Last week I had the pleasure of spending a few days on Tiritiri Matangi Island. If you haven’t yet been there I highly recommended it. Situated in the Hauraki Gulf, you can get there taking a short trip by ferry, but make sure you book in advance, especially in the summer months and holidays.

As you leave the jetty (after a talk from the DOC Ranger) and head up through the bush, you’re first struck by the amount of bird song. The sounds are just beautiful, but I have to say nothing compared to the dawn chorus I heard the following morning – I stayed for two nights.

North Island Robin

There were birds everywhere – Robins, Stitchbirds, Saddlebacks, Bellbirds, Whiteheads, Tui, even Kokako and more – so it certainly wasn’t going to be a problem seeing the birds, but photographing them was going to be a different story. As you walk through the bush you often get very close to the birds, especially around the  bird feeding stations, a few of which are situated around the Island. They’re very used to humans on the Island and do not see us as a threat.

So we’ve established the birds are not afraid of humans, are easy to see and often come very close, so why would photographing them be such a problem? Available light. Light levels within the bush can be very low, reducing shutter speeds enormously, so you have to decide what compromises you’re prepared to make. Using a very high ISO setting is one way, but the noise levels can be too severe, rendering the images unusable – for my purposes – even with noise reduction software. The other option would be the use of a flash: the problem here was I wanted very natural looking light on the subjects – the hint of sunbeams just falling on the birds, a sense of the defused soft light in the bush – all of which would be lost if flash were to be used. I also didn’t want to spook the birds with the flash.

I decided to set myself a challenge: how slow a shutter speed could I use while still making sure the subject had good detail and focus.

With the speed at which these forest birds flit around I knew this was not going to be easy, as even when they settle on a branch they’re constantly twitching. So I knew the keep rate of images would be low, but hay, if we don’t push ourselves we don’t improve. Camera used was a Canon EOS 1DIII with a EF70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM set at ISO1000. All images taken were hand-held. As a rough guide I usually like the shutter speed to be no slower than the focal length of the lens – so if using a 300mm lens minimum shutter speed would be 1/300sec when hand-held to stop camera shake.

The North Island Robin above had beautiful reflected light falling on it, hence the lovely warm glow. At 1/100sec it wasn’t too much of a problem. Focal length 244mm.

Below a Bellbird just caught in the sunlight so you can see its wonderful green and purple colouring and that deep red eye. Focal length 300mm at 1/80sec.

Bellbird

As you can see the light looks great on the first two images, even though, the shutter speeds are slower than you might have expected. However, time to go slower.

The next two images of the Stitchbirds were very tricky as they move so quickly, only stopping for a few seconds at most – by the time I had pointed the camera at them, they had moved.The light was more diffused so speeds for the next two images were down to 1/60sec at a focal length of 221mm and 300mm respectively.

Stitchbird Stitchbird

As you can see, even with no direct sunlight the defused lighting in the understorey gives a great soft and subtle feel to your images. But could I still go slower photographing these wonderful bush dwellers?

Bellbird

A classic pose by a male Bellbird above in a darker area of the bush, bringing down the shutter speed to 1/30sec. Focal length 300mm.

One of my favourite birds below, the Saddleback. It tends to bound more than fly as it forages in the leaf litter and dead rotting logs, and seems to like digging for grubs in tree ferns. I was amazed I managed to get a clean shot of its head at this speed 1/30sec, as it was furiously pecking at the tree fern trunk. Focal length 300mm.

Saddleback

The final shot of another Robin with the slowest speed I managed at 1/25sec – amazing really to capture a shot at this speed. This little chap was pretty close which meant depth of field was very shallow, so selective focusing became critical. Focal length 300mm.

North Island Robin

So there you have it: with good technique, patience, practice and determination it’s possible to get great shots of forest birds in low light, using slow shutter speeds.              (All the images were shot in RAW and processed in Adobe Lightroom 4.)

Hope you enjoyed this article. Please feel free to leave any comments.

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