Wild Bird Photography in the Philippines – Part 1

This is so far a 3 part series of what wild bird photography is to me. I would probably evolve this series over time to make it current as much as possible.
Wild Bird Photography in the Philippines – Part 2
Wild Bird Photography in the Philippines – Part 3

I have been thinking if I really do have to write about this as I thought there are too many articles written already that can be found in the Internet about wild bird photography. But some friends and photographers who are not into any of these avian stuff have been asking me questions about it and curious why I am doing things like these. So what the heck, why not write about it? Writing about it would probably give others a glimpse on this madness called avian photography. As one bird photographer friend said, wild bird photography is like being a toy or comics collector. You just want to have all of them. There is some kind of addiction that you will develop when you dip yourself into it. So beware.

First and foremost, wild bird photography is madness. Perhaps what drives me to ‘shoot’ birds is my love of nature ever since I was a kid. Who has not had an avian pet when he was a kid? Who has not drooled over books and magazines loaded with images of the animal kingdom when he was a kid? Another factor perhaps that has driven me into this hobby is the curiosity I had to hunt. Yeah, who has not toyed with a ‘tirador’ (a slingshot) when he was a kid? Or an air rifle for that matter? My father and I were hunting for birds for years when I was in my teens. Furthermore, ever since I was a kid, I love something graphically and visually appealing. All these stuff were part of my childhood experiences and have greatly influenced my appetite for this madness, or shall I say craft? It now happens that bird photography had all the ingredients of the things I love when I was a kid. Perhaps I can say now that bird photography allows me to relive my childhood days in a more meaningful and rewarding way. I now get to hunt and shoot birds without harming them. I also get to marvel at how visually beautiful these wonders of nature are.

In addition to all these, wild bird photography comes with really difficult challenges. There is always an ingredient of unpredictability, of danger, of extreme frustration and happiness, and unlike other forms of photography, controlling the entire photographic situation or scene isn’t guaranteed. I also happen to love wild bird photography simply becuase it is not everybody’s cup of tea. I had always had that urge to try something different. If there are thousands of portrait or landscape photographers in the country, there is only a band of extremely dedicated and talented, close knit group of bird photographers in the Philippines. They call themselves birdnuts. ūüôā

So much about my childhood background and my take on this type of craft¬†and let us go into this madness as they say. I’d probably break down this article into several parts overtime so it is more digestable to my non-birding friends. This article will probably give one an idea on where to start if he or she happens to have the same kind of urges as I have. I also will probably be constantly updating this article for things I have forgotten to include, things that I get to experience out there in the field, when some new techniques are developed or when some new breakthrough technology enhances or changes the way things are done with this craft. I also might improve the article with visuals to support the textual information that I share here. I will also try to limit my coverage on scenarios commonly and uniquely found only in the Philippines. Unknown to many, a lot of foreigners have said tha wild bird¬†photography¬†in the Philippines may significantly differ compared to doing it in other countries. I have limited experience with this as I have only shoot a few birds in Singapore and Hong Kong and I can say it is a lot easier to approach birds in those countries than here in the Philippines.

THINGS YOU WILL POSSIBLY NEED

(1) Camera. Of course, one needs a camera in photography. Any camera can be used but since this is madness, let us aim for what is the norm for crazy people out there. You would need a birder’s camera. Normally, a birder’s camera is a high resolution, fast shooting camera. Pick the most your money can buy. I currently use a 15 Megapixel Canon EOS 50D DSLR. Its high 15MP resolution allows me to capture more feather details, and have more freedom in cropping to get zoomed in. It also can shoot at 6.3 frames or shots per second. You would need this speed to be able to capture a lot of the bird’s very quick movement. If a single wingstroke takes 1 second to complete, a 6 frames per second camera will allow you to shoot 6 wingstroke positions in one second. You would have the ability to choose which frame you like best. You also may optionally want a camera that is protected from weather and other destructive elements like dust and water. There is often a saying in photography circles “wala sa pana yan, nasa indyan yan” (it is not the gun, it’s who pulls the trigger), I’d say drop this notion momentarily if you want to continue reading. In bird photography, the gear is as crucial as the talent and skills of the photographer. We are not talking here about taking a bird photo. We are talking here about taking great bird photos.

(2) Lens. You can’t go out photographing birds without a lens. I mean without a proper lens. The rule of thumb here is buy the longest, sharpest, fastest, brightest, lightest lens your money can buy. The one with a stabilizer is a big plus. Also, the one with weatherproofing could probably give you more reliability in as many kinds of terrain where you often want to be. I currently use a Canon EF 400mm f5.6L lens as my workhorse. It is the most affordable, it is sharp, it is quite fast and very light. It is not the longest though nor the brightest out there. In fact, my lens could probably be the most affordable serious birding lens that is ideal for those who are just starting bird photography. My lens does not have a built-in stabilizer, nor it is weather sealed.

Typically, you would need the following:

  • a longer lens (one with longer focal lenght) to be able to shoot a small bird from afar.
  • a bright lens (one with a larger aperture opening) to shoot birds in some dark recesses of the forest.
  • a fast focusing lens to shoot a bird in flight.
  • a very light lens so you can carry it for long period of hours walking and roaming looking for birds

Ideally, you might want to have the following:

  • a lens with a built-in stabilizer so you get an added benefit of shooting handheld where a faster shutter speed is desirable
  • a lens with all-weather sealing so you can shoot at any harsh condition you may encounter out there in the field

Personally, unless you are not doing this in the Philippines, I’d set 400mm as my minimum focal length.

