Bird Photography Tips | The Ultimate Guide to Birding Photography
Bird photography, with its unique blend of challenges and rewards, is a highly rewarding endeavor for photographers of all skill levels. In this comprehensive guide, we dive into the essential aspects of this captivating genre. Covering everything from selecting the right gear and camera settings to mastering composition and lighting, this article is designed to elevate your birding photography experience. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or just starting out, these expert tips and techniques will help you capture the beauty and intricacy of our feathered friends in stunning detail.
Video: The Beginner’s Guide To Photographing Wild Birds
Bird Photography Cameras and Lenses
Let’s talk about starting with the right gear. Here’s a quick list of the gear used in this tutorial:
The best lens will generally be a telephoto zoom lens, and I would recommend at least a minimum of 70-200mm. If you can step to something like a 700-300mm, then check out Tamron’s 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3 variable aperture lens. It proved to be a fantastic lens. Another lens I played with was a fixed focal length lens, the new Canon 600mm RF with a fixed f/11 aperture. Whichever make or model you use, you’re going to want a long lens because you’ll be photographing the birds from a significant distance.
Fixed Focal Length Vs. Zoom Lenses for Birds
If you’re trying to decide between a fixed focal length lens vs. a zoom lens, consider the following. With a fixed focal length, you’re getting more distance (such as with the 600mm RF), but you’re also giving up compositional control. With the 70-300mm zoom lens, you get half the distance, but you also get a lot more compositional flexibility. It really comes down to what is more important to you.
Best Cameras For Bird Photography
Next, let’s talk briefly about the camera body. I would highly recommend using a mirrorless camera for their superior focusing systems and lighter weights. If you were to use Canon’s R5 or R6 models, or if you were to go with Sony, or even Nikon’s mirrorless bodies with the Nikon Z5 or Nikon Z6, they’re all going to work well. Basically, you want a body that has solid autofocus capabilities and good low light performance.
Other Gear-Related Considerations
The only other thing that I would add about gear is to keep in mind how you typically shoot. For example, I like to ride around on my bike and I don’t much room for anything extra, so anything that I carry with me has to go in a small backpack. Therefore, having a single lens with a mirrorless body makes a very small footprint and allows me to also carry along my small camping chair.
When to Capture Bird Photography
What is the ideal time of day to shoot? The morning golden hour is often best because A) Birds are more active in the morning and then, also, the light is cleaner and you get that warm buttery look to it. If you shoot in the evening golden hour, there’s more pollution in the air and the light’s going to take on red and orange tones, and it just doesn’t look quite as pretty or quite as nice as morning golden hour.”
Lastly, in most locations, fewer people are around in the morning. In general, more people generally translates to fewer birds.
How to Not Chase the Birds
Chasing birds is not a good idea. Instead, what I found gave me great success was grabbing my tiny, portable camping chair and setting it up near a spot where I knew a lot of birds would congregate. From that spot, I would wait. Once you’re sitting and not moving, the birds tend to come really close.
Focus on the eye
Like other genres of photography, a focus on the eye is critical. “Focus on the eye of the bird, our eyes search for the sharpest part of an image, and so that the birds eye is the sharpest part, then people will immediately connect with the bird. If the eye is fuzzy, people can’t really connect with the bird. They’re not going to be in the bird’s world.”
Get a sparkle in the eye
The similarities between portrait photography and bird photography is interesting! “Get a sparkle in the eye and we want a little highlight in the eye or a sparkle in the eye and that makes the bird look alive.”
Camera Settings for Bird Photography
Shutter Speed for Bird Photography
Birds are obviously fast-moving subjects. Likewise, when photographing them, you’re going to need a fast shutter speed. I prefer shooting manual for everything, and that includes photographing birds. I set the camera to 1/2000th of a second, which I found it said in the bird photography communities is sort of a sweet spot for shutter speed. Why? Because the shutter speed is fast enough to freeze most of the action with minimal motion. You also get a little bit more light. You could take the shutter speed up to 1/8000th of a second, but then you’d get much less light. So, 1/2000th is a sweet spot in shutter speed where we can maximize detail and get enough light.
Aperture for Bird Photography
The aperture you choose will depend largely on the lens you use. I shot as wide open as the lens could go. On the Tamron, depending on how far zoomed in I was, the aperture varied. On the prime, with a fixed aperture of f/11, I shot wide open and simply adjusted my ISO to get a proper exposure.
