In 2002 I went to digital cameras and never looked back. In 2021, I switched to mirrorless. Currently for camera gear I’m using a Canon R5 digital mirrorless camera. My main lens for birds and other animals has been the Canon 500 f4 IS II and may upgrade to the 600RF f4, in the near future, if my wallet allows. I also have in my gear bag a Canon 100-500 RF, 1.4 RF extender, as well as a Canon Ring mount Adapter EOS to RF to be able to use some of my older lenses on the Canon R5. I also have a Canon 16-35 f2.8, 24-105 f2.8 for landscapes, a 100mm f2.8 macro, and a Rokinon 14mm f 2.8 for astrophotography. I also use a Canon 600 EX RT flash with “Better Beamer” for fill flash when needed.
Tripods are a must with big lenses. My favorite is the Induro “Stealth” GIT304L carbon fiber tripod. I have two Arca Swiss B1 ball heads that have served me well for many years, and a Wimberly “Side Kick” for still photos. About a year ago I started shooting video and added the Manfrotto 502AH Pro Video Headto my arsenal.
Many of the areas where I photograph birds, are long hikes from the road. This big rig is not too heavy and still has enough rigidity and weight to hold my Canon 500 f4 IS II steady. In the past, I almost always used a tripod when photographing birds in open areas, on trails, or in the forest, as there’s usually room to open the tripod legs. At times vegetation can get in the way but there’s usually a solid, relatively flat, stable surface to set up on underneath.Butwith the newer, lighter, Image Stabilized lenses and higher ISOs available, I find that I’m often photographing birds and other wildlife without a tripod, and still getting great images. The flexibility and lighter weight of not having to use a tripod is a great advantage with my aging body. Video still definitely requires a tripod, and the heavier the better to keep the image as still as possible.
Lighting and Exposure
In the past I felt that fill flash was essential. Hawaii’s thick rain forest canopy, understory, and the rapidly changing light conditions often necessitated slow shutter speeds and flash use.Today, with the great contrast abilities of the digital camera sensors, higher ISOs, as well as post processing options, I’m less likely to use flash.I tend to like overcast days better for photography or try photographing the birds in the shadows. There’s less contrast to deal with and it makes for better photos. On sunny days in the forest, the ambient light is often very contrasty, and with the sunlight filtering through the tree canopy, it leaves bright spots and shadows on the birds. In these instances, Igenerally set my camera’s compensation about a half stop down for bright yellow birds, and open up a half stop for red birds like Apapane. Somehow, Apapane just suck up the light.
The birds are quick, staying on a flower or on a branch for 1-2 seconds. Trying to meter and make adjustments on the fly is difficult, especially when the action happening fast. Often birds will choose flowers that are in the shade. In this instanceI meter for the background light then check exposure when the bird leaves. I know it will be back shortly, usually 15-20 minutes, for another go at the flower. On cloudy days I shoot at slower shutter speeds, waiting for the bird to pause while feeding, or before it flies to the next flower. It’s common for me to be shooting between 1/60th to 1/125th wide open, at somewhere between ISO 400-1600on days like this. I rarely use flash, but if I do, it’s at reduced flash output levels. On cloudy days the Canon 500mm f4 IS II excels. In the past I used the old Canon 500 f4.5 with the Canon T- 90 (film days…remember those?) and got lots of “camera shake” images ……some interesting but most ended up in the round file. The image stabilization of the newest lenses these days has increased my number of keepers.
For bird portraits I’ll occasionally add a 12mm extension tube and or a 1.4X tele-extender. This allows me to focus closer and gives me a larger image size, but it does cut back on my light by 1-2 stops.
Once I find a flowering plant, I usually check out the light situation by determining where the sun will be during various times of the day. I take note of what shade or light will be expected on the flowers that are available for shooting. Some plants may be better in the morning and others in the afternoon. Sometimes there’s no choice at all, as the birds are foraging on only one side of a plant.
The background lighting is very important. I don’t want thefinal image to be a bird against a dark or black background or a brightly lit background. Keeping the bird in the same light as the background is the important. I like to have the sun behind me, but sidelight and backlight/rim-light can provide some exceptional opportunities. Hawaiian forests have thick understory vegetation and trying to find un-obscured view of the subject is not an easy task. I’ve been known to tie back small branches to open up a view of flowers where birds are visiting.
I always try to focus on the eyes of the bird. It’s difficult to get that critical focus if the light is dim. If I’m at minimum focus distance, and wide open to maintain some background light, my depth of field is only millimeters. But, as long as the bird’s eyes are in focus, the image will work. If the day brightens, I can opt to stop down to get greater depth of field, then my focus isn’t as critical.
Equipment Protection : A Must
Most of the areas where I photograph are rainforest. Places like the Alakai Swamp receive over 600 inches of rain a year. That’s 50 feet of rain!! I can usually count on it being overcast with mist or light rain and protecting my gear from moisture is my highest priority. I always carry several trash bags, one to cover my camera and lens, and another to cover my pack. I pack my extra lenses, and any other gear in zip lock bags, and all of this within another trash bag inside my pack. No matter how nice the weather looks in the morning, chances are it’s going to rain sometime during the day. Don’t take any chances. Be prepared for wet.
Rainy weather in Hawaiian rain forests makes camera and lens protection is a must. I use Lenscoat Camo Rain Covers and have several that fit different camera/ lens combinations. The large cover allows me to photograph with the 500mm lens protected, but leaves the flash exposed to the rain. To protect the flash, I use a clear plastic bag to cover my tele-flash and a rubber band to hold it in place. I love images of honeycreepers with rain droplets on their backs, as they are, after all, creatures of the rainforest. And without some sort of camera protection there is no way I could get these shots.
Misty and rainy days create lots of mood and ambiance. These are some of my favorite days in the forest. The light, what little there is, is not contrasty and the green vegetation is vibrant. This subdued light is great for forest scenics. Also, on days like this, the birds increase their foraging rates, and are more approachable than Maui Forest when it’s sunny. Most of the Hawaiian honey creepers are small,weighing only 10-15 grams. The cooler temperatures necessitate increased food intake in order to maintain high body temperatures, even with their down-feathered body suits.
By the way, don’t forget about your own comfort. Although Hawaii’s low elevation areas are warm, once you get above 4,500 feet where the birds are, rain gear and warm clothing are a necessity. During the winter months, temperatures can be in the 40’s, and very wet at honey creeper elevation. Hypothermia can be a real problem for the unprepared person.