With the proliferation of digital gadgetry, you can take photos anywhere, anytime. Snapping even a blurry photo of a bird can help you or others clinch its ID. The reality is that you aren’t going to go far in Bird Photography with a standard point and shoot, a low-end DSLR with the standard “kit” lens, or your phone camera. There are options depending on your interests and budget. Birds rarely want to have their pictures taken, and out in the wild, if you move towards a bird, it will fly off and laugh at you as it leaves. Because of that, your photography gear needs to be able to take photos of small feathered things from a fairly large distance. That means it needs to have significant magnification power. Camera gear typically defines that power in terms of millimeters, or mm. A 24mm lens shoots very wide and is used for landscapes. A 200 or 300mm lens is known as a telephoto and shoots a narrow slice of the area it is pointed at but magnifies that area so it looks to be closer. This kind of magnifications is what we need for birds. Best photos are taken early in the morning or late in the afternoon due to the lateral incidence of light ray
Choosing the Right Photographic Equipment
Bird photography can be a wonderfully satisfying hobby. But it also comes with many challenges, the first of which is choosing the right equipment. Here are the basics according to W.H. Majoros’s online reference guide, Secrets of Digital Bird Photography: Tools and Techniques, Audubon Society
A digital SLR (DSLR) camera with a hand-holdable 400mm lens will allow autofocus (essential for getting sharp images of fast-moving birds) and provide flexibility for capturing birds in flight. Canon and Nikon currently have the most complete range of long telephoto lenses with VR (vibration reduction) systems, so these are the safest choices when buying a DSLR intended primarily for bird photography.
When camera shopping, don’t be pulled in by bells and whistles; many are surprisingly irrelevant, at least in terms of raw image quality. In-camera processing features (such as noise reduction) have little value as long as you expose properly, shoot in RAW (rather than JPEG), and post-process your photos on the computer with standard software such as Photoshop or Lightroom. Also keep in mind that more megapixels don’t always result in higher-quality images; as a general rule, a higher price tag is often a better indicator of potential image quality than higher megapixels, because manufacturers use higher-quality sensors in their more expensive models. Even more important than sensor quality is autofocus accuracy: Higher-grade camera models typically have more accurate autofocus, and that’s critical for getting tack-sharp images of active birds. If you’re a beginner or you’re on a budget, considered buying used; you’ll often get better value by buying a used professional-grade DSLR rather than a brand-new mid-grade model.
Finding the right lens can be just as challenging as choosing your camera. Third-party lenses from reputable brands (particularly Sigma) are often substantially cheaper while only slightly less sharp than those of the top-tier brands (Nikon, Canon), though they sometimes have smaller apertures (letting in less light) and slower autofocus motors. For general bird photography you’ll need at least 400mm of focal length, and ideally more than that. Unfortunately, teleconverters—which increase magnification—are no magic bullet for those with smaller lenses, because they reduce autofocus capability on smaller-aperture lenses.
An “average” DSLR kit will usually have a couple of lenses that cover a range of about 24mm to about 200mm. The sweet spot for a bird photography lens starts at about 300mm and goes to between 400 and 600mm, with some photographers using huge lenses and 1.4x teleconverters to build unbelievably powerful (and expensive) telephoto setups. It should be obvious that the kind of equipment we’re talking about isn’t what most photographers carry. Professional photographers generally use state-of-the-art Nikon or Canon equipment with powerful lenses. A top-of-the-line camera may cost up to $6500 and a 600 mm lens ($12500) plus a good carbon fiber tripod ($450). Indeed, an expensive hobby but superb tack clear images are obtained.
The 400mm lens could be the right trade-off between cost, portability, power and usability. If you can find a lens that gets you to or near that power, you’ll be able to go a long way in photographing birds. Lenses with this power aren’t exactly cheap, but they’re affordable. And birds are innately artistic creatures—more and more amateur photographers are connecting with birds through taking gorgeous pictures.
How to Get the Right Exposure for Photographing Birds
Although digital SLR (DSLR) cameras are the tool of choice for professional bird photographers, beginners are often daunted by the prospect of learning how to operate these complex devices. Fortunately, by understanding just a few simple concepts, you make the best use of your DSLR’s capabilities. In particular, learning how to control exposure will ensure that your subject is well lit, has good color and detail, and stands out from the background.
There are three major factors influencing exposure: the “f-stop,” or aperture (the size of the hole light travels through to reach the digital sensor); the shutter speed (dictating how long the shutter is open), and the ISO (which mimics the sensitivity of film to available light). All affect image brightness, though they affect other things, too. Aperture, for instance, affects depth-of-field (how in focus the background is); shutter speed affects sharpness (faster speeds reduce motion blur), and the ISO settings influence the amount of digital “noise,” or graininess, in the image. The challenge is choosing settings that produce good exposures while minimizing blur and noise.
