Technical Notes on Finch Photography





  This page is somewhat different from all the rest of the pages on this website, in that it doesn't talk about finches.  Rather, on this page I will discuss some ideas and things I have learned about taking pictures of our flock of finches. 

The Camera

The pictures in this website were taken with one of two primary digital cameras.  The early photos were taken using a Canon Powershot A40, a 2 mega pixel "point and shoot" digital camera with limited adjustments.  However, by paying attention to the distance and the "close up" feature of the camera we were able to take some great shots of the birds.

Recently, I was fortunate to upgrade my equipment to a Nikon D80, which is a 10 mega pixel Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera.  I am using a 15 to 135 Nikon zoom lens and have found the combination to be superb. 

But just to show that you don't need a lot of fancy equipment, a few of the photos on this website were taken with the camera on my cell phone.  I saw a great picture opportunity and it was the only thing I had handy. 

The important thing is to learn about the capability of your camera, see what adjustments you can make, and then set up the picture taking environment (lighting, distance, etc) to make the most of the equipment you have available. 


The Photo Cage

I don't like pictures which have the cage bars between me and the birds.  I know of only two ways to eliminate that problem:  build a big aviary and go inside to shoot (not an option right now) or build an enclosure for taking pictures which has one transparent side.  I built a "photo cage" out of material that I had sitting in the workshop, left over from another project.  I used 3/4 inch MDF for the construction.  I had some wire mesh (1/4 inch openings) left over from making some gouldian nests.  The only thing I had to buy was a piece of clear plastic (Plexiglass), about 1/16 of an inch thick. 

The base of the cage is a square, 12 inches on a side.  First I sawed some 1 inch strips and used them to make a "picture frame" that was 12 inches on each side.  After attaching the wire mesh to them I attached them to the base to form the sides and top.  The back was another solid piece of MDF, cut to fit the opening.  I made another "picture frame" of MDF and cut a thin dado in the inner edges, so that when the frame was assembled around a square of clear plastic it held in position.  The front was attached to the top with hinges, and the lower ends were held shut with screen door hooks.  I built a perch with some dowels I had in the scrap bin, making it a "T" shape, and put it in a hole in the center of the bottom.  That way the perch could be rotated to get different angles on the birds.

My first photo "shoot" convinced me that the white background was too severe for the photos, so I have been using leftover scraps of material as a "curtain" on the back of the cage to provide a contracting background to the bird. 



I have used flash to take pictures of the birds but was concerned that it was putting too much stress on them.  I have founds that I can do quite well using with a single 18 inch fluorescent light fixture above the cage (the same ones we use on our normal cages).  We use the Philips "Natural Sunlight" bulbs both on my cages and for photos.  Other brands that provide light at a color of 5000 deg K would also work.  I am experimenting with additional lighting at the sides to fill in the shadows. 


Camera settings

The comments here are necessarily specific to my camera (Nikon D80 DSLR) but you can adapt them to the specifics of your own camera.

  •   ISO 400 appears to be about the best sensitivity setting to use.  I saw no evidence of noise at this speed, and it allowed me to shoot the pictures with a shutter speed fast enough to freeze their motion.  It also allowed apertures consistent with a reasonable depth of field.
  •   Manual focus works better than auto focus.  Focusing on the bird's eye seems to be the most effective.  I have tried using several of the automatic focus modes on the camera and I get the best results with manual.  The next best was to use automatic focusing but to manually select the area to be used for focusing.
  •   I found that, in most cases, center exposure metering gave better results than the matrix mode metering, unless I was shooting two birds who were sitting a bit apart from one another. 
  •   I started out using exposure bracketing at .7 EV above and below.  Now I have been using bracketing at .3 EV below and it seems to work well.  Between the two shots one is normally close to the desired effect.  I shoot in continuous mode and take the bracketing photos with one shutter press.
  •   I found the automatic white balance to be useful, although I have been experimenting with alternate settings.  You can easily see that in some of the color variations on the photos.

Use of a Tripod

The tripod is essential.  It eliminates the problem of camera shake and allows you to wait to catch the bird at the proper place (sometimes they are very uncooperative subjects for pictures).  Sometimes Tina has had to coax them by first getting them to perch on a knitting needle, and then slowly moving them to the perch we want to use for the photo. 


"Digital Darkroom":  image processing software   

I first learned how to work in the darkroom helping my Dad develop family photos.  That was a long time ago, and we have come a long way since then: now the darkroom is software sitting on my PC.  Adobe Photoshop is the standard software for this, but I find the price tag is a little too much for my tastes.  I have used Paint Shop Pro in its various forms for years, and continue to use it for manipulating digital images. 

I just (in November 2007) updated to Paint Shop Pro Photo X2.  I had some problems with with the previous version:  it crashed on my laptop with some degree of regularity.  The new version has been very stable  This version also has improvements in some of the photo tools. 

It costs about 1/6 of what Photoshop costs and you can do most of the same things that you can with Photoshop.  I have used it for these photos to crop them to a standard size, and then make them a small size and resolution for the web page.  I have had to do some digital burning (lightening up specific areas) and dodging (darkening specific areas) for the photos on this page.  I occasionally use the perspective correction or "One step photo fix" for other adjustments.  I recommend it as a cost effective alternative to Photoshop.


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This site was last updated 11/19/07