5 Key Insights to Successful Bird Photography

Just think when you're in poor light trying to capture birds such as the little erratic cranky fans in mid-flight, and you're trying to juggle many variables at once.


Photographing birds can be a tricky proposition at times!


This article shares five insights I have learned over the years to grab these tricky moments. I hope they will help you in your future endeavours with bird photography for capturing compelling images.


1. Lens Choice

Straight up, a Telephoto lens is a must when photographing birds. Unless you're specialising in domesticated or somewhat familiar seagulls, ducks, and so on, but if you want to capture something unique, make sure you own a telephoto lens amongst your camera equipment.


Without a long lens, you'll spend much of your editing in post, cropping, and essentially losing any good detail.


You'll see below that I work around 400-540mm to 600-840mm at the most extended ends of my telephoto lenses and will give you more details.


For close birding, where reach is not an issue, quick focusing is a priority, and low light is limiting, I reach for my Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II. I have a lens with a longer focal length, but this lens is a dream and focuses quick!


Yes, it isn't the quickest 400mm lens on the market. But, it is sharp and responsive.


Green Rosella at Boat Harbour, NW Tasmania. Photo: Ollie Roberts
Green Rosella at Boat Harbour, NW Tasmania. Photo: Ollie Roberts

When looking for that extra reach, I usually gear up with my Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 Contemporary. Yes, this lens is slightly slower in aperture, and focussing is noticeably slower, making bird in flight images challenging.


But it is terrific for that extra reach, and I quite like the background blur.


Excellent addition to the above two lenses is the Canon EF Extender 1.4x III. The extenders allow me to push the focal length to 560mm on the Canon EF 100-400 and 840mm on the Sigma 150-600.


Generally, I keep the extender off the 100-400 as it pushes the aperture to f/8 when I get a quicker aperture on the 150-600 at f/6.3.


The 100-400 is a fun walkabout lens. The 150-600 helps with reach and is either fitted with the extender or not, depending on the circumstances. This method is how I choose to manage the focal length I require for any occasion.


So, when you're looking to shoot birds, make sure you've got the right lens, considering the following:

  • Focal length (how small or far away is the subject?)

  • Aperture (how quickly the lens determines your shutter speed and ISO?)

  • Weight (after all, do you want to handhold, use a tripod, or both?).


The next piece of advice is profound but must and shouldn't be overlooked.


2. Location Planning


Sometimes you can be lucky and be at the right place at the right time. But, more often than not, your best bet is to plan where and when you'll be shooting.

Several things to keep in mind when location planning:

  • Which bird are you trying to photograph?

  • What is the habitat of the bird?

  • What time of day suits the bird and the best lighting?

  • Is the bird seasonal dependent at your location?

  • Is the weather conducive for you and the bird?

  • What gear is required for the scene?


As you can see, trying to get an ideal shot of something is not always straightforward. So yes, chance does come into this planning, which is more evident by all the moving pieces. But with practice and persistence comes good things.


I suggest not being disheartened and allowing yourself plenty of time and patience to learn the artful science of predicting the best location and time for capturing your subject. Half the fun is being in nature, taking in the scenery and enjoying the moment.


So, once you have an idea of which bird or birds you're trying to capture, next comes some research into the habitat.


Learning about the bird and the habitat will help you understand the other questions.


For example, is the bird most active in the early morning? Or, how close can you get to the bird? Do you need a fast telephoto lens, or is it a trade-off with reach and slower aperture?


This planning will enable you to get a quality image of the birds in the best available light.


For example, they might be most active when the sun rises and retreat, sleeping and hidden away in dense foliage during the middle of the day. And when the sun goes down, the birds may start to forage for food or migrate to another location.


Tip for beginner photographers:

Check out the birds in your backyard and master sharp images with a clean background. This location will get you in good stead for venturing into the wild and instantly improving your photography skills as you need to put a little effort in to start photographing.


New Holland Honeyeater at Hobart, Tasmania (my backyard). Photo: Ollie Roberts
New Holland Honeyeater at Hobart, Tasmania (my backyard). Photo: Ollie Roberts

These considerations lead to the next part, which is understanding your camera settings.


3. Camera Settings


It is best to use a manual camera mode when photographing birds as you have more control over the settings. This way, you can set the aperture, shutter speed and ISO to get the correct exposure.


