How to photograph birds in your garden

How to photograph birds in your garden

Renowned for his captivating underwater imagery of South Africa’s marine animals, as featured in the release campaigns for BBC's "Blue Planet II" and Netflix's "Our Planet" film series, Steven Benjamin has had to pivot his focus to his Kalk Bay garden during lockdown, where he has been taking incredible shots of Cape Town’s resident birdlife. Located near the iconic Table Mountain, Steven has embraced the challenge of photographing these feathered beauties as a way to bring joy during these uncertain times, and he’s had some incredible results.

What is your background?

I’m a wildlife enthusiast with a background in Zoology and have worked as an underwater photographer, focusing on sharks, whales and dolphins. During the lockdown, I’m focusing on the birds in my garden.


What is Lockdown like in South Africa? 

South Africa has implemented the world’s strictest lockdown's to fight Covid-19. Its been inspirational to be part of this as we all unite to limit the death toll. No one is allowed to exercise, walk their dogs, no one can buy alcohol or cigarettes, people are staying at home. South Africa has huge numbers of people living in poverty with poor health due to AIDS, Tuberculosis, Inequality and limited nutrition. So the impacts of COVID-19 could be massive. Due to this everyone is doing their best to stay at home and limit the spread of the virus. 


What made you start photographing birds in your garden?

I’ve always though about focusing my camera on these birds, but just never had the time. When we started the lockdown, and I adjusted to the confinement, I put the feeder out regularly enjoyed see the local bird community. I took a few GoPro video clips and posted on Instagram which garnered quite a bit of attention. The appreciation fuelled me to keep going and trying my techniques to capture images and share them online.


Could you explain your unique bird imagery?

I started thinking more about how to create a setting where I could capture simple yet interesting images that highlight the bird’s beauty. I also wanted to use this project as a way to be creative and escape the confines of the lockdown by enjoying the freedom of the birds. Sharing this on social media helped inspire others and prompted me to keep adding to the project - bringing digital joy to those watching. By isolating the birds against a black background with crystal-clear focus, I’m able to show these birds in a new way.


How did you take these images?

I placed the feeder outside in a sunny spot with a shadowy background and started photographing. I use high shutter speeds, over 1/2000 of a second to freeze the birds, which also makes the background dark. I used lights mounted separately to backlight the birds and bring out the details in the bill and fine feathers. I changed the perch a few times to add interesting color to the images. This is a studio setting for wild birds that are free to come and go as they please.


Would you have created these images if not for lockdown? 

No. The lockdown has made me relax and take the time to do things I would never have gotten around to doing. I archived all my past wildlife images, worked on a book, did all the gardening possible and brushed my dog a lot! Finally, I settled on this project which I work on every day. I’m always adding something new to the scene and there are always new birds and interactions happening. It’s made the days fly by!


What have been the highlights?

I've loved the creative process. Assessing the available equipment, looking at the scene, thinking about how light will affect my images and change through out the day. Developing the perches, starting with simple twigs and evolving to using Protea's, Strelitzea's and Erica's. The whole process has been wonderfully creative and time consuming. If I were to pick two bird highlights it would be setting up a twig in preparation for a tiny Sunbird but having a bog male Cape Sugar birds land on it and drape its long tail perfectly over the twig as the morning sun glistened off it ! There was on way to plan that, just prepare and get lucky. The other moment as setting up a beautiful Red Hot Poker (Flower) and having a male Malachite Sunbird land on the top of it and stare into the lens. Moments you cant even dream of and delivering images that are far better than I dreamt of. 


Any interesting realizations?

Seeing things around you in a new way is important. You can create beautiful and striking images by thinking out the box and trying. Lockdown has made me focus and given me time to experiment. Viewers are absorbed by simplicity and symmetry that highlights beauty. 


Challenges in capturing these images ? 

The birds did not like flash photography so I have to figure out how to get constant light onto them with my underwater video lights. However the lights are meant to be underwater where they can cool down, so I have to turn them off often to prevent overheating and burning them.  They I have to get the birds used to being close to bright lights, which too a while. 


Equipment used 

Sony A7S II, Canon 100-400 IS II, Metabones EF-E mount. Big Blue 8000 Lumen video lights. NautiCam Clamp underwater strobe arms.

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