Lessons from the common chaffinch

Male common chaffinch
Male common chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) makes an attractive subject that is often overlooked simply because it is so common. Taken with a Canon 1D Mark IV, EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM +1.4x tele converter, 1/250 s exposure at f6.3, ISO 800.

The late Geoff Moon — probably New Zealand’s most well known bird photographer — once mentioned to me that no one photographs common birds like sparrows, and consequently there are few really nice photos of them. This was an interesting observation to a budding bird photographer. Why focus solely on the rare and unusual when the subject is only one component of a successful image? It can be far more educational to hone ones skills on subjects that are easier to find, and often more approachable. Practice makes perfect, and removing the rarity aspect from the viewfinder encourages you to pay more attention to the crucial elements of a successful photo; light, composition, and technical proficiency.
The common chaffinch is the second most widespread bird in New Zealand. They are also really beautiful little birds, especially the males. The photo above is one of several I made recently that highlights a few points that aspiring photographers might like to consider.

1. Choose your subject carefully

I had stopped at a picnic area a little off the main route, and within a few minutes several chaffinches came searching for ripening grass seeds. Chaffinches can be as flighty as any bird, but like all birds, individuals have different personalities. Choosing the best subject can mean considering which looks the best, is on the best perch, has the best background, or is in the nicest light. It also needs consideration of which is the most approachable. On this occasion they were hopping around just inches from my feet. According to the EXIF data, the male above was only 2.9 m away (in fact, it was often too close to focus on, and I could have used a much shorter and closer focusing lens, but I wanted to use the narrow field of view of the longish lens). Finding individuals that are more confiding than most is one of the secrets to getting images that stand out from the rest.

2. Be aware of the angle of view

Shooting from the subjects eye level is one of the best ways to convey a sense of intimacy, bringing the viewer into the scene. Chaffinches are small birds, so when they are on the ground this means getting very low. My tripods go low, but sometimes even 15 cm is too high and resting the lens just on my hand is what’s needed. The out of focus foreground in the photo above is grass just a few cm tall between the lens and bird, I was that low! Generally, the lower you go, the further away your background will become, and as a consequence it will be more out of focus. This helps reduce the distraction of busy backgrounds and makes the subject stand out more. Nothing shouts “snap shot” more than a photo looking steeply down or up at a bird in busy surroundings.

3. Be adaptable

I prefer to shoot from a tripod whenever possible. Image quality is almost always better. When a female chaffinch flew up to the low branches of a nearby tree though, I knew I wouldn’t have time to reset my tripod. Much quicker to undo the quick release and handhold a few shots, knowing that the lens’ Image Stabilisation would help me out. It’s not how I usually shoot, but it paid off.