There's no question about the fact that the greatest bird photos are often those that feature the subjects “up close and personal”. That's the reason we invest in those awesome super-telephoto lenses. For any photographer that's willing to take the time and apply a little strategy, a good medium telephoto or in some cases, even a shorter lens can get you those shots. This lesson will focus on techniques that will help you get in close to your winged subjects, no matter what kind of lens you're using.
A bird's vision is much more acute than a human's in many ways, including magnification capabilities and advantages like special color receptors in some species that let them detect ultraviolet and polarized light. In other words, simply trying to “sneak up” on a bird undetected is a waste of time.
While staying low, moving slowly and similar “stealth” tactics will help, you'll find it's much more effective to start the process of stalking a subject days or weeks in advance. Birds are going to see you. If possible, let them see you often enough to get used to you.
Show up at their nesting or feeding sites regularly, approach slowly, pausing often and observe their body language. If they continue about their business, you can probably move closer – slowly. After some time and patience, many birds will become accustomed to your presence and you'll find yourself getting within range. If you “blow the stalk” and the birds fly, simply sit quietly for a while and see it they return.
One word of caution: Be extremely careful when approaching nests, particularly those of birds of prey. Even without eggs or young in the nest, many birds can be very protective of their nests. Talons and beaks are formidable weapons. In addition, some species will abandon a nest and any young in it if they believe a threat is too close. This is another instance where you should watch body language closely.
Matching your surroundings closely can sometimes get you closer to your subjects. There are several ways to do this, from stationary blinds to personal, portable camouflage. Remember to cover your camera, tripod and other equipment as well as yourself. Flashes from the sun on lenses can also startle your subjects, so be careful where the lens is pointed.
Setting up bird feeders in your own yard is a great way to bring the birds to you. Make your feeders look as “natural” as possible and the shots won't look quite so obviously “set up”.
Feeding birds in the wild is a more delicate matter. In preserves and similar areas, setting out any sort of bait may be strictly prohibited, for the protection of the wildlife. Public piers and other established recreation areas may also prohibit feeding any birds or wildlife to avoid their becoming a public nuisance and dependent on handouts for survival.
Some edibles that may attract certain birds can actually be detrimental to their health. Substances like jam or fruit preserves that can coat feathers, for instance, can cripple hummingbirds. If you decide to lure birds with bait, study the species in the shooting area first and use an appropriate food.
Most wild bird species feed at regular times of the day or night. For many non-nocturnal species, early morning and evening are when you'll find them at their regular feeding sites. Feeding at daybreak and at night is important for birds, as their lifestyles require hundreds of calories. Show up early, set up quietly and wait for the action to start. As mentioned earlier, by doing so often, the locals will become more accustomed to your presence and less timid. It also gives you a chance to study the habits of your subjects, to better anticipate the next shot. Watching a heron or egret stalk its prey, for instance is a fascinating experience.
Wait it Out
Patience is often the most effective way to get those close shots. Once you're on-site, set up your rig and make yourself as comfortable as possible. If you're still enough, positioned close to the food source and keep a low profile, there's a good chance that the action will come to you.
Use Your Car as a Blind
In many areas, birds are so accustomed to traffic that you may be able to simply pull to the side of a road and brace your lens on the window. I've used this method on many occasions to photograph migrating geese in pastures.
Capture Them in Public Areas
In places where people gather regularly, the local bird population may be less shy. Public parks, beaches, piers and similar settings can provide plenty of opportunities. Shooting in these areas can also help you hone your skills by challenging you to select backgrounds, camera angles and other tactics that help disguise the nature of the location, if you choose to do so. In other cases, showing the birds as part of the setting can help develop a story with the images.
Zoos and aviaries, too, can be good places to capture bird photos, especially of some species that you may not have an opportunity to normally see in your area. These locations present many challenges, from backgrounds to enclosures, that will sharpen your skills as you learn to work around them. In the image of the macaws below, note how the framing and shallow depth of field effectively remove any elements that identify the location.
Before you shoot in a zoo or other controlled environment, however, find out what their stand is on commercially published photos of their animals. You may have to obtain permission and in some cases, it may be prohibited. There are some of these locations that ban cameras altogether.
Any and all of these methods should help you increase your chances of getting close to your subjects for bird photography. Not all will be practical for every photographer, but give those that you can a try. You may even discover that, with the right methods, patience and determination, your lens focal length isn't quite so much of a factor.