Bird Photography – Don’t Wing It

Bird photography is both simple and a challenge. Our winged subjects range from cute, elegant, beautiful to fierce. When we flock to photograph birds, our preparation is based on having bird knowledge, the right tools and techniques.
The motto of “practice, practice, practice” applies in all genres of photography, especially birds.

Bird images are usually in one of three categories. 1) A bird identification image illustrates their markings and unique features. 2) The context shot shows the bird in its natural environment and habits. 3) The action shot captures the bird in an active state. This includes eating, interacting with other birds, flying and singing.

The tips and techniques below apply to capturing identification, context and action images.

Knowledge: Where the Birds Flock and Fly

You can get great bird shots without being an expert birder or photographer. The more you know about your subjects combined with technical knowledge, the better. This knowledge will help ensure more good images to work on in post processing..

I've been a birder for over twenty years. This includes watching their behaviors, flight patterns and using bird books to identify bird species based on their markings. If someone describes a bird to me, chances are that after asking a few questions, I can identify the bird sight unseen. Believe me, that knowledge makes a difference when seeking and photographing birds. You don't have to be a walking bird book to that degree. Knowing their habitat, migration patterns and their behaviors will enhance your ability to anticipate photo opportunities.

For example, I return to the same area every winter to photograph the Snowy Owl. I have a pretty good idea where I'll be able to see them fly, perch and hunt. The female Snowy below was getting ready to leave her perch in the apple orchard. I had the opportunity to see her in the same area, four days in a row.

Here's few of my personal favorite resources/locations for learning and practice.

Some of your local nature centers and raptor rescue organizations may offer photography workshops where proceeds go to rescue care and life management. These opportunities are tremendous in learning, working on your technique and getting beautiful images.

When posting images that you've taken at these centers, acknowledging these organizations and stating that your photo was a captive bird supports ethical bird photography practices.

Flying High with the Right Tools

What is the best lens?  The longest telephoto lens you can afford. To photograph large birds and you're fairly close, a 300mm is a good distance. For smaller birds and birds in the distance 400, 500, 600mm are optimal. These distances can be extended with teleconverters as well.

Lens quality:   I've owned kit lenses at 300mm, third-party lenses that range from 150-600mm and over the past two years a Nikon 500mm f/4. I've captured solid images with all of these lenses. Over time, your camera bag will evolve to the lenses that work best for you.

Reality check: Check out various photography sites with bird images. You'll see many beautiful photographs that inspire you. If interested, look at the equipment they used (if provided). Would you have been able to tell the difference in the lenses they used? Buy the best you can afford and focus on your technique!

Techniques that Get Great Bird Shots

What separates one bird image from another?
Eyes should be sharp and in focus. If there's a catchlight or twinkle in the eye even better. The details of feathers, talons and bill should also be clean and clear. Images, where the eye is too soft, doesn't have the same impact.

Observe the background. Before the frenzy of shutter snapping begins, pay attention to the surroundings. If the area is filled with a lot of distractions, the image will be too busy. Find clearings and openings where natural frames occur. Branches that have distance from their background will also provide interesting backdrops when shooting with a shallow depth of field (small f/stop number).

Good post processing!  We work hard to photograph our feathered friends.  Taking the time to process the image to bring our their beauty is a crucial part of the bird photography process.

Use the right shutter speed for the situation. A good rule of thumb is to have your shutter speed the same as the focal distance, particularly if shooting handheld. If you're shooting at 300mm then 1/300 seconds minimum is suggested. At 500mm, a 1/500 seconds minimum shutter speed should work. The type of bird image may also dictate the shutter speed need. If you're shooting a bird in flight, rapid action, a shutter speed of 1/1000 or higher may be needed.

A perched, slow-moving bird doesn't require the same shutter speed as a bird in flight. The same bird in flight needs a much faster shutter speed. The short-eared owl below was taken in good light conditions right before sunset. With my heavier lens attached to a panning ball head, I was able to get several in-flight images. Sigh, if only there had been clouds versus a plain blue sky.

Stick with your subject. For every image that I decide to process there are many images from the same shoot that I don't. Using the snowy owl example above, I spent time on four consecutive days observing and photographing the owl. The chickadee image at the beginning of this article is one of many chickadee images I captured that day. Additionally, I have numerous other photos of chickadees from other shoots as well. Sticking with your subject, photographing the same species in different settings will help you build a rich portfolio of birds to choose from.

Tripod or no tripod?
When working with lighter weight lenses and the right shutter speed, a tripod may not be needed. When working 1) in lower light conditions, 2) with heavier lenses or 3) if you do not have a steady hand, a solid tripod will make a difference.

Settings for the Fleeting Moments

Understanding the Exposure Triangle and being comfortable changing your settings on the fly will improve your exposure and results.  The Exposure Triangle and How It Affects Your Photos provides an overview of how shutter speed, aperture settings and ISO work together.

Finding your preferred setting combinations for given situations requires time in the field with a lot of practice.

As you're getting started, I recommend Aperture Priority to control the depth of field. The smaller the f/stop number, the shallower the depth of field. When you use a smaller f/stop number, the aperture is open wider and casts more light on what is in focus. With more light, the shutter speed is increased based on how the camera reads the scene.

Conversely, the bigger the f/stop number, the amount of the image that appears in focus increases. With a bigger f/stop number the light is spread across more of the image resulting in a slower shutter speed.

Two scenarios:
The pine warbler was taken with an f/stop of 7.1. The lighting was low, the bird was small and there were quite a few distractions. Shooting in Aperture Priority, the smaller aperture number (increases the aperture opening, more light passing the sensor) increased my shutter speed and I was able to get a good exposure.

The bald eagle below was perched in a tree on a very sunny morning. His large stature required a bigger depth of field to get the bird in focus. Because it was bright, I was able to get a fast shutter speed even with a bigger f/stop number.

Patience, practice and the right tools are the foundational elements of improvement in any hobby or profession. Bird knowledge, such as understanding their habitat, behaviors, and songs will make them easier to seek out.   Paying attention to field markings, bird size and other visible features will increase your ability to identify birds ‘on the fly.'

About the author

Sheen Watkins

Sheen Watkins is a bird, nature, wildlife photographer and photography writer. You can follow her photography on Facebook, Instagram and her website. A long term birder and nature enthusiast she is Vice President of Saving Birds Thru Habitat, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating others about the importance of protecting our natural habitat for migrating birds. She also has a travel and photography blog.

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