HOW TO TAKE BETTER BIRD PHOTOGRAPHS

 

Top Five Tips

There are as many ways to take bird photographs as there are types of cameras and lenses. There is also a plethora of detailed advice available on the internet so I have decided to keep this page simple. Set out below are my top five tips for taking good bird images.

 

For more comprehensive advice on bird photography, there are several fantastic resources out there. Here are just a few I know about:

- Birds as Art, a website and blog run by Arthur Morris, one of the world's best bird photographers. He is happy to get emails and give advice.  He also offers cds and books for sale which cover everything you will ever need to know;

- The Handbook of Bird Photography by Markus Varesuvo, Jari Peltomaki and Bence Mate - these are three absolutely incredible bird photographers. Available through Barnes & Noble.

- The Bird Photography Field Guide: The essential handbook for capturing birds with your digital SLR by David Tipling.

- Ari Hazegi Photography - what this man doesn't know about birds in flight photography isn't worth knowing!

 

 These are general rules and with every good rule, there are going to be exceptions - many, many exceptions (and an exception to the exception). 


Tip 1.   Get Close, Low & Dirty

Leaving aside habitat shots, generally the closer you get to your subject the better. There are many ways to get closer to your subject:

 

  • Buy a big lens. When I started, I was told that to take good bird photographs you need a minimum lens size of 500mm. A Prime 500mm+ lens will cost you the equivalent of a small car. However, you may be surprised to know that even with 'Nelson' (my Canon EF 500mm f/4 L IS USM) I still have to get close to the bird to get maximum detail and sharpness.  Nevertheless, if you can afford one, they ARE fantastic. If you can't afford one, you can still get good bird photographs, you just have to work a bit harder to get close to your subject in a different way. 
     

  • Add a teleconverter or 'extender' to an existing lens.  Teleconverters act like magnifiers that sit between the lens and the camera. I use a Canon 1.4x teleconverter. The 1.4x increases the focal length of my 500mm lens to 700mm. But it comes at a cost of one stop of light. I used to have a 2x teleconverter too, but I put it in a vice (Don't say it - I know! ... needless to say I don't recommend putting any camera equipment in a vice...)  For Canon users, take note that extenders are only compatible with L-series lenses with a focal length of 135mm or longer, as well as the following zoom lenses: the EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM; EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM; EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM; EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM; and the EF70-200mm f/4L USM.

    Digiscoping is another way to get closer to birds. Essentially, it involves attaching a compact camera (or DSLR) to a telescope. But remember, even if the lens is the best quality available, air and other atmospheric conditions (heat haze, fog, smog)  will still reduce the clarity of your subject. The more distance between you and your subject, the more impact the quality of the air will have on overall sharpness of the image.  I can't say it enough - the closer you get the better (digiscoping is great if you simply want to be able to photograph distant birds for id purposes).
     

  • Use a bird hide: You can buy some expensive set-ups, but it may be just as easy (and a lot cheaper) to make one up yourself. My favourite bird hide is my car!  Raptors in particular will let you get a lot closer to them if you in a car. This shot of a Nankeen Kestrel was taken from my car window:
    Nankeen kestrel, Falco cenchroides (Moora, WA)Nankeen kestrel, Falco cenchroides (Moora, WA)

 

  • Camouflage yourself. You can do as little as cover your camera and lens or you can dress up like a giant swamp creature. It all depends on your pride and level of obsession. Ironically, the best place to find camouflage materials is on hunting websites.
     

  • Use a remote.  Set up the camera and pre-focus on a spot where you know (or HOPE) a bird will land, then watch from a distance and use a remote to trigger the shutter when the bird is where you want it to be. Camera remotes can be from 5m to 100m in range.

 

If the bird you want to photograph is on the ground or in the water, then get yourself down and dirty. There is no doubt that photos taken at the bird's eye level have an intimacy with the viewer that photos taken from above or below can't match.  Below is a photo I took at Jurien Bay Marina. I crawled on my belly to slowly get closer to these wading Banded Stilts. My husband almost made me walk home because I was covered in sand, but it was worth it!

