Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The street photographer's guide to shooting domestic poultry

Photographing domestic chickens can be one of life's most rewarding experiences. There's nothing quite like that feeling when you've captured a group of chickens in a candid moment. You know you've got something which no one else has, which will never be repeated. It's a beautiful thing. Given the rewards and relatively low entry barrier it's no surprise that backyard chicken photography is currently enjoying a resurgence of interest. But until now there's been very little written in the way of guidance or advice (Google  "street shooting chicken primer" to see how little is out there). 

What follows is a short primer on shooting poultry. It's aimed mainly at street photographers since they have so far comprised the bulk of backyard shooters. But I think it will be helpful for chicken photographers of all stripes and persuasions.

One of the most common mistakes among beginning chicken photographers is that they don't blend in properly. Chickens will notice someone who doesn't belong. We all know that blank sideways chicken stare. That gaze can sometimes add visual interest, but more often it will ruin a good candid by acknowledging the photographer in the photo. Most of the time it's better to be invisible, a fly on the wall (but not an edible fly). This doesn't necessarily mean you need to dress like a chicken, although that is of course an option. But fancy clothes such as suit and tie should be avoided. One should dress in casual clothing. I like to wear hip waders and rainboots to protect against mud and pecking. And I wear a KFC hat for good luck, but of course everyone have their own unique apparel. 
A chicken shooter outfitted and ready for action. Skates optional.
Photo by Lori Van Buren / Times Union

Whatever outfit you choose, you've got to act like you're comfortable. Chickens can sense if you're chicken. And that fear will be reflected in your photos, either through camera shake or sloppy composition or any number of ways. The general idea is to get the chickens to accept you. Throw some scrap food out and entice them to gather around. Don't move too quickly. Slowly enter their circle. Get down on your belly if you have to. Don't be afraid to see eye to eye with the chickens. 

Some photographers don't even bring their camera the first few times. They hang out with the chickens and become accepted, and only after the chickens have become comfortable over several sessions do they break out the camera. 

You can often tell when a photographer hasn't taken the time to acclimate with their chickens because their shots will show chickens running away and/or chickens generally shot from behind. I'm not saying such a photo can't work but for me those shots tend to blend together into monotony. To make a chicken butt stand out photographically from the sea of chicken butts out there is a very difficult task. Instead I think photographers should acclimate, then aim for the front. We all know where the money shot is. It's in the beak and the comb, and sometimes the feet.
I was able to shoot this only after spending 3 hours with my chickens.
Leica M6, 1/60th at f8, Tri-X processed D-76 1:1, printed on Agfa Magnivox hen fiber

I'm often asked, what's the best camera to shoot chickens with? Contrary to common opinion it's not necessary to use a big fancy camera or lots of equipment. In fact chickens will probably notice a big camera more easily. Small handheld devices are probably preferable because they allow one to mingle chest to chest with the chickens. I use a few cameras. For close up work I use my Leica M6. Generally if I'm in the coop or grabbing eggs or anywhere within about 8 feet of a chicken I'll use that. It's small, unobtrusive, and peck resistant. I generally zone focus at around 2 meters and shoot at least 1/250th of a second. Remember, chickens are fast. You've got to be there to catch the moment. You want to grab that expression before it fades.

For distant shots including action photos of chickens trying to fly or chickens reacting to the dog I'll use a DSLR with 200 mm zoom. And for the occasional chicken portrait I carry a Rollei twin-lens in my bag. I don't use this one often, but for those moments when you and the chicken are right there together sharing a moment, it's a great camera to have. Sometimes if I'm in a quirky mood I'll bust out the Fuji 210 Instax. But basically any camera will work so long as it's mudproof and peckproof.
Candid hen through mesh, shot with Fuji Instax

Using flash with chickens can be a delicate dance. A large bright light will usually send them squawking and scampering away. So it's a tool you need to time carefully. It can lead to great shots but once you flash them the moment is destroyed. That's all I'll say on flashing chickens.

Belly shot, chickens scampering, slow-synch flash, 1/30th at f11

Getting good chicken photos is partly a matter of chance. But of course chance favors the prepared mind. Before shooting, one should stake out the chicken pen to find where good photos are likely to happen. Usually a good place to find chickens is by the water jar. My chicken coop has a great corner on the SW edge which reflects light perfectly. Not every pen will have such a great spot but most pens have one or two places that just feel right. You'll know them when you find them. 

