Bird Photography is one of the most challenging genres of photography. This is particularly true if you are photographing birds in the wild. This Bird Photography Guide explores this fascinating genre, to help you get the best shots you can.
Bird Photography Guide – Equipment Needed
A reasonably decent modern DSLR or Mirrorless camera is all that’s needed. In other words, you don’t need to rush out and buy any fancy new and expensive cameras. If you are in the market for a new camera, then the world is your oyster as far as choice, but there are a couple of trade-offs to consider.
A crop-sensor camera is going to get you extra (virtual) reach when combined with a prime lens. What this means practically, is that a crop sensor camera is only going to capture a cropped portion of what the prime lens sees, giving you a virtual digital zoom. You get a full-pixel image of whatever your camera captures, but crop-sensor cameras tend to have sensors with poorer low-light capability, than their full-frame counterparts. You are still going to be able to get shots, they just won’t be the same quality as one taken on full-frame. Conversely:
Full-frame sensor cameras tend to have higher quality sensors than their crop-sensor counterparts, but you are going to have to buy a longer prime lens if you want the same reach. Longer lenses cost more, which is another trade to consider.
These are generalizations, but they are based on experience, noting that manufacturers tend to keep the best sensors and the best functionality for the best cameras, and that tends to be full-frame cameras. I have used both crop and full-frame cameras extensively, most recently the Canon 7D mk1 (crop-sensor) and now the Canon 5D Mk IV (full-frame). A mirrorless camera can be a bonus in this genre, as you have no mirror flapping about and creating noise every time you take a shot.
To conclude, most modern cameras will do an acceptable job in the Bird Photography genre, as it’s more about the lens than it is the camera.
Because we are trying to capture small objects at a distance, then we need to be in the super-telephoto territory. This doesn’t mean though that we need to be in the super-fast glass, super heavy, and super costly territory, because these are significantly less portable than their slower counterparts.
There are significant benefits to having something more portable so that you can still work hand-held for long periods, and out in the field. The ideal glass for this genre is something in the 500mm territory. Also, bear in mind that most SLRs can only auto-focus if the minimum aperture is below f8. DSLRs tend to be slightly better than this but still suffer just like their DSLR counterparts in lower light.
For this reason, whilst you don’t need fast glass, a lens in the f5.5 to 6 range at its max focal length is recommended. The make of the lens you choose is clearly going to be driven by the make of the camera you own. But these are the types of options you might consider:
– Canon EF 100-400 F4/5.6 I USM and a 1.4x Teleconverter
– Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports
A tripod is not a necessity, but it can be useful. Particularly if you are going to be waiting around in a hide. A gimbal mount is also a useful accessory for the tripod, as you can balance your camera, and it gives freedom of movement.
Some form of hide can be useful, such as a pop-up tent with a seat inside. Again, this is not a necessity but can help tremendously so that you blend in more with the bird’s environment. Plus, it gives you somewhere to sit whilst you patiently wait around.
Bird Photography Guide – Camera Settings
Always shoot in RAW. Because we are shooting in variable light conditions, at some point high ISO noise will become an issue you need to deal with to recover a shot. RAW also gives you more pixels to play around with during post-processing, when your camera doesn’t quite get the exposure or contrast right. Shooting in RAW will therefore lead to a higher success rate of getting keeper shots.
Use your camera Autofocus.
Because your subjects are moving around, using AI Servo Mode will help keep your subject in focus. AI Servo mode continuously focuses whilst you have the shutter button or back button depressed.
Many people will tell you to use center point focus. However, if your focal points are tailorable, I recommend an expanded center point focus. I find this helps with moving subjects, whether they are birds or any form of wildlife photography.
As well as an expanded center point focus, if your exposure setting is tailorable, then use the focal point to set the exposure. The reason for this is that you are often dealing with situations that have vast contrast differences between the subject and its surroundings. Setting the exposure based on the subject will ensure you have sufficient detail captured in the subject.
Shoot with as wide an aperture as you can. This will help with the separation of the subject from its background, and keep the ISO down so that noise is minimized. However, always keep in mind what you are shooting. i.e. If you have multiple subjects, you may need to adjust the aperture to increase the depth of field to ensure everything is sharp.
Shoot on Auto ISO. Some photographers balk at this, but I would rather capture a nice sharp image in low light with a little high ISO noise, than no shot at all. Plus, you can always take care of ISO noise during post-processing. That said, don’t just ignore ISO and let it run away for no reason; i.e. do try to keep ISO as low as possible; if necessary, revert to manual ISO settings. Basically on this, you want to have the Exposure Triangle in your mind at all times, to make sure you get the right balance.
As far as shooting mode, this one is very much down to personal choice. I tend to shoot in speed priority (TV Mode), mainly because I am located in a part of the world that isn’t blessed with California-style bright sunlight. i.e. The light conditions are often low, and I want to make sure I don’t go below a certain speed and not freeze the action. Whether you shoot in Speed (TV), Aperture (AV), or Manual (M) mode, you again need to consider the Exposure Triangle at all times.
