BEFORE we fly we must walk. The beginner in hunting with the camera must not expect to start right out and secure difficult spectacu lar pictures of birds in flight, or become disheartened because he cannot. This will come in time, and meanwhile each step has its interest and fascination.
The first thing to be done is to learn the elementary principles of photography, both as to the taking and the making of the picture. By all means do the whole thing yourself, as part of the sport; develop your own plates, print your own pictures, and make your own enlargements and lantern-slides if you want them. One learns through working out the processes how to improve the work. Hiring things done gives little stimulus to the mind and is apt to keep one in the ranks of the bungling snap-shotter. There is a real excitement in watching the image appear on the plate in the dark-room which is almost as vivid as the experience afield in securing a fine ” shot ” or ex-
posure. So secure an elementary book or pamphlet on photography, and try first of all some ordinary landscape pictures.
Though this book must not be a treatise on photography, I will give a few hints about some practical matters which have a special bearing on this department. The main thing we are to try for is to secure clear, sharp, detailed pictures of the wild bird or animal in life, as well as of other natural objects, and not the blurry monstrosities which some people are pleased to consider ” artistic.” Learning the proper length of the exposure will give some trouble at first, but with the help of published tables, or of ” exposure-meters,” this will soon cease to be a problem.
A developer which works slowly and gives brilliancy is the most easily controlled and the best for the beginner. Hydroquinone is good to try first, but certainly not pyro, which, though often recommended, is dirty and troublesome to handle. Do not take the plate out of the developer when the picture looks best on the surface, but leave it in till the image shows clearly through the glass side of the plate, even if the surface picture seems to fade away into utter blackness. Such darkening shows too long exposure, but it will only make matters worse to take it out before the image has formed clear through the coating on the plate.
This over-exposure can be remedied, as under-exposure cannot, in the following way, which is worth knowing If the plate is very black and dense, yet with a clear image, as seen by holding it before a strong light, put it in a reducing solution of red prussiate of potassium and hyposulphite of soda until it thins down to just a good printing density. This will strengthen the contrasts somewhat. If it needs more contrast, make the best possible print on contrastive glossy Velox, or similar developing paper, and then photograph this print, developing for. contrast. The result may be a very fine printing negative. In this way valuable subjects may be saved and shown to the best advantage.
When one has learned to make a fairly good landscape picture, it is time to begin on the easier sort of bird-subjects. The best for first attempts, if the season is right, are the nests of birds. The sort of a bird’s-nest picture often produced by the beginner is the puzzle-picture, where one has to hunt for the semblance of a tiny nest in a mass of foliage, in all of which there is probably little detail, only staring black and white, caused by under-exposure, bad lighting, and poor choice of position.
Perhaps the best way to explain what to do is by a concrete case. Late one cloudy afternoon in June I was walking through a patch of woods on a side hill up from a road when I flushed a veery, or Wilson’s thrush, from the ground just ahead of me and found its nest with four plain blue eggs, which I proceeded to photograph. It was located very prettily among some plantains and other weeds, with taller undergrowth arching over it. The latter I bent back temporarily out of the way.
Choosing a position from which the nest and eggs were in full view, with the foliage conveniently and prettily disposed, taking pains to disturb the surroundings just as little as possible, I set the camera on the tripod so that the lens would be about a yard away, as I remember it, from the nest, pointing down at an angle of about forty-five degrees. This would be difficult to manage without the ” goose-neck” device described in the preceding chapter, and I used it. Then I focused sharply and got the nest about in the center of the picture, a little nearer the bottom, yet not so near but that there would be some foreground. Next the aperture of the lens was stopped down to about.
The nest was wholly in the shade, which was proper. Had it been in direct sunlight, it would have been necessary to shade it by stretching out a coat or focus-cloth over it. The photographic effect of a nest in glaring sunlight is very bad. The eggs, no matter what their color, will print staring white where the light strikes, and black on their shaded sides, and, if spotted or marked, the markings will not show. This is particularly true if a snapshot should be attempted. Even worse is a patchy light, when the subject is partly illuminated and partly in the shade.
