Bird Photography Basics for Beginners

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In my last article, I provided a few tips for beginning wildlife photographers. In this one, I'm going to discuss a sub-genre of wildlife photography that presents enough challenges to be considered separately: photographing birds. Capturing great images of birds, especially in the wild, comes with all the difficulties of wildlife photography in general, along with some specifically related to winged wildlife. Let's look at some of those challenges and how to overcome them.

It's not ALL about the gear.

Let's get this one out of the way right now. One of the most popular excuses for taking less-than-perfect bird photographs is not having the right photo equipment. There's some truth to this, since a $10,000.00+, 600mm lens and a full-frame camera are very likely to give you an advantage.

On the other hand, there are plenty of serious amatuers and professionals taking and selling great bird photos with less expensive cameras and lenses. They're accomplishing it with skill, knowledge, preparation and determination. With that combination and the best gear you can afford, you can, too.

So, does that mean that just any camera and lens combination will get the job done? Not really, but there are too many possible combinations to cover them all here. Generally speaking, a lens with a focal length of at least 300mm and camera capable of shutter speeds of 1/2000 second and/or faster will save you some frustration. A good autofocus system will help, too, especially if it has a tracking mode.

( Download this cheat sheet: 9 Step lens cleaning checklist. So you don't screw up your lenses. )

The early (or late) bird gets the shot.

Time of day can be used to your advantage in avian photography. Nocturnal birds can often be captured while returning to their nests early in the morning, while others are going out for their morning meal. Late afternoon and evening can provide great opportunities as well. These times of day also provide some of the most dramatic and complimentary lighting.

Study your subjects' habits.

Do some research. The feeding, mating and nesting habits of most birds are readily available from many online sources and can also be found at your local library. Find out what birds are commmon to the area you plan to be shooting in and take some notes about when and where to expect them. If you're out to capture specific birds, read up on them. Understanding your "prey" will increase your odds of getting close to it.

Let your subjects come to you.

Many novice birders expend far too much energy on trying to get close to their subjects. It's often much more effective to simply make yourself comfortable and wait patiently for the birds to come to their natural habitat. Have some fun with bird calls. Learn to be still and move slowly. If you do startle your subject away and it doesn't move far, give it a little time and it may return, especially if you're close to its nest or feeding ground.

(Success Tip #1: Learn to take better photos with this simple deck of cards.)

Learn the art of concealment.

Not everyone has the opportunity to shoot from a blind, but that doesn't mean you can't avoid standing out against your surroundings. Wear earth-toned colors if you don't have camouflage clothing. Shiny objects like jewelry, eyeglasses and even your camera gear can reflect flashes of sunlight that can spook entire flocks of birds, so eliminate what you can and find ways to cover the rest. Be a ninja.

Keep the ISO setting high.

Birds move quickly. If you understand how to use the Exposure Triangle, you'll know that this means you'll want to use higher ISO settings for bird photography than, say, the average landscape. In turn, this means the possibility of more noise in your shots, but needing to remove a little bit of noise is better than a blurred photo.

This is one genre where many photographers count on the auto-ISO feature of their DSLRs.
Many modern cameras will allow you to set a minimum shutter speed and allow the camera to adjust the ISO setting to the minimum that will allow that speed.

The eyes have it.

Like a good portrait, bird photos will come to life and connect to viewers through the eyes. Always try to focus on the eyes of your subject. If possible, try also to capture that little spot of light in the eyes known as a catch light. This is normally the result of frontal lighting on your subject, so having the sun more at your back will usually help.

Pay attention to what's in the frame.

It's easy to become so focused on your the birds you're shooting that you ignore the other things in your viewfinder. Awlays be aware of the background and other elements in your compositions. Keep elements that compliment the subject and eliminate those that don't. One particular problem in birding shots is small branches in the foreground that go unnoticed when taking the photos.

(Success Tip #2: The secret to selling more photos with less effort)

Learn how and when to use exposure compensation.

One of the most common mistakes I see in bird photos from beginners is a badly underexposed subject. This is often the result of shooting a bird against the sky, in flight or at rest. Unless your lens will let you fill the frame with the bird, the sky will probably dominate the frame and in the most common metering modes, that's what your camera's exposure system is going to adjust for.

Grab your manual and learn how to use your camera's exposure compensation. This is usually the fastest way to compensate for all that extra light you'll let in when you point your lens at the sky. I'm assuming here that you're going to let the camera handle the exposure settings. If you're confident in your ability to manually - and quickly - adjust your exposure, you won't need this advice.

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Work on your panning technique.

Obviously, photographing a bird in flight may mean panning to follow it. You may also need to pan to keep up with birds on the ground. Shore birds like sandpipers move much faster when feeding than you might expect. Herons, cranes and other long-legged birds will cover a lot of ground per stride. It's important to be able to follow moving birds smoothly and learn to "follow through" as you press the shutter release if you want sharp shots.

Practice on the locals.

There are probably plenty of birds in your own neighborhood that can give you somve valuable practice. If you have a park with a duck pond close by, it can be a great place to learn some of the habits of waterfowl. If you have a local zoo with an aviary, spend a few hours inside with your camera. If you have bird feeders, try setting up to capture the birds as they come and go, without getting the feeder in the shots.

Taking advantage of these nearby subjects will help you learn to anticipate action and practice the techniques you'll need out in the wild.


Don't feed the birds.

I don't recommend "baiting" birds in public locations or in the wild; you'll rarely get a shot that looks natural and you may actually harm the birds. In many areas open to the public, including beaches, refuges and sanctuaries, feeding may be against the law.

Keeping the tips above in mind should help increase your chances of getting those awesome bird photos you're hoping for. Above all, remember that practice makes perfect, and have fun!

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