I’ve been an amateur bird-watcher – or “ornithologist,” as we like to call ourselves when we feel a bit snooty – since I was in my teens. My original copy of Birds of North America (Golden Field Guide) is still with me after 35 years of birding, and although it is dog-eared and faded, and is now accompanied by numerous other guides, it is still my favorite go-to when I’m trying to identify birds quickly.
As I developed into a photographer, it seemed only natural to translate my enthusiasm for birding into an enthusiasm for bird photography. Alas, until the digital age, I never had the resources (read: money for film and developing) to hone my art. While my early attempts with film were (in my memory) quite good, digging the photos out of the old albums shows that I was still in the early stages of my education…
Once digital photography became widely available in the late 90s, I again turned to bird photography, and have embraced it with a renewed enthusiasm. I enjoy the process as much as the results, being outdoors and in touch with nature is a beautiful way to spend your time. Turn off the cell phone, unplug the computer, grab your camera and go! But, before you head out, I’d like to share some tips that I’ve learned over the years. I hope you benefit from some of these ideas, and if you do, I’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment for me, or write to me at “artist (at) hoffmanartdesign (dot) com.”
Pick your location
First and foremost, when photographing birds, it helps a great deal to know something about your subject. You don’t need to be an expert, or even know the species – but if you know that every day on your way home from work, that flock of white birds always seems to be feeding in the corner of that pond you pass along the way, make a note of it – and plan to be in that area on your day off, at the same time of day with your camera. Keep an eye out in your daily routines, or on your weekends at the lake, beach or river, and you’re sure to notice birds gathering in certain places all the time. Make it a point to be there with your camera.
Watch the birds – really watch them
Once you’ve picked out your birding location, and have arrived with your camera, you don’t want to rush into things. Take your time (and check your equipment first), then take up an observation spot and just watch to see what the birds are doing. Note the direction of the sun, direction of the wind, and whether the birds are just perching/standing, or are feeding, grazing, or preening. Notice the patterns and repeated behavior. Anticipating these repeating behaviors is one of the keys to capturing an interesting photograph.
Patience is a virtue
Now you have a location, you’ve seen what the birds are doing, it’s still time to be patient. You want to get as close as possible without disturbing their activity. Move into position slowly, and keep an eye on the birds’ behavior as you move. If they continue feeding, or preening, or whatever they were up to, you’re good – take some photos or try to get closer. If they stop what they’re doing to watch you, or their behavior changes and they seem anxious or agitated, it’s best to sit or kneel down and remain still until they go back to what they’re doing. If you keep moving too close, they’ll keep moving away, and you’ll get some great photographs of bird butts:
On the other hand, sitting and waiting patiently has many rewards:
Winds of change
Recall I mentioned the wind direction? And the sun? A bird photographer’s euphoria comes when the wind is blowing towards or at right angles to the sun, and you’re upwind, and the bird are coming in for landings. They will generally land against the wind, and move more slowly, making it easier to catch great action shots. Again, sit and wait for it – you’ll have more success waiting in an area with lots of birds, rather than trying to chase them around.
All too often, the light isn’t what you had hoped for, either it is too dim, cloudy, shady or coming from the wrong direction. In these cases, a flash can help tremendously. Use the flash as a fill light, to brighten the shadow areas, and you’ll be able to get images that would otherwise be too dark, or too slow (causing motion blur).
No fill light:
I’ve saved equipment for the end, because I believe it is more important to get out there and take pictures than it is to fret about what gear you have. That said, the most important thing you need for bird photography is a camera without shutter lag. Unfortunately, this rules out most of the inexpensive point and shoot cameras on the market today. You’ll want to have a high end digicam without shutter lag, or better yet an SLR (even the entry level SLRs can take excellent bird photos!)
Lenses are important, too – get the best you can afford. In my opinion, the lens is more important than the camera. Get the highest quality glass and fastest lens (smallest f/number) that you can afford. As with the camera, though, even a lower end lens is capable of getting great results, depending on the conditions.
I’ve mentioned fill flash, and if you decide to employ this technique, don’t use the on-camera flash – it isn’t powerful enough! Spring for a hot-shoe mounted flash, and consider getting a flash extender like the Better Beamer… they aren’t very expensive and give you a lot of versatility in various lighting conditions.
Well, that’s it for now. Remember the key points:
- Be aware of locations where birds gather
- Watch the birds and their activity – really watch them
- Get close but back off if you’ve disturbed them
- Use a camera that doesn’t have shutter lag, and add fill light if needed
- Be very patient and wait for the right shot to come to you!
Lastly, here are some resources to aid you in your quest for avian adventure:
- Birds As Art (Arthur Morris)
- Moose Peterson Wildlife Photography
- Nature Photographers Online Magazine
- All About Birds (Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
- The National Audubon Society
I hope you will benefit from this, and take more and better bird pictures! I’d love to hear from you if you have any comments or suggestions, or questions. Feel free to drop me a comment or note. Until next time, keep those shutters clicking!