Kristofer Rowe’s Avian Photography Takes Flight with the New SP 150-600mm VC G2 lens

Kristofer Rowe can often be seen with camera in hand, roaming the beaches, fields, and nature preserves near his home in Connecticut, and his specialty is photographing the avian life that resides there. Kristofer, who’s been using the Tamron SP 150-600mm VC lens for much of his bird photography, recently got his hands on the new 150-600mm VC G2 model and is already impressed by what he’s been able to achieve with the updated unit.

“The autofocus speed is really fast, which I noticed right away,” he says. “The focal-length range is also key for me. It allows me to a) not intrude too far into my subjects’ territory, and b) gives me the versatility to zoom back if the birds suddenly take off and I’m too close to get a decent shot at the focal length I’m using. I use prime lenses sometimes, and that’s sometimes an issue. Finally, I love the fluorine coating on the G2. I’m in the water and mud a lot as I’m trying to position myself; that protective coating makes the lens much easier to clean.”

Kristofer spends a lot of time outside with his camera—sometimes more than 30 hours a week, despite his full-time job—and makes sure he’s very mobile. “I’ll often hit eight to 10 spots in one day,” he says. “The more you’re able to observe the birds’ habits and practice photographing them, the better you’ll get. And each time I return to my car to head to the next spot, I make sure to reconfigure my settings. That way, if I happen to see something cool I want to photograph as I’m driving from Point A to Point B, I can jump out of my car knowing I’m ready to go.”

Read on for insight into how Kris photographed the six birds below, as well as suggestions on how you can improve your own photos.

Early morning sunlight offers the best lighting for bird photography.
Because I’m a chef who mainly works in the afternoon and at night, I’m most often out taking pictures in the early morning. But that’s ideal lighting for my bird photos anyway: You get that beautiful morning glow with the sun behind you and the birds in front of you. The light comes in at a more horizontal level and helps illuminate the bird. When you shoot in the midafternoon, the light comes straight down and it can look horrible, with the top of your image being blown out and the bottom all in shadows.

When I’m photographing birds on a branch or other perch, like I did here with this tufted titmouse, I don’t like to use a shutter speed that’s lower than 1/250th of a second, especially for titmice, which are especially fidgety—otherwise I’ll get motion blur, which is not what I want when trying to pick up all the details in the bird’s feathers.

© Kristofer Rowe
600mm, F/6.3, 1/800th sec., ISO 800

Find a visually compelling background, then try to shoot at eye level with the bird.
It’s important to not only concentrate on what your subject is, but also on what’s behind it and where you’re taking the picture from. In most cases, you want to avoid having a plain blue-sky background behind the bird and shooting up at it. For this image of a mockingbird at the beach, I had to climb up on a little sand dune to get to eye level with it, as well as move a few feet to the left to add a little more visual interest behind it.

Another tip to remember is to make sure you get close enough to your subject so you’re not trying to crop the image too much later on. If you get a picture of a bird from a mile away and expect it to be super-sharp once you crop it down, that’s not going to happen. I was about 40 feet away for this photo; the 450mm focal length was the perfect reach to achieve a sharp image.

© Kristofer Rowe
450mm, F/6.3, ISO 200, 1/640th sec.

Fill the frame to show off details.
George, a redtail hawk who lives near a local golf course, was just 6 months old when we first met. Now he’s so familiar with me that he actually follows me around. Of course, I can’t get right up next to him (I think I’ve gotten as close as 7 feet away), but for this image I was at a distance of about 20 feet. The 150-600 offered me the reach I needed to zoom in close at 600mm.

With George, I really wanted to show off every detail, so I filled the frame. The more of the bird you can get into your image space, the more the viewer will see all of its intricacies, like its eyes or feathers or coloring characteristics. It helps if you can get yourself positioned to optimize the lighting and background. In this case, it was about 3:30 p.m., but the sun was pretty low in the sky, since it was November.

© Kristofer Rowe
600mm, F/8, ISO 560, 1/500th sec.

Use a faster shutter speed for birds in flight.
When I’m taking pictures of birds in the air, I only shoot in manual mode with auto ISO, using spot metering with exposure compensation. I also choose a shutter speed of around 1/2000th sec. as a general starting point. For this image of a group of flying starlings, I used a slightly slower shutter speed (1/1250th sec.) to get more of the birds in focus. I had to use a really high ISO of 4500 because the light we had that day wasn’t great.

I took this photo in panning mode and flicked on the G2’s Vibration Compensation to keep the birds sharp. I also stopped down to F/11 to help keep more of the birds in focus.

© Kristofer Rowe
600mm, F/11, ISO 4500, 1/1250th sec.

Prepare for those in-between moments.
Sometimes when you’re watching birds on their perches, you can spot signs that they’re about to take off. If their talons are tightly gripping the branch they’re on, for instance, that’s a good indicator they’re about to take flight. Another funny sign: They poop! Some say they do that to lighten their load, so to speak, before they head for the skies.

If you’re photographing a bird at rest and start to think it’s about to leave its perch, increase your shutter speed. When I started out taking pictures and a bird would suddenly fly away, my shutter speed wouldn’t be high enough and I’d just get a blur across the screen. By staying attuned to their signals, you’ll be ready to go when they finally soar. This goes back to knowing your subjects’ habits, which is also how I was able to capture this blue jay with an acorn in its mouth. I knew this was the time of year when they hunt for acorns, so I went out looking for an image like this.

© Kristofer Rowe
600mm, F/6.3, ISO 2000, 1/2500th sec.

Adjust for wingspan.
Don’t underestimate how large a bird’s wings are, especially for some of the larger birds. Otherwise, while you’re zoomed in nice and tight (at 600mm, say, for a portrait), they could suddenly take off, and while you may try to fire a few shots off, their wing tips could end up falling out of the frame. That’s what happens sometimes when I’m using a prime lens.

That’s an adjustment I had to make here for this midmorning photo of a blue heron, which can have a wingspan that stretches to nearly 7 feet. What I’ll often do is use the 150-600’s Flex Zoom Lock feature so I can ensure my zoom won’t unintentionally extend while I’m taking a photo. I’ll set the lens to 500mm instead of 600mm, for instance, and lock it in place, which gives me a little extra room to crop and ensures all parts of the wings are in the frame if the bird decides to bolt.

© Kristofer Rowe
380mm, F/6.3, ISO 800, 1/2500th sec.

CC: Jenn Gidman