10 tips for better bird photos
Being a bird photographer presents problems that most other photographers don’t face. First, birds move, and often very quickly! Second, they see you coming long before you see them. Have you ever seen an orchid do a runner when you pull out your macro lens? So how do you get a good, sharp shot of something that pings around like a rubber ball on a squash court?
Here are my top ten tips for bird photography beginners that will set you on the path to getting that perfect shot.
1) A Good Lens
There is no getting around the fact that the better the quality of your lens, the better chance you have of getting a sharp image, even in low light.
It comes back to what you can afford and how serious you are about bird photography. If you are just starting out, or if it’s always just going to be a hobby, then I would avoid a large prime lens and stick with a good zoom lens as this will be cheaper and prove much more versatile for all aspects of wildlife photography. Image stabilisation, or vibration reduction, is a key feature of most modern long focal length lenses and where possible you should try to get a lens which has it.
Having image stabilisation means that you can handhold a lens at much slower shutter speeds than you could with a conventional lens.
Unless you are taking ‘birds in the environment’ shots, the general rule is that the bigger the focal length the better. The maximum focal length of the lens should be at least 300mm.
There are some ways that you can increase your focal length without spending a fortune, such as by buying a camera with a cropped sensor or investing in a teleconverter.
2) Get close
Generally, the closer you get to your subject the better. Every bit of space between you and your subject reduces clarity. There are lots of ways to get closer to your subject (camouflage, long lens, teleconverters, etc), but it’s best to let the bird come to you. Sound ridiculous? Well, it’s true -- and easier than you think.
I don’t advocate using any kind of food (especially not live bait), but setting yourself up near points of water in the dry Australian climate is a no-brainer. Then, to appear less threatening, it’s best to lie down on the ground or at least stay seated in one spot. I often do this with migratory waders and other shorebirds that like to feed along the shorelines. If you lie down well in advance of their appearance and don’t move, often they will come very close to you – sometimes so close you can’t focus on them anymore!
But you do need to be patient. Once you’ve gained their trust, you can’t move until the birds move on first. It is important not to deliberately flush birds, as this causes undue stress.
A great way of getting close to skittish birds is by sitting in your car or staying within its shadow. Raptors, for example, are often easier to shoot from a car.
3) Spray and Pray
‘Spray and Pray’ refers to shooting in Continuous High Speed shutter mode (you know, the one that sounds like a gatling gun) and hoping you get a great shot of the bird doing something interesting. I’ve only recently discovered this expression. The practice isn’t quite as random as it sounds in the sense that you’re still choosing when and what to photograph.
Bear in mind, though, that you can only Spray and Pray effectively if you have a reasonably fast camera, and a fast card with a good amount of storage. If you are still using the 2GB card you got with your camera, it’s not going to matter how fast your camera is supposed to be (that is, the number of shots it takes per second) because the ‘buffer’ between shots (that time when you can’t take a photo because it’s still writing the last image to the camera card) will be huge (you’ll also run out of space pretty quickly).
So, sorry, but the moral of this story is get the BIGGEST card with the FASTEST speed that you can afford (ideally, a 16GB or bigger camera card with at least 80mb/s write speed … and a spare).
We have the privilege of shooting with digital cameras where it costs nothing to take extra photos (apart from time spent deleting the rubbish), so don’t be stingy. The more shots you take, the quicker you’ll learn and the more likely it is that you’ll capture that perfect moment.
4) Get Low and Dirty
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 (or even from side-on) can't match. Also, getting at eye level with the bird helps to reduce the amount of background and foreground in focus, resulting in pleasing blurs around the bird.
5) Common birds
When you start out in bird photography, there’s a huge temptation to chase the rarer bird species. Hence, you drive five hours to a water hole where someone once saw a purple-breasted green-haired bob-eye (not a real bird). If you want ID shots of different bird species, that’s fine. But if you want a good bird photo, you are rarely going to get it that way. You are better off spending time at your local park, or in your back garden, photographing the birds around you which are already habituated to human company.
A photo of a common bird doing something interesting in good light is far better than a photo of a rare bird doing something boring in bad light. If you browse through nature photography competition finalists you will see that a significant proportion of the photos are of common, not rare, animals.
