I thought I would contribute some information by sharing some of the tips and techniques that I've picked up through my experience of photographing birds over the past few years. Whilst it's not meant to be a definitive guide, I hope you can find some information that may assist you in learning to photograph birds.
It's a tough genre of photography and a great deal of it involves more than knowing how to use a camera! You not only need to learn all the necessary photographic skills, but you'll need to develop a sound knowledge of your subjects too. Take things in small steps and with patience, perseverance and practice you'll be well on the way to success.
Most DSLR cameras available today are suitable. A couple of details worth mentioning however are frame rates and crop factor.
Frame rate or Frames per Second (FPS) refers to how many photos a camera can take per second, a higher number of FPS is desirable when photographing birds.
Crop Factor relates to the size of the sensor (the digital equivalent of film) in the camera, with many modern DSLRs having a smaller sensor (typically 1.5-1.6x smaller) than cameras boasting full frame sensors.
The practical upshot of this to the bird photographer, is that crop sensor cameras have a smaller field of view than a full frame camera. This places more pixels on the subject as it will fill the frame to a greater degree.
Below is a comparison of a Welcome Swallow photographed from the same location and distance with the same lens, however the image on the left was taken with a full-frame camera, whilst that on the right is a crop-sensor camera. The difference in field of view is quite apparent.
photo courtesy of DAdeGroot
Ideally you need a lens with a focal length of 400mm or greater for bird photography.
500-600mm lenses are generally very expensive and often found more in the hands of the professional photographer or very advanced (or rich!) hobbyist. Even at such extreme focal lengths you would be surprised at just how close you need to be to fill the frame with a small bird!
Tripods, Monopods and Beanbags
I like to use a monopod rather than a tripod for my birding work. Mainly because I tend to move around the scrub a lot and a tripod is far too cumbersome for this type of work. I have my monopod pre-set to a height where if I drop to one knee, the camera is at the perfect height for a shot. If I'm stationary in a hide or blind then I'll use a tripod for extra stability and to allow the use of slower shutter speeds.
The use of a small beanbag or even a pillow on which you can rest your camera and lens can also help with stability. If you photograph birds from your car (using it as a hide is quite effective) then using a beanbag on the windowsill will help avoid vibration from the car's engine.
Learning and understanding bird behaviour plays an important role in bird photography. Take the time out to really observe birds and how they react to you. You'll notice some appear friendly and inquisitive and will approach very closely, whilst others will always remain shy and prefer to go unseen. Use this knowledge to plan your approach on a particular species.
Don't forget to listen! Quite often a calling bird will give away its presence and location long before you catch sight of it. Also pay attention to where birds perch, many are quite literally creatures of habit and will often return to a favoured perch or location, whether it be for roosting, hunting or displaying from.
This Red-capped Robin (Petroica goodenovii
) was photographed after observing that it would return to hunt from a particular perch.
Photographing birds in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries means you can approach your subjects relatively easily. This allows you to concentrate more on developing your photographic techniques. It can also provide opportunities you may not get elsewhere and can lead to some stunning images.
This Little Black Cormorant (Phalacrocorax sulcirostris
) was a bird being rehabilitated at a wildlife sanctuary. It made for a wonderful opportunity to take some 'portrait' style photographs.
In our capital cities there are a lot of common species both native and introduced which are all worthy subjects for bird photography. Being in close proximity to people also means they can often be more easily approached.
Try not to overlook these as they are plentiful, can look spectacularly pretty when photographed up close and since they're plentiful, make for good practice to develop your techniques on.
The introduced House Sparrow (Passer domesticus
) is a common garden bird that is often overlooked. However, they are a most attractive finch and can make great subjects!
Try to wear dull-coloured clothing and avoid sudden or sharp movements. If you're with other people, talk in quiet voices and don't suddenly raise an arm to point something out.
Whilst any dull-coloured clothing is suitable, camouflage clothing picked up from an Army disposal store is often made to be hard-wearing.
Find a nice quiet spot, sit down and let the birds come to you. Birds will often move in close to "check you out" whilst you are just sitting there. By sitting down, you're keeping yourself small and low to the ground and appear much less threatening. You'd be surprised at just how close some birds will approach using this method!
If you're stalking birds, keep yourself low to the ground and avoid looking directly at your subject. Don't walk in straight lines towards birds, but rather walk in diagonals in the general direction of your subject to slowly make an approach.
Use any available natural cover to hide behind as you approach. Even pausing now and then to examine a plant you might be standing next to, will give the impression you have little interest in the bird and it won't feel threatened as you move closer.
There is much debate about using call playback to attract birds, some suggest it may be harmful and disruptive to birds, whilst others feel it does no harm. If you do use playback to attract birds, the bird's welfare must come first and foremost! Don't overdo it and if the bird shows any sign of distress, cease using it immediately!
Just as effective is to use a technique called pishing
. This is simply making a squeaky, kiss-like noise with your lips. It's thought this replicates the scolding calls of some species against a predator. It often has the effect of bringing in other birds to investigate what the source of the threat might be.
Hides and Blinds
Whilst they can be unbearably hot inside in warm weather, and sitting in them for long periods may be tiresome there's no doubting that using a hide or simply throwing some camo netting over the top of yourself can produce some great photos.
