Bird Photography Tips- Some Thoughts

Those photographers that choose birds as a focus for their art are in for a treat–and a challenge. There are few living things more dramatic, beautiful, and active than our feathered friends, and birds are readily available as subjects. Truly fine images, those that capture the bird–and the viewer–require patience, time, dedication, a good camera, and lots of birds.

Interest.   The best way to become familiar with photographing birds, is to begin by listening to and watching the birds in your own backyard. Curiosity about how they live, what they eat, migration patterns, and bird language begin the education of understanding and appreciating the birds in your life. Become familiar with the birds in your area, and soon you will begin seeing birds that you were never aware of before.  Start by photographing birds in your neighborhood, as well as a zoo,  a local bird refuge, the beach, or any place birds gather to feed.

Time of day. Most species of birds eat in the morning or late afternoon. Get to know the habits of the bird that you are photographing and where it returns every day to feed.

Know what you want. Study bird photographs. Most bird photographs were the result of countless hours of waiting, and perhaps returning for several days to the same location that the bird frequents. Patience is very important, and a dynamic picture is often the result of being in the right place at the right time, and having the equipment that can capture your vision. Good bird pictures are often action pictures, so you need to be able and know how to both freeze motion, and use motion to create tension in your images.

Behaviors and action make the best bird photographs. Photograph birds doing natural movements such as pruning, bathing, feeding, flying, or fighting add a story to your picture that a still shot often does not.

Prepare your equipment.  It is essential to have an excellent camera–a DSLR–if you are serious about photographing birds. You will also need some good and expensive lenses to do it right. The lenses are critical. A sharp, fast lens 70-200 mm zoom, or a 200-400mm fixed lens may work for you, and it needs to have vibration reduction, and auto-focus capabilities. You will want to capture birds in flight, so hand holding your camera and getting good at panning, or moving your camera to follow the bird as it is moving, will requite the type of lens I recommended. Get the best and fastest lens you can afford, or rent a lens for your bird adventure.

I am a Nikon person, but any good camera and lens system work well. When you are ready to begin, set your lens on auto-focus and vibration reduction as I mentioned, if you are hand holding the camera for action. If you are using a tripod, the VR is turned off. I would recommend an unconventional setting on your camera as follows. Set the release mode for the shutter on C h, or continuous high speed, so  you can capture up to 5 frames per second to get a series of motion shots. Then set your focus mode on C–continuous servo AF. In the Nikon, this will track the bird as it moves, keeping it in focus. Now, set your camera on M or manual for the exposure mode, so you can use a fixed aperture and shutter speed that you set, and not the camera. The f-stop should be low, wide open lens, so you can get lots of light (that is what a fast lens is) and your shutter speed should be set at 300th-500th of a sec–some level that can freeze motion. Now you are ready, except for several other adjustments. Since the manual setting will override the exposure controls, how do you allow the camera to get the right exposure for you? If the light is uniform, you can set the settings for the light meter, but if it if changing, then set the camera on a variable ISO. Go to the ISO menu and select    AUTO ISO .  This will allow the camera to maintain the proper exposure while in the manual mode. In very low light you will have a high ISO, and some “noise”, but with a good camera, this is not a problem. Shoot several frames and if the exposure needs a tweak, use the exposure compensation button to get the final adjustment. You are now ready to enjoy making some really great bird pictures, with perfect focus and exposure on almost all of your images. You can freeze motion, or allow it at will by adjusting only the shutter speed. Use panning and shoot in short bursts to get a series of dramatic action shots. You will need to delete freely your duplicates, but that is the beauty of digital. This adjustment works well for all action photography.

Be patient and practice!

P. Miller