Take a few initial photos, then wait for the action, like this greeting behavior between a pair of Great Egrets.
There are a lot of elements that go into a given photo. The position of the bird or birds, the location of the sun in the sky; positioning yourself between the bird and sun; composing your photos with respect to the surrounding landscape, and the technical aspects of using your camera and lens. With time, many of these elements become second nature, and there are also a number of things you can prepare in advance of encountering the next bird. There are a host of things to consider while photographing, and a few more to keep in mind when you review your images, pick out the best of the best, and copy them to your photo files.
Periodically, I like to share the following information as a standard for bird photography – especially for beginners and mid-level photographers, but I think anyone can gain a number of tips and ideas that will simplify some of the mechanics and thoughts that factor into a given photo opportunity. Some of these techniques I learned during my first months and years of photographing wildlife, others I learned from other photographers – either in person or by reading their magazine articles or books.
Photographing birds in blue-sky water usually results in a pleasing contrast between the water and the bird – in this case a colorful female Wilson’s Phalarope.
If I were a beginning photographer today, I would print the following list of methods and tips, fold it a couple times, and slip it into my back pocket or photo backpack so I could review it once a month over the next year. Of course, it is really just an outline of good photo practices, fashioned during a lifetime, which you can use to adjust to your interests and conditions, to eventually evolve these suggestions into your own bird photography methodology. Well, here goes:
Planning & Preparation
Even before I begin photographing, I work within a simple framework of planning:
– It’s important to watch the weather and try to plan your photography for when there is plenty of sunlight. I watch the weather reports days and hours in advance to make sure I will have quality sunlight.
– On cloudy days, I find something else to do. Bird photography is always best when there is adequate sunshine from the optimum direction and angle.
– Sunny afternoons and mornings are best for photographing; I find something else to do during midday when the sun is overhead. However, during winter months, when the sun is positioned farther south in the sky, you can often photograph with good sunlight angles throughout the day.
Using a mobile blind provided closer access to a location that was attracting spring migrants, including a female Orchard Oriole that rested among fading chokecherry blooms and foliage. Focus on a bird’s eye whenever possible.
– I preset my camera so I’m ready to take a photo at a moment’s notice, which happens fairly often when photographing birds. Then, when I’m in position to photograph and have an extra moment, I double-check the settings and adjust any if warranted.
– You should never use the automatic setting on a camera. Instead, it’s best to set the Mode Dial to the Aperture-preference (Av) setting. Then set your aperture (f-stop) and the camera will automatically provide the associated shutter speed as determined by the amount of available light.
– During sunny days, I preset the ISO to 400 with an aperture of f7 or f8; and the resulting shutter speed will usually be between 1/1200 and 1/2000 – fast enough to stop most motion.
– I also keep my camera’s Al-Servo set to take a continuous series of photos. Using this setting, you can take a single photo, but you can also take 2 or 3 at a time if you hold the shutter button down a moment longer. And when a bird is especially active, such as when it’s flying, you can hold the shutter release button down for the camera to take a continuous series of images at a rate of 3 to 15 photos per second, depending on the camera model you use.
– I also like to pre-focus my lens to get a quicker focus on the next bird. Essentially I focus on a mid-distance point, and do this as often as I remember during a photo session.
Bucking a side wind, a recently fledged Ferruginous Hawk was landing near a fledgling nestmate when this photo was taken. By following the flight of the young hawk through the camera’s viewfinder, it was possible to take a series of photos that yielded this and other quality images.
– Keep the sun at your back, so the sunlight illuminates your subject as directly as possible.
– Your shadow is a good indicator of the direction of the sunlight; try to keep your shadow pointing at your subject as best you can.
– Speaking of shadows, be aware of shadows on the bird you are photographing, caused by the angle of the sun when you’re not in the optimum position. In the field you often don’t notice a shadow, but because shadows are more obvious in photos, it’s good to watch specifically for shadows and adjust your position to avoid them when possible.
– As for the angle of the sun, mid- to late morning and late afternoon until about an hour before sunset provide the best angle of the sun for photography, when the sun is between 30 to 60 degrees above the horizon. (When the sun is directly overhead it is at 90 degrees with reference to the horizon at 0 degrees.)
Bird Photo Ethics
– Try not to disturb birds, especially if they are feeding, nesting, or are caring for young – the birds’ well-being always comes first.
– Don’t get too close; allow birds to behave naturally.
– If you see a bird become aware of your approach, stop and wait to see if it will relax after a few minutes. In fact, when you stop short of alarming birds, they may actually move closer in your direction on their own.
– If you try to approach a bird, keep a low profile, move slowly, and don't walk directly at the bird; move at an angle to the bird that gets you ever closer, slowly zig-zagging if necessary, while keeping the sun at your back as best you can. Don’t look at the bird for long; give it the impression you are interested in something else; you can even bend over once in a while like your interest is close to you rather than in the bird’s location.
– Anticipate the next move of the birds you are photographing, and be prepared to photograph that action.
– When you find a trusting bird, spend a little extra time with it. You may get another perspective on the species’ behavior, and you may be able to photograph another of the bird’s activities.
Another victim of a strong wind, this Short-eared Owl lost its balance as its wing caught the force of an extra-strong gust. By using a narrow aperture setting of f6, the dry grassland in the background was blurred out of focus, which emphasized the hunting owl and provided a pleasing background color. Note the sharp focus of the eye that was reflecting the setting winter sun.
