Digital SLR photography — a beginner’s guide to bird photography
Here are some suggestions that will hopefully increase your number of bird photo keepers. I’ll stress that these are general guidelines, not fixed rules, and you will eventually find the way you prefer to work.
PART 1 | PART 2
Take a walk outside and most of us would be lucky to see herds of bison, mobs of roos or any from a range of megafauna. But birds are all around us. They spoil us with their variety, colour and sheer numbers. So it’s not surprising that a lot of nature photographers develop a fascination for birds. But photographing them has its challenges too.
Above: I normally try to focus on the eyes, but sometimes it’s just not going to happen. The bird is a Purple Swamphen.
By changing the way this photo was cropped, the pelican no longer looks hemmed in
Because we’re so familiar with looking down on birds (top image), a photo of a bird from that same angle can look kind of boring, yet most beginning photographers start firing off shots while standing up and end up with a hard drive full of pictures of the tops of birds’ heads. By comparison, the lower photo, taken by getting down to the bird’s eye level, resulted in a much more engaging image. The bird in these shots is a Black Swan cygnet. Cute eh?
Usually, the longer the lens the better. Birds have a frustrating habit of being small and distant so if you want to fill your frame with a small bird then that suggests telephoto. But a long lens is not your only option. You could also:
- sneak up on the bird until you are as close as possible
- spend some time in a bird hide near a place where birds hang out (more about hides later)
- go to a place where birds are used to people, like public parks
- and I guess you can also look for bigger birds!
Focus on the eyes
Normally, you’ll want to get the bird’s eyes in focus. That might mean you need to select a single focus point in your camera’s focus settings. Of course when I say this I’m assuming we’re talking about sitting or standing birds. If the bird is flying past then forget about the eyes and just try to focus on the bird! (More about birds in flight later in this article.)
The way you crop can make a big difference to your photos. By cropping, I mean the use of your image-editing software to cut off the edges from the photo. If you look at the two photos of the pelican at right you’ll see that the top one makes the bird look slightly hemmed in. Like it is about to fly into the right edge of the frame. So It’s often a good idea to allow your cropped photos to have a bit of space in front of the bird so the creature looks like it has some environment to walk/fly into, as I’ve done in the second version.
With other types of photography you will often have the time to think about these issues while framing your shot through the viewfinder, but when taking shots of birds — especially flying birds — we don’t always have that luxury!
Most of the time, birds — especially the smallish ones — get about in quick, jerky movements. A lot of birds also jerk their heads backwards and forwards really fast when they walk, resulting in lots of blurred shots. To freeze that action down to a sharp image you’re going to be forced into using a fairly quick exposure. I tend not to go any slower than 500th a second shutter speed when photographing birds. 1000th second is probably better. The exception to this rule is if you deliberately want some motion blur, like the flapping of a bird’s wings. And then 1,000th second is probably too fast. For this reason, setting your camera to shutter speed priority and choosing 1000th second is a good start. If the light is not very strong, like very early in the morning, then slow the shutter speed speed down a bit.
Get down to their level
When we see birds they tend to normally be either way above us or on the ground below us. So most people are already bored with the sight of the tops or bottoms of birds. However, if you take a photo of a bird at its eye level then you have some big advantages. First, the bird will look more interesting because that’s not an angle we’re used to seeing birds. Second, you’re more likely to see the bird’s face. And third, you will find that the background of the photo, instead of being the ground directly underneath it, might switch to being something several feet away or more, which will put the background way out of focus. That will draw even more attention to the bird.
Above: Here we go talking about camera angle again. But now I’m thinking about the background. See how the ground is going to be in focus and risk distracting from the subject?
Above: This time the background is pushed far out of focus.
This might mean having to lie on the ground to get your photo. So if you go out with the intention of taking bird shots, it can be an excellent idea not to be wearing your best clothes!
This Little Wattlebird (above left) was high above me and so I was not able to see it at eye level. However, by waiting for the bird to look down at me (which birds almost always do) I was able to get a more interesting photo. Both photos were taken from pretty much the same spot and so it was the bird doing all the work for me.
When I’m photographing a bird I usually wait until it moves its head in such a way as to get a catch light. A catch light is that little sparkle highlight in the eye caused by a light source (usually the sun). You might think I’m joking when I suggest looking for something so tiny, but the truth is that any catch light good enough for your photo will also be easily seen through a viewfinder. Usually only a slight head movement in the bird will do it. The moment you see that sparkle in the eye, take your shot. That’s what happened with this Red-backed Fairy Wren.
Getting up to their level
Taking a photo of a bird at eye level is sometimes easier said than done. For example, if it’s perched high above you in a tree then you might be stuck with what, in polite circles, might be described as an unattractive view of the bird. However, in those circumstances the natural wariness of the bird can work to your advantage!
Here’s an example. The Little Wattlebird in the two shots at right was high above my head when I took these shots, as is pretty clear by looking at the first photo. But it kept leaning over to look down at me while I was creeping towards it with my camera. And it was during one of those brief moments of it looking down that I took the second shot, which gave a similar impression to being at eye level. So watch out for those opportunities.
Just be aware at times like that, that the bird bending down to look at you can easily shift its eyes out of focus, especially if you’re using a very big aperture.
Birds in flight
A good bird-in-flight photo can be a lovely thing. Not so easy to capture though. Here are a few tricks I use.
Take shots of a whole flock of birds and you’re bound to get at least one or two birds in focus! This flock of seagulls made an easy introduction to the joys of photographing birds in flight. Yeah, I know — there’s a pigeon in there who thinks he’s a seagull.
First, start with the easy ones…
If you want to get bird in flight shots without too much trouble, then find a park with flocks of birds and take shots by aiming into the middle of the whole flock flying past. Pigeons, seagulls and other flocking birds are bound to produce a few nice shots and you’re likely to get a decent number into the frame too. And at least one of them should be in focus! Here are some camera settings you can try for this type of shot:
- Select servo focus, so the camera will constantly adjust focus as the subjects move
- 1000th second shutter speed. You might want to go faster or slower. 1,000th second will freeze the action, while something like 500th second might get some attractive motion blur in the wings.
- Fast-burst shooting. If you take a single shot it might not be the best shot possible. Set your camera for fast bursts and hold your shutter finger down while the birds streak past. You might only get one decent shot out of ten exposures, but since you are using digital you are not wasting money. Be warned though, that fast-burst photography can quickly fill up your storage card so deleting the bad shots from your camera when you get a chance can be good practice.
That’s a start
I’ve made a start here, but there’s more stuff I want to talk about with bird photography. Much more.
PART 1 | PART 2