlife photography isn’t every photographer’s cup of tea but I love it. I enjoy shooting (figuratively speaking) all kinds of critters but birds are everywhere. If you’re not already photographing wildlife I hope this short article might create some interest and curiosity for you. You’re bound to be frustrated at first but as you gain experience, technical skill and fieldcraft your enjoyment and satisfaction will increase. It’s a wonderful way to spend a morning or evening in the natural world that surrounds us. When was the last time you were in a mountain forest, desert wasteland or scenic park?

2 responses to “Capturing a Memorable Avian Portrait

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