Photographing Japanese white-eyes and the cherry blossoms

Spring in Japan is a special time of year where a sea of pink blossoms appear in parks and gardens throughout the many islands of the Japanese archipelago. It brings a sense of wellbeing and optimism and a million smartphones all trying to capture the beauty of the pink petals of the sakura trees.

Tourists and residents alike are not alone in flocking to the cherry blossoms. Butterflies, bees and birds are also all flitting around amongst all that pink and immediately phones and cameras are then zoomed in trying to get an iconic shot of a mejiro posing amongst the flowers. Mejiro is the Japanese word for a tiny, extremely cute green bird called the Japanese white-eye (Zosterops japonicus). 

These tiny gorgeous birds are so fast and never stay still so a fast shutter speed is recommended. Nikon D600 300mm 2.8 F4 1/1600 iso640

To the naked eye they are very difficult to pick out amongst all the leaves and branches exacerbated by the fact they are constantly moving and they are fast, really fast. One can get lucky but generally smartphones are just not going to cut it when trying to get that shot to impress your friends especially if you want a cute little white-eye smiling back at you. A proper camera is needed, preferably a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, but a bridge cameras or a point and shoot with a decent zoom should also be fine.

With bird photography a lens at least 300mm long is usually considered the minimum requirement to get decent frame filling images. In the majority of cases and situations this is true however in the case of photographing birds and sakura one could get away with a little less, maybe even 100mm as the birds are so preoccupied with eating the nectar that they are not overly fussed by the presence of numerous photographers clicking away.

Now of course birds are skittish by nature so care needs to be taken with a slow unassuming approach still likely to get one closer to the target but the usual military stealth like approach bird photographers usually adopt is not always necessary here. Act like you are not interested in them and you will be surprised how close the more confiding birds will actually come.

The cluttered background is not ideal but the position of the birds head made this an appealing shot. Shot in awful light but technique definitely helped getting this picture. Nikon D600 Tamron 100-400 400mm 1/250 F6.3 iso 2000

For those of you new to bird photography, there are some constants that apply here as in most other other scenarios. Have the sun behind you or at the very least to the side. Yes, nice pictures can be made with the bird backlit but this is more difficult to achieve and usually take a lot more playing around with the settings to get the desired result.

Next put your camera into manual mode. Wait come back, this is not as intimidating as it might sound. Once in manual set the aperture to the largest setting the lens allows ( largest means the lowest number…so most consumer zooms will be about f5.6 or 6.3 )

A much simpler composition brings more attention to the bird. Olympus EM1 Mark II Panasonic Leica 100-400. 400mm 1/1250 F6.3 iso640

Now set the shutter speed to 1/2000 depending on light. If it’s a sunny you could push this up to 1/3200 depending on how high your aperture is and if it’s overcast you could go down to about 1/800. I wouldn’t go lower than this as you are going to need that speed to stop the motion of the birds as I said before they rarely slow down.

Finally you need to set the ISO. I usually go auto ISO but this also involves me constantly changing the exposure compensation which can be too much effort so for people trying this for the first time I would set my iso to about 1000 and leave it there ( again super sunny days will let you shoot at f6.3 1/2500 and about iso 640 if you are worried about noise )

Again don't love the slightly messy background but the composition of the bird and flowers is almost perfect. Olympus EM1 MarkII Pansonic Leica 100-400. 400mm 1/120 F6.3 iso640

So we have the settings sorted now we need to talk about composition. This is key. There are literally millions of pictures of Mejiros posing in a sea of pink, so I will share a few tips about how you can try to make your shots stand out.

First spend a few minutes watching the birds and getting used to their behaviour. An ability to predict which part of the tree there are going to be at next, gives one a little more time to make sure they are ready when the bird arrives. Just following the bird will result in many bum shots and composition is out of your hands. Watch which way the bird is maneuvering through the tree you have chosen and then before the bird arrives, find an area that is less cluttered which will enable you to get a clear shot when the bird gets there. As with all wildlife, the bird may change its trajectory and go somewhere else. Fine, there are usually in small flocks, choose a new bird and repeat the process. It’s a numbers game, you have to take a lot of shots to get just a few keepers, so make sure you have a lot of space on your memory card.

This little guy stopped for a millisecond so I zoomed in and got a close up. Cute aren't they? Olympus EM1 MarkII Pansonic Leica 100-400. 400mm 1/400 F6.3 iso 640

First time out, just getting a keeper with the bird nice and sharp might be the target. However once you have tried getting some shots it can be both frustrating and fun and there is every chance you might want to try again. The trees usually bloom for about a month so make the most of the time and go back a few times. On your second or third time start thinking about other ways to get that shot you really want. Think about whether you want a bird surrounded by pink, whether you want more than one bird in the frame and whether you want to have a clean background. Ninety percent of the shots I see online are looking up with the sky as the background. This can work but personally I’m not a huge fan of this type of shot. If the sky is really blue it can look O.K but an overcast sky doesn’t compliment the green in the bird or the pink in the flowers. 

Pictures which have the sky as a background can work but in most cases it can underexpose the bird. A nice blue sky will definitely help and one needs to play around with the settings or exposure compensation to get it right. Nikon D7200 300mm2.8 1/1250 F6.3 iso 400

If all the branches are above you, try to fill the frame with more flowers. It will help fill the empty space made by the sky it will also help the camera expose the bird properly because if there is a lot of bright sky the bird is going to be very underexposed. It’s tricky finding another type of background because like most trees the branches are usually above us but with a bit of planning it can be achieved and the results are often more pleasing. Look for lower branches or trees on a slope with you at eye level to the branches. Next pick an area of the tree where there is a nice green uncluttered background (usually at least several metres behind the tree) and wait for a bird to arrive in that area. It takes patience and you will miss other opportunities but the resulting images will be of higher quality.

There was a small area way in the distance that had these beautiful soft pastel colours. I crouched down, framed some petals in front of this background and just waited...eventually a bird did come. Got lucky with the slower shutter speed. A stiff back was worth it when the image I had imagined came to life. Olympus EM1 MarkII Panasonic Leica 100-400. 400mm 1/160 f6.3 iso640

My personal favourite shots are a single bird posing with a small amount of flowers and a clean background or a single bird almost entirely surrounded by flowers where the background isn’t really an issue. The benefit of the former option is that even before the trees are fully bloomed or as they are coming to an end you can find a single flower and concentrate on that in the knowledge that the birds are also thinking the same thing.

Another favourite type of shot is trying to surrounding the bird with all pink. Again this isn't easy as there often patchy areas as well as rogue twigs and branches but if everything comes together it creates a pleasing image. Nikon D600 300mm2.8 1/1250 F5.6 iso 640

Photographing any birds enjoying the cherry blossom trees is a really fun way to kill some time and come away with some shots one can be really proud of. Of course one can just rock up get out their camera or smartphone aim and shoot and get lucky. However most of the shots that I am really pleased with involved hours of practice, a bit of planning and following some tried and tested techniques. Why not get out and give it a go yourself, you might surprise yourself.

Comments (0)