The next thing is to decide upon the proper time of exposure. A rough estimate would be something like this. In a fairly bright, diffused light, yet not in direct sunshine, at a moderate distance, with lens wide open, about one second would probably be right, with green foliage surrounding, which makes the light somewhat non-actinic. Half that or less would do with little or no green or yellow near. At such close range as a yard the bellows must be racked out, which diminishes the illumination, so we will call the time two seconds. But the lens should be stopped down. Of the lens which I used, F772 was the scale-value wide open. Halving the aperture quadruples the time of exposure is half of so at that stop the time would be eight seconds, and at F30 it would be thirty-two seconds, or half a minute.
In this case, however, it was almost evening, heavily clouded, under trees and bushes, and very dark. So at a rough guess I multiplied the time again by four, making it two minutes, which proved to be just right. Stopping the lens down brought practically all the foliage into focus, as it would not have been at full opening, besides giving more perfect de-tail. When there is wind and the leaves move, it may be necessary to make some sacrifice of definition and use a larger aperture, not larger, however, than F16. The subject can be shielded somewhat from the breeze by holding a coat to windward, or else we can wait for a lull, or come at a more favorable time:
Within a few days the eggs hatch, and this introduces us to the work which naturally comes next in order, the photographing of young birds. The young of precocious tribes, as the gallinacious birds, shore-birds, ducks, and geese, are born clothed and able to run or swim, but those of the ordinary small birds are naked and ugly at first. They grow rapidly, however, and by about the tenth day are able to leave the nest. About seven or eight days old is a good age to photograph them, before they are quite old enough to flutter away, and yet are nearly fledged.
The problem now is quite a different one. There can be no long exposures, for the young are in almost constant motion. The camera should be set as be-fore, focused on the nest, the diaphragm wide open, and the shutter set for the briefest exposure consistent with the amount of light. It may be possible to photograph them in light shade by watching for an instant of stillness, and squeezing the bulb at the opportune time for an exposure of a quarter or half a second. Otherwise one must temporarily bend back the foliage and let in the direct sunlight, when everything is ready for the exposure, which should be ” instantaneous,” the shutter set at perhaps one-fiftieth of a second.
Besides photographing the young in the nest, one can secure portraits of them by posing them on a branch in bright light close before the camera, using the most rapid exposure. Do not keep them long in the hot sun. When they are about old enough to leave the nest, they will flutter out at the least alarm, and it is very hard to make them stay on a branch, so it is well to do this before they reach the age of wildness. If they must be photographed at this stage, there is no harm in tethering the youngsters with soft thread, tying a knot that will not tighten and bind the ankle as a slip-noose would. When returned to the nest, hold something over them for awhile till they get over their alarm, else they will immediately, flutter out.
Often one will come across a youngster out of the nest, able to fly just a little. If possible photograph it as first found, without disturbing it, for then it will often stand perfectly still, whereas if it is handled there will ensue a constant struggle to escape and it is a hard task to photograph it. If tethered it will make repeated efforts to get away, but at length, tiring, it will remain still.
The finding of nests gives the best of opportunities for photographing adult birds. Some few birds while incubating are so tame that they will remain on the nest and let us photograph them at will. The woodcock is the best subject of this sort. The mother bird will sit like a rock, and even let one handle her. Some small birds will remain if one approaches very slowly and silently, making no quick motion. Thus, for instance, I have photographed the red-eyed and white-eyed vireos, wood thrush, chippy, chestnut-sided warbler, cuckoo, rose-breasted grosbeak, and others. Generally one must use the single lens, to, get the picture from farther away, as the bird will seldom Iet one get very close. Even thus the picture usually needs enlargement. Here one could use the telephoto, but amid foliage it is hard to see through it to focus, and it lacks depth of focus, unless considerably stopped down, when it is very slow.
