Birds make for some of the most beautiful nature photographs for their colorful feathers, their elegant bodies, and their dynamism in flight. They also serve as a great photography challenge, as one moment they could be calmly perched on a branch, the next moment they’re already soaring through the skies.
The Right Equipment
Although many a professional bird photographer would say that getting the best pictures require a big financial investment, beginners need not spend their life savings to get gear that will net them good photographs.
You can start shooting birds with even an entry-level DSLR, but you still have to get, at the very least, a 200mm telephoto lens. Birds are quick to fly away if they sense any threat that gets too close, so you’ll need to keep your distance. A 300mm lens would be perfect for beginners.
The Right Area
Starting out, you’ll want to try your hand first at shooting common birds in your area, such as sparrows and finches in parks. Such birds are used to being around human activity so it’ll be easier to snap pictures of them. You’ll have more luck shooting birds in the early hours of the morning since they’ll be out feeding.
Once you’ve gotten a fair bit of practice, you can easily look for locations by simply Googling “birding” spots near your area or by contacting local bird-watching groups. It’s a rather popular hobby, so you won’t have too much trouble finding good spots with the help of enthusiasts.
Before you actually start taking any pictures, you will have to make some adjustments to your camera to ensure that you get the best possible photographs with what you have.
- Exposure Mode
Keeping your DSLR in full automatic mode is fine as a beginner, but you’ll have to tweak your exposure parameters when it comes to shooting birds. The common route bird photographers take is to set their DSLRs to aperture priority mode or Av mode, so that the ISO and the aperture can be manually adjusted while the shutter speed is taken care of automatically (which actually also adjusts to the ISO level).
Increasing the ISO decreases blur, but it can make for grainier pictures, so keep that trade off in mind. You’ll want to turn it up in low light conditions and vice versa. For the entry level DSLRs, you’ll have to contend with lesser quality pictures since it’s not as easy to get good lighting for your subjects, meaning higher ISOs that churn out grainier shots.
The aperture controls the depth of field (meaning how much of what’s caught in the lens comes out sharp), and what’s mostly considered to be a good setting for taking bird pictures is the wide range of f/4.0 to f/5.6. However, this setting is mainly for taking shots where only the bird is in focus. If you want a picture that also displays the bird’s environment, go for a smaller aperture of around f/7 or higher.
Your distance to the subject will also come into play in adjusting the aperture. If you manage to get close to a bird, keeping your aperture wide might end up with a picture where only some parts of the bird is sharp.
- Shutter Speed
Birds move incredibly quick even when they’re stationary, as their heads dart about and they shuffle on a branch especially in the case of small birds. In flight, their wings will just look like a blur if you don’t set your shutter speed properly.
If you stick to Av mode, you probably won’t have to deal with this setting, as the camera will automatically adjust to an appropriate speed (generally at 1/1000th of a second). At that speed, the camera will be able to “freeze” wings even when birds are in flight.
Shooting in a place with low light might give you too slow a shutter speed to use since it’s determined in Av mode by the DSLR’s metering sensors. If there isn’t sufficient lighting, the camera will adjust to a slower shutter speed.
Using flash is one solution, but you’ll have to be close enough to the subject for the flash to matter. As mentioned earlier, you can also just turn up the ISO to manage. Adjusting the exposure compensation value to a positive value is yet another route. Just be prepared to clean up your photos in post-processing.
Keeping birds in focus when they are stationary should be easy enough, and a good tip is to focus on the bird’s eyes. It’s another story when they are moving about. Fortunately, DSLRs are equipped with autofocus to make action shots that look sharp possible.
Depending on your DSLR, you will have a range of autofocus points to choose from. Pick the most appropriate one, and try to keep the bird within that area as you track it across the sky.
Although this article focuses on the technical aspects of bird photography, this activity extends to understanding the subjects with varying behaviors and temperaments. Knowing how they act is just as important as knowing how to use your camera, a knowledge that comes with your own research and experience.
Here some are some outstanding images of birds:
Above all else, you also have to keep in mind that our avian friends are living creatures whose lives and habitats need to be respected. By disregarding their well-being in the pursuit of a pretty picture, you rob you and your fellow photographers’ chances of future opportunities.