How to elevate your bird photography – Rachel Bigsby’s guide

Rachel BigsbyNature & Wildlife28 Jun 20248 min read
Image assets by Rachel Bigsby for Nikon magazine, using the NIKKOR Z 600mm f/6.3

Wildlife photographer Rachel Bigsby on making the most of the weather, exposure settings and putting the NIKKOR Z 600mm f/6.3 VR S through its paces

A National Geographic photographer, ‘Natural Artistry’ winner in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and Bird Photographer of the Year portfolio winner, Rachel Bigsby’s accolades are sky high. And while the Nikon Creator is often travelling to South Africa or Antarctica, it is Britain that has captured her heart. “My photography style is centred on the natural artistry and unseen details in overlooked species found around the British Isles,” she explains. In between her own workshops and those with Nikon School, not to mention filming for Sky, we tasked her to create stunning seabird images with the new NIKKOR Z 600mm f/6.3 VR S with her Z 9. Here, she reports back her findings.


Scout your location prior

Understanding your location and types of species available to photograph is crucial. “It was my fourth trip to Lunga island, so I knew what different creative opportunities the island offers,” Rachel explains. The key is to remain flexible: “When we arrived, a lot of what I wanted to photograph was out of bounds because of cliff falls. Plus, it was pure sunshine, hot with clear blue skies, which is out of my comfort zone – I prefer cloudy and overcast. I had to switch up the angles and opportunities.”


Top tip: If you don’t have access to the location prior to your photoshoot, read up on it through books or online, and use Google Earth to preview it. If travelling to the Isle of Mull, you can watch Nikon School’s guide to exploring the island here.

Headshot Nikon Creator Rachel Bigsby
Rachel Bigsby

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What’s in my kitbag?
Image assets by Rachel Bigsby for Nikon magazine, using the NIKKOR Z 600mm f/6.3
Atlantic puffin. 600mm, 1/2000 sec, f/6.3, ISO 900, Exposure 0 ©Rachel Bigsby
Compose with awareness of your surroundings

“Give the subject space in the frame,” Rachel advises. In the photograph above, the puffin is looking out to the right, so the Nikon Creator positioned herself to the left. “It doesn’t look too restricted,” she says. “I was also battling the grass in the foreground. You can see some grass blades in front of the puffin, but they’re not in front of the face. If the grass was in front of the beak or the eye, I wouldn’t have picked the image. Always compose with an awareness of what’s going to be in front of your subject and make sure that crucial elements like the face, the eye or any details aren’t distracted.” Pin-sharp autofocus in this image allows the viewer to focus on the puffin’s denticles – used to hold multiple sand eels.


Top tip: Let the natural environment add to your composition. “The black in the corner is a cliff in shadow and I included some of it to really showcase the bokeh circles,” Rachel says. “I thought about cropping out at one point, but then it’s just too close of a crop for the puffin!”


Experiment with bokeh circles

On that first day in the last half an hour, Rachel sat down with nine puffins on a plateau to capture the shot with the bokeh above. “I was feeling a little loss of inspiration because I expected so many more puffins and I was messing around with the camera handheld when this puffin came out of its burrow,” she says. “The grass was wet from the rain and then there was bright sunshine. The bokeh is beautiful, especially as it was taken with a f/6.3 aperture. I absolutely reconsidered the potential of the NIKKOR Z 600mm f/6.3 VR S in that moment.”


Work with the weather: experiment with high key in flat light

Rachel’s photography has evolved by making the best of bad weather. She’s now well known for capturing in high key – a technique that involves taking bright, overexposed photos (such as below) – which all started while photographing on a foggy island. “At the time, I felt like the best photography had to be in golden light during beautiful sunsets and that’s when I started to explore what I could do with my camera,” she says.


“In the photograph below, it became overcast, so I had very flat, soft light, which is ideal for high-key photography. Never overexpose so far that you blow out the white chest and underwings of the puffins – it’s about finding the balance between the two,” Rachel advises. “Photographers often ask me why their high-key image isn’t working, but they’ve tried it when the sun is out or on grass and it doesn’t really work then. Here, I located the puffin with the sea and sky behind it in order for the technique to work.”

Image assets by Rachel Bigsby for Nikon magazine, using the NIKKOR Z 600mm f/6.3
Atlantic puffin. 600mm, 1/2500 sec, f/6.3, ISO 2800, Exposure 2.3 ©Rachel Bigsby
Underexpose in harsh sunlight

“When the sun came out, I had to go the opposite way and underexposed for a low-key effect. The most effective way to underexpose is to locate a subject either being backlit or against a shadowed area. I love the contouring of the face and the chubby cheeks of the puffin (below), its head nestled under the wings with the light giving nice details on the wing. There was enough of the shadowed cliff behind to make this work and I underexposed by -2 in order for the background to really look black,” Rachel explains. “I see a lot of photographers underexposing in post-production, but you end up with a line around your subject. This absolutely must be done in camera.”


Top tip: Stay patient and remain adaptable. “This was a four- or five-hour window where I was adapting my style and approach depending on the weather,” explains Rachel.