Ordinarily it is necessary to leave the camera set and retire into hiding, releasing the shutter by a thread when the bird comes back to the nest: Be sure to have a shutter adapted to thread release, with a small lever to pull down and a hole in it for the thread. Exposure by thread is better than by pneumatic tube, which last arrangement introduces all manner of troubles, too numerous to describe. There is no trouble about the thread tangling, if one will take reasonable pains to lay it out properly. In making the exposure be sure not to jerk the thread, but give a steady, gentle pull.
Most birds are afraid of a camera set near the nest, and some will not go near it at all. But most of them will return before long, if the instrument is properly disguised. I carry with me dull green and brown hoods of thin cambric with which I can entirely cover the camera, with a hole cut in each to fit tightly around the lens-tube. In addition to this I deck the camera with leaves or grass, and in like manner conceal the tripod. Where it is feasible, I avoid using the tripod by employing the tree-apparatus, screwing the camera to a branch or tree-trunk. Where the bird is shy, use the single lens and thus have the camera farther away. If the bird is to be taken before she enters the nest, the exposure must be a rapid one, in full sunlight.
Most plates are hardly sensitive enough for instantaneous exposures with the single lens amid green foliage. But when the bird settles down to incubate or brood, she will often keep still during a timed exposure, though she is liable to flush at the sound of the shutter. If the nest is in the shade, wait till the bird has become perfectly quiet, and have the shutter previously set for a timed exposure. Most cameras do not have a shutter-movement of more than one second duration. If I wish a prolonged exposure, I set the shutter at B, or ” bulb-release,” and then, steadily pulling the thread, hold it taut, which will keep the shutter open until let go.
When birds are feeding young in the nest they afford the best opportunities for interesting pictures. At this time they are more willing to approach the camera than at any other. Their movements are very quick, so the exposure must be rapid and in bright light. This involves often the temporary opening up of the nest to the sunlight, and it should not be done at a scorching hot time, particularly if the young are featherless. Better not get the picture than to inflict suffering. Wait till the young are becoming fledged, and select a time when the temperature in the sun is comfortable. In hot weather do it early or late in the day, and do not keep at it too long. When the sun is low, the interior of the nest may be in shadow, and the young will be shaded till they rise up to feed, or sometimes one leaf will shade the young, while on the branch where the parents will come the light may be good.
When the young are seven or eight days old is a good time to pose them on a branch before the camera and take the parents in the act of feeding them.
Not all birds by any means will return under these circumstances. Many kinds I have not tried to see whether they will or not. Some warblers and sparrows, for instance, make good subjects, and some individuals of the same species are better than others. These feeding scenes often prove very comical, the parent lugging a fat worm or shoving it down the throat of a struggling youngster. Some birds are so intent upon feeding their offspring that they pay no attention to the camera, even when it is not concealed in any way and stands within two feet of them. Yet it is well to make matters easier by concealing it all we can.
The photographing of birds or their nests in trees is almost a department of the sport by itself, especially if the camera-hunter must make a difficult climb. Certain classes of birds, such as large hawks, owls, crows and herons, usually choose lofty situations, often hard to reach. One needs a pair of climbing-irons for this work, and good training in the use of them. It is a good rule not to ascend difficult trees in the woods alone. When there is good holding, or the climb is easy, I often do it alone, but not when there is any danger. Better come again with help, or even wait for another subject, than be fool-hardy. At the best it needs care and coolness to cling to a lofty perch and manipulate the camera. Some nests, particularly of small birds, are built near the extremities of slender branches and are inaccessible,
Suppose we take a typical instance of the use of the tree-apparatus, which may best show how to work with it. I found a broad-winged hawk occupying the last year’s nest of the Cooper’s hawk, located in a hemlock tree, forty feet from the ground. Ascending, I found that it contained two handsomely marked eggs, the full set. Had the tree been an oak, with spreading forks, I could have rigged the camera in the same tree, preferably about six feet away, as these nests are large platforms of sticks, big enough to more than fill the plate unless one can get well off. In the hemlock, though, one must stay by the main trunk, and a picture of the nest from directly above is very unsatisfactory. So I climbed the next tree, about six feet away and, tying up the focus-cloth on the farther side of it, on a level with the nest, left it for a day or two, that the shy bird might become accustomed to the strange article. When I returned she was on the nest, showing that she was ready to be photographed.
