Spring is always exciting for birders as species we haven’t seen for some time filter through, inspiring renewed interest in photographing new flocks of birds assembling and individual birds providing memorable encounters. With daylight savings time kicking in Sunday morning, we will have more time to photograph weekdays after work. We are surely in for an exciting spring migration period with photo opportunities headed our way the next 3 months, starting with geese, ducks, cranes, and raptors, middling with shorebirds and wading birds, and followed by the songbirds that peak during May – warblers, orioles, vireos, thrushes – plus flycatchers and hummingbirds. Are you ready? New birds will be arriving at favorite local birding hotspots, as well as in your yard, at your feeders. Are you planning any photo trips? Day trips, or an extended spring migration extravaganza?
Spring migration will bring a wealth of birds to attract your attention, camera in hand. Watch for action and appreciate the personality of some individual birds like this Red-headed Woodpecker (photo info: 600mm zoom, f-8 aperture, 1/1250 shutter speed, ISO 400).
With another spring season of bird photography opportunities ahead, I wanted to revisit a full list of what I consider to be my best description of the basics of bird photography. I wish someone had offered such a list to me when I bought my first used camera and 200mm zoom lens; so I want to share the list I’ve created using my years of experience, along with tips from professional and hobbyist friends, and others I gleaned by reading extensively. I hope this information will give you a great introduction or a helpful review of all the things you can do to improve your chances of getting more quality bird photos this spring.
Not every tip listed below in short, concise form will be useful to every photographer, but anyone will be able to glean some pointers, and I hope the list also offers a bit of inspiration and enthusiasm throughout spring migration and beyond. Many of these methods become second nature with time, like making sure the sun is behind you as you focus your lens on birds; and holding your breath when you press the shutter button.
This is the kind of article that offers such a variety and thorough collection of helpful tips that I encourage you to print it out and post a copy on your bulletin board, and add a copy to your camera backpack, glove compartment, or your back pocket. This list will truly help make you a better bird photographer, and I hope it adds a new level of enthusiasm for you with renewed production from your camera and lens.
When in position to photograph a raptor, spend some time in its company to see what behavior might transpire; and be prepared should a Rough-legged Hawk pounce into the grass to catch a vole (400mm telephoto, f-8 aperture, 1/1600 shutter speed, ISO 400).
Paul’s Not-so-Secret Photo Tips
– I keep my camera within reach at all times. I never want to say: “I wish I had my camera!”
– Quality photos require good sunlight. For optimum lighting, I make every effort to position myself between the sun and the bird, with my shadow pointing at my subject.
– The best time to photograph is when the sun is at a 30- to 60-degree angle above the ground – during morning an hour after sunrise, and again during late afternoon until an hour before sunset. This practice will provide more direct lighting for bird photography while eliminating most shadows. Avoid photographing during midday when the sun is overhead or mostly overhead.
– Be aware of shadows on the bird you are photographing, caused by the overhead angle of the sun or when you’re not in the best position with respect to the direction of the sunlight. In the field you often don’t notice a shadow, but because shadows are more obvious in photos, it’s good to watch specifically for shadows and adjust your position to avoid them when possible.
– If you try to approach a bird, keep a low profile, move slowly, and don’t walk directly at the bird; move at an angle to the bird that gets you ever closer. If necessary slowly zig-zag from side to side as you move ever closer, while keeping the sun at your back.
– Try not to get too close to birds; allow them to behave naturally. When you stop short of making birds fly, they may actually move closer in your direction.
– Anticipate the next move of the birds you are photographing, and be prepared to react to that fast action.
– Focus on one eye of the bird to be sure your focal point is centered on the bird. If the bird’s eye is not in focus, your photograph will suffer overall.
– Hold your breath any time you press the shutter button to help eliminate body motion.
– Lightly squeeze your finger down on the shutter release button to reduce any jerky motion on the camera as you take photos.
– When photographing birds, stabilize your camera and lens as best you can to reduce body shake that can be transferred as you hold your camera. (Body shake includes your beating heart and natural internal movements.)
