Wing tips: Photo tips for better bird shots (Part two)
This is part two of a two part series on bird photography. You can see part one, from last week, here.
Bird photography can be astonishingly frustrating but can also be incredibly rewarding. I think partly this is down to the plethora of camera settings you will need to master to have success.
One of the major challenges is autofocus, as different situations require different focus settings, all of which differ from camera to camera.
Regardless of your camera, for a static bird I recommend using a single focus point to ensure the eyes are in sharp focus. Many newer cameras have Animal eye detection which you’ll want to activate as it will improve your hit rate greatly.
To capture a bird in flight, I suggest using multi-point or zone focus in continuous focusing mode (Canon - AI Servo AF, Nikon - AF-C).
It’s well worth learning your way around your camera so that you can change settings quickly, as birds don’t tend to hang around whilst you consult the manual. For this reason, I have created settings on my custom dial so that I can quickly jump into ‘bird mode’.
For more challenging situations, such as forests with thick foliage and busy backgrounds you may even choose to use manual focus.
Anticipate the behaviour of the bird and set your focus to the point of predicted action. If you are using a mirrorless camera, turn on focus peaking and this will assist you in finding critical focus. And lastly, shoot like crazy – you can always delete the blurry shots later, that’s the beauty of digital photography.
Set yourself up with a stance that is comfortable yet stable. If shooting handheld, your feet should be slightly wider than your shoulder width, with your left foot slightly forward. Support the underside of your lens with your left hand, with your elbows tucked into your sides.
You may also like the option of a tripod with a gimbal head, which will allow you to operate a heavy rig for hours with little discomfort. However, you sacrifice your mobility for comfort and stability with one of these. The reality is everything is a compromise – practice and experience will help you find your groove.
Composition is subject to personal taste but there are some guidelines to keep us on the right track.
I like to leave extra space in the frame in the direction the bird is looking. The bird may be the hero of the image but always consider what surrounds it – look out for distracting branches and leaves.
That said, while a messy background can ruin an image, if you keep your subject isolated it can elevate its appeal. Key is to move your body and your head with your eye up to the viewfinder to see if you can position the bird in between objects, or to give a cleaner background such as a sky or empty space.
If you want to capture a bird in motion, make sure you give yourself plenty of room in the frame so that you don’t clip the wings when they open. Many birds have deceptively large wingspans, and you may only get a few frames before it exists stage left.
I use Adobe Lightroom to process my images but there are many equivalent programs that can give you a similar result. I like to keep my processing simple for most of my bird photos, unless I am wanting to do something a bit more creative.
Key with all editing I believe is to enhance the image to match the reality of what we observed without overdoing it. Unless that’s what you’re going for and then all power to you!
Personally, I generally like to add some contrast, shadows and vibrance to an image globally to liven it up, but I also find that a touch of clarity and texture as a localised edit can bring out fine detail in the feathers.
As I mentioned earlier, noise is the enemy of great bird photos, and while Lightroom’s noise reduction tools do a reasonable job removing some noise and sharpening a subject, in some instances, you will need a bit more help.
For this I personally use Topaz Photo AI, an amazing tool for final enhancement. This AI-enhanced software simplifies the noise reduction process down to a click, and the sharpening tool is very impressive if used correctly too. I encourage you to give it a try if you’re finding noise a frustration.
You have probably gathered by now that I love bird photography. It is a never-ending pursuit and it’s something that one can never perfect. It takes a lot of patience and practice, but there is nothing more rewarding than printing and framing a favourite image for people to see and appreciate.
I am working on a photo book of my favourite images, but I fear I will never complete it because I am always getting new and exciting images – maybe it will end up being a few volumes!
Happy shooting, and I hope you have great success with your own work. ❂