In my short time of attempting any form of bird photography I have found it incredibly frustrating. With that in mind I thought I would explore the art of the possible and find out a few tips and tricks on how to photograph birds. Now, after doing some research I realised that it only gets less frustrating once you come to terms with the fact that patience is a virtue! So this leads me to my first piece of advice for the day…
Patience, patience, patience
I cannot reiterate it enough! Mike Sutherland explained it perfectly in his blog about his ‘Search for Paradise‘. For Mike, his paradise was in the shape of a bird, not any bird and not anywhere, this bird is the paradise flycatcher and the place was on its nest! Not a small ask but one that Mike has spent years, months and days dreaming of and trying to capture. After finding the nest and spending countless hours in the heat in a full camouflage suit, it was not his time and he eventually gave up the hunt. Now, there are many rangers that are just as desperate to get this shot and David Dampier is one of them As Mike left the sight, David snuck into position and after an hour or so he managed to capture some great images! Better luck next time Mike!
Be prepared to fail
Now patience with the birds is one thing, but patience with yourself is another. With bird photography, particularly with birds in flight, you need to be prepared for failure. Sometimes you can literally take three or four hundred photos and perhaps get one or two “keepers” at best. It must be remembered that every perfect shot of a bird in flight that you might see is invariably the product of hours of frustration and hundreds of blurred attempts previously.
Capture their behaviour
In order to do this, there is a certain amount of knowledge about the birds that is needed. For example, understanding the signs just before a roller is about to do his display, or reading the body language of a bird that is about to take flight.
Feeding birds, particularly those hawking insects, will often return to the same perch. Focus on the perch and wait for the bird to return in order to get a shot of it landing, wings spread. Sometimes a bird that has caught something and returned to it’s perch will toss it’s prey in the air in order to re-position it for easier passage down the throat – if you are ready for this you may get lucky with a well timed shot.
Nothing fascinates more than capturing a bird in flight, but if you’re not careful, you’ll only get a blur. To stop the action cold, you need to quicken the shutter speed to at least 1/1000th of a second. The fast shutter will be enable you to freeze the action. Consider also the species of bird you are shooting – a small, fast flying bird might need a shutter speed of over 1/2000th of a second, whereas a large, soaring eagle might only require 1/1000th of a second or less.
Check your reflexes
Compared to mammals, birds are not only small, but very fast. You have to be thinking in advance of what you are going to do – whether it is panning the lens with the bird, or pressing the shutter in time as it takes off. By the time you have seen the bird spread it’s wings to take off, passed the message from your brain to your finger and released the shutter, it is invariably too late – you need to constantly think of releasing the shutter before the bird flies – this will reduce your reaction time and help get the shot.
Settings are important
Everyone has their own preference when it comes to settings. The non-negotiable however, as mentioned previously, is a fast shutter speed. How you achieve that is up to you. Some important points to remember are:
- Up your ISO – this will help with a fast shutter speed and if you have good light, a high ISO won’t result in as much noise as a high ISO in low light – most modern DSLR’s will show up very little noise in good light with an ISO setting of up to 1000
- Up your aperture – although this will lower you shutter speed, so bear that in mind, it allows a bit more room for error in your focal point, as it brings more of the image into focus
- Continuous focus – this will help you track a bird in flight as your lens and camera will continually re-focus as you track a bird
- Continuous shooting – taking one shot at a time will limit your chances of success – set your camera to it’s highest rate of frames per second to improve your odds.
The right gear
Bird photography is one area where you can’t get away with anything less than top quality equipment. A decent camera body with a mega-pixel count that will allow for a significant crop is a must. Anything less than a 300mm lens will battle to capture a decent image – a fixed focal length lens of 400 or 500mm is ideal – not only are birds small, they will seldom let you get as close as mammals, so the reach of a long lens is usually needed.
With a big lens, the next requirement will be a support system. Most of these lenses weigh a fair amount so operating them hand-held can be tough. A good quality tripod or beanbag is a must.
A hyde or some sort of cover can be a useful tool in allowing you to get a bit closer to capture the image you are looking for.
Other than that, a fair bit of luck always helps! Please feel free to add to these tips in the comments below…
Written by Kate Neill