6) Good Light
There are lots of ways you can use light to alter the feel or impact of an image. One of the best ways of enhancing image quality is by taking photographs in the first few (preferably golden) hours after sunrise and the last few before sunset and keeping the sun behind you. This will not only give you perfect light on your bird but, if its head is turned towards you, you’ll get a beautiful catch-light in its eyes.
7) Turn on the Blinkies!
One of the most important aspects of bird photography is getting the exposure right in camera. If your image is overexposed you’ll lose crucial detail in the highlights. If that’s in the background, the problem might not be a biggie. But if it’s the bird that is overexposed, well... Houston we have a problem! Photoshop can do many things but performing miracles isn’t one of them.
Fortunately, there’s an easy solution.
On most modern digital cameras there’s a setting in the menu called ‘Highlight Alert’ or similar. If this is enabled, you’ll quickly see if there are any problem areas. When the preview image appears in the LCD any blown highlights will blink black and white. If this happens anywhere on the bird (it’s quite common with a white bird against a dark background), adjust your exposure (either by choosing negative exposure compensation or by adjusting the aperture, shutter speed or ISO if you are shooting in manual mode). Take another shot and check the ‘blinkies’. Repeat until the area you are concerned about stops flashing. Simple!
I once saw an article on Australian bird photography which said that rainbow bee-eaters were rare birds. That’s not true. Depending on where you are and what time of year it is, they can be extremely common and easy to photograph. They, like sacred kingfishers, are summer migrants. So yes, if you want to photograph them in July around Perth, for instance, you may as well go to the zoo because, chances are, you won’t find one in the wild. However, come November, if you visit certain parks in the city, they are as common as kookaburras. In other words, the key to getting a good photo of some bird species is to do your research: Get to know what birds are doing and when they are doing it.
A quick and easy way of getting information is by joining a local bird group. BirdLife Australia is Australia’s leading bird organisation, dedicated to our native bird conservation. Each state has its own sub-groups and some, like BirdLife WA, run regular bird outings for free.
Online resources are also invaluable. Most states have Facebook groups dedicated to bird photography. Join one of these and see what images other people have posted. Where did they take the photo? When did they take it? When the rainbow bee-eaters are in town again, you will know it, because someone, somewhere, will post a photograph of one.
9) Good post-processing of RAW images
It is essential, especially as a beginner in bird photography, to have a good post-processing workflow. You don’t need the latest Photoshop and nor do you need to be a master of Layers, but you do need to be able to make sure you get the most out of your bird images. As a judge of several national nature photography competitions, and a moderator of a premier bird images gallery, I’ve seen a lot of potentially great images let down by bad post-processing.
The most common signs of bad processing are images that are badly cropped (usually too tightly around the bird), too dark, too colour toned, too saturated, too sharpened (or not sharpened at all) or that have too much digital ‘noise’. Each of these can be corrected to some extent by good post-processing techniques that could turn your photo from average to excellent.
Beware badly calibrated monitors too. Your image might look great on your computer, but diabolical on everyone else’s! And no matter how much you love vignettes, using them to hide problems (eg a distracting background) rarely works. There might be a case for using a vignette with artistic images but, even then, it should be done with a delicate touch rather than a fat-bottomed sledgehammer.
10 Be Ethical
Ethics, in this context, is another way of saying you put the welfare of the bird above your need to get a photo of it. Nature around the world is under enormous threat from human activity. Let’s not compound the problem.
A good test is to ask yourself if you are comfortable explaining exactly how you took the photo. If you find yourself ‘editing out’ certain aspects of how you took the photo because you’re scared other people won’t like your methodology, that should be a warning. Be honest with the public, but most of all be honest with yourself. You are not doing the bird, or yourself (in the long run), any favours by engaging in conduct that isn’t 100% bird-friendly. #ethicsbeforeimages. ❂
About the author: Georgina Steytler is an award winning nature photographer with a passion for ethics and bird conservation. You can see more of her work at georginasteytler.com.au.
Get more stories like this delivered
to your inbox each week. Sign up here.