Banded Stilt, Cladorhynchus leucocephalus (Boat harbour, Jurien Bay, WA)Banded Stilt, Cladorhynchus leucocephalus (Boat harbour, Jurien Bay, WA)

 

 

Tip 2.  Keep the eyes sharp

Little Eagle, Hieraaetus morphnoides (Rehabilitated & released in Perth, WA)Little Eagle, Hieraaetus morphnoides (Rehabilitated & released in Perth, WA)
The golden rule for any animal photography is to keep the eye sharp. Simple! Well, not quite. If the eye is blurry it can either be due to motion blur (eg camera shake, subject moved) or too shallow a depth of field ('dof': basically the area of the image that is in focus).

 

The first thing to do is check whether any part of the image is in focus. If it is, then you need to refocus on the eye and/or adjust your aperture settings to get a larger dof. If no part of your image is in focus (and you haven't accidently left the lens on manual focus), the cause is motion blur. Cures for motion blur include using a tripod, increasing the ISO setting, stepping down the aperture or all of the above!

 

When I am photographing birds, I usually work in 'aperture priority' mode set to a minimum of f7.1 - this gives me a good depth of field for most types of bird. It means, however, that I need to keep an eye on the shutter speed.  If it becomes too slow to freeze the action (ie results in motion blur), I increase the ISO setting and hope that I can fix any digital noise problems in post processing.   

 

Tip 3.  Watch the Bokeh

This is the easiest rule to forget. You can get so carried away with your subject that you don't see what is behind it. The bird images with the greatest impact are those with few, if any, distracting elements. It's what is commonly called 'good bokeh'.  Nasim Mansurov of Photographylife defines bokeh as "[T]he quality and feel of the background/foreground blur and reflected points of light".


For an excellent example of a bird photographer who gets the bokeh right each time, see Duade Paton's Australian Bird Photography.  Getting low to the ground (as recommended in Tip 1), is one great way of minimising bad bokeh and getting a more engaging bird photo. An example of good background bokeh is this photo of a young Black-fronted Dotterel (in order to take which I was lying on my stomach in gluggy, very stinky mud):

 

Black-fronted Dotterel, Elseyornis melanops (North Lake, Perth, WA)Black-fronted Dotterel, Elseyornis melanops (North Lake, Perth, WA)

Whilst some things can be removed in the post processing, in my experience, this is a time consuming process. It's better to get it right at the time of capture - life's too short for photoshop!
 

Tip 4.  Get up Early...ish!

I confess to being the worst culprit as I like to sleep in. But there is no doubt that the morning (or late day) light is the best for giving your photos that edge.  Not to mention, the early bird catches the worm! I know, its trite to say, but birds really are more active in the mornings.

 

How early? Unless you want special effects with the light (eg silhouettes of birds) there is no need to be there at the crack of dawn. If the light is too low, you probably wont be able to get sharp photos. The best time, and when I find the birds most active, is usually 1 to 2 hours after sunrise. When the sun is low in the sky it tends to give off a pleasing warm glow.

 

Pacific Black Duck, Anas superciliosa (Lake Joondalup, Perth, WA)Pacific Black Duck, Anas superciliosa (Lake Joondalup, Perth, WA)

 

Tip 5  Keep it Fun

Ninety percent of good photography, I am sure, comes from a passion and love for what you are doing. If you have given any or all of the above tips a fair go and it's still not working for you, then chuck 'em out - the whole damn lot! It is better to stay motivated and in love with what you are doing than let it become a chore or disappointment. At the end of the day, everybody is different and if we all took photos the same way, oh what a terrible world it would be!

I wish you all the best in your photographic endeavours, whatever they may be, and know this... you are not the only weirdo obsessed with birds out there...

Fellow Bird Nerd,
Georgina