There is no hard and fast rule on what aperture speed to use. It very much depends on your subject. i.e. If it’s static, the 1/60th of a second will be just fine. For slower-moving subjects like ducks, then 1/200s will freeze some of the action, but leave a sense of movement. Speeds of 1/2000s to 1/3200s will freeze the action for most birds. For some though, for example, Hummingbirds, you may need speeds up to 1/5000s.
For example, to freeze the action of this little Coal Tit, I had to use 1/1600s f5.6 ISO 3200.
Bird Photography Guide – Composition
You may have noticed that on all of my shots included in this article, the background is nicely blurred out. How did I achieve this? Well, the rule of thumb to use when using a long lens is that: The closer you can frame into the subject, with a low as possible aperture, then the less depth of field you will get in your shot.
Always make sure the eyes of the bird are in focus. You can get away with other parts of the bird being slightly out of focus. But if the eyes aren’t in focus, you didn’t get the shot.
I typically shoot in landscape, even if I subsequently crop to a portrait composition. Why? Well, bird wings tend to spread out horizontally, and you should try to get the whole bird in the frame.
Always try to get the whole bird in the frame. The only exception is if you are trying to get detailed shots of the head and shoulders. For instance, as in my Sea Eagle shot earlier in this article.
I tend not to have the bird’s head right in the center of the frame in my cover shot for this article. However, again this is not a hard and fast rule; take a look at my Sea Eagle where I broke my own rule.
Always use a Lens Hood on your lens. The reason is that they help cut out any nasty reflections from either direct sunlight, or reflected off of surfaces (such as water bodies).
If you are shooting multiple subjects, try to achieve separation between them.
Before taking any shots, start with a strategy for what you are trying to photograph and what you are trying to achieve with your shots. For example, in the following shot, I wanted to freeze the graceful motion of a grey heron in flight. I knew they tended to fly along the beach line towards the end of the day. Also, they tended to do this to avoid any people moving about. I set myself up along the beach, with the sun behind me, and waited. As it happened, not so long before I got this shot.
The point I am making here is that you rarely get shots without a strategy of what you are wanting to achieve.
When you are taking photographs of birds, generally they are small objects and taken from a distance. This means that in most cases, you will need to crop your photos during post-processing. For example, take a look at this shot of a Siskin, together with the original shot. My strategy in this shot was to capture the siskin in flight. But, I clearly couldn’t know the exact flight path of the bird to the feeding station. So, I needed to zoom out wide enough to increase my chances of success.
As part of your action plan of what you are trying to achieve, build into that you need to spend time studying the behavior of your subjects. It really helps to have a knowledge of the animal and its behaviors, as well as its habits. If you are photographing at home, this includes understanding what the birds like to eat, as this helps you attract them to your garden in the first place.
Be prepared to take multiple shots, because invariably only a percentage of images will be a tack-sharp capture in camera. Or put another way, because you are photographing difficult, fast-moving objects, increasing the number of frames taken, increases your chances of a keeper.
Carefully consider the background of your subject. In general, you want the subject to pop out of the frame. Having an aesthetic-looking background helps this, as does the correct separation between you, the subject, and the background. In fact, with correct separation, even unlikely backgrounds like buildings and fences can be made to look pleasing if they blur into a pleasant bokeh.
My final general composition tip is to look for opportunities to capture catchlights in your subject’s eyes. Catchlight adds a sense of life and realism to your photographs, particularly for close-up shots.
Bird Photography Guide – Dealing With Water
Why have I singled out a section on water in this article? Well, reflected light from water is one of the biggest causes of shot failures, as it tends to result in blown-out highlights on your subject. Blown-out highlights can rarely be recovered during post-processing, as they are essentially either pure white patches or single-color patches with little detail.
Exposing on the animal goes a long way to dealing with this. But, you need to keep an eye on the histogram. I tend to have the histogram appear on the back screen of the camera after taking shots. If you have spikes at the right-hand side (Highlights), then Exposure Compensate by progressively lowering the exposure by 1/2 to 1 stop.
That said, water is also an ideal opportunity to capture reflections, which can really help to add mood to your bird photographs. So always look for these when you are trying to frame shots.
Bird Photography Guide – Photo Post Processing
I am a strong advocate of less is more when post-processing in bird photography, and indeed nature photography as a whole. There is nothing worse than over-sharpened, oversaturated, over-processed nature images. My typical steps through Lightroom post-processing are:
1) I shoot in RAW, so as a matter of course, I need to set the correct contrast balance using the tone sliders for Black, White, Highlights & Shadows. At the same time, I will adjust the White Balance if needed.
2) Inevitably you will get some shots with a blowout on the highlights. If this is relatively minor, you can sometimes recover it by using a selective mask to reduce the Whites and Highlights, and by increasing the Texture and Clarity. The Curlew picture above is a case in point, where I used this exact technique.
3) If the image is with a higher ISO, I will selectively reduce Noise in the background.
4) I Sharpen and then Crop the image.
5) The only other step I may consider is adding a vignette if I feel the picture warrants it.