Wildlife, and more specifically, birds, never sit still and are always exhibiting interesting behaviors. This is what makes them so hard to photograph, but it is also what makes this kind of photography so much fun! Bird photography can be challenging but very rewarding, so let's jump right in!
Bird photography is best done with a DSLR and at a minimum a 300mm lens (400mm or more is better, but anything beyond 400mm is terribly expensive). I find that with birds I am always needing a longer lens. There are some exceptions, however, as I will note later.
- Birds are the most active in the morning and evening hours. I try to get in position in the morning so that I will be ready for the best light and most active birds.
- Many birds are rather predictable, so it can be beneficial to get to know the behavior of some local or frequent birds. For instance, there is a belted kingfisher that I see quite regularly, and I have learned its favorite perches and feeding habits allowing me to get photos of it feeding or in flight.
- Another thing I like to do is to find the birds by ear. Belted kingfishers have a very distinct call, and can often be heard before they are seen. This alerts me to their presence allowing me to get ready for when they arrive.
- When I "get ready" I find a place to hide, if possible, allowing me to get closer to the birds without startling them. This is best done in the backyard, so it can be helpful to get to know your backyard birds. Birds in local parks are more accustomed to people, so they can be great starting places if you aren't quite ready to go seeking out the birds yourself. If I have a tripod, I will oftentimes prefocus my lens, meaning I will focus on a perch I think the birds will land on and then when they arrive I can get photos of them landing without having to wait for the camera to search the entire focusing range. The first thing people do when viewing a photo is look at the eyes, so I try to focus on the bird's eye.
- Birds often fly away if they are approached, and "flushing" birds by approaching them to get flight photos is not recommended. Not only do you lose the chance to observe the birds more, you can negatively affect the birds - by interfering with their feeding habits or by alerting their presence to a predator.
- Setting up a feeder can be a great way to bring the birds in closer, and if positioned near a window can allow for great bird photos using a 200mm or shorter lens.
- Take your camera off auto! I prefer to use aperture priority, choosing an aperture and ISO that will allow for faster shutter speeds. Others prefer to use shutter priority, choosing a shutter speed and allowing the camera to choose the aperture and ISO. I recommend at least 1/1000th of a second for birds in flight. For perched birds a slower shutter speed can be used, although some birds can move quickly making the need for a fast shutter speed still necessary. If you don't already know the relationships between shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, I suggest finding a tutorial on them, and there are numerous free tutorials online.
- Make sure your camera is set to the maximum burst mode. My camera can do either three or six frames per second. You might take a few more pictures than you would like this way, but with digital photography you can delete whatever you don't want. I will often take a few hundred each day, and they can add up, so I recommend sorting through them deleting those you don't want right after you return.
Remember that we are only visitors to the birds' habitats, and that we should respect the birds and their habitats at all times. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below! It's time to pick up a camera and get outside!