Professional nature photographer, Michael Snedic, shares five valuable tips to help you get the best out of your bird photography.

Australia is a nation blessed with an amazing array of bird species in every conceivable shape, size and colour. And photographing them is an absolute joy. In 17 years of photographing birds I have learned a few things about what works and what doesn't. Below, I have outlined five of the most important steps to better bird photos.

Without doubt, one of the most important facets of bird photography is to set the focus on a bird’s eyes. I recommend using the auto-focus setting on your camera and lens, with the single focusing point selected. If the bird is stationary, keep this point in the middle and focus on the bird’s eye. Then, while holding down the shutter button, recompose your image and take your shot. Alternatively, if you own an SLR camera, you can compose your shot and then move the single focusing point on the bird’s eye, focus and then take the shot.

Without focusing on the eye, this portrait shot of a Nankeen Kestrel would have been ruined. It is very important, especially when a bird is quite close, to make sure you have complete focus on the eyes. Nikon D300 with 150mm f/2.8 lens, f/3.5 @ 1/640s, ISO 200. Hand-held.

When composing a bird image, you need to watch the background for unwanted distractions such as trees or telegraph poles sticking up behind the bird’s head. Also watch out for man-made objects such as buildings, cars or any distracting bright highlights. By being aware of your background and using a fairly wide aperture (i.e. f2.8 to f5.6), you can create a beautiful, blurred-out backdrops, making the bird stand out in your image, especially if there is room behind the bird.

By using a wide aperture (f4), this created shallow depth-of-field and therefore made this Boobook Owl stand out. A distracting background would have moved your eye away from the subject. Nikon D700 with 150mm f/2.8 lens, f/4 @ 1/1000s, ISO 800. Hand-held.

Try and be as close to eye-level as possible when photographing birds. If the bird is above you in a tree, try moving back a few meters and the angle will be much more pleasing to the eye. In some cases, it may be a simple case of walking up a hill, in order to be at the bird’s level. This ‘rule’ can be broken if you are photographing birds flying overhead. Also, if a bird is quite tame and tends to spend most of its time on the ground, either lay down or squat as low as possible with your camera, rather than shooting down onto the bird. 

I always prefer to be as close to eye level as possible when photographing a bird. I lay on the ground on a poncho, with a beanbag used for camera and lens support. I followed this Little Egret around a pond in Brisbane for hours each day, over a four day period, until I ended up with this shot. Nikon D200 with 80-200mm f/2.8 lens, f/4 @ 1/4000s, ISO 200. Camera and lens resting on a  bean-bag on the ground.

By using continuous shot (or burst) on your camera, you will have a much higher likelihood of getting ‘the’ bird behavior image. As birds are constantly moving about, it’s the best way to prepare for a behavior or movement that might happen. Birds of prey, for example, will often bob their head up and down before flying. By being ready with your finger on the shutter button, and having continuous shot ready, you have a much higher chance of success. As soon as the bird leaps into flight, press your finger down and fire away! Make sure you keep your finger down until well after the bird is out of view. That way, you are minimising the chance of lost shots.

When photographing bird behaviour or birds in flight, it is important to use continuous shot (or burst) so as not to miss any of the sequence. Nikon D700 with 80-200mm f/2.8 lens @165mm, f/5.6 @ 1/2500s, ISO 800. Hand-held.

Through my years of experience, I have found that sudden, jerky movements can often scare birds away. I have always used a ‘softly, softly’ approach when walking towards birds I’m about to photograph. By taking slow, deliberate steps, you will be less of a threat to the bird. I’ve also developed the habit of taking a few shots from further back, then moving forward a tad, taking a few more and so on. That way, you are guaranteeing at least some shots, even if they are further away, rather than walking closer and closer, until the bird feels you are too close for comfort and flies off.

I spent quite a while trying to photograph this Crimson Chat. By not alarming the bird with quick, sudden movements, I was able to get quite close and take this shot without using a lens with an ultra-long focal length.

Most of all, be patient and enjoy!

Michael Snedic is an AIPP (Australian Institute of Professional Photographers) accredited photographer and experienced photography tutor and writer. He has been a wildlife and nature photography specialist for 17 years and is a sought-after speaker at camera clubs and photography conventions across Australia. He is also co-owner of WildNature Photo Expeditions, which presents a range of photographic workshops and tours to photographic destinations across Australia and Africa. He also presents an annual eight-day bird photography workshop and tour to western Queensland where the aim is to find, and photograph, as many different bird species as possible. The next workshop is in September 2016.

To see more of Michael Snedic's work click here.

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