Bird Photography Tips
Birds are special creatures and thus they need to be handled in different ways than most other photography subjects. I have posted some photos that people seem to really like and many have asked me how I managed to get the photos and some have asked me for tips. Here is a list of things that I have learned mostly by trial and error.
Tip #1: Wear Neutral Colors
Don't wear bright colors. It’s not so you can hide (because you can’t, they see everything), it is that most birds are afraid of bright colors. It scares them. You can get closer walking straight towards them in neutral colors than with bright colors.
Tip #2: Camera Setup
You almost always want a good fast shutter speed. So unless its sunny and very bright, set your ISO to 400 and set your camera on APERTURE priority. Yes, aperture and not shutter priority. Set your Aperture at your lowest f-stop. That way with the low f-stop and high ISO you will always have the fastest shutter speed available to you based on any lighting conditions.
Tip #3: The Base
Use a tripod with a good ball head. The best head to get is a Wimberly Head which allows for quick and easy movement in any direction and makes it very easy to track birds in flight. Or, as I do most of the time, use a good Monopod! I use the Giottos MM-8660 6 Section Carbon Pro Monopod with a good Giottos head mounted on it. Your zoom lens at 300mm or 400mm will be next to impossible to hold steady by hand.
Tip #4: Knowledge
Know your Bird. A good knowledge and understanding of the bird you are trying to photograph is vital. Know where they live, what they eat, their mating and nesting habits and their peculiarities. Observe them, know them. Knowing what to expect at all times is vital. While you are at it spend some time in the evenings to find out what they are, species, sex and even their proper Latin names. It can be very rewarding.
Tip #5: Time
This is part of tip number four. Know when to find birds. Most birds will be out and about early in the morning. Get up early to catch them. Some birds will be feeding in the afternoons and some in the late afternoons. Learn their daily schedules. Knowledge of the seasons is also important as many birds are migratory and may be in your area only during certain times of the year. Learn their seasonal schedules. Remember, the Early Bird gets the photograph.
Tip #6: The Approach
Walk so ever slowly. Never move your arms or camera quickly. Never walk straight towards them. Walk at a 45 degree angle towards them and then switch back the other way. Just like you would TACK a sail boat heading into the wind.
Tip #7: Be Ready
ALWAYS be ready to zoom out just a little and to hold the shutter down as they will take off at any moment without notice. Or even better, they may jump down to catch prey or other food. They will do that even when you are there. Food is food. ‘Syd’ the Red Tailed Hawk that I have in many photographs caught a frog while I was shooting one day but the grass was long and did not get a shot of the “capture”. My three photo time lapse of Syd taking off I captured because I was expecting him to take off at any moment.
Syd the Red-Tailed Hawk - "Launch"
Tip #8: Focus
Always focus on the eyes. Birds can look intelligent and understanding. People naturally look at the birds eyes so they must be in sharp focus.
Tip #9: Catchlight
Its important to make the bird look alive. The best way to do that is to have 'Catch Light' in their eyes. This can be difficult to do on a darker grey day with no direct sunlight. Using a flash can help a great deal.
Tip #10: Use a Flash
What? Use a flash for bird photography? Yes! Many pros use flash for bird and other wildlife photography. Start by using a high power flash such as the Canon Speedlite 580EX II Flash or the Nikon SB-800 AF Speedlight Flash. Then add the world famous The Flash X-Tender (Better Beamer) FX-3 Flash Output Booster for Canon 580EX. There are other models available for other flash units. The extra light provided by the flash will add contrast to your image, Catchlight to the birds eye, and will help Freeze the action. A great must have add-on that works for other photography including night time sports!
Tip #11: Shallow Depth-of-Field
This is easy if you follow tip number two. By isolating the bird using shallow depth of field (low aperture number), the background will be much less distracting.
Tip #12: Blur
Most photos of birds even in flight look better when sharp and frozen in time. This is a natural thing as we usually never see these great creatures “frozen in time”. When we do there is more of an awe factor than when we see a blurred image of a bird. Having said that, on occasion a blurred image can work, such as the photo of the American Kestrel or the Happy Feet photo of the Tree Swallow posted in my bird album.
Tip #13: Stay Low
If the Bird is on the ground, get on the ground. Yes, stay low to the ground as you would photographing a rabbit or other small creature. Time to get on your belly!
Tip #14: Befriend
Yes you can befriend birds. Syd the Hawk now lets me get within about 25 feet of him if I take my time. That is four or five times closer than I could when we first met. Birds and others creatures will eventually get used to you. Go visit everyday.
Tip #15: Don’t Feed
Song birds and other common birds can be enticed with food but as a naturalist, I do not recommend doing that. Several issues here. One, do not feed Raptors such as Hawks and Eagles. Feeding Raptors can make them get lazy and can make them get too accustomed to easy food and to people. This can lead them to getting into trouble with farmers and such and can get them shot. Yes, shot with a gun. If you think that doesn’t happen, please call you local bird or raptor rescue organization. Let them be. The second problem, feeding song birds and such is that you can usually see the food and then it looks like a bird eating food it has been given. Photos then tend to not look ‘wild’ but rather setup.
Tip #16: Go alone
Birds get scared. They also do not like noise from people talking and such. You will get better results alone.
Tip #17: Practice
Practice, Practice, Practice! Start with slow moving or easy to photograph birds such as Crows, Seagulls’ or Ducks. Move on to song birds or other local birds you want to photograph. Keep at it. Go out everyday to find the same birds and keep trying. First, it will make you just get better at it and second, you may just luck out and be at the right place at the right time. This can only happen if you are out shooting! You can’t get a great bird photo from the couch with a beer in your hand and a remote in the other. Perhaps unless you have your camera mounted out back on a tripod with a motion sensor ready to capture a hummingbird or something.
Tip #18: Patience
There is nothing difficult about bird photography and I can't emphasize tip number 18 hard enough. A big part of the whole process is to keep at it. By spending time with the birds, you will be there when one lands right by you, or when a hawk scoops up some little squirrel while you are ready with camera in hand. You need patience. Keep at it as it can take a year or more to get a few really good photos.
Tip #19: Get Some Professional Help
Oh, and the best part is that this is free! Get in touch with local birding groups. Attend an evening or a session and ask them where the birds are. There may be one bird you are trying to capture in your area but because of conditions it may be difficult to get that perfect shot. A short drive from a quick tip from the birders could get you to a location where there are twenty or so of the birds!
Tip #20: Shoot RAW
Bird Photography doesn’t lend itself to taking the time to get the best exposures and to ask the birds not to move while you meter them and make adjustments for back lighting and other issues. RAW will give you the most adjustable results.
Tip #21: Shoot Smooth
Using a long 400mm lens or 500mm lens hand help or even on a tripod can be difficult at best of times with a moving subject. It can be specially difficult in low light situations or with slower lenses. You need to practice shooting 'smoothly'. Steady your stance, don't hold the camera too tightly, pan your way along with the bird and follow through until after the shutter has been released. The bird doesn't stop when you press the shutter.
Whatever you do, just go out and do it. Keep at it, have fun, and respect the birds! You will be rewarded with great photos!
© 2008 Francois Cleroux
(Version 1.2 October 2008)
Please feel free to leave comments, corrections, ideas, thoughts or suggestions.