Photo Series Spotlight - Photographing birds by Alan Grant

First published:
February 14, 2023
February 14, 2024

Photo Series Spotlight - Photographing birds by Alan Grant

First published:
February 14, 2023
February 14, 2024

Sunbird on Lions Tale by Alan Grant

Wildlife photographer Alan Grant (Alantookthis) talks us through his incredible bird photography series, and shares his tips and techniques on how to get those stunning shots

Kingfisher with minnow - f/11 | 1/2000s | ISO 3200

Tell us a little bit about the background behind your work? What got you started with bird photography?

I was always interested in nature as a child and I think I got my interest in birds from my mother who would point them out and name them for me. And my father was interested in photography and belonged to a local camera club when I was a child - so that must have rubbed off on me. But it wasn’t until much later in life that I found myself picking up the camera to photograph birds.

Hummingbird feeding in the rain - f/5.6 | 1/640s | ISO 6400

Where do you get your inspiration from? Did you have any sources, such as work from other photographers, films, books, or anything else?

I look at the work of lots of photographers - continuously - so there are always images that inspire me. There are some very talented photographers out there; many who aren't “famous” but who publish their images on social media. I’ve often looked at the work of photographers who are members of the GDT (a German nature group) as the images are often unconventional, which makes you think a bit “outside the box”.

Hornbill feeding at sunset - f/9 | 1/640s | ISP 160

Your images show incredible technical skill; what are your top tips for getting the best shots of birds?

A general top tip - for better results - is to be eye-level with your subject. Eye contact makes an image more engaging. But patience has to be top of my list - too many people aren’t prepared to wait - wildlife photography is as much about waiting as it is about being in the right place.

But on a purely technical level my top tip would be to understand your subject and understand your camera. All the patience in the world won’t get you a good shot if you’re not set up for it!

Black-winged stilt - f/4 | I/500s | ISO 800

For small birds, where the slightest movement of a birds head can result in a soft image, you need to understand the relationship between shutter speed and depth of field (and ISO). It’s always a trade off: to keep the background smooth, you need a wide aperture. This gives you a faster shutter speed but limited depth of field. Stop the lens down for depth of field and you lose shutter speed and increase the chances of your background becoming too intrusive.

To help with exposure, try to shoot against an evenly toned background - for instance, it’s better to shoot with a hedge or grass in the background than it is with bright sky in the background.

Robin perched in Winter - f/5.6 | 1/250s | ISO 2500
"...too many people aren’t prepared to wait - wildlife photography is as much about waiting as it is about being in the right place."

What is the general process to get your shots and were there any difficulties or obstacles in creating this series?

To avoid the problems mentioned above - and give yourself the best chance - I place a perch in the open where the background is a long way away (so I can stop the lens down a bit) and where there will be plenty of light on the subject.

I use a portable hide and I generally position myself close to the perch - so the subject is bigger in the frame and this also helps to throw the background out of focus. You can set your camera up on a tripod for maximum stability and shoot in relative comfort - all while being “invisible” to your subject and allowing for more shots of intimate behaviour because the subject isn’t aware of your presence. If I’m shooting in the field without the benefit of a hide I will often shoot hand-held and try to manoeuvre myself into a position where there's a better background. Sometimes, just moving a few inches (up and down as well as side to side) can make all the difference.

Cape Glossy Starling drinking - f/5 | 1/640s | ISO 1600

How did you choose which images appeared in the final edit?

I do a quick cull of images, deleting any that are out of focus or the bird has turned away, or left the perch. Because I shoot in short bursts there can be several images like this.

Then I go back through them looking for images where the light is right - especially looking for a catchlight in the bird’s eye - and also look for the birds “attitude” (how it presents itself - tail up or down, head cocked to one side) that shows some personality. At this stage I also scrutinise duplicates (a split second between images can result in different shots - one is often “better” to my eyes). I also look for things that show off the bird’s features - if a bird is called a “red-winged something" or a "black-crowned something", then it’s good to show those things in the photo. I might delete images that don’t show these features, unless I feel the image has some other quality that overrides that.

From these I then usually take my preferred shot from the set to work on in Photoshop to further enhance the image.

Little owl on old gate post - f/5.6 | 1/500s | ISO 800

What is your favourite photo?

The Sunbird image (below) is a firm favourite. Not only because I was so pleased to be able to go to Africa to photograph them, but because this shot took some effort. While everyone in my group had packed up and gone back to the hotel because the mists were rolling in and the temperature had dropped, and their gear was getting wet, I walked around quietly and observed. The birds weren’t put off by the mist and it enabled me to frame a shot where the subject was better isolated from an otherwise busy background by that mist which gave a pleasingly neutral background where the colours of the flower were also muted and allowed the bird to stand out.

Sunbird on Lions Tale - f/5.6 | 1/250s | ISO 2000

Do you do much to your images in post-production?

It depends on the image and its final use. If it’s for a nature competition then it will often only get basic exposure adjustments and “dodging and burning” and sharpening. If it’s for a commercial use, I may clone out elements such as a leaf entering the frame, rather than crop it to remove it, or I might remove some twigs to improve the image. Sometimes I might change the colour temperature to change the atmosphere - cool it down or warm it up - that’s the beauty of shooting in RAW.

Black-necked grebe on the nest - f/5.6 | 1/160s | ISO 1600

Who are the typical types of customer that come to you for images, and do you have any business advice for those photographers looking to monetise their images?

Selling images has become harder for photographers. I supplement my income with greetings cards sold through an Etsy store. I find that a lot of people like to buy cards that aren’t available in high street stores, and I often sell to customers in other countries, with repeat purchasers. It’s never going to be my main income - I’m a photographer not a greeting card company - but it can help towards a trip to photograph more birds!

The customer base for these cards is quite varied but there tends to be more female buyers than males.

I also have an Instagram and Facebook account specifically for my photography and both have a reasonable number of followers - about 50/50 male/female. These followers share my images to an even wider audience and anyone that looks at those accounts can find my greeting card store easily.

I’ve also approached a few small retail outlets and cafes to sell my cards and display prints - the local Visitor Centre has been a valuable client in this respect.

Kingfisher on a perch - 1/250s | f/8 | !SO 1600
"I find that a lot of people like to buy cards that aren’t available in high street stores, and I often sell to customers in other countries, with repeat purchasers"

Have you any future plans to expand this series (such as books, exhibitions, more images etc)

Well I’m always shooting, so that won’t change. It would be great to produce a book (I would just need to settle on a subject). I do set myself mini-projects so maybe one of those might inspire me.

Meadow pipit - f/5.6 | 1/640 | ISO 400
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