Keeping Your Distance: Bird Photography Tips from Judi Lapsley Miller

Continuing on the topic of responsible bird photography, we talked to Judi Miller - a well-known photographer, conservationist, passionate bird lover, and creator of the 'Art of Birding' challenges that you would have seen featured on our Blog.

Judi, in your opinion, what is the best practice to follow when photographing birds?

It can be hard when caught up in the moment but always think of the bird’s welfare first. Can you get the shot without trampling through their home? Can you do it without overly disturbing their natural behaviours?

There are so many stressors in most birds’ environments these days that you should not be adding more. Your impact might be small on its own, but if your photo leads to many others visiting the site, it could have a much larger significant impact. It’s not just overt effects you need to consider, like your presence causing a bird to abandon its nest. Cumulative stressors raise cortisol levels, which can lead to poorer health and fertility outcomes.

"The Explorer (kākā)" by Judi Miller

"What joy! First sight this morning through bleary eyes was this gorgeous gal feasting on our eucalyptus in the golden early morning light! Just one year old, she's from ZEALANDIA Ecosanctuary. Lovely to see her exploring the surrounding suburbs."

Learning about bird behaviour, both in general and for specific species, is essential. Are they a shy specious that you need extra care with, or are they curious about you and happy to engage? Are they nesting or raising young? Learning about body language can help you detect the subtle signs of stress.

On-site, I try to find a spot not too close to the bird and then let it come closer to me if it chooses. Up your ISO rather than using flash. The resulting photos typically look terrible anyway! A little fill flash on a bright day is probably fine, but don’t flash a bird up close on a nest (just last week I had to intervene when I came across a photographer repeatedly flashing a nesting bird from only 2 metres away). The bird can’t necessarily leave the nest, or if they do, they may abandon their eggs or chicks.

If you have a silent shutter feature on your camera, use it! It’s a game-changer!

I know many people use recorded bird calls to attract birds. I choose not to do that and do not recommend it. Hearing another bird in their territory is tremendously stressful, especially if they can’t locate the intruder. Image the fright you’d get if you heard someone sneaking around your house but couldn’t find them! People who say it does not harm them are only thinking about short-term effects and not the long-term broader impacts of cumulative stress.

"His Resplendence (tūī)" by Judi Miller

"A portrait of an elegant tūī in his resplendent cloak, with lacy collar and fancy bow tie."

If you’re hiring a guide for a bird tour, ask about their practices, and don’t support operators that show no respect for the birds.

And finally, think about how you can give back to the bird. Can you take a few moments to pick up litter? Can you volunteer for trapping pests and predators in its ecosystem? Perhaps you could use your photos for wildlife advocacy? Remember to donate to organizations supporting the birds conservation too.

How do we find the balance between sharing the opportunity to photograph rare birds with fellow photographers but at the same time not turning it into a hunting/chasing game for a few seconds of ‘insta’ fame?

It’s hard because we all want the shot but I figure, by the time I see the photos online, the poor bird is already under siege, so I don’t go looking for it.

If I’m lucky enough to be a “first finder,” I try to be quite mindful about where, what, and when I publish the photos. I may reserve publishing until after the bird is no longer in the area (e.g., has finished nesting). Or I might not reveal the exact location. It may seem uncooperative and unsharing, but my priority is the bird’s safety. So, I only share locations among trusted friends who share similar values regarding protecting the birds. I’ve learned the hard way that some photographers will take a mile if given an inch.

"Dreaming big (takahē)" by Judi Miller

"My most favourite photo from my photo essay on Zealandia's wee takahē chick. These photos were taken at such a special time - at just over two months old his coloured feathers are just starting to appear over the black down, his beak is still shiny black, and he is at a most curious stage."

When you do publish your photos online, remove GPS tags. As well as highlighting the location to photographers, wildlife smuggling is also a concern, especially with rare plants and lizards.

If you find yourself in a situation where a bird is being crowded, perhaps consider not taking the shot but instead doing some crowd control. Take charge, set up a perimeter, and bring only a few photographers forward at a time.

© Excio