Ten Tips For Better Beginning Bird Photos
I say it all of the time in these posts. I am no expert on bird photography. Almost a year ago to the date I really started to get more and more into this hobby. Early on I learned a lot of things the hard way so when I write these posts it is with that in mind. These are ten tips for beginners to make better bird photos. This is not a comprehensive list, but it is something that will help you make better photos while out in the field.
10. Learn Where The Birds Are – This was one place where I had an advantage early on. I knew about the local hotspot in my area before I really started looking for birds. One great resource for finding the hotspots in your area is a website called eBird. You can put in your location and find out where the birds are seen the most. I used this a lot when I am traveling as well to find out where I can go out while in an unfamiliar place. Finding the hotspot is half of the battle.
9. Know What You Are Looking For – While you are on eBird you can check out what people are seeing at the places near you. When you are beginning this is good because it gives you an idea of what you could see while you are out. When I was starting out I did not do this. I went out just looking for anything moving. Now I know better. You may find something that is not on the lists, but you will have an idea of what you are looking for. Looking up what each bird looks like helps you identify it easier in the field as well. An app called Merlin is also a great way to help identify birds.
8. Gear Up! – In landscape photography the saying is that gear doesn’t matter. Unfortunately in bird photography it really does matter. Songbirds are really small, and they don’t want you to be too near them. You need a lens that will get you closer to them then they want you to be. In a perfect world we all would have the top of the line gear when we go out. The flagship camera of whatever our brand of choice is with an 800mm lens on it. The reality though is that all of that is very expensive. You may have to cut corners a bit as you start out. A lens such as the Tamron 150-600mm is something that you can pick up for around $1,000. That seems expensive, but compared to most 600mm lenses it is not. A new 600 will cost you around $13,000! When I started I was using Canon gear. I used a Canon 7D Mark II and the Tamron 150-600mm lens. This effectively gave me a 240-960mm lens with the 1.6x crop factor of the camera. It is a good starting point.
7. Shutter Speed – This will come in handy for many reasons as you progress as a photographer, but learning how shutter speed, aperture, and ISO all work together will help you. With the newer digital cameras it seems as if you need to achieve higher and higher shutter speeds to stop the action. 1/1000th of a second would do it. Now it seems as if you should be at 1/1500th of a second or higher to do so. The photo above was made with that exact shutter speed. If you are in bright, sunny conditions you would want to have your ISO as low as you could go while achieving a high shutter speed. A bird on a perch does not need to be photographed with such a high shutter speed, but if you have the light it is still a good idea. When the light is not on your side the image stabilization on your camera along with a little luck can still get you good images down to 1/60th of a second or so.
6. Aperture – This is one where you will adapt as you progress as a photographer. With a bird on a perch I will want my aperture as high as I can get it. If my lens will go to f/4 then that is where I want to be. That means that I will blur the background even more making the bird stand out. As you begin though and you have good light you may want to lower it to f/5.6 or even f/8 in order to give you more room for error with your focus. When I am walking through the woods I will often set my camera into aperture priority mode because of the changing light. The aperture will stay where I set it as well as my ISO. The camera will decide where to have my shutter speed be to help make the photos better.
5. ISO – This is the place where you can make adjustments to make the other two elements of the exposure triangle work for you. When your ISO is lower at say ISO 100 then you can crop a little more as your photo will not have as much noise in it. Often though the light may not allow it. You have to adjust this up until you reach a balance that can work for you with all three elements of the exposure triangle. As a beginner you can set this to auto, and most cameras are good enough to make it work.
4. Backgrounds – This is a part that I knew was important, but after looking at a few photos from a trip I realized just how important it is. Having a nice clean background will help the bird stand out even more. It makes a good photo great. You can have the most uncommon bird, on the best perch, in the best pose. If the background is too busy then the photo will suffer. Sometimes you cannot help this. The birds are where they are. I will sometimes find a great spot with some nice backgrounds to sit and wait. If you know your area well enough the birds will come to you.
3. Focus! – This is the part that is very dependent on the camera. For songbirds in trees I am almost always in single point center focus. I can adjust it, but this is my base place to be. Being in single point allows you to get your point on the bird without it hitting any limbs, leaves, or anything else that may come in between you and your bird. With a bird in flight I will switch to a wider focusing mode. My Sony has a mode called wide that is most of the frame. You want it to find and lock on to your bird in flight. If you have a tracking mode that is good as well. You also want a continuous focus mode. On Canon it is called AI servo. This means that your auto focus is always adjusting to your subject. Even with a bird on a perch it may move slightly, and you want your auto focus to move with it.
2. Work With The Light – Light is very important in all photography. That is what your camera is capturing after all. When I want to walk down a trail I always think about how the light is falling. I have gone way out of my way in order to walk around the trail so that I can walk with the light at my back. That makes it easier to make good photos. There are times like above where you don’t have the light with you. You end up with a silhouette of the bird. You can still make some fun photos here, but when the light is good like in the photo above #3 it makes it much easier to do.
1. Practice! Practice! Practice! – The best way to get better at bird photography is to just do it over and over. It is not an easy thing. When you are photographing songbirds you are trying to grab focus on a little bird that does not stop for very long. Fro the larger birds in flight they are moving very fast across the sky. By going out over and over and making pictures you will start to learn the behavior of the birds as well as hone your photography skills.
So there they are. Ten tips that I wish that I had known when I started out making photos of birds. This just scratches the surface of what you can do to make better bird photos. In the future I would like to make another of these posts that goes a little more in depth into what I do when I make my bird photos.