– To brace your camera, lean your lens against a tree, post, window frame, or another stable option. When photographing in the open, you can brace your elbows against your chest or sides to provide more stability as you handhold your camera and lens (rather than holding your elbows out to the sides).
– Some birders use a tripod to help stabilize their camera and lens, but for many of us using a tripod is cumbersome at best, especially when photographing flying birds. Dealing with a tripod, frankly, takes much the fun out of bird photography. If you use a tripod, select one with thick strong lower legs, and you should also use a shutter release cable – that’s no fun either.
Waterfowl are harbingers of spring and photographing geese, like these Ross’s Geese, is a true right of spring for many birders. Watch for opportunities to position yourself along a flight line between a lake and feeding area (400mm telephoto, f-8 aperture, 1/2500 shutter speed, ISO 400).
Simple Camera Tech
– Please don’t use the automatic setting on your camera. Instead, it’s best to set the Mode Dial to Av (aperture priority); then set your aperture (f-stop) and the camera will automatically provide the associated shutter speed as determined by the amount of available light.
– Preset your camera so you are ready to take a photo at a moment’s notice, which happens fairly often when photographing birds. When I’m in position to photograph and have an extra moment, I double-check the settings and adjust any if needed. During sunny days, I preset the ISO to 400, use an aperture of f8; and the resulting shutter speed will usually be between 1/1200 to 1/2000 – fast enough to stop most motion.
– Personally, I find the 400 ISO setting to be the best under good sunlight conditions. I tend not to photograph during low light periods, but if the sun goes behind a cloud, I increase the ISO to 800 if the shutter speed is reduced significantly by the shaded sunlight. I find that any setting above ISO 800 tends to produce grainy photos. Using an ISO of 200 or 100 provides better quality images, but these settings tend to limit your shutter speed and/or aperture a bit, so ISO 400 seems to be the best bet for me for bird photography with the sun at my back.
– I keep my camera’s Al-Servo set so I can take a continuous series of photos. Using this setting, it’s possible to take a single photo, but you can also take 2 or 3 at a time if you hold the shutter button down a moment longer. And when a bird is especially active, such as when it’s flying or displaying, you can hold the shutter release button down for the camera to take a continuous series of images at a rate of 3 to 10 photos or more per second, depending on the camera model you use.
– Using the Al-Servo setting, I tend to take 2 photos at a time, which provides a second image that usually shows a wing position change during flight, or provides 2 images as a bird turns its head.
As nesting rookeries become more active, positioning along a flight line leading to and from an active rookery can provide exciting photo ops as birds like this Roseate Spoonbill fly by (photo info: 400mm telephoto, f-8 aperture, 1/1250 shutter speed, ISO 400).
Composing Your Photos
– Try not to center a bird in the middle of the photo; leave a little more space in front of the bird for it to “look into, walk into, swim into, or fly into.”
– To better understand how to position a bird within your photo frame, I suggest taking a quick look at the “rule of thirds,” which artists often use when composing their artwork. Photographers also use this technique for photo framing and design, although it’s just a guide to be aware of when composing photos. Ultimately, do what looks best to you.
– Using a zoom lens can be helpful when positioning a bird in the photo frame while taking a photograph. But you can also reframe the photo and thereby reposition the bird in the frame by simply cropping extraneous sky, water, or plants surrounding the bird – simply by using photo editing software.
– Keep aware of the background of your photo. Try to eliminate distracting twigs and grass from view, which may simply be a matter of moving your camera to the right or left, or taking a step right or left to get a clearer background that will be less distracting. However, in some cases a twig with budding leaves or other vegetation can add a natural element to a bird photograph.
– Getting a more uniform background can be accomplished with some success by reducing the area in focus (depth of field) to throw the background out of focus. This blurred background effect helps to emphasize your subject, and is accomplished by setting your aperture to a narrow f4 or f5. That aperture should keep your bird in focus while blurring the background, although this technique works best if there is ample space between the bird and the background elements.
