“The Juggler” – Southern Carmine Bee-eater – Canon EOS 5D Mark III 500mm 1/1000 at f/10 ISO 1600
Bird photography is one of the most popular forms of photography amongst both beginners and seasoned professionals alike. I am convinced that anyone that has ever owned a camera has at one point taken a shot of a bird.
Birds, in general, have always fascinated us with their colourful plumage, melodious song, and their ability to exploit “space” with flight. I say in “general” because none of what I have just described is a fair description of neither the ostrich nor kiwi, but I am sure you know what I mean.
For me, birds have always symbolised freedom. The ability to just fly away. More often than not for no other reason than just because they can. I challenge anyone who would argue that an eagle soaring effortlessly high in the sky is not having a “whale-of-a-time.”
Yes, I know, from a scientific point of view it is the most energy-efficient way to cover the most ground in search of food. An evolutionary trait that has ensured the eagles’ survival over millennia, but who says it can’t have fun at the same time?
But, I digress…….
There is a reason why bird photography is so popular. Birds are everywhere. We usually don’t have to travel to exotic locations to photograph a bird. As a result of this, birds are ideal subjects to photograph.
Photographing a bird is easy, but getting a good photograph of a bird takes a little more practice. There are a few principles, or concepts, which are essential to ensure your success in bird photography.
The following tips are there to help you improve your skills in becoming the successful bird photographer you’ve always wanted to be.
Tip # 1 – Begin in your backyard
Ever heard of learning to walk before you can run? The temptation to head off to exotic locations to photograph a “lifer” is all too tempting. If you’re a seasoned photographer, then, by all means, head off into the sunset. If on the other hand, you are just getting started or toying with the idea of bird photography then I would suggest a more conservative approach. Improve your skills as a photographer before you spend your hard-earned loot traveling, only to return with a memory card full of disappointments. If you live in an apartment and don’t have a garden, that’s ok. Head off to your local park or botanical garden. Public parks and gardens are usually a good place to start as birds are used to us and don’t “spook” as easily. Take this opportunity to learn their behaviour and pay close attention to their antics. You’ll be surprised at how many birds suffer from OCD. They often return to the same perch, fly along the same flight path time after time. etc
Take this opportunity to practice your skills. Become familiar with your gear. Practice your compositional skills. You can do all this in your backyard without breaking the bank.
Tip # 2 – Get up early
You’ve heard of “the early bird catches the worm.” Not a coincidence! Birds are most active in the early morning and late afternoon. Great news for us photographers because as it so happens, these are the best times to be out there taking photographs. We’ve got both soft golden light, and our subjects are active. Sorry, but I can’t resist, it’s like “killing two birds with one stone.”
Tip # 3 – Create a wildlife/bird friendly environment
If you are lucky enough to have a garden, then you can entice birds to come and visit. Installing a birdbath, or feeder, in the garden will act as a magnet for birds in the area. Birds are quick to exploit a new “free” food source. After a while, they may even become quite “tame” providing great photo opportunities. Planting flowers and shrubs that attract insects will attract insect eaters. Planting the right trees and shrubs for potential nesting sites is also a good option, not only are you beautifying your garden, but you are also providing suitable shelter.
If you are lucky enough to be on a migratory route, then make your garden a much-needed stop-over. It’s amazing how a little research can transform your backyard into a bird photography wonderland.
Tip #4 – Patience
Patience, if you have any aspirations of becoming proficient in bird photography or any wildlife photography for that matter, you’re going to need a “shitload” of the stuff. Wildlife, and birds, in particular, are shy secretive creatures. They are more often than not quite skittish and will remain hidden, or simply fly off at the “sniff” of potential danger.
I believe I have the patience of a saint when it comes to photographing wildlife. I can quite comfortably sit still for an extended period waiting for that elusive shot. There were times however when that “saintly” patience was severely tested. Times when the subject was so tantalizingly close I could hear the little bugger chirping. A rustle in the shrubbery. Tormented by an itch that I was unable to scratch for the past two hours fearing that any movement from my part would scare it away. The intense need to pee, so much so that my teeth began to float. Then there are the mind games….No way this little fluff-ball is getting the better of me. A test of wills ensues. The longer I wait, the harder it is to leave. I’ve invested so much time that I just cannot give up. And then, finally, after six hours, the little shit flies off!
I am not going to lie, if you are serious about bird photography, this will happen to you at some point. But, more often than not (thank God), your patience will be rewarded. A little patience goes a long way.
Tip #5 – Optimise your camera settings
Always change your cameras’ drive mode to continuous. Continuous drive will enable you to fire off multiple shots. This way you maximise your chances of getting a good shot. You can always delete the bad ones later.
