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Bird Photography Tips

If we take a list of favourite past times of people from all over the world; one item that is sure to be found among the top 10 is “Birding” or “Bird Watching”. And Bird Photography is the most popular genre among the various genres of Nature Photography. In this article, let us discuss how we could fine tune our photographic skills to capture amazing pictures of these beautiful flying wonders of nature.

Photo By John and Fish

 Where to go looking for Birds?

Marshes, Woodlands, Forest areas, Coastal regions, Wet lands etc all are areas preferred by birds. Study your region and refer some birding text book to have a basic understanding of the birds which are commonly found in your area, their habitats, feeding habits, sounds etc. A good knowledge about the birds is as important as having good equipment and excellent photographic skills. It is a combination of all the three which usually result in great photographs.

Photo By Yug and Her

Camera Settings for Bird Photography

  1. Use the continuous focusing mode (AI Servo for Canon)
  2. Use the continuous shooting mode (To take shorts in a burst)
  3. Use the centre focusing point (for subjects with cluttered background)
  4. Use multiple focus points (for subjects with clear backgrounds)
  5. Use the focus limit function (if your lens has this feature)
  6. Use high shutter speeds
  7. Use high ISO’s
  8. Use a monopod
  9. Use long lens (preferably 200mm or longer)
  10. Use a DSLR with crop factor and high frame rate (for extended zoom range)

Bird Photography Tips
Photo By Express Monorail

When you are photographing birds it is always best to put your camera into the continuous focusing mode so that you could easily track your subject. However it should be noted that in continuous focusing more the camera would click even if the focus is not achieved.

Having your camera in continuous shooting mode enables you to take a series of pictures (by keeping the shutter button pressed) there by vastly increasing the chances of you getting perfectly sharp pictures of birds in flight.

If you are shooting a bird against a cluttered background that could distract the focus points, shift your focus point to the central focus point only function and shoot. However when taking pictures of birds in flight against the blue sky as background and nothing else to distract the focus mechanism, having all focal points in action helps you achieve focus much faster.

Most tele zoom lenses have a focus limit option, if your lens has it then set the focus limiter for distant objects for bird photography, since you will only be shooting subjects that are far you could easily increase the efficiency of focus by limiting the range.

Bird Photography Tips
Photo By John and Fish

Having a fast shutter speed is essential to get sharp images of birds. The common rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed that is more than or equal to the focal length used. For example:- when shooting with a focal range of 400mm use a shutter speed of at least 1/400 to prevent camera shake. If using a wider aperture alone is not sufficient to get to the desired shutter speed, increase the ISO values.

Although tripods are great at keeping your camera steady and avoiding problems caused by camera shake, it is not very convenient when photographing birds. A monopod is much more convenient, to carry and to use in field. It is also much cheaper to own. So do consider buying a monopod if you do not have one already.

Most birds are wary of humans and they fly off if you approach them too close, so for bird photography it is recommended to use long lens, the longer the better. However they are also very costly piece of equipment to own. Apart from lenses a DSLR with fast focusing capabilities and a high frame rate (no of frames per second) is essential. When it comes to photographing birds, the crop factor of the sensors could come in as an advantage as you get more zoom(range) from your existing lenses.

Bird Photography Tips

  1. Research your subjects
  2. Focus on the eyes
  3. Pay attention to backgrounds
  4. Shoot from the birds eye level
  5. Get as close to the subject as possible without disturbing them
  6. Use your car as a hide
  7. Shoot variety frames, silhouettes, abstracts, close ups of feathers, feeding, singing, hunting, interaction with birds of same or different species etc.
  8. Wear clothes which help you blend with the background
  9. Know your gear
  10. Shoot during magic hours

bird photography tips
Photo By John and Fish

Research your birds well, understand their behaviours, habits, habitats etc and you will be able to better spot the birds, approach without disturbing them, predict the bird’s next move and finally get better pictures. Most birds do not sit silent they make sounds all the time, familiarize yourselves with different bird calls and you will be able to spot them better. Many times it is by hearing its call that you know a bird is near and not by seeing them.

As is the rule for shooting other live subjects, always make sure you have your birds eye in sharp focus. If the eye is not in focus then the shot is worthless, so train yourselves to focus on the birds eyes.

Background is as important as the subject if not more. This is more so in case of bird photography. Generally birds land in shady branches or areas which cannot be considered as ideal backgrounds for photography. Weigh your options, consider shifting the angle from which you shoot, if it is not possible try to blur out the background by using wider apertures etc. It is recommended to take a shot as such (for a record) and then try improvising upon that in the next shots, with birds you never know how much time you have before they take off.

bird photography tips
Photo By Eric Begin

Shooting from the birds eye level will make an intimate point of view in your pictures. Many times it means lying flat on the ground, climbing the roof or branches of a nearby tree to get the shot.

Getting close to your subjects without disturbing them is the best way to get great shots. Not only would you get great pictures but also get to see and observe these majestic creatures in their natural habitat, going about their daily routines, feeding, singing, hunting, interacting with others, etc. But to get close to the birds it is mandatory that you understand them first, some species of birds are more wary of humans than others, a better understanding about their nature will help you make informed decisions when planning your approach. Stay low and approach very slowly. Do not make sudden or jerky movements that could startle the birds. Also do not wear very bright coloured clothes that could easily attract attention to your. If you are not able to get close to the bird you could either set up a hide or wait for the bird to return or you could shoot from your car. Birds are not disturbed by cars but are easily disturbed by human form so use your car as a hide.

Look for action shots, birds showing different emotions (yes they do), birds engaged in different activities, hunting, feeding, bathing, eating, communicating etc. Try to shoot silhouettes, birds in flight etc, shoot a flock or birds, their flight formations, taking off, landing etc etc. Action shots are always more attractive than pictures of birds sitting idle. Shoot close up shots of their eyes, feathers, etc.

bird photography tips
Photo By John and Fish

Magic hours is the time immediately after sunrise (an hour or two) birds will be most active during this time mostly feeding and immediately before sunset (an hour or two), during this time the light from the sun falls at an angle and usually has a golden glow to it, it is the best time for bird photography with sidelight and the golden glow giving your already beautiful subjects a heavenly look and feel. Also shooting birds during rain or storms could create pictures which capture the mood of the scene.

In bird photography it is not enough to know your gear, but instead you should master your gear. Birds do not allow time to fiddle with various controls and do test shots. Most of the time, it is one shot or two, before the birds feels or knows your presence. After that it is mostly luck and your skill which determine whether the bird decides to stay or flee. Apart from your camera settings you should also practice how to lift up your camera to your eye in a slow fluid motion, how to point a tele photo zoom right at your subject (believe me it requires practice else you will be hunting for your subject through the viewfinder) how to hold your camera steady and shoot. Also learn advanced skills like panning to get great pictures of birds in flight. As it is true with any other field, practice makes perfect so keep practising regularly.

In the next article we will discuss about Photography - Nature and Wildlife Photography - How To Photograph The Moon

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