Game Bird Season
Many Kiwi hunters (me included) indulge themselves in a variety of different forms of hunting from small game to deer and pigs right on up to the alpine animals such as tahr and chamois. Let’s not forget about the waterfowl and upland game birds from May thrown in there too. The great thing about all these different ‘facets’ of our sport is that each of the best times to hunt any given species falls within different times of the year which has the bonus of ‘filling’ our calendar. So many things to look forward to, get excited about and keep the motivation up … all year round !!
Up until around twelve years ago I only really dabbled in waterfowl and upland game bird hunting and not very seriously at that. It wasn’t until my good friend and hunting mate Aaron Senior and I decided to get a gun dog each that the passion for birding really hit us. Aaron had a soft spot for labs and ended up with Beau, a beautifully big and strong black dog whereas I’ve always been keen on Springer Spaniels. I chose a liver and white bitch which I named Meg. She is still going strong now and approaching twelve years. Sadly Beau passed away at about nine years old and has since been replaced with Gus … you guessed it, another big powerful black lab. As many of you will have experienced, the enjoyment and satisfaction in training a dog from seven weeks of age into an obedient and well performing gun dog is absolutely huge. Not to mention gaining a very loyal and trusting friend to boot. The other thing we discovered and which surprised us a lot is that game bird hunting without your dog is just nowhere near as fun and enjoyable to the point where we would rather not go out after ducks or quail if we couldn’t have our ‘mates’ by our sides. It became much more about the dogs rather than about the birds we were hunting.
Whether it is maimai/pond shooting, hunting up on quail and pheasants or open paddock hunting over decoys, we are generally all eyes and ears concentrating on the job at hand not wanting to miss out on any potential action. This seems to equate into few opportunities to photograph the whole event and typically many game bird hunters only end up with those ugly, what I call, ‘death pile’ photos at the end of the trip. In this article I’d like to swing past you some photographic ideas on capturing those hunts which will hopefully add a bit more variety to your bird hunting images.
Now I realise that on a morning hunt it will still be dark so ‘pre-hunt’ will generally only apply to evening hunts or upland bird hunting. For each hunt there is always a certain amount of preparation involved … setting out of decoys, small last minute or extra work on the pond/maimai, packing your day pack for on the hill or even just donning your camo gear just prior setting out. It’s all part and parcel of the whole experience and this pre-hunt period will also be the least rushed and frantic creating ample time to rattle off a few shots with the camera. If with a mate or two, endeavour to capture candid moments by using the ‘fly on the wall’ approach and think in terms of just documenting the occasion from a kind of neutral view point. This approach should produce a good variety of images with a mixture of subjects and scenes. Exactly the same type of approach and images can of course be taken at the end of the hunt when everyone is packing and tidying up.
You might also think about using your camera not only for the pre-hunt but also for the pre-season period. The building of a new maimai for example could be recorded at different stages of construction or perhaps before and after photos of the pond clean up. As I say, there is always more to any type of hunting than just the ‘hunt and kill’. I’m sure all your hunting mates will love looking over pics of these other aspects to bird hunting over a few beers in the off season. No better way to fuel the fire of excitement and anticipation of the next season.
Unfortunately when plenty of birds are around and barrels are running hot, time for taking photographs is pretty much nil. It’s kind of a catch 22 situation really … everybody would like to be shooting at the birds we’ve put all the previous weeks and months of effort into attracting to our ponds. After all, it’s essentially why we’re here. I know it’s very hard to put the gun down at these times especially if you’re fairly new to the sport but wouldn’t it be great to catch some of the ‘battle’ on camera ?? If you do manage to pull yourself out of combat and pick up the camera, here are a few suggestions ...
A good action image is always one of a hunter lining up on some birds preferably with the birds in the frame. For these shots you will need a fairly wide angle to compose the hunter and birds together in the one shot. Now this will inherently mean that the birds will be very small in the image but better small than none at all. The shooter should be composed to one side of the frame with the birds at the other side and depending on the angles, at opposite corners. Remember the rule of thirds and the opposing intersections.The lighting in these situations will probably have two extremes. The foreground maimai area will be fairly dark while the area of sky where the ducks will present themselves will be much brighter. The aperture and shutter priority modes more than likely won’t be able to expose the image the way you would like so I strongly suggest you to get into ‘manual’ mode. (A case where the camera just isn’t smart enough … you need to take control). Choose a combination of the ‘big three’ (ISO, shutter speed and aperture) and take a couple of test shots at a quiet time. What you’re looking for here is a compromise on the exposure between the two lighting extremes. If you’re lucky you might be able to capture the instant the duck or goose crumples or perhaps a spent shell being ejected from the gun.
Other more subdued action photographs might be a portrait shot of your mate blowing frantically on the caller. As we all know, calling is a very serious business and I love those images that show the intense concentration on the face of the hunter. Simple actions such as reloading the gun, an upland bird hunter standing tense and ready for the flush of a pheasant or perhaps fighting his way through tight scrub on the side of a hill, your mate running down a wounded goose out in the paddock are all worthy of photographing.
Action time !! Note the light coloured gun residue particles off the end of the barrel. (Image courtesy Greg Duley)
And here’s an interesting, very large crop of the two upper left birds in Greg’s image. One is not very happy !!