These three exposure elements are referred to as the exposure triangle. So if you know this, you're probably up to speed. And if you're not up to speed, I suggest photographing larger birds that aren't moving quickly.


This way, you'll waste fewer shots and feel less frustrated as you learn the ins and outs of perfecting your camera settings while practising on more accessible subjects.


Some ins and outs of camera settings that may prove helpful for you when photographing birds include:


Shutter speed

Using a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the action - of course, this is scene dependent. The birds may be largely sedentary with minimal movement. The length of the focal range may determine your shutter speed than the subject movement.


In saying that, keep in mind that birds that look still are often moving. It may be quick movements of their head, or they may be perched on a swaying branch or floating upon the water bobbing about. So never underestimate motion blur with a slower than the ideal shutter.


Aperture

Try a wide aperture (f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6), wide enough to blur the background and make the bird stand out more. Keep in mind that a lens is typically most sharp 1-stop down. Knowing this will help you capture clear and crisp detail of birds across the entire frame.


Also, a smaller aperture can yield a nice background blur if there is ample distance between the bird and the background.


With telephoto lenses, you may find that you can shoot a pleasant subject and background separation with smaller apertures. First, however, you'll need to get out and practice with your lens to understand the blurring with the depth of field you can create with your lens and focal range.


ISO

Try using a higher ISO if you are shooting in low light conditions. Many newer digital cameras can push above an ISO of 3200. I often go to 6400 and sometimes as high as 12800 ISO (though, preferably not).


In the end, you need to ask yourself, what is the end-use of the image? Is it a high-quality magazine shot? Is it for your sharing on social media? Or, is it for practices to lead toward better photography?


I believe that setting aperture and shutter speed manually is most critical and setting ISO to automatic makes the whole experience more enjoyable.


A tip for beginner bird photographers:

Master aperture priority (Av) mode with non-moving subjects and set your ISO to auto. This mode means you can focus on the effect of aperture on your photos while not worrying about shutter speed and ISO.


You can also shoot birds in aperture priority and set restrictions around limiting the amount of ISO and slowness of shutter speed that you will allow, but that is becoming a bit more advanced.


4. Tripod Use


A tripod is a critical piece of kit for bird photography, especially if you're using a long lens. A tripod will help to keep your shots sharp, minimise your arms' fatigue, and keep your lens in the general direction of the bird without startling movements.


Yes, you can handheld your camera in decent light where shutter speeds can be fast enough without impacting ISO. But again, think about arm fatigue with a heavy lens.


Using a tripod will come down to how well lit the scene is and the type of bird you photograph. For example, are you shooting small quick birds in the bush where light is limiting? On the other hand, perhaps you're shooting birds in flight where a higher shutter is often required.


Whatever the scenario, I mostly use a tripod for saving my arms and allowing me to sit for some length in the same position waiting for the opportune moment.


I once built a ground pod out of a frying pan, which enabled me to slide my camera and lens closer towards birds on the ground. Doing this without some form of support would have been physically impossible (for me) and would risk damaging my camera equipment in sand and mud. Using a tripod would be complex and cumbersome.


Nonetheless, the same principles apply to a ground pod and tripod when looking for stability or surreptitiously scoping out birds.


Another unspoken benefit that bird photographers capitalise on when taking pictures with a tripod is gleaning bird behaviour insights. So you can spend more time with the natural habitat than wondering where the bird is in your image, which can be challenging in itself at times when shooting with long lenses.


5. Patience is a Virtue!


This point may have become evident in the last section on using a tripod- patience is a virtue and even more so when practising bird photography.


Birding and bird photography is more than taking detailed photos of wildlife. It is as much learning about habitats, behaviour, identification and being in the moment.


Maybe one of the most challenging things to learn is being in the moment. We start life being in the moment and soon lose this ability over time and then spend a large portion of our energy trying to recapture this fundamental aspect of life.


Sitting, standing, crawling or walking patiently about with a camera capturing stunning moments is half the beauty of any photography.


Giving our sensors time to learn bird calls, take in smells, feel the temperature, and enjoy the visuals of what nature can yield will help us understand and propel us to capture the best bird photographs.


I'd love to hear from you and your thoughts on this article below in the comments and hope that you've been able to take away fresh insights for mastering bird photography.


Until we meet again, Happy Photographing Birds!

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