Image assets by Rachel Bigsby for Nikon magazine, using the NIKKOR Z 600mm f/6.3
Atlantic puffin. 600mm, 1/2500 sec, f/6.3, ISO 1100, Exposure -1 ©Rachel Bigsby
Experiment with black and white for added texture

“This lovely European shag landed on the clifftop and it was one of those fleeting moments. I often photograph the shag’s detailed feathers and plumage, but in this photograph (below left) that wasn’t entirely possible because it landed in the grass, so I had to go for a tighter crop,” Rachel says. “Here, I went for an overexposed style, which works really well when you’re photographing birds’ plumage as it draws shadows out a bit more and gives you the texture. Again, the same rules apply as with the puffin: negative space in the framing with the sharpness focusing on that iconic green plumage and the eye.


“With the portrait (below right), this was taken as a horizontal image and I cropped it because there were so many shags on the rock not looking my way so it was messier. In post, I was just looking for the option that worked the best and hadn’t really considered a vertical crop at all, but then these three shags lined up perfectly. As this was quite a monochrome image anyway – with a few yellows and oranges coming through – I made it completely black and white. I wanted gritty texture with the rock and guano and the silhouette of the birds.”

Image assets by Rachel Bigsby for Nikon magazine, using the NIKKOR Z 600mm f/6.3
Image assets by Rachel Bigsby for Nikon magazine, using the NIKKOR Z 600mm f/6.3
Left/above: European shag. 600mm, 1/2500 sec, f/6.3, ISO 4000, Exposure 4 ©Rachel Bigsby. Right/below: European shag. 600mm, 1/5000 sec, f/6.3, ISO 4000, Exposure 2 ©Rachel Bigsby
Set your shutter speed above 1/3200 sec for birds in flight

“For this image (below), I was testing out the NIKKOR Z 600mm f/6.3 on the boat approaching the island and I sat waiting for a bird to fly in front of the beautiful bokeh from this lens. For birds in flight, I would never go below 1/3200 sec for shutter speed. It provides a safety buffer to compensate for your own movement, whether you’re on a boat or photographing handheld, and it freezes the frame of fast-moving birds. I even push it higher if the light allows, especially for puffins, who flap their wings at 400 beats a minute.


“I’m quite sensitive about my ISO, even if I don’t need to be with my Nikon Z 9, and have it capped at 4000. It was really nice to photograph the razorbill when the light was harsh, and I had enough light in my lens (even at f/6.3) to be able to have these high shutter speeds without having to push my ISO to silly levels. I loved that with the NIKKOR Z 600mm f/6.3 VR S I didn't have to sacrifice on shutter speed just because of the larger aperture of the lens.”

Image assets by Rachel Bigsby for Nikon magazine, using the NIKKOR Z 600mm f/6.3
Razorbill. 600mm, 1/4000 sec, f/6.3, ISO 560, Exposure 1 ©Rachel Bigsby
The NIKKOR Z 600mm f/6.3 VR S in review


How did the NIKKOR Z 600mm f/6.3 VR S perform?

“The NIKKOR Z 600mm f/6.3 VR S is a real gamechanger. First and foremost, I’ve used the NIKKOR Z 600mm f/4 TC VR S from Antarctica to all over the British Isles and I love it but, with a weight of 3,260g, it’s sometimes too heavy, especially when I’m taking four flights and I’m on tiny boats, so this year I knew I wanted something more practical. With the NIKKOR Z 600mm f/6.3 VR S, I’m still getting the 600mm focal length to focus on intricate detail up close without disturbing the wildlife and it’s a much lighter lens at 1,470g. It’s become an instant part of my kit and even though the NIKKOR Z 600mm f/4 TC VR S is an outstanding lens in so many aspects, the NIKKOR Z 600mm f/6.3 VR S is my choice when space and weight limits apply.”


Did anything surprise you?

“I was surprised to get such good bokeh with the f/6.3 aperture. On the trip, I aimed for more creative images, and I didn’t think I was going to get such beautiful bokeh at f/6.3, especially compared to the f/2.8 or the f/4, but it was really nice.


Did anything take a little while to get use to?

“Minimum focus distance is different to the NIKKOR Z 600mm f/4 TC VR S, so you have to stand a little further back than the f/4 and work it out. It just took lifting it up and focusing and moving for a few seconds, then it all came together perfectly.”


Minimum focus distance


What’s the best way to make the most out of this lens?

“Taking birds-in-flight photographs and making use of high shutter speeds, especially for seabirds, which are super-fast in flight! The speed of the focus was perfect, and I didn’t notice any difference compared to the NIKKOR Z 600mm f/4 TC VR S.”


What’s in your full kitbag?

“The Nikon Z 9 is my exclusive body. I have the NIKKOR Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S, NIKKOR Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S, NIKKOR Z 700-200mm f/2.8 VR S, NIKKOR Z 600mm f/4 TC VR S and NIKKOR Z 600mm f/6.3 VR S, and I have loved experimenting with the NIKKOR Z 135mm f/1.8 S Plena recently.”

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