1. Research and read everything you can about birds. This tip is good for any subject, but especially birds. I wanted to photograph eagles in flight. I found out they often defecate right before they fly. The more you know about any subject, the better off you’ll be when it comes time to press the shutter.
2. Have the right gear. Avian photography is one of the rare photographic pursuits where the equipment can often make the difference between getting a shot or not. Very long, fast lenses of 400 to 600mm at f/4 or f/5.6 are required for bird portraits. Fast 300mm lenses with image stabilization are required for flight shots. A good heavy tripod is a must and a camera with a fast burst and buffer rate really helps too. You’ll also want autofocus lenses. If you don’t have all this stuff don’t worry, you can rent it at most pro camera stores.
3. Know your gear before you go. The first time I went out to make avian images I took my new Canon 600 F/4 IS lens with me, but was unfamiliar with all the switches and the IS. I didn’t get any keepers. I took the lens home and practiced on coke cans in my back yard before my second outing and it made all the difference. Also, if you’re going to use a new camera, read the entire manual and play with all the features BEFORE you go into the field. Birds move fast. They won’t wait for you to remember how to set the aperture.
4. Photograph with your back to the sun. Birds look best when front lit. Sidelight may be the landscape photographer’s friend, but the avian photographer’s enemy.
5. Make the photograph at eye level. I got down on the ground to make one of my best-selling bird images and the editor told me it was the ground/eye-level shot that made the difference.
6. Backgrounds, backgrounds, backgrounds. Having a clean background is a must. When I photograph birds against a clean blue sky, I often get the most compliments. Also, the further your subject is from the background, the better. Busy backgrounds detract from the subject.
7. Practice at local zoos. Captive birds will give you a chance to study behavior, hone your skills and become familiar with bird photography and guarantee enough keepers that you won’t be frustrated.
8. Take it slow and be quiet. Birds are very easily disturbed. Sudden movements, loud noises and anything out of the ordinary will spook them. Take your time. Birds take off when they see nearly anything move quickly.
9. Like many subjects, birds are best photographed early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Fortunately this corresponds with the best light. Be there at the right time and you’ll increase your chances of getting a winner.
10. Look at lots of bird pictures. Writers read if they want to become better writers and photographers look at photographs if they want to become better photographers. Look at avian images in books, magazines and on the Web. See what the photo buyers are selecting. Use those images as your benchmark and then go get some of your own.