Bird Photo Tips

Catching inspiring images of birds takes more than just good luck

This Egyptian goose was kind enough to pose for me in beautiful early-morning light; Canon EF 300mm ƒ/4L lens.

Birds are fascinating critters, a fact that hits home more frequently the more I hang out with them. Photographing birds is a challenge, but a most enjoyable and rewarding one. Here are some keys to creating better bird photos.

Look For Light
As with all photography, light is the key ingredient. So look for good light and then look for birds in that good light. While great shots can be made in backlighting and moody, misty light, the best light for most bird photos is frontal sun, early or late in the day. That means looking for birds toward the west at sunrise and toward the east in the afternoon—you want the sun at your back.

While checking out the light, consider the background, too. A distracting background can ruin an otherwise excellent bird photo. Shooting wide open will reduce depth of field and help de-emphasize the background, but a background that complements the subject is still best.

Of course, if a photogenic bird suddenly appears in less than perfect light, by all means take the shot. But then try to move to a camera position that provides the best light and background, if possible, before the bird departs.

What You Need
Most serious bird photographers use pro digital SLR bodies and super-fast super-telephoto lenses—600mm ƒ/4, 400mm ƒ/2.8 and the like—with tele-extenders to increase the focal length and extension tubes to allow closer focusing. But an entry-level D-SLR and a low-cost, major-brand 75-300mm zoom lens can get you lots of great bird photos. The D-SLR’s smaller-than-35mm image sensor effectively turns the 300mm focal length into 450-600mm (in 35mm camera terms), while a 1.4x or 2x tele-converter can increase that to 630-1200mm, depending on camera format.

You should have a steady tripod to support your long lens, but stabilizers in lenses or camera bodies make handholding surprisingly steady. For the big pro lenses, a gimbal head like those from Jobu, Mongoose and Wimberley allows you to pan the camera to track flying birds. The BushHawk shoulder stock is another good camera-steadier for action shots.

Standing near people who were throwing food to the gulls, I got this shot with a Canon EOS 30D and a Tamron AF28-300mm VC lens at 300mm.

Built-in flash units have limited range, but can fill shadows and add catchlights to eyes of nearby birds. Pros use powerful accessory flash units, often with an extending device such as the Better Beamer or the Project-A-Flash, which increase flash range by concentrating the beam with a Fresnel lens—perfect for use with long lenses—but beware of serious red-eye. Many of today’s D-SLRs and flash units allow you to adjust the flash-to-ambient-light ratio; experiment with your system to find the setting that produces the most natural-looking results.

Birds won’t wait while you set the exposure, AF mode, AF area, exposure compensation, flash mode and the like, so learn how to use your gear before you head into the field, and preset whatever you can. Practice panning to follow moving subjects, keeping the active AF point on the subject.

Bird photos work best when the eyes are sharply focused. I use single-shot spot AF to focus on the near eye for perched birds and continuous spot AF for flying birds. Wide-area (all-point) AF would seem ideal for flight shots, but doesn’t work as well with my cameras; try both ways to see which mode works best with your camera.

Even with perched birds, I like to shoot short bursts rather than just single frames. Look for the right moment, of course, but fire a short burst when it occurs, and you’ll increase your chances of catching just the right expression or head position. I always use continuous low drive mode; that way, I’m ready for both action and nonmoving subjects. For flying shots, firing bursts greatly increase your chances of capturing that perfect wing position.

Respect The Birds (And Other Bird-Seekers)
Don’t approach so closely that you stress the birds, especially important at nest sites. Moving too close to a nest or staying too long not only stresses mom and baby birds, but it also shows predators where the nest is located. And the cardinal sin (pun intended) for humans is to scare off a bird someone else is watching—be aware and be courteous out there!

If you love the outdoors and enjoy capturing the beauty of its landscapes and creatures, we think you’ll love BirdWatching! Each issue contains info about the best birding locations in North America, reviews of books and new products, conservation news, and the biggest, most spectacular photos of birds you’ll find anywhere.