Photographing birds is one of the most challenging things for a novice photographer. See this article for some helpful advice and a successful start.
Birds have always been a favorite subject of wildlife and nature photographers as well as hobbyists. They can also be one of the most frustrating during your early attempts to capture them in photos. In this article, we’ll offer some assistance as we discuss the basic tools and techniques for avian photography.
Where to Start
One of the most awesome things about photographing birds is that you generally don’t have to go far to find them. You can probably start in your own backyard. If there’s a park nearby with a duck pond, that’s a wonderful place to find them. The zoo is also a great place to practice. From the swamplands to the desert, our feathered friends can be found almost anywhere.
What to Start With
Here’s where a lot of novices are under a misconception. You don’t need a full-frame camera or a 50lb, 600mm lens to capture great bird images. In fact, consider this: The effective focal length of a lens is greater on a crop-sensor camera. For instance, your 75-300mm kit lens on an APS-C camera will give you the approximate field of view of a 450mm lens at maximum zoom. That’s more than enough.
You can also get great results with shorter lenses. Technique is more important than what you’re shooting with. Good image processing software is actually a better investment than expensive gear in the beginning.
Chances are you’re going to want to fill the frame with your subjects most of the time. You have two basic options: hide or stalk.
Blinds: Concealment takes some planning. Bird sanctuaries, State and National Parks and other facilities often have public blinds that you may use. There will be competition for those, especially during migration seasons, so you’ll need to show up early. You may also have to share the space.
Portable blinds can be a good strategy as long as you’re careful about where you use them. Inquire about restrictions before you set one up. Remember, too, that anything new will make your subjects shy for a while.
Stalking: Unless you have a lot of time to wait for your subjects, this is probably the better option for getting close. Birds have excellent eyesight as well as hearing, so it can be challenging. Here are a few tips:
- Dress in colors that match the environment
- Mask anything that’s reflective, including your camera lens.
- Move slowly and pause often.
- Take advantage of natural cover.
- Watch your subjects. If they’re feeding or otherwise going about their business, you’re probably doing ok. When they stop, you stop.
As you can see, both of these methods require patience. Getting those images is the reward.
Taking the Shot
Okay, let’s talk about actually capturing the photos. That’s why you’re here, right?
Speed: Things happen quickly in bird photography. Your subjects are fast movers. Lighting conditions can change often and rapidly. The best photos are captured with a mix of skills and help from the features of your camera.
- Auto ISO with maximum ISO and minimum shutter speed settings can be helpful.
- Learn the acceptable noise threshold for your camera. ISO settings in the 400 to 800 range are a good place to start.
- Use one of your camera’s semi-auto exposure modes. Most experienced bird photographers prefer Aperture Priority (Av or A) mode to allow depth of field control.
- Auto White Balance isn’t a bad choice for this genre. You can always adjust color temperatures in processing.
- Focus tracking or servo mode can help keep moving subjects sharp.
Focusing: For relatively still subjects, focusing manually will help you be sure of your setting. When using autofocus, the best choice is often to set your camera to use a single focusing point center that on your subject. Focus on the eyes if possible.
Exposure: There are many different opinions on the best exposure techniques. Most birders agree, however, that Evaluative or Partial Metering modes are the better choices.
Learning to use the histogram is another skill that professionals agree on. When you’ve mastered that, you can learn to “expose to the right”, meaning to adjust your exposure to push the peaks of your histogram slightly toward the highlights. This creates good overall tonal range without excessive noise in the shadow areas.
Composition: While you’re busy concentrating on your subjects, remember that there’s more to the image. Pay attention to the elements in the frame and the frame itself. Be aware of background clutter and know how to avoid it. Use good composition techniques to help isolate and highlight what you want your viewers to see.
Capture the Story
As in almost all types of photography, your bird pictures should to more than just record a scene. Try to show your viewers something about the moment. Is it about the peace of the environment? Are you capturing a touching parent/child moment? Is it about the thrill of flight? Try to make each shot tell a story.
More to Come
There’s much more to learn about bird photography than we have room for in this article. Starting with these basic tips should get you on your way to capturing better avian photos. We’ll be bringing you more advanced lessons like capturing birds in flight and processing your shots in future posts. Meanwhile, there’s no substitute for practice. Grab your gear and get out there!