ISO for Bird Photography
With the Canon 600mm RF lens at 1/2000th a second shutter speed in bright conditions, I’m still at ISO 800. This goes back to that camera body notion where even in midday sun at 1/200th a second and an f/11 aperture, you’re going to be at ISO 400. So, if you start thinking about sunrise and/or sunset at f/11 and 1/2000th of a second, then you might be at ISO 800, 600, or even 3200 to get to the right exposure. Having a more advanced camera body will benefit you in these cases.
Anticipating Motion in Relation to Camera Settings
1/2000th a second might seem excessive when photographing a group of birds that are holding still or slowly walking around. You could always slow your shutter speed to 1/500th 1/1000th for those moments, but I like to keep my shutter speed fast because one thing we need to do when photographing birds is anticipate motion. We’ll talk more about this below, but birds can very quickly get up and and fly, and you want to be able to photograph them when they do.
Keeping Up with Changes in Lighting Conditions
Make sure to keep an eye on your exposure as light changes. This happens quite a bit during sunrise and sunset, or even when the sun plays hide-and-seek with the clouds. It’s a simple but important tip. Make sure to watch your exposure.
Shooting with the light ensures even lighting. “If you point your shadow with the bird, the sun is behind you, that means the bird is evenly lit up, there’s no harsh shadows and the bird’s going to look really good.”
Composition for Bird Photography
Isolating Your Subjects
When it comes to composition, I recommend isolating your subjects. What worked well for me was trying to focus on one bird or one grouping. We already mentioned how important a clean background can be, so keep that in mind as you frame your shot as well. It’s very easy to shoot images that are just too cluttered, leaving the viewer wondering what to focus on.
Choosing a Background
Once you get to the location, you’ll need to choose your background. The first thing that I consider when I see a grouping of birds is where I want to actually shoot from. I always try to look at my background when deciding on a shooting position. We want to clean up our backgrounds and make sure we’re shooting from an angle where the background looks good. A lot of the places I shoot at aren’t special spots, like alongside an aqueduct or with junk all around. What helps is choosing a good background.
Use the rule of thirds
The rule of thirds applies to bird photography as well! “Conventional wisdom here is if you put the horizon on one of the horizontal lines, or if you put the bird on one of the vertical lines, or you put the action or the eye on one of the circle red dots, the action points, where the rule of thirds cross, you’re going to have a nice composition. It’s going to be balanced. It’s going to look okay.”
Level your tripod
You want to level your tripod for a couple of different reasons. So, the horizon can be level in your pictures, and also, if you’ve got a big, expensive telephoto lens on your tripod, by the tripod being level, it’s going to be more stable and your tripod’s not going to fall over.
Get eye-level with the bird
“If you’re eye-level with the bird, you’re in their world, you’re connecting with them. It makes it easier for the viewer to connect with the subject and the images just look a lot more stunning. It’s more personal, it’s more intimate, and that makes a better image.”
It’s imperative that you learn to anticipate movement. Now, I’m sure this takes years of practice to really get down. I only went out for a couple sessions, and it was difficult to do. Granted, even after two shoots, I started to recognize when the birds would fly in and where they would typically land, as well as when they’d get ready to take off or fight. One time, for example, a bird flew in, and I started capturing the action because he kind of came in hot, like these guys were in his territory. His feathers ruffled up and I got the shot (see the image above). I think it’s really cool because you can see all of his feathers standing up and there’s good detail in these photographs.
Another thing that I loved doing was watching the groupings, and when they would take off, I would sometimes be able to capture something like three birds all taking off at once and starting to go into flight. I would do the same for birds that would come in to land or else fly around the area. This is where keeping your shutter speed faster is going to be helpful because you don’t have to make any adjustments when they start flying and landing.
Learning the Names of Your Subjects
For my last and final bonus tip, learn the names of what the hell it is that you’re shooting. I took a lot of pictures of birds and I have no clue what they are called. So, if you can look through the images and tell me, I’d appreciated the help. I learned a few of them after the fact, but when talking to your bird photography friends, you’ll feel like an idiot when you can’t identify an egret, or you know, the Egyptian Goose.
I hope you all enjoyed this article/video. I know it’s a bit of a departure from our typical portrait-focused education, but as I mentioned up top, it’s important to challenge ourselves to try new things and expand our horizons. If you’re interested in diving more into photography education, check out our photography workshops and Premium subscriptions at slrloungeworkshops.com.