The next thing to do was to screw the bolt into the trunk of the tree on which I had left the cloth, a little above the level of the nest and at right angles to it, the padded end of the shank away from the nest, but so that this arm would point directly at it. Then I clamped the camera to the pad, aiming it at the nest and allowing the front end to rest upon the front shank or arm of the bolt. Having aimed and focused, I tied the camera in that position with a cord so it could not budge and inserted the plate holder. Instead of simply photographing the nest and eggs, my plan was to have the old bird in the picture as well. So I tied my thread to the shutter, and dropped the spool to the ground. Then I re-moved the slide from the plate, and covered the cam-era with the dull green cloth, decking it further with sprays of green hemlock.
Last of all, making sure that the lens was not covered, I set the shutter for an exposure of one-half second, at full aperture, as the nest was in light shade, and in the descent was careful not to touch the thread and spring the shutter. Finding the spool, I passed the thread behind a small branch, so that the pull on the shutter would be directly downward, and laid out the thread carefully for about a gunshot to my umbrella-tent, which I had previously pitched be-fore approaching the nest. I put the spool in through the peek hole, then tramped noisily out of the woods, and presently sneaked back quietly into the tent.
For half an hour or more all was silent. Then the hawk began to scream and fly around, inspecting the new situation. Finally she alighted on the edge of her nest, and stood there motionless, looking and listening. This was my opportunity, and gradually, without jerking, I pulled the thread taut. The hawk was not alarmed at the slight grating of the shutter, though she turned her head after it had closed, and entered the nest. I let her stay there awhile to become confident, and then flushed her by climbing to change the plate. Next time she did not stay away so long, and I photographed her carrying a strip of bark to line the nest, and again when she had settled down to incubate. Then she seemed alarmed at my frequent appearance, so I withdrew, leaving the cloth there so that I might try again if the plates should not turn out to be good, which, fortunately, was unnecessary.
The above instance may suggest the general method of procedure in “tree-work.” Yet in this and every other department of study and sport one must be fertile of resource in devising expedients to meet the new situations which the birds will often furnish us and which are above all rules. The following is such an instance: I was wading through an area of reeds growing from the water near the shore of a large lake in Saskatchewan, northwest Canada, finding nests of canvasback, redhead, eared grebe, coot, and other interesting birds, when I heard quite near me a most singular series of hissing and grunting sounds. Going closer, I saw an American bittern on her nest, her feathers all bristled out, scolding at me. The nest was a rude pile of stems, raised just above the water amid a thicket of reeds.
I had previously found many a nest of the bittern, but never a bittern that would stay on the nest when discovered. The bird was nearly hidden, but I set up the camera on the tripod, stopped down the lens, and got some pictures showing her among the reeds. But if those reeds were only out of the way ! I thought I would see what I could do, so very slowly indeed, raising the front leg of the tripod, I bent one reed aside. This did not alarm the bird, so I got rid of another, and another. Finally I moved one that was almost touching the bird’s bill, and she actually pecked the tripod.
It took a long time, but I finally had her clear in the open, and took all the pictures I wanted, even waiting for clouds to pass before the sun, so as to secure soft detail. Nothing of the kind had ever happened to me before, and probably never will again, so it was a case of working without rule or precedent to guide. Method is but the means to an end; the main thing is to get the pictures.
As to the use of the hiding-tent, there are a few further suggestions to make. If feasible, it is a good plan to pitch it in the evening, as in the growing darkness the birds more readily become accustomed to it, and in the morning there will be little waiting after the photographer enters. Unless one can steal in unobserved, it is best to have a companion go with one to the tent and leave it boldly in sight of the birds. Our feathered friends may be wise in a way, but they do not know much about counting.
