Guide to Bird Photography

April 09, 2017  •  Leave a Comment


Guide to Bird Photography

Birds are amazing subjects to photograph when you can get close enough to capture the details, and how the birds interact with each other and their surroundings. You’ll enjoy spending the time outdoors finding that perfect moment in which a bird is completely oblivious to you, and goes about its natural business. There is nothing more fascination then capturing a bird in motion, then just a simple shot of a stationary bird perched on a branch. Bird photography poses many challenging obstacles with their fast movement, but if you are not careful you will only end up with blurry photographs. When you think of a defining characteristic of a bird; flight is usually the first that comes to mind. It can be incredibly rewarding to capture birds in motion, but can be extremely frustrating at the same time. There are many general tricks and techniques bird photographers need to capture those fantastic action shots. In this blog I will share a few tips I have learned over the last several year that have helped me capture sharp and crisp photographs. It is defiantly a skill that takes a lot of practice and patience. Trust me; I am still trying to “wing” it!

Learning Behavior: The best approach to starting out with bird photography is to familiarize yourself with your subject(s). Learning avian behavior and habitat can go a long way to ensure you have plenty of opportunities to photograph them. Then you know where you’re likely to find them and what they might do next. Since birds are often most active early in the morning or late in the afternoon, you might need to get up before sunrise to capture special photographs. Get out there early and perhaps use a blind or camouflage to discover what they’re eating, mating habits, care of their young, and flight habits. It might take a couple days of going out, just observing and taking mental notes to build up your knowledge in order to capture that outstanding photograph. 

Soaring EagleSoaring EagleLe Claire, IA
Lock and Dam 14
Following Movement:
Tracking the bird and keeping up with it in the view finder can be the trickiest. If you start with slower, bigger moving birds like heron and egrets to practice panning, and focusing techniques. One position may be preferable over another depending on the terrain and what species of bird (or group of birds) you’re trying to photograph. You can shoot from a position that is higher than your subject, lower, at eye level, or somewhere in between. When it comes to camera angle try to get more of a feeling of the bird's world and just get at their level. With flight shoots you want to be more eye level with it or in the case of birds in or landing on the water. Good situations for photographing birds in flight are open areas of water or open sky where you see birds coming from a distance and can get on them early with your auto focus, plus you will have a clear blue background. 

Lighting: Unlike studio or still life photography, when photographing birds you have to work with the light available to you and your subject. Early morning and late afternoon light is usually the best time for bird photography. The light during these times is soft. As a bonus, the birds are very active as well. You always want to make sure the sun is behind you. 

The Camera: Maintaining fast shutter speeds, especially for birds in flight and small birds that move very quickly is extremely important. In some cases, photographers like to shoot to  fully freeze the action. To achieve this, I typically set the shutter speed to a minimum of 1/800-1/2000. Having the lowest ISO will help decrease any noise in the photograph.  Set the camera on Aperture-Priority mode when the subject is either still or moving across backgrounds of similar values. An aperture of f/4 or f/5.6 will blow out the background for a stronger shot. I use Manual Mode when birds are in flight or if there is any wing motion. With this mode, I select the desired shutter speed and the desired f-stop, then make adjustments to each depending upon how much light I have to allow for a desired exposure. Since birds are always on the move shooting in AL Servio with maximum frame per second burst mode is ideal. Depending on the lens, it is best to set the image stabilizer set to Mode 2. Make sure the point of focus is on the eyes of the bird. When you look at the photograph of a bird, you will find yourself gravitating towards the eye, so if it is not sharp then it may not work. 

The SnatchThe SnatchLe Claire, IA Tripod or No tripod: Using a tripod will depend on what type of lens you are using. With heavier lenses, your arms will get tired quickly and will require a tripod. When it comes to flight shots, I often like to handhold and find I can keep up with the bird more easily. I normally like to shoot with Canon 100-400mm lens, which is light weight. If you are using a tripod using a Gimbal-type head is best. The freedom to move freely in all directions and pan comfortably will undoubtedly result in more keepers.

Framing: Avoid placing any subject in the exact center of a photograph. It tends to be more visually stimulating to see the bird off to one side, facing inward. Our own eyes naturally follow the same trajectory. Likewise, avoid placing the horizon line in the middle of a picture which cuts it in half and divides the image. It’s better to frame the horizon in the top or bottom third of your photograph. In the case of a flying bird, leave space in front of it, so it appears the bird has somewhere to go. 

Get Creative: Before you capture the scene in front of you, I encourage you to think creatively. Consider using reflections, lighting, depth of field, angles, background, and foreground as ways to help your image come to life. If there's a lot going on in the frame, isolate your subject in the shot to help maintain the focal point. When shooting during sunrise or sunset, try to capture silhouette shots as these can make for fantastic images. 

Sandhill SilhouetteSandhill SilhouettePlatte River, NE Now that you have your equipment set up, you need to find birds to photograph. I recommend starting with the most common birds such as finches, sparrows and robins that are used to people and do not mind cooperating with and posing for photographers. Try to develop some skills and techniques by photographing them sitting on branches, eating, and sleeping. Using camouflage for shy birds, as well as getting up early, will put you in a position to get the best shots. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always mean that you will get a great photo. Birds are notorious for not doing what you want them to do, and are easily spooked. Time spent in the field, for those who enjoy it, is always rewarding. Review your images after the photo shoot and see what you don’t like about your pictures. Whether you have a sharpness problem or focus issues, the best way to improve your bird photography is to practice more. Remember practice, practice, practice and have some fun!












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