Automatic exposure modes can help simplify this task. A popular choice is “aperture priority” mode: You set the aperture to the smallest f-stop your lens will allow (i.e., wide open, to isolate the bird from the background), set the ISO to a reasonably high number like 800, and let the camera choose the shutter speed. If it chooses a speed that is too slow to freeze the bird, you can increase the ISO to increase the shutter speed. So instead of having to actively manage three settings (aperture, shutter speed, ISO), you need to manage only one (ISO).
The main problem with this approach is that the metering system in the camera may choose an exposure that looks good for the background but not the bird. Selecting a different metering mode can help. Evaluative/matrix metering uses readings from the entire scene, while spot metering uses one spot (for example, the center). However, since the spot meter may be larger or smaller than the bird, even if you point the spot at the bird, the camera may not choose settings that optimally expose the whole bird. A quick fix is to dial in an “exposure compensation” that tells the camera to shoot brighter or darker than the meter is telling you is right.
A more advanced solution is to use manual mode and do the metering yourself. Set your aperture to wide open, and then set the shutter speed to about 1/500th of a second and the ISO to around 800. Now take a series of test shots, checking brightness on the LCD after each shot. Turn on highlight alerts (“blinkies”), to see if you are overexposing; if you are, reduce the exposure before the next shot (by turning down the ISO or increasing your shutter speed). Once you’ve found settings that work well, you’ll often need to make only small changes after that—for instance when the light changes or you move from a white bird to a black bird. By using the LCD to judge exposure, you can see how the bird looks rather than blindly trusting the camera’s metering system to get it right. We recommend that beginners start with one of the automatic modes and then progress to manual mode when they feel more confident.
How to Use Lighting and Angles to Take Better Bird Photos
Regardless of what equipment you’re using, it’s important to remember that bird photography should be fun. Birding (with or without a camera) is about enjoying the thrill of being in the company of wild animals. If you get a good photo now and then, that’s just an added bonus. Once you’re comfortable with the technical skills involved in operating a digital camera, you can begin to concentrate more on the aesthetic aspects of making works of art featuring birds as subjects. There are a number of established field techniques and rules of thumb that can help you jump-start the process.
THE RIGHT LIGHT
The most important variable to consider in the field is lighting. You’ll get the richest colors and have the option of using higher shutter speeds when you shoot birds that are well lit, and a bird generally looks more striking in even lighting (not mottled sunlight). Direct sunlight also brings out feather detail better than ambient (non-direct) light. At the same time, when birds have both light and dark parts, it can be difficult to expose the darker parts without overexposing the lighter parts, so these birds sometimes actually expose better in ambient lighting. Much of nature photography is about waiting for the right light, and this is particularly true with birds.
POINT OF VIEW
The next thing to consider is the angle. Don’t assume the place you happened to plunk down your tripod will give you the best angle (especially after the bird moves). For birds in water or on the ground, an extremely effective approach is to lie on your belly and shoot the bird at eye level; this changes the perspective dramatically, bringing anyone who sees your images right into the bird’s world. If you aren’t physically able to get that low, even just sitting on the ground can sometimes improve the angle.
Shooting waterbirds from a low angle does wonderful things to the texture of the water, but it’s also worthwhile to try different vertical angles in case there are good reflections you can capture. Changing the horizontal angle is often useful, too: Taking a couple of steps to the left or right can put a very different background behind the bird, and it’s often the background that turns an average bird photo into a work of art. Look for details that might interfere with clean edges for your bird—for instance, a branch that could later look like it’s coming out of the bird’s head. Moving a bit one way or another can separate the bird from the offending branch.
In terms of scene composition, a popular rule of thumb is to place the bird about a third of the way from the edge of the viewfinder. This “rule of thirds” isn’t infallible, but it’s a good starting point while you develop your own instincts regarding where to place the bird in the frame. If the bird is walking or swimming, leaving some room in front of it can suggest something about where the bird is going. For viewers, the final image is their sole window into this bird’s world, and how you compose that window (via angles) is critically important. Of course, you can recompose your photo in post-processing using cropping, but it’s always best to get it right in camera.
Finally, there’s the bird’s pose—and unfortunately that’s something we can’t control. The best poses often involve a profile that shows the length of the beak with little foreshortening, though it’s important to make sure the eye is always visible and in focus. Branches in front of the bird can be distracting, and many photographers prefer a clear background so that the viewer naturally focuses on the bird. Odd poses are particularly effective at capturing the viewer’s attention, and these often occur when the bird is in motion. Taking a shot every time the bird moves or turns its head will give you more options to sift through later on the computer, so you don’t have to make hard decisions in the field.
In summary, turning snapshots of birds into works of art requires thinking critically about the scene as it appears through the viewfinder. The tendency is to focus on what the bird is doing, but a great bird photo will also have a pleasant background, and sometimes that requires changing our angle on the bird.