In the Moment
– Focus on one eye of the bird to be sure your focal point is in the middle of the bird. If the eye is not in focus, your photograph will suffer.
– Hold your breath any time you press the shutter button to help reduce your body motion.
– When possible, if a bird is swimming, wading, or walking it’s a good plan to consider repositioning lower to the level of the bird by kneeling, or even lying down in some cases.
– Stabilize your camera and lens as best you can to reduce any body shake that could be transferred as you hold your camera. Lean your lens against a tree, window frame, or another stable option. When photographing in the open, you can brace your elbows against your chest as you handhold your camera and lens.
– Some birders use a tripod to help stabilize their camera and lens, but for many of us, using a tripod is cumbersome at best, especially when photographing flying birds. For me, dealing with a tripod takes much the fun out of bird photography. But if you use a tripod, you should also use a shutter release cable to optimize the stability the tripod provides.
– Never use the automatic setting on your camera. Instead, it’s preferable to preset the Mode Dial to the Av preference; then set your aperture (f-stop) and the camera will automatically provide the associated shutter speed as determined by the amount of available light.
– Personally, I find the 400 ISO setting to be the best under good sunlight conditions. I usually don’t photograph during low light periods, but if the sun goes behind a cloud, I increase the ISO to 800 if the shutter speed is reduced significantly by the reduced light. I find that any setting above ISO 800 tends to produce grainy photos. Using an ISO of 200 or 100 provides better quality images, but these settings limit your shutter speed and/or aperture a bit, so ISO 400 seems to be the best bet for me for bird photography with the sun at my back.
– Keep aware of the background of your photo. Try to eliminate distracting twigs and grass from view, which may be a simple matter of taking a step right or left in some cases to get a clearer background that is less distracting. However, in some cases a twig with budding leaves or other vegetation can add a pleasing natural element to a bird photograph.
– Getting a more uniform background can be accomplished with some success by reducing the area of focus (depth of field) to throw the background out of focus. The blurred effect helps to emphasize your subject, and is accomplished by setting your aperture to a narrow f4 or f6. That aperture should keep your bird in focus while blurring the background (and foreground). Be aware though that this technique works best if there is some space between the bird and the background elements.
– Using a narrow f4 or f6 aperture also provides a faster corresponding shutter speed, which is helpful in stopping the motion of fast-moving songbirds and birds in flight, while creating sharper images overall.
– It’s fine to have plants or other natural elements show in the background, and in some cases you will want to embrace the background. Then, you may wish to increase the area in focus around the bird by dialing the aperture to f11 or f14, as long as you have plenty of shutter speed to work with – say at least 1/400 for a motionless bird, and 1/1000 or faster for birds in flight.
Getting low into a position near the same level of this Ruddy Turnstone on the shoreline provided a more intimate image than if you photographed it while you stood at an elevated angle.
Using a Mobile Photo Blind
– I like to use my vehicle as a comfortable mobile blind. Birds tend to react more to the sight of people, but they often ignore a parked vehicle. Pull safely off the side of the road in the best possible position to photograph your subject with respect to the direction of the sunlight.
– Your vehicle provides an option to reposition a few feet forward or back when necessary, in response to movements of a bird or birds, or to avoid background elements or shadows that show up in your photos. You can also easily drive onward to look for the next photo opportunity.
– Turn off your vehicle any time you are photographing to keep your camera lens as stable as possible.
– Stabilize your lens on the top of a slightly raised window or the side of the window frame to reduce any body shake that may be transferred as you hold your camera.
– Hold your breath when you press the shutter button to reduce any motion that action might create.
– Using your “mobile blind,” explore a more expansive area occasionally to monitor where the birds are – and where they aren’t. Take advantage of photo opportunities you encounter along the way, and plan for future photo opportunities with respect to the time of day the sun will illuminate a promising area best. Also consider areas to return to later in the season or during another season of the year.
Composition & Design
– Try not to center a bird in the middle of the photo; leave a little more space in front of the bird for it to look into, walk into, or fly into.
– To better understand how to position a bird within your photo frame, I suggest taking a quick look at the “rule of thirds,” which artists often use when composing their works. Photographers also use this technique for photo framing and design, although it is just a guide to be aware of when composing photos.
– Sometimes you can position a bird within the frame while initially taking a photo, which is easiest when using a zoom lens. But you can always reframe the photo and thereby reposition the bird in the frame by simply cropping the image using photo editing software on your computer.
Beautiful morning sunlight illuminated this Tricolored Heron as it landed, providing a fast shutter speed (1/1200) that stopped the action. It’s always exciting when everything works in your favor, but advance preparation always improves your luck when photographing birds.
– When using photo editing software, I edit a photo as little as possible; but simple cropping of an image can improve some photos immensely. Cropping extraneous areas of a photo can also increase the size of the bird in a photo frame – effectively zooming in on the bird.
– Try to keep up with your photo reviews and editing, preferably after each photo session. Copy your best photos and give them a name and date to separate them from the other photos you take during photo sessions. Keep your photo files orderly and easy to access.
– It’s easy to keep your photos on external hard drives, separate from your computer, although it’s always convenient to have a file of favorite photographs saved on your computer.
– Keep 2 copies of all your photos – in different locations – to ensure you never “lose” any of your valuable photographs.
And when photographing birds, there is always the luck factor – Good Luck!
Article and photographs by Paul Konrad
[Addendum: The photos used in this feature were among the Top 20 favorite photos Paul took during 2021.]
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