Set the camera to AI Servo mode (Canon) AF-C (Nikon). With this enabled the camera will continue tracking and focusing on the moving subject for as long as it remains within the AF-frame.
If you have a single auto-focus point, then set your AF point selection to ‘center.’ If you have a mid to high range camera, setting AF point expansion (Canon), Dynamic AF-Area mode (Nikon) will allow you to expand the Auto Focus Points, and thus make it easier to track a moving bird.
Set the metering mode to evaluative (Canon) and Matrix (Nikon).
ISO setting is always slightly controversial. On the one hand, the lowest ISO will produce the better image, but that isn’t necessarily an option if you want to capture a bird in mid-flight. For large birds, you would look at a shutter speed of around 1/1250 (to freeze motion), and even higher for smaller faster birds. So, my recommendation would be to set the ISO at the lowest possible setting that will allow for a shutter speed of 1/1250 or higher.
As far as setting the aperture goes, I recommend using the lowest possible f/stop. A f/5.6 setting will allow the subject to stand out from its surroundings blurring the background. A narrower aperture of f/16 or f/22 is needed however if the surroundings are an integral part of the shot and need to be in focus.
Tip #6 – Equipment
All cameras will allow you to take great photographs of birds. However, decent gear will provide more opportunities to take great shots. The equipment you need will very much depend on which direction you wish to take your bird photography.
A fast focusing DSLR combined with an appropriate focal length will provide the best opportunity for producing great shots. Long lenses will allow you to zoom in closer to the birds without disturbing them. You may not require a longer telephoto lens if you are photographing birds at a local park or bird sanctuary where the birds are used to humans.
For the serious enthusiast that frequents bird hides and wildlife parks where birds are more true to their nature, then equipment becomes very relevant indeed.
Tip #7 – Research your subject
Understanding your subject’s behaviour is just as critical as the equipment you use. Being in tune to behavioural patterns will help you anticipate the birds’ actions and better prepare you for “getting the shot.”
The more information you can gather about a particular species the better. As a landscape photographer, it is common practice to visit a location before a shoot, or at the very least spend a considerable amount of time walking around getting a “feel” for the place. We have apps that inform us about times for sunrise and sunset, the location of the sun or moon at any particular time, tides, cloud cover, etc. In other words, we do our research and plan for a shoot. So why not do the same for birds and wildlife? Let’s say for example that you knew that at around the same time every day a particular bird (or animal for that matter) always visits at a specific waterhole. You could use this information and arrive well in advance. Set up your camera in the best possible position, and just wait for your subject to show itself. Animals and birds, like us, are creatures of habit. We have to figure out what that habit is and use it to our advantage. So when doing your research speak to the locals, park rangers, and even other photographers.
Tip #8 – Composition
In most cases, especially if the subject is moving, trying to apply any compositional technique is near to impossible. In most cases, you will find yourself cropping the image for composition using editing software. And that’s ok! That’s how the Pro’s do it too!
There are, however, a few techniques that you can apply at the time of capturing the image:
- Use a shallow depth of field; this will allow your subject to stand out from distracting elements such as foreground and background.
- Shoot low. Being at eye level with a subject creates a feeling of closeness and intimacy. So if the bird you’re trying to photograph is on the ground, then get right down in the dirt with it.
- Try not to place your subject in the center of the frame. Remember to leave some “space” in the direction the bird is looking; this will create a visual balance to your image.
- Always make sure that the eyes are in sharp focus.
- Get in close if you are capturing your subjects interacting with one another.
Tip #9 – Get creative
Yes, we’ve all heard about the rules of composition, but rules are meant to be broken; As long as there is a good reason for it! Do not be afraid to get a little creative. Think outside the box. Remember as a photographer you are an artist. If you want to go abstract, then that’s ok. Don’t just think about what excites you in a scene. Think also about the all the possibilities that you may have when you process an image.
Tip #10 – Respect
Ok, maybe not so much a bird photography tip, but I consider this the most important above all else. In our quest to get the perfect image, we should always keep the animals’ well-being as our priority. We should never, in any way or form, cause an animal to behave unnaturally. Nor should we be the cause of any distress to that animal.
Personally, I never use a flash. I don’t particularly like having a flash fired in my eyes, and I suspect the same goes for a wild animal. We as photographers are there to capture the beauty and intricacies of the natural world, not disturb it.
If you do ever get the opportunity to photograph a nesting bird, always do so from a reasonable distance so as not to disrupt the parents’ behaviour. To create the least possible disturbance, if at all possible, try to photograph the nest from within a “hide.” Remember, some birds will leave the nest entirely if they in any way feel uncomfortable or threatened; this means certain death for any young (or eggs) left behind in the nest.