Photographing Young Birds Alone, Both Wild And Tame
( Originally Published 1902 )
Outfit same as Part III, with the addition of a cage-like enclosure of some sort.
IN this branch of work we find the greatest possibilities of making beautiful pictures, as the subject is, or should be, under control so that we may arrange our lighting to suit ourselves, and as there is no longer the necessity for the objectionable instantaneous exposure, we can use strong contrasts in the lighting that would be impossible with a very short exposure. One of the most effective arrangements of light, particularly for young birds that are fluffy, is where the light comes from above and back of the bird. For this sunlight is used, softened slightly by passing through wet cheese-cloth or muslin. In this way, if the bird faces you, its breast is in shadow, while the sides are brightly lighted and in strong relief. The background should be moderately dark, but not black. A perfectly black background is never artistic (if you will pardon the word) and only crudely effective. Publishers like it because it gives what they term colour " to the pages, but nothing can be harder on a delicately lighted subject, full of soft grays, than to force it to stand out with painful garishness from a dead black ground. All gradations of contrasts may be obtained by the use of white reflecting-cloths, or to a more limited extent by regulating the exposure or the developer, remembering that an under-exposed plate will give increased contrast, but that the same effect may be obtained by adding bromide of potash to the developer or by reducing the amount of alkali.
On the selection of the support much of the beauty of the picture depends. A single small twig without leaves has the advantage of making the bird the only object in the picture. This has many arguments in its favour, but still much can be done by choosing a suitable support, such as a small branch with leaves and perhaps flowers or fruit, to give additional interest and beauty to the picture. Using such accessories adds somewhat to one's difficulties, if the branch is cut, as the leaves fade quickly, especially in warm weather, and, needless to say, it is necessary to take precautions against this either by having the end of the branch in water or by wrapping a wet cloth around it. For the sake of accuracy, arrange the branch so that it will be in its natural growing position; that is to say, a branch that is found growing nearly horizontally should be placed in about the same position, otherwise the leaves will not hang correctly. In the matter of background, an artificial one of any desired tone may be used or a natural one of leaves, scrub, etc., will answer, but the former gives the more satisfactory results, especially if the cloth or whatever is used is hung at a fair distance so that a branch or two may be placed between the bird and the background ; this if properly arranged will give the effect of natural surroundings better than any other method.
If the bird or birds to be photographed are unable to fly, it will be unnecessary to have any sort of enclosure; but should they have the use of their wings, an enclosure of some sort will be required, otherwise you and your subject will part company. The making of the enclosure is one of the things that will allow of ample discussion. There are many ideas on the subject, and most of the ideas are conspicuous more by their bad than their good points. Some people advise using a studio which is strongly lighted. Apart from the objection that few can afford such a luxury, the advisability of using it may be questioned. Young birds are tender creatures, easily injured and easily frightened. When frightened they will fly about as though crazy, and coming in contact with hard objects are more than apt to injure or kill themselves. A tent made of gauze is not a bad thing. It is portable, easily erected, and is light and airy. Its chief objectionable features are that the birds catch their feet in the fine meshes, and in their excitement they sometimes break their legs ; also that if there is much wind the sides bulge in and break away from the ground fastenings. Remember a bird is very quick to discover any hole through which escape is possible, and the rapidity with which it can take advantage of such a discovery is really remark-able. A device with which I have had some slight success is shown in the accompanying cut. It is easily made and answers well for certain work. A is mosquito netting stretched tightly to four uprights. The front part is cone shaped, having a rubber band to go over the lens at the opening.
