Lockdown Life: Steve’s Sunbird Project

Lockdown Sunbirds in Kalk Bay, Cape Town

Bringing nature into the home through the lens of photographer Steven Benjamin

Renowned for his captivating underwater imagery of South Africa’s marine animals, wildlife enthusiast Steven Benjamin has had to pivot his focus to his Kalk Bay garden during lockdown, where he has been taking incredible shots of Cape Town’s resident birdlife. Located near the iconic Table Mountain, Steve has embraced the challenge of photographing these feathered beauties as a way to bring joy during these uncertain times, and he’s had some incredible results.

Steve holding his camera, standing next to the bird feeder

Steve at home on his balcony, where he has been capturing these incredible images

What is your background?

I’m a wildlife enthusiast with a background in Zoology, and have worked as an underwater photographer focusing on sharks, whales and dolphins for many years. During the lockdown I’ve been focusing on the birds in my garden and the surrounding suburban gardens.

Have you always enjoyed bird watching?

From the age of 5 or 6 I was interested in birds. I was dyslexic as a young child – I still have my first bird book where I ‘ticked’ backwards! I was trying to identify the birds that flew into my pre-school class and begged my mom to let me mark off what I’d seen, so birding has always been a passion.

Birding trains me to observe nature’s sounds and pay attention to the smaller things. Birds are all around us doing something in huge diversity. All you have to do is stop, look and listen and they tell you who they are and what they are doing – whether it’s marking a territory, nesting or feeding… they are always busy. They are so beautiful, but also incredibly difficult to photograph because they are shy and extremely fast. Photographing birds is a challenge but it creates a mental space to observe and admire nature.

Malachite sunbird and orange breasted sunbird on a branch facing each other

A Malachite faces off an Orange-breasted sunbird

What made you start photographing birds in your garden?

I’ve always wanted to try photographing birds but just never had the time. We have always had a bird feeder but never filled it regularly, so when we started the lockdown I put white sugar in the feeder every morning and enjoyed seeing the local bird community visiting us. I took a few GoPro video clips and posted on Instagram which garnered quite a bit of attention.

Orange-breasted sunbird perched atop a Protea

Orange-breasted sunbird perched atop a Protea

Could you explain your unique bird imagery?

I started thinking more about how to create a setting where I could capture simple yet interesting images that highlight the bird’s beauty. I also wanted to use this project as a way to be creative and escape the confines of the lockdown by enjoying the freedom of the birds. Sharing this on social media helped inspire others and prompted me to keep adding to the project – bringing digital joy to those watching. By isolating the birds against a black background with crystal-clear focus, I’m able to show these birds in a new way.

A series of 5 sunbird images

A sample of the sunbirds that have visited Steve’s garden to feed

How did you take these images?

I placed the feeder outside in a sunny spot with a shadowy background and started photographing. I use high shutter speeds, over 1/2000 of a second to freeze the birds, which also makes the background dark. I used lights mounted separately to backlight the birds and bring out the details in the bill and fine feathers. I changed the perch a few times to add interesting colour to the images. This is a studio setting for wild birds that are free to come and go as they please.

A sunbird sits atop the feeder in front of a strelitzia flower

Time to get creative with lighting!

Steve points the camera through the window at the bird feeder

Using his home as a bird hide Steve photographs the endemic birds that visit the feeder

Would you have created these images if not for lockdown?

No. The lockdown has made me relax and take the time to do things I would never have gotten around to doing. I archived all my past wildlife images, worked on a book, did all the gardening possible and brushed my dog a lot! Finally, I settled on this project which I work on every day. I’m always adding something new to the scene and there are always new birds and interactions happening. It’s made the days fly by!

What have been the highlights and challenges of this project?

During lockdown, there has been only one male Cape Sugar Bird with a full tail that has landed. This spectacular bird is endemic to the fynbos of South Africa and mostly only found in the Western Cape. I was lucky to get some incredible shots of the bird and its fully-extended tail glinting in the sunshine.

I haven’t been able to get any good shots of a male Malachite Sunbird in full plumage yet. There are a few females and immature birds that visit, but none in full plumage.

A young Malachite sunbird lands on a wild dagga plant

An immature male Malachite sunbird, with a splattering of its adult plumage, lands on a wild dagga plant

What are your plans for this project?

I’m working toward an exhibition in Cape Town after all of the restrictions are lifted. In the meantime the prints are available for purchase.

For more information about Steven Benjamin’s work or to find out more about the images available for sale, contact Steven at stevenbenjamin1@gmail.com, on Instagram @animal_ocean, or visit www.stevenbenjamin.co.za. Wallpapers for phone and desktop use can be purchased directly here.

A series of 5 sunbird portraits

Sunbird Wallpapers available for purchase