Photographing one of the most colourful birds in Southern Ontario can be challenging if one is not prepared. Fortunately I am going to give away my secrets so you too can photograph the Northern Cardinal, Male or Female.
First off, you must know what the bird in question looks like, or else how are you going to know when you spot it. My ‘go to’ publication Birding book is Lone Pine Publishing’s ‘Birds of Canada’, not only because of the scientific description but due to the colour photographs of all the bird species they list. You can find the book at any of your local book stores. (I am a proud contributing photographer for this book)
Understanding the environment and feeding habits of your bird of interest is the next step in achieving success. If you know what ‘your’ bird eats and where it likes to live, your next step is to find what locations in your city would suit the habits of the birds in question.
Once I determined Cardinals can pretty well be found in any backyard, or park, my options were open and I chose ‘High Park’, one of Toronto’s best parks for birding, to continue my adventure. A simple check of camera gear will prepare you for any unique shooting situations that can arise once you encounter the Northern Cardinal. I use my trusted Olympus E3 and my dependable 70-300mm telephoto. You want to be able to have options regarding physical closeness to your bird, so closer is better. However, you want the option of a telephoto lens, as a scared bird is a gone bird.
If you are as serious as I am about bird photography, you may even want to investigate what time of year the birds you chose to photograph look their best. It definitely makes a difference. In the winter time the Reds of the Cardinal stand out against the white of the snow. As well, no leaves on the trees in winter mean a well-spotted Cardinal will look beautiful in its natural habitat. Avoid the bird feeder shots – they are too easy. It is much more sporting and satisfactory to trace the bird to its natural environment and capture it in its glory – but that’s just me.
Ok, so we have our gear – the Olympus E3 with 70-300mm telephoto. We have our location – Toronto’s High Park – and we have our time of year. Lets call it Winter time. We are dressed for the weather, of course, as we begin our walk scouting out locations for our bird. You can, by chance, see a Cardinal fly by but that is not what we are looking for. The ideal is to locate where the Cardinals feed, then observe. There are usually multiple Cardinals at the scene feeding and, yes, humans tend to leave bird seed for our little Red friends.
So we look, and listen, for that high pitched chirping sound. We observe, and then we spot the Cardinal. We can easily recognize the bird because we have verified its colour and shape in our birding id book. We also know what the female looks like. It is always amazing to capture photographs of males and females of the species as you will see in the 3 photos that accompany this article.
The last thing on our checklist is the most important because, if you forget this point, there will be no glorious images of your beautiful Northern Cardinal. Once we see the Cardinal sitting on a tree branch let’s check our lighting. In Nature Photography I never use a flash and would strongly recommend you do not either since it ruins the natural colour and feel of an image.
Instead, we want to know where the sun is at all times. Position yourself with the sun’s light behind your back with your subject sitting in front of you. Once you do that there is the matter of composition – branches flowing, the bird sitting or turning. If you do it right you will have the sun highlight your subject and illuminate that beautiful red plumage perfectly. Do not be afraid to move yourself around your subject once you spot it. If it is on a branch and your movement is stealthy enough you can shoot from many angles, always keeping the sun behind your back.
Well enough talk! You have followed me this far on my little quest. I hope you enjoy the accompanying photographs. Keep in mind the process discussed above works for any bird or animal you want to photograph.
To recap, start by identifying what you want to photograph, research it, confirm what it looks like, its eating habits, habitat and then do a search in your city for a matching habitat. Prepare for the time of year weather wise and load camera gear specific to the types of photographs you wish to capture.
All Images Are © Colin Marcano
Colin Marcano Photographer Bio
Colin Marcano has been a Photographer for the past 7 years, primarily Nature and B&W Street Photography. For the last 4 years there has been more of a focus on the B&W Street Photography.
Colin’s work has been published in one Birds of Canada book. His street photography is featured in Black and White Street Group, 2013 edition.
You can also find Colin’s Nature work in permanent sign form in High Park, Toronto, as he is an ongoing Nature Photography Contributor to HighParkNature.org.
Blog / Website: ColinMarcano.com