Placing hides near water sources where birds will congregate in hot weather is one way to ensure your subjects will appear where you want them. You can also place attractive looking perches for them to land on and position them in such a way where you compose the scene.
Placing the hide next to this water tank lead to the image below.
Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater (Acanthagenys rufogularis
) photographed from a hide at a water source.
Shoot birds at their eye-level. If possible, try to get down to (or up to) the same level which the bird's at. If I'm shooting ducks on a lake for example, I'll lay down on the edge of the lake to shoot from their perspective. It can really add an awful lot to a shot. If it means getting a bit grubby for a great shot, I reckon it's worth it.
Shooting from above gives a human viewpoint of your subject...
...whilst getting down to the eye-level of this Duck improves the image greatly!
Shooting a number of frames in bursts (at the fastest frame rate your camera can handle) will help ensure you capture 'that shot'. Birds are fast and unpredictable, using this rapid-fire approach helps ensure you will capture at least one image where they're not blinking or flicking a tail or wing.
Early morning or late afternoon are often the best times for photographing birds and not just because the light is better and less harsh. At these times of the day birds are often more active!
Eye-contact from a bird will also lift a shot immeasurably! If possible try to get your subject to look at the camera. If they're not looking your way, you can try making a squeaky noise with your lips against your hands. It's usually enough to get their attention and a look to camera.
With bird photography, it's all about maintaining a shutter speed high enough to capture your subject without blur from either subject or camera movement. The general rule is match your shutter speed to the focal length of your lens, as a minimum! So if you have a 400mm lens, you should be aiming for shutter speeds of 1/400s or faster.
Ideally, you should be aiming for higher speeds if possible, as whilst this rule might be fine for eliminating motion blur from camera movement, it may not be enough to freeze a birds movement. Particularly for those species that tend to dart about!
For birding I like to set a minimum working ISO of 400. In very bright conditions you can get away with lower, but what happens when that little bird lands in the shade off to your side? You won't get a fast enough shutter speed to capture the little tacker and you'll miss the opportunity and end up with a shot of a blurry little blob.
Depending on your camera model, don't be afraid to shoot at some of the higher ISO settings. If the light in general looks poor, I'll set my camera to ISO800 and leave it on that. If the light is shocking, give up on photography for the day, just enjoy observing birds and return when conditions are better!
Most lenses have a 'sweet-spot' where they perform at their sharpest. This is quite often to be found at one or two stops above maximum aperture. On my lens (f/5.6 maximum) I've found f/8 tends to give the best results. I'll use this setting of f/8 as a starting point.
If you want to really isolate the subject by throwing the background out of focus you can open the lens up to its maximum aperture. It will produce a shot where you see that lovely sharp bird against a nice smooth background.
Of course, another important aspect to f/stop when shooting birds is shutter speed! As you stop a lens down (increasing the DOF), it won't allow as much light to enter. As a result, this will reduce the shutter speed. Shooting at f/5.6 may give you a perfectly acceptable shutter speed, whilst shooting at f/9 may be too low to be usable. Of course you could compensate by then increasing the ISO setting to give you a higher shutter speed. It's all about finding that balance!
I (and I suspect most bird photographers) use Aperture Priority Mode (Av on Canon cameras). It quickly allows me to manage DoF, and to some extent, shutter speed. I will however, generally use the ISO setting as a basic way of controlling shutter speed should I need to increase it.
For focus mode I tend to stick to AI SERVO Mode. This allows the camera to try to maintain focus on my subject, regardless if the subject is moving or stationary. This is also the only mode to use when trying to capture Birds in Flight (BIF), as you can imagine!
It's also important to use the central focal point only. You can aim this central spot on any point (generally the head or eye) of the bird you wish to focus on.
I find for Metering Mode, I get the best, or rather most consistent results from using Partial or Centre-weighted Metering as the subject tends to be in that location. There are times when you may wish to change this, but 95% of the time I stay on Partial Metering.
[hide][top]Fill-Flash & Exposure Compensation
The use of a flash to 'fill-in' the shadowed areas on a bird will often make the shot that little more special. It can also be a necessity if your subject is heavily backlit, as a flash will help fill-in the darker bird as it's set against a brighter background. Even in bright, sunny conditions fill-flash can improve an image. Try it out and take the time to experiment with this technique. If the light in general is very low a flash helps lift your subject from the gloom.
A dedicated flash is preferable to the on-board unit that's on your camera, though they can still be used. As for any particular settings, it depends on several factors. Distance to the bird, amount of fill-flash desired, back-lighting on the subject. I find that as I tend to shoot small birds up quite close, I need to set the flash to about -1 to -2 Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC) on the flash unit to avoid over-flashing the subject.
If your subject is further away you may need to purchase or make what's known as a "Better Beamer". It's a simple Fresnel lens attached in front of the flash head which concentrates the light emitted from your flash giving it greater range.
Exposure Compensation (EC) is another technique in bird photography that you'll find yourself needing to employ from time to time. If your shooting a dark bird against a light background (the sky for example) you may need to add some +EC to the shot to avoid under-exposing the bird. The amount of EC needed will vary depending on the conditions, so you'll need to experiment. Even when using a flash to fill-in the subject, I'll often dial in +1 to +2 EC when shooting against a light background.
It's all a matter of experimentation to find what works best for a given situation and your own gear.