Much of our bird hunting is carried out at two photographically superb times of the day … early morning and late afternoon/evening. The two ‘golden hours’ of each day. Bear this in mind on your next bird hunt and take advantage of it. Sunsets and sunrises are the two obvious scenes I’m sure everyone loves to shoot and even more folk enjoy looking at these types of images. Small apertures (large number on the dial) for greater depth of focus and a steady rest (better still a tripod and perhaps a remote shutter release) are the go here. Again, try to incorporate the rule of thirds with those all important horizon lines.
These times of the day lend themselves to obtaining some neat silhouette images as well. I really love photographs with, for example, a duck hunter throwing out decoys silhouetted against a fiery red sunset or sunrise. Manual mode comes to the fore for these shots also. In most of the other modes the camera’s sensor will not be able to read the scene the way you want it. By choosing all of your own settings you’ll be able to get just the right amount of dark versus light that you require. If you’re not confident using the ‘M’ mode then it’s just a simple case of dialling in some ‘exposure compensation’ to which ever way that gives you the desired result. For example, when in aperture priority (Av) mode and the camera has produced an image that is too bright with too much detail in the areas you wanted silhouetted, dial in a notch or two of negative exposure compensation. This will tell the camera to underexpose (darken) the image by the value you give. This feature can of course be applied to any image that calls for a darker (or brighter) exposure.
Above left … the universal symbol for ‘exposure compensation’ (Flash exposure compensation will have a small lightning bolt symbol alongside) Once into the exposure compensation feature, the scale, above right, is what you will see. (Highlighted in red)
Naturally scenic or landscape shots may be taken at other times of the day when lighting is better. Autumn is a fantastic season for producing beautiful gold, orange and red hues within the trees and plants. Take advantage of the colour.
Lovely autumn colours – early morning over a Marlborough pond. ( 1/125 @ f/5, ISO 400 )
Your Best Mate
As I mentioned earlier in this article, Meg my Springer Spaniel gives me by far the most enjoyment and satisfaction form any bird hunt I participate in. I’m sure that every one of you that owns a gun dog also loves them to bits. As such I think they deserve a fair bit of consideration as far as photography goes … after all, they are here for a much shorter time than us and are worthy of the attention.
A very stereotyped photograph I see often is one of a dog making a retrieve back to the maimai. The image has been taken by the hunter standing up in the maimai and looking down on the dog. As with most animal images it’s always good to take your shots from a low angle … remember, get down into their world.
Dogs are always on the move so fast shutter speeds will help in obtaining crisp, sharp images. Try to position yourself with the light coming from behind you as the dog is retrieving towards you to avoid harsh shadows and ensuring good detail within the dog and bird. There’s nothing worse than the subject coming out as just a dark shape or blob so you should be able to make out fine details of the dogs face and hair.
Gun dogs love their hunting just as much as we do. Have a close look at your dog’s face next time you’re sitting in the maimai when he or she can hear the whistling of duck wings as they fly by to check out the decoy spread. You can see the excitement and anticipation written all over their face. Take a photo of it !! Just a wee reminder here of utilising flash in the darker environment of a maimai. Best to use it judiciously though, perhaps at quieter times so as not scare off any potential winged targets.
A low angle perspective and a slightly different take on the clichéd ‘gun dog retrieve’ photo.
( 1/320 @ f/5.6, ISO 800 )
So you’ve had a really good hunt, the dog has done his or her job of retrieving all the downed and wounded birds and of course you’ll be wanting a photograph or two of the successful day. Usually this will involve a pic of the hunter/s and their bag of birds. The first and I think most important thing to consider here is the condition of the birds. As mentioned in the previous ‘Dead Photos’ article make sure the blood, dirt and any gory bits are cleaned off. It’s never a good look. Lay them out in a neat and tidy manner and position the hunter/s beside or just behind the birds. The whole scene will need to be in focus so remember to use smaller apertures and wider focal lengths. The usual techniques of sun at your back, pleasing angles and perspectives, removing unwanted clutter from the shot and compositional considerations apply. Remember to get everyone to remove hats and sunglasses as we need to see eyes and faces. If you want to be in the frame yourself then you can employ either a remote shutter release or (as most cameras have) the two or ten second self timer feature.
I mentioned ‘death piles’ earlier. If your day has been especially good and you do have a large number of birds can I suggest perhaps not including absolutely all of them. Once again, it doesn’t do our sport a lot of good when people see huge piles of dead game as it portrays a kind of blood lust mentality.
I would also definitely include the dog/s in the image. To my mind they are the ones that have done the bulk of the work … all we have really done is pulled the trigger. Recognise this by taking a few more intimate shots of just the dog with a handful of birds and perhaps include the gun in the frame. I really like these closer more personal images.
A close up, more intimate image of Meg and a bag of Quail – Marlborough high country.
( 1/500 @ f/5, ISO 100 )
One last small tip … it’s not unusual for the weather to be rather wet during our duck hunting. If your camera is not weather sealed (and most aren’t) try cutting a small hole in the bottom of a large zip lock plastic bag just smaller than the diameter of the end of your lens. Put the camera into the bag and push the end of the lens through the hole and ‘seal’ it around the end of the lens with a rubber band. If the bag is large enough it will completely envelope the whole camera and lens but still allow you to place your hand inside to operate the camera.
A duck hunting ‘incidentals’ image.
( 1/160 @ f/5.6, ISO 800 )