It is well known that the great blue heron is one of the shyest of birds. In a strip of low trees along a stream in Saskatchewan a small colony of them had built nests. They were so wary that, as a friend and I approached over the prairie, they stood erect on their nests when we were nearly, half a mile away and flew off long before we were anywhere near them. We pitched the tent in a clump of bushes, decking it with foliage, and my companion departed, leaving me hidden. No sooner had he withdrawn than back came the herons, alighting on their nests, and for two hours I had the opportunity of my life to photograph the splendid birds in all their interesting poses.
While working in the tent it is necessary with some birds, particularly with herons, to guard against their seeing any movement inside. To this end I pin a cloth before the peek-hole, through a small slit of which the lens tube fits tightly. In this way the bird cannot see the hand setting the shutter. Even the lens must be moved very deliberately, and one must avoid any rustling or the cracking of twigs underfoot. Gulls and terns, on the contrary, do not ordinarily become alarmed by seeing one at the peek hole, and they are not so sensitive to noise. With them one may sometimes use the reflecting camera in the tent, the shutter of which is altogether too noisy to use on herons. The slight sound made by the shutter which I use on my small ordinary camera seldom startles a bird by the tent.
The experience of being in the midst of a colony, with a crowd of birds close around one, is wonder– fully interesting. It seems as though one were a bird oneself, accepted as a member of bird-society, and it is hard to realize that the whole thing is not a dream. This was my feeling in the midst of a great colony of some two thousand pairs of black crowned night herons. They were nesting in low oak trees in a strip of woods. Late one afternoon I planted the tent in a favorable spot surrounded by nests. Next morning when I appeared suddenly in the rookery there was a perfect roar of wings as the great birds departed. Before they had time to circle back I was concealed in the tent, and the birds, seeing that I had disappeared, soon returned to their nests. Some incubated, while their mates perched close by, dozing or preening their feathers. It was fascinating to sit and watch, studying and photo-graphing their beautiful and perfectly natural poses. Those who have affirmed that photographs of birds do not show them as they are in ordinary life were not acquainted with these up-to-date methods.
On this occasion I had very good success with the telephoto lens, picking out individual birds here and there, and securing images large enough to fill the plate comfortably, so I will further describe its use. At best it is a difficult instrument to manage. Owing to, the bellows being racked out so far, with the heavy mounting clear in front, it is very difficult to prevent vibration, and also to see accurately to focus when the light is not very strong. To avoid vibration, I generally cut a stick and prop up the lens. Even then, if the wind is blowing, there is liable to be movement. Its best use is from inside the tent, where everything is still, and where, removed from the sun’s glare, it is easier to focus.
If the subject will allow it, the lens should be stopped down to about F16, to secure sharp definition. The exposure must ordinarily be about one half-second in strong light, even with the lens at full aperture, and more under less favorable conditions. Hence the bird is quite liable to move and spoil the picture. In fact the difficulties are so great that I generally prefer to secure as large an image as possible with the single number of the large doublet, and do my enlarging carefully at home. In this way I get just as large a picture in the end, and usually a better one. However, in cases when it is impossible to get anywhere near certain game, such as water-birds out on mud-flats, where the image even with the single lens would be too small to enlarge, the telephoto is useful, and by careful focusing one may even secure a telephoto picture capable of being still further enlarged at home.
There are also some other ways in which birds may be photographed by the ordinary camera. From a blind on the shore one may catch shore or water-birds which come along, perhaps attracted by decoys, or simply feeding along the margin. A fruitful source of pictures in winter is to hang up suet or put out seeds, crumbs, or nuts in a spot which birds tend to visit, and leave the disguised camera focused upon the bait. A thread connecting with the shutter should enter the house through a keyhole or under a window, ready to be gulled when a bird comes to feed. Birds which are liable to come are the chickadee, nuthatch, downy and hairy woodpeckers, junco, tree sparrow, blue jay, and perhaps others that I have overlooked.
When it comes to snapshot work, by following birds up with the camera in hand, the ordinary camera may sometimes be successfully used in an emergency by estimating the distance and using the scale for focus, and the little finder. But for this work the only satisfactory instrument is the reflecting camera, the use of which will now be explained.