The loose bag-like form is to allow of the camera being moved back and forth. An opening large enough to admit a bird should be made on one side. The whole thing is a sort of photography cage which restricts the bird's range, and as it may be placed in any direction, it allows of an almost endless variety of lighting. The objection to this device (and there is an objection to every device that I have seen) is that for some reason or other it frightens the bird, which usually flies immediately toward the lens and objects to being replaced in its proper compartment. Then, too, it is difficult to handle the bird with any degree of comfort and convenience. It is a curious fact that young birds brought up in captivity are usually wilder and more difficult to manage than those taken in their wild state. This sounds strange and may not be the experience of others, but I have photographed a great many birds both wild and in captivity, and I can safely say that the greatest amount of trouble was caused by the tame birds. A bluebird that I had for several years (he now has a mate and a nest near our house) was what might be termed absolutely tame ; he would sleep inside my partly closed hand, come when called, and in all ways but one would show complete confidence. The one exception was when the camera was in evidence. Then and only then would he become bad and act wilder than the wildest bird of the woods, and though I made repeated attempts I never succeeded in making a good photograph of him after he attained his full growth and plumage.
Young birds taken directly from the woods when they are just able to fly are, as a rule, fairly easy to manage. It is true that they sometimes "cut up" a little to begin with, but with patience and careful handling good photographs can usually be secured without very much waste of time. A good photograph of a young bird is not necessarily a pretty or pleasing picture, for it is in the power of the bird, be he old or young, to appear pretty or the reverse according to his mood. When the feathers are laid tightly down and the bird is stretched out thin, he shows fear and is looking his very worst. With young birds this is particularly noticeable. The same bird can in a moment change from a lean, scrawny, scared-looking atom to a fluffy little ball of soft feathers, a pleasure to look on and a pleasure to photograph. I only refer to this peculiarity of birds in order that the reader may not be in too great a hurry to "press the button." Let him wait until the bird assumes a pleasing attitude, until he "looks pleasant." The results will surely justify the delay.
An interesting feature of bird photography is the portrayal of the growth of an individual. Take for example a young robin the day it leaves the egg. Photograph it as soon as possible, then each day repeat the operation until the time comes for the bird to leave its nest. This series will be most interesting, more especially so if several different types of birds are treated in the same way and careful notes made of the dates. It is unnecessary here to enter into details as to how much interesting material may be collected in this way. The reader, if a bird student, will readily realise that.
A word as to the method which should be employed in making these series: Each photograph of a set should be made with exactly the same distance between the lens and the object; this will insure accuracy as to the size of the bird during each step of its development. Another way is to place the bird on a piece of paper or wood marked off in small squares of equal size; by these squares the bird may be measured. On account of the constant movement of very young birds, caused by their breathing, it is necessary to make the exposure as short as possible. As the birds develop, their respiration becomes slower and less laboured, consequently the exposure may be in-creased. It will be noticed that the gallinaceous birds, even when but a day or two old, breathe with less apparent effort than the helpless young of the thrushes, warblers, and others that are born blind and naked; their whole body throbs at each breath. Especially is this noticeable when the weather is' warm.
On no account should birds be handled more than is absolutely necessary. If they are very young the soft pin-feathers are easily injured, and if they are feathered the warmth of the hand will moisten and disarrange the feathers. When carrying a bird, if it is able to perch, let it sit on your finger (they will usually do so after a few attempts), unless it can fly, when of course it must be covered ; but if it is unable to perch, place it in your hat (a lining of a few leaves will be a desirable precaution) or some similar receptacle, but on no account carry it for any length of time in your hand.
Before finishing these lines on young-bird photography a few words may not be amiss in regard to the advisability of always, if you use accessories, choosing such as are in keeping with the bird's natural environments. Try to make the surroundings tell of the bird's nature and habits. For example, a scrub-loving bird, like the Maryland yellowthroat, should be among some scrubby growth of a damp-soil nature by preference. An oven-bird would be better on the leafy ground or on a log rather than on a bush. The robin might be placed on a branch, a meadow-lark on a grassy sod, and so on. I once saw a photograph of a family of barn-swallows perched on a vine. The picture was good enough from a photographic and pictorial standpoint, but it lacked interest from the bird student's point of view. If you have many birds together, arrange them so that they will show in different positions, back, front, and side views. It is in all these small details that the difference is shown between the careful and the casual photographer of birds. If a picture is worth taking, it is worth taking as well as one knows how.