I call my corner No-Flash corner. I love to hang out here in the afternoon and just wait for the right crowd of chickens to saunter by. If you wait long enough that special chicken is almost guaranteed to cross the road, never mind why. Some of my best shots have been taken there. When I show these to people they often wonder how I was there, how I caught that chicken at such a perfect moment, because these chicken shots can look like they dropped out of the sky. Not true. A lot of the magic is in the preparation.
from The Fairest Fowl: Portraits of Chickens byTamara Staples

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the fear of chickens watching you. It's hard for beginners to approach and shoot a chicken they don't know. Believe me, we've all been there. The best way to get past this is just to ignore them. Shoot like you're the only person in the pen, which is probably the case anyway. I know it can be difficult but just put the chicken thoughts out of your mind. Don't worry what they're thinking. Shoot first, ask questions later.

Should you shoot chickens while they're laying? In some respects it's like shooting fish in a barrel. The chicken just sits there in the nesting box, often with a somber dazed look. Imagine if you were evacuating a wine barrel through your bowels and you'll get a sense of what they're going through. Personally I tend to avoid these shots. It seems too invasive, plus I've found these scenes are not very dynamic. Sure you might get a good portrait. But more often you won't really capture the chicken. You'll get a photo of "chicken laying an egg" but you won't really penetrate behind that somber gaze to show the essence of that chicken. At least that's been my experience.

Photographing baby chicks is a special case. They can be very cute, and they often flock to a camera, especially if it's near food. But you've got to be careful, first of stepping on too many of them, and second of the reaction of nearby chickens. If a mother hen notices you photographing her chick, it's only natural for her to wonder what you're doing. Are you a chick pedophile? An avid avian photographer? Or are you someone to watch out for, perhaps someone who just had chicken salad for lunch? She might not know that you're just another innocent shutterbug who happens to be crazy about chickens. So shoot baby chicks if you must, just be wary. Go into these situations with all senses tuned in.
A baby chick not yet trampled underfoot, Wikimedia Commons

Even when shooting adult poultry, especially roosters, you'll sometimes encounter an aggressive chicken who doesn't like being photographed. They may ask you what you're doing. They may request that you delete the photo. In these cases it's important to defuse the situation. Be agreeable. Walk away. It's not worth getting in a fight over any photo, especially with a chicken.

You never know how any chicken will react, and I think it's this unpredictability which gives chicken photography some of its kick. There's a delicious tension when you approach a chicken for a photo. In some ways it's like a big game of chicken. Who will veer away first? Who will run? Who will stand their ground? If the photographer can convey some of that ambiguity in the photo the results can be quite special. 

That concludes my short primer, but this is just a beginning. Depending on interest I may write a post covering intermediate and advanced techniques at some point in the future. For now I hope you've learned something. Go out and put this guide to use. Have fun shooting. I am always open to looking at chicken photos, so feel free to send them my way if you capture something special. 


Anonymous said...

Found on flickr:

foolio said...

Absolutely brilliant... Will never read another 'primer' the same way again... Good cluck!

Blake Andrews said...

I'm glad that at least one person likes this post. To be honest I'm not really sure what it's about or who might respond to it. All I know is that this was a subject which I hadn't seen addressed before, and that B hadn't gotten really weird in a while. So it was a case of two birds, one stone. Or maybe two stones in the bush, one egg in hand. Or whatever.

Spot said...

Wish I would have read this when I had ducks.

Joe said...

Still photography may not be the optimal tool for capturing the magic of chickens:

Joe said...

Maybe the Tumblr version is more relevant to your proposed series:

Imagestreet said...

Always an entertaining read, but with 'Ridiculous Nesuptilno' and now Hard Core Fowl Photography you are bordering on genius! More weird please...

Unknown said...

Interesting read! One more tip - always be the only cock in the henhouse.

booka said...

A timely post on fred miranda, Poultry portraiture.

Not so sure the sarcasm is quite as strong as in your article, thanks for the laughs.

Unknown said...

I forwarded a link to this entry to a friend and photographer, Mike Bourassa. Here's his reply:

This is a great primer for the chicken novice. Though most of my current work focuses on photo curating selected images of chickens taken from Google's street view, I did pick up a few good tips if I ever get back to "The Field" so to say.