How to Photograph Birds: Additional Gear

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We've discussed cameras and lenses for bird photography and hopefully those previous lessons have helped you decide which ones will work best for you. Now, before we jump into the lessons on shooting, there's one more area we need to cover. To get the most out of your efforts in bird photography, there are a few other pieces of equipment you're going to need and some that you'll want, if your budget allows them. This lesson will focus on the equipment you'll need in the field in addition to your camera and lenses.

A Solid Tripod

This is an absolute must. No matter how good your camera and lenses are, most of your shots are going to be taken using a tripod and that tripod needs to be rock solid. With focal lengths of 300mm to 800mm, even the slightest movement will be enough to ruin that perfect shot. The same holds true for vibration in the tripod, and with that long, heavy lens, vibration is easy to induce. Forget the lightweight models; the best avian photography tripods are big and brawny.

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Versatility is a huge plus. Try to choose one that lets you use leg angles that let you get close to the ground as well as level up easily on uneven surfaces. Look for large diameter legs with locks that don't slip. A hook on the bottom of the center column is an important feature to look for, since it will allow you to add weight for better stability. For the tripod head, pan-and-tilt or ball heads are a matter of personal preference, but remember that each pivot point is a potential vibration spot. Make sure the head locks firmly at all points.

Yes, a good tripod is going to set you back some financially. It's important enough to your success to be worth it. Buy the best you can afford.

A Remote Shutter Release

Although you can use your camera's shutter delay to help avoid camera shake from pressing the shutter, a remote release is a much more reliable alternative. You're investing a lot of money and time in the opportunity to take your bird shots; why risk spoiling them at the moment of truth? This, too, should be considered a necessity for bird photography.

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Fortunately, this tool isn't going to cost you an arm and a leg and you have a few options. Old-fashioned, mechanical cable releases are still available, however even if your DSLR camera is equipped for one, it's important to know that the plunger on some can create enough shake to blur your shots at extreme focal lengths. An electronic release is the better alternative, and you'll find both wired and wireless models available for any modern digital camera.

A Gimbal Head

Here's one of the success secrets of the top pro bird photographers. A gimbal head isn't a necessity, but the difference it will make in setting up for stationary shots and in taking in-flight shots makes it one of the best gear investments you can make, if you can afford to make it.

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A gimbal head provides a solid mount to your tripod, while allowing you to swing and tilt the camera easily and with much smoother action than a pan-and-tilt head. It also provides better balance with long lenses. It takes a bit of practice to master, and with prices ranging from roughly $200.00 to $600.00, it's not a casual investment, but the results can be worth both the trouble and the cost.

A Flash Extender

Novices are often surprised to learn that many of the best bird photos were taken with supplemental lighting provided by a flash unit. Lighting isn't always going to be ideal in the field. Even beginners know that. What many don't know is how the professionals make their flash units effective at the long ranges of the shots they take with their telephoto lenses.

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Flash extenders increase the range of a flash by “concentrating” the light via a fresnel lens mounted in front of the front lens of the flash. By narrowing the cone of light emitted by the flash, more of the light is directed at the subject, aka bird. This tool can help bring out the detail in a bird shot as well as letting you use your flash to help freeze the motion of wings.

“Common Sense” Equipment

For the most part, the remaining equipment you'll need for bird photography consists of gear you need for any kind of outdoor photography. Protection from the elements for you and your equipment is essential. Extra batteries and memory cards will avoid ending your shoots prematurely. A roll-up foam pad can keep you clean and dry when you need to get down low. A backpack may make carrying a big tripod and lenses much easier and less tiresome. As stated above, much of the peripheral equipment you'll need for bird photography will be dictated by common sense. Plan carefully and pack appropriately.

Our next lesson will get you started on the basics of bird photography in the field.

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