I've recently returned from a weekend in Bulgaria and Romania photographing birds. Intensively photographing birds - the last few months have predominantly focussed on birding, that is to say seeing birds, listing birds and experiencing birds. I've put almost no effort into photographing them as a form of art, any photos have been taken on the fly so to speak and are generally what I call record shots. Proper photos, as I like to call them, have been few and far between.
This trip was different - there were no new birds, only a desire to get better images of a few key species. My last trip to this area had been a birding trip in 2012, this aimed to build on that list of birds with decent images. Paddyfield Warbler was one of target species, and so on my second morning in Bulgaria I was up for first light and standing at a large reedbed on the Black Sea coast. The Warblers were all around, singing, trying to make themselves heard over the guttural chatter of Great Reed Warblers. The light was heavenly, the reedbed faces east and you can have the soft morning light precisely behind you. There were lots of birds, however one was frequenting a very small stand of reeds set slightly apart from the main area. As well as having less of an area to concentrate on it also allowed some potential for a clean background or of the bird on an isolated stem - the kind of image I really wanted. Rarely is anything perfect in wildlife photography, and this morning's trial was a stiff breeze which caused the camera to repeatedly lose focus on the bird as reeds came in front, or indeed the bird itself was swinging wildly on a stem and simply would not stay still. What I was after of course was a bird on a clean stem with nothing else at all!
My kit this morning was a Canon 1DX, a new camera body that I only purchased about three months ago as I needed something with high ISO capability for the dark rainforests of Costa Rica (more on this later!). Mounted on this was my 800mm lens, perfect for small subjects like Warblers. As usual I had this on my Gitzo monopod, the freedom of movement that this allows versus the more traditional tripod set-up proves its worth time and again in my style of bird photography. As the bird moved around in a small patch of reeds, I could move with it extremely easily in comparison with somebody with a tripod. The lens is mounted directly onto the top of the monopod using the integrated lens foot, there is no head. Instead I leave the lens loose in the collar, and by swaying the monopod away from 90 degrees whilst rotating the lens to compensate I can cover a fair area without needing to move. I can also switch rapidly between vertical and landscape compositions.
Anyway, my choice of kit was perfect for the application and using 800 ISO meant I could stop the lens down to f7.1 or f8 for a bit more depth of field and retain decent shutter speeds in the range of 1/1600s. The closer you are to the subject the shallower your depth of field, leaving the lens wide open at f5.6 risked a sharp head and a soft body, as it is I have barely got away with it. Compromises, compromises.
Here are a few of the resulting images from the session. Note that almost all of them have had some degree of photoshop work to clear out distracting elements. I took many frames, and in all of them I had in my mind how complex the separation of the bird would be in post-processing. I only took a shot when I felt that the areas of clear space on the frame would make it worthwhile. For some images I nearly managed it, for others the bird was in the clear but various stems interposed. Some people find editing images in this way acceptable, others do not. As you can probably guess, I don't have an issue with it, but bear in mind that some spheres of photography - particularly competitions - do not allow anything other than the most minor dust removal as it otherwise becomes impossible to draw a line.