Boy, there's nothing quite like dragging out the 600mm f/4 L IS USM and grabbing a few shots of some beautiful birds, right? Wait – what's that? You say you don't have that $10,000 lens in your bag?Neither do I. I guess we can't possibly take great bird photos, right? Wrong.
Although having a long lens is a clear advantage in bird photography, it isn't an absolute necessity. In fact, you may find that using a mid-quality shorter lens gives you better results than a cheaper telephoto. It's often a matter of where you shoot, the kind of photos you take and how patient you're willing to be. Here are a few ways to get great bird shots at focal lengths below 300mm:
Set up a Blind
If the goal is to get in close, camouflage is one way to get the job done. There are numerous portable blinds on the market and it's easy enough to build your own. It doesn't have to be anything fancy; a simple a-frame made from branches will do. If you're shooting waterfowl, you can even use an existing duck blind during the off-season. Just make sure it hides you well and that you'll be comfortable enough to be there for a while.
The key to using one is to get into it early and cause the least amount of disturbance in the process. Settle in and be quiet, while you wait for the birds to come to you.
Shoot from your Car
Photo ©Jean Fripp. All rights reserved. Photographed @ Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
A vehicle makes a fairly good mobile blind, too. Birds in many locations, like other wildlife, tend to be less shy of people inside a vehicle, especially if the vehicle is where it belongs, in a road or parking area. This can get you in surprisingly close. I've shot a lot of very nice bird images from my SUV at 200mm or less.
If you're not out to shoot exotic birds, head for your nearest Super Center parking lot. Depending on where you are, gulls, jays, grackles, crows and other interesting characters will be there begging for scraps and most are not camera shy. If you live in a coastal area, it's hard to say who might show up:
Visit the Refuge
Photo ©Robert Dunn. All rights reserved. Photographed @ Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
Wildlife sanctuaries, refuges, nature centers and the like are excellent places to get in close without top-of-the-line gear. Because the birds in these areas aren't hunted, but are accustomed to people, nice, slow movements, a quiet voice and patience will often reward you with great images, even with your normal lens.
If you're smart, you can even get expert help in taking those great shots by attending annual festivals like the Festival of the Cranes in New Mexico. This unique event is an amazing opportunity to get close to large, colorful migratory waterfowl, including Sandhill Cranes, geese and ducks. It's set within 57,000 acres of the most picturesque bird habitat you'll find, so the backdrops are awesome. 12 masters of bird photography will be there, and you can choose from an incredible number of workshops during thie 6-day event. Registration is coming up in September and it's an opportunity you won't want to miss. There's too much to describe here, so please visit the website and find out what it has to offer you.
Shoot the Flock
Photo ©Steve Yabek. All rights reserved. Photographed @ Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
If you can't get in tight on an individual subject, why not photograph the whole flock? Some of the most dynamic and exciting avian images include larger numbers of birds. You don't need a telephoto to capture dramatic, artistic photos this way.
Pets and Parks
There's no rule that says your bird photos have to be taken in the wild, so don't forget about people's pets and those ducks, geese and other birds at your local parks and even zoos. All of these can provide you with opportunities to get a little closer to birds that are more accustomed to people and not so shy.
This is one of my favorite venues for working with birds up close. Watch for advertisements for raptor shows or demonstrations. These typically happen at zoos, big parks and wildlife preserves. Trained handlers will be there showing you what these majestic birds are capable of and you'll get the chance for some awesome portraits and even in-flight shots. In some locations, you may even see some of the birds capture prey naturally.
There are raptor events scheduled at the 2016 Festival of the Cranes, too, so don't forget to check it out.
Photo ©Sigmond Whitener. All rights reserved. Photographed @ Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
I hope that you've found some ideas in this article to help you grab some amazing bird images with the gear you've got. As you can see, it's mostly a matter of planning and patience, but you really can photograph birds without that multi-thousand dollar lens.
Have fun shooting!