(3) Support. If you have an arm and legs as stable as a tripod, you don’t need this. In most cases, you need a good support to stabilize your lens. In addition to having a built-in stabilizer, you need ground support. A stable one. Birders typically use a tripod but can utilize anything of use like a monopod, a sand-bag, your vehicle’s window, a pole, a tree trunk or anything that allows you to place your birding gear at rest in its full weight.

(4) Transport. Optionally, you may need one to ferry you from one birding site to another. You may¬†have that all-terrain amphibious vehicle where you can drive through muddy tracks, cut through rocky roads, or cross a stream or river. ūüėõ Of course, I am just kidding, but if you can afford, that is my birder’s transport. I’d probably discuss this one on a separate article.

(5) MAP/GPS.¬†You would need a lot of travelling once you get hooked with bird photography. You will often find yourself in places where people don’t go. You will often find yourself where roads end and where roadsigns are nowhere to be found. If you are in the Philippines, most often than not, you will find yourself in some uncharted ground. When you are in this situation, having a map and knowing how to chart your directions save you time. You would not want to get stranded wandering your way out inside a forest. An electronic geographical positioning system or device (GPS) can also come in very handy for you as a birder.

(6) Communications Device. In the Philippines, you should not go out birding without one. A cellphone is usually more than enough. Make sure you also have it fully charged or got spare batteries to power it up. In most cases, you will have cellphone signals all over the country. There are only a few dead spots left. You may also want to bring loaded SIM cards of major cell phone operators in the country when going out on very remote places. I usually bring along 2 phones, one is tuned in to Globe Telecoms, the other is on Smart Telecoms. In areas¬†where one doesnt have a signal, most often, you’ll have the other one all tuned¬†in. If you can, you might want to bring extra SIMs for Sun Cellular.

(7) Bird Guide. Aside from avoiding getting lost in some uncharted places, you may want to get the services of bird guides. A bird guide should be able to walk or drive you around a birding site with plenty of knowledge on where you would find the avian friends you would like to photograph. Sometimes, a bird guide can double as your security or interpreter with the locals. Personally, I can’t afford bird guides so I explore on my own when going out there to photograph birds.

(8) Logistics. I am still trying to learn to leave things that I dont need out there in the field. As much as possible, you only bring the essentials and what you will use. I still have the tendencies of over-supplying myself with stuff that I dont get to use out there in the field. Your goal is to lessen the weight you have to carry around while you do your photography. The stuffs I bring also varies per birding trip or sortie. If I get to bring a vehicle, I tend to bring almost everything ūüôā

But my backpack and pockets contain usually the following:

  1. enough water
  2. light high calorie food
  3. first aid kit and some essential medicines
  4. insect repellant
  5. extra shirt
  6. enough batteries for the camera
  7. enough memory storage for the camera. I usually bring a 32GB card and an extra 8GB card
  8. a camo veil
  9. a hat
  10. a multipurpose knife
  11. a large garbage plastic to cover my gears just in case it rains
  12. portable GPS device. I use a Garmin 76CXs
  13. and some money

(9) Clothing. I always wear something light, some that easily dries up and¬†with earthy/natural colors that would at least conceal me from birds’ view. I think wearing some camo outfit, if wearing them wouldn’t present a problem,¬†would suit me best everytime I go out there to do bird photography. However, for safety and pre-caution, I’d consider wearing a camo on a case-to-case basis. I always have it in mind that wearing one would usually attract attention and could possibly make me a target. Other people also do get uncomfortable and nervous seeing¬†new faces around in camouflage, so as not to startle them, I’d rather not wear them at all as much as possible. But proper clothing is your goal. You would always want something that will conceal you from the birds while keeping you comfortable and healthy.

(10) Footwear. I wear a mid-cut, waterproofed shoes. Wearing a mid-cut shoes could protect your ankle from getting accidentally twisted. Having a waterproofed one keeps your feet dry so you dont get blisters. Several times, my shoes saved me from possible injuries. I remember one time that I have stepped on some rocks on a sloping ¬†ground that gave way¬†from my weight and caused me to almost break my ankle. The pain was excruciating for a couple of minutes but thanks to wearing a mid-cut shoes, I avoided getting my ankle twisted or broken¬†as it sturdily protected the ankle area. The pain dissipated after some minutes. Had I been wearing a regular shoes that time, I could have broken my ankle. So I have to emphasize, if you want to continue and enjoy bird photography, protect your feet. Otherwise, you won’t get anywhere.

(11) Publication Tools. Of course, you want to show your beautiful bird photos to the world. To be able to achieve this, you need the right tools to identify the birds, and publish your photographs in print or in digitized form. Since I am using a Digital SLR, I am forced to use digital tools to process my photos and have it printed or published over the web. I currently use Adobe’s ACR and Photoshop. I use A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines by Robert S. Kennedy, et al (ISBN 978-0-19-854668-9) to give names to the birds I shoot.

So far, these are the things that you may often need if ever you too would want to try wild bird photography. On Part 2, I would write about where one would usually go to shoot birds.

Hope this article gives everyone a glimpse of what wild bird photography is and how it differs from the usual line of photography that we often see and encounter.

Wild Bird Photography in the Philippines – Part 2
Wild Bird Photography in the Philippines – Part 3

Check out my album of Philippine birds!

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