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  • Writer's pictureRyan Wilkes

Photographing Birds with Ryan Wilkes

One of the images that have stayed with us, from the many entries we have received for our competitions, is Ryan Wilkes’ photograph “Mountain Parrot“. A stunning image of a Kea in flight was taken at Mueller Hut, Mt Cook National Park. So naturally, with the annual NZ Garden Bird Survey coming up, we jumped at the chance to pick his brain about the image and his approach to photographing birds.

Ryan Wilkes is a Calgary-based documentary DP, director, and photographer with a passion for the outdoors, adventure and wildlife. Through documenting adventurous pursuits and conservation-related endeavours, he explores the relationships between people and the natural world. His passion for photography was born when he moved to New Zealand in 2015 to pursue a PhD in Biomedical Engineering. Inspired by the beautiful scenery around him, he and his camera became regulars in the backcountry of the South Island. 

Since then, Ryan’s adventures have included swimming with humpback whales in Tonga, exploring the remote fjords of northern Norway, tracking mountain gorillas in the impenetrable forest of Uganda, and paragliding off of the world’s tallest freestanding mountain, Mt. Kilimanjaro.

What gear do you typically use when shooting birds?

My go-to setup for bird photography is my Panasonic G9 and Panasonic 50-200 mm lens. That’s a 100-400mm equivalent on a 35 mm full-frame sensor. The micro-four-thirds cameras don’t get a lot of love these days, but this offers a really portable set-up at a fraction of the weight of a full-frame setup, and the image quality is great!

What settings do you use? Does it change constantly?

The settings that I use are always changing. I tend to keep my camera in aperture-priority mode and use the exposure compensation dial to adjust my shutter speed. 

Any tips for photographing birds in flight?

I have found that capturing birds in flight happens either out of luck or due to a lot of time spent watching the birds. If you’re able to spend some time watching the bird’s behaviour, you will have a higher chance of capturing the perfect moment. Another tip would be to know your camera’s autofocus settings really well. I find that for my equipment, I have the highest success with single area AF mode.

How do you find the birds when planning a shoot? 

Taking good wildlife shots is all about preparation. I never plan on taking a great shot during my first visit to a location. Understanding the animal’s behaviour can give you insight into different patterns and behaviours that it might exhibit. This can help you prepare for that perfect moment that you want to capture.

Being able to identify birds from their vocalizations is also a great skill to have so that you can know when your target bird is in the area. Another great tool that I use to plan shoots is the iNaturalist app. It allows you to see general locations of where people made observations of different flora and fauna.

How do you get close to the birds without scaring them away?

When photographing birds the welfare of the animal always comes first. By “bumping” a bird off of its perch because you got too close, you may have just cost it a meal. In the worst-case scenario, a mother may abandon her eggs if she is constantly pestered by observers. The best practice is to let the bird come to you, which comes with a lot of patience.

You want to show the bird that you are not a threat. With most bird species, they will never get close to you and a long telephoto lens is definitely worth the investment if you’re getting serious about bird photography. There is also the option to invest in a small tent to hide from the birds. 

What is it about photographing birds that you enjoy the most?

For me, it is always about being out in nature and then photography is the cherry on top. I’m always having a good day when I’m out there, even if I don’t get any shots that are keepers. Wildlife photography is also incredibly rewarding because of how difficult it can be to capture great shots.

Most memorable moment whilst capturing the Kea in-flight photo?

I think that every encounter that I have had with a kea has been memorable. On this occasion, there was a group of four keas that had come to check out our camping set up on a ridge in Mt Cook National Park. I grabbed my camera right away because I knew that I might have a chance to get a great photo. They were jumping on to and off of rocks just a few metres away from where we were sitting. I moved into position, put the shutter into burst mode and tried to time my shot with the kea jumping.

Do you tend to edit a lot in post-production due to lighting etc in the field?

Sometimes the light is perfect and there is little to do in post. Other times, like with this kea shot, I had to bring up the shadows quite a bit to reveal the detail under the bird’s wings.  The purpose of editing for me is to enhance the image by bringing more attention to the subject while still maintaining the scene that I saw in real life.

What is your favourite bird image that you have taken so far and why? 

The kea in flight has to still be my favourite, and it might always be! This bird was what really sparked my interest in conservation and birds, so I owe a lot to the Kea. A few others that stand out for me are the incredible Shoebill that I shot in Uganda and North America’s smallest bird, the Calliope Hummingbird that visits my hometown of Calgary, Canada in the summer to breed.

Check out more of Ryan’s incredible wildlife photography here!


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