– Using a narrow f4 or f5 aperture also provides a faster corresponding shutter speed, which is helpful in stopping any motion and creating sharp images.
– Plants and other natural elements are often a welcome background for bird photos; then, you may wish to increase the area in focus around the bird by dialing the aperture to f11 or f14, as long as you have plenty of shutter speed to work with – say above 1/400 for a motionless bird, and 1/1000 or faster for birds in flight.
– While watching the area behind the bird for any distracting elements or unnatural colors, watch for distracting shadows on the bird or around it as you get into position. Reposition as needed to avoid shadows and other distracting elements.
– When photographing birds on the ground, swimming in water, or wading along a shoreline, try photographing from your knees or in a sitting position to get closer to the birds’ eye level.
Spring mating behaviors provide the chance to document interactions between pairs, like these Western Grebes (400mm telephoto, f-8 aperture, 1/1600 shutter speed, ISO 400).
Mobile Photo Blind Options
– I like to use my vehicle as a comfortable mobile blind. Birds tend to react to people, but mostly ignore a parked vehicle. I have a few birding hotspots where I can park next to flowering trees or prominent perches where birds create fine photo opportunities.
– Your vehicle provides the option to reposition a few feet forward or backward when needed, or to drive onward to look for the next photo opportunity.
– Turn off your vehicle any time you are photographing to keep your camera lens as stable as possible.
– Stabilize your lens by holding it on the top of a slightly raised window or against the side or top of the window frame to reduce body shake that may be transferred as you hold your camera.
– Likewise, hold your breath any time you press the shutter button to reduce any bodily vibrations, and press the shutter button lightly to avoid a jerking motion.
– Stay inside your vehicle and reduce any motions to make birds less wary. While birds often accept a parked vehicle, that changes if you open a door or get outside. (If you do need to step outside to photograph, don’t slam the door.)
– Using your vehicle, explore a more expansive area occasionally to monitor where the birds are, and where they aren’t. Take advantage of photo opportunities you encounter along the way, and at the same time, plan for future photo opportunities with respect to the time of day the sun will illuminate a promising area best.
– If you see a promising photo op as you are driving, be especially aware of any vehicles driving behind you, and keep safety your first priority. You may need to drive by a bird, find a safe place to pull over, then return to the bird’s location to try for a photo op. Pull safely off the side of the road in the best possible position to photograph your subject with respect to the direction of the sunlight. Keep safety a priority, as always.
By using a narrow aperture (f-6), the area behind this Cape May Warbler is blurred into a fairly uniform green background, helping to emphasize the small songbird and adjacent leaves (400mm telephoto, f-6 aperture, 1/1250 shutter speed, ISO 400).
Photo Editing – Composition & Design
– When using photo editing software, I alter the photo as little as possible; but simple cropping of an image can improve a photo immensely, and it can increase the size of the bird(s) within a photo frame by cutting out extraneous parts of the background – effectively zooming in on the bird.
– Try to keep up with your photo review and editing process, which is usually best performed as soon as possible after each photo session. Keep your photo files orderly, organized, and easy to access.
– Use a uniform naming system – perhaps one that identifies a bird in a photograph by their family, species, sex, age, and the activity the bird is engaged in (flying, perched, swimming, etc.); along with the month and year it was taken. An example of my naming system is: Raptors – Bald Eagle adult in flight 3-23.
– Keep at least 2 copies of all your photos, and keep them in different locations to ensure you never “lose” any of your valuable photos due to damage by fire, flood, or theft. It’s easy to keep your photos on external hard drives, separate from your computer, although it’s always convenient to have a file of favorite photographs saved on your computer for easy access.
– When photographing birds, there is always a definite luck factor – Good Luck!
A variety of tips and techniques are provided every week in the Bird Photography features, usually mixed into narratives describing photo opportunities, but here you have an easy to refer to reference list – the best I can offer to anyone interested in photographing birds. Have fun, get excited, display your favorite photos, and share your photos with others – it’s all part of the joy of photographing birds. Enjoy this spring season!
Article and photographs by Paul Konrad
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