How to Improve Your Field Craft

Master the equipment

Prothonotary Warbler. Photo courtesy of Mike McDowell.

This is pretty straightforward. If you don't know how to under-ride an exposure, change the ISO setting and aperture, and change the image resolution setting, you're going to have a tough time in the field. It was the dead of winter when I first got my digiscoping equipment, and the best subjects to practice on were backyard birds. There were cardinals, chickadees, and juncos that made excellent subjects. Heck, I even practiced on House Sparrows. What does it matter, right?

What you're doing is practicing at this point. When you practice enough to nail down how the equipment responds, you will reduce unwelcomed miscues in the field. In a moment of excitement, like when a Prothonotary Warbler perches in front of you in excellent light (hey, it can happen!), one can forget to check a particular setting. But it's the repeated discipline of practicing with the equipment that will make your actions in the field quick, fluid, and successful.

Time and dedication

This is a huge part of successful digiscoping. Without time and dedication, you're very likely to struggle the few times you're in an opportunity to photograph a candidate bird. Repeated attempts earns the experience, and with the experience comes the familiarity of the process. Once you've felt the pattern of success enough times, you begin to recognize it in the field and can settle into that groove. You'll get to the level and be able to sense a successful digiscoping session before it happens.

Patience and persistence

Related to time and dedication, reviewing your work and trying to correlate it to the overall progress of your technique is important when trying to recognize what went wrong.

  • Why was there a failure to capture a good image?
  • What can you improve upon?
  • Are you actually prepared to repeat these exercises to the point that is required to be successful?

You have to concede you will have hundreds of missed opportunities. Learn to accept the ones that get away and always recognize, through inspiration of the work of others, what is possible to achieve. You can do it too, it's just a matter of persistence. A little discouragement after a failed session can sometimes serve to inspire your next outing. Try not to confuse this type of failure with true motivation.

Location assessment and appreciation

Location is extremely important. I think many people fail at this particular field skill—recognizing where it works and where it won't. Of course, the really great photographers can often take away something creative from the most challenging locations!

Choose your battles wisely!

Quite simply, some places are good for photography and some aren't. You may know where to find birds—but that doesn't mean it's a good spot to take pictures just because birds are there. Picnic Point on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus is often the scene of very interesting reports and warbler fallouts. It's nearby, but do I take pictures there? No. It's too busy with walkers, hikers, dogs, and bicyclists. Plus, the mood isn't right because birds are often perched high in trees and the lighting is generally poor. However, a location like Nine Springs E-Way,with dikes surrounding the settling ponds, offers the photographer complete 360-degree access around great water habitat.

Article and Prothonotary Warbler photo contributed by Mike McDowell, an avid digiscoper, amateur naturalist, and Eagle Optics employee. Visit Mike's Birding and Digiscoping Blog.