I hope you have a few minutes. I am going to compile one of my longest blog posts ever. Its about photographing birds.
I could write 10 books on this subject and still not cover everything. So this post won’t either. But hopefully theres enough here to get anyone whos seriously interested off to a good start. This post is meant for beginners and experienced photographers alike.
The Bad News
Lets begin with the bad news. Photographing birds is hard. Its incredibly hard. Its really, really hard. It may look easy but its absolutely not easy. It takes patience and dedication and luck and a whole lot of practice. I think thats what drew me to bird photography. I had done what I set out to with weddings, portrait and landscapes, so wildlife and especially birds seemed like a good challenge.
Heres more bad news. Bird photography can be very addictive. If you take to these creatures, they are hard to get off your mind. You may end up like me with dozens of photo libraries full of bird shots. I have made literally hundreds of thousands of bird photographs over the last 15-20 years. No matter how many times I photograph birds, I still find myself learning new tidbits that I might take for granted but that may be helpful for you.
My 20 Tips For Better Bird Photographs
Lets start at the very beginning
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. 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.
3. 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 (even 800mm) at f/4 or f/5.6 are required for salable bird portraits. Fast 300mm lenses with image stabilization are required for flight shots. A good heavy tripod is a must. You will also want a gimbal head for that tripod if youre shooting 500mm lenses and up. You’ll need big, fast memory cards. And you’ll need a camera with a fast burst and buffer rate. You’ll also want advanced autofocus cameras and lenses. If you don’t have all this stuff don’t worry, you can rent it at most pro camera stores.
4. Know your gear before you go. The first time I went out to make avian images I took a 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 youre 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.
5. Start Big. Practice with larger birds such as pelicans, gulls and herons. Also practice at local zoos. Captive birds will give you a chance to study behavior, hone your skills and become familiar with bird photography (and your gear) and guarantee enough keepers that you won’t be frustrated.
6. Background, background, background. Start with the background and then find the bird. If you don’t have a clean background you don’t have a good bird photo. Pick your backgrounds before you decide what to shoot. 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. Track the Sun. Im not much for photography religions but if I were – this would be the one I would practice. Photograph birds with your back to the sun. Especially when you are just starting out. Birds look best when front lit. Sidelight may be the landscape photographers friend, but it’s the avian photographers enemy. Keep the sun at your back, or in other words, point your shadow at the birds. Believe it. Practice it. Live by it. You’ll get better shots.
8. Aim for Eye Level. Unless they are in flight wheres often impractical, make your bird photographs 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 eye-level shot that made the difference. If youre photographing water birds, its imperative to shoot from the water level. Water almost birds never look right when you are shooting down on them. In general, eye-level (or close to eye-level) shots are more engaging and draw the viewer into the birds world.
9. 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. There are a couple of things you can do to avoid scaring the birds. Shoot from a blind (in Europe called a hide) or shoot from your car. The birds won’t be disturbed if you are in a vehicle. Why? I don’t know, but if I could ask a bird a question that would be it. Also, don’t walk into the field with your tripod legs extended and over your shoulder. This makes you look like a big monster to the birds. Take it easy and work your way close to the birds slowly.
10. Timing matters. 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. Unfortunately, being there at the right time when the light is good won’t guarantee you success. You also need the wind going in the right direction. Birds tend to take off and land into the wind. If the low light is behind you and so is the wind, well then you have a perfect combo.
11. Shoot Shutter Priority. When shooting birds in flight, use shutter priority. A fast shutter speed is essential to capturing birds in flight. Unless you want to blur the subject for creative reasons, a shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second should be your minimum preferred shutter speed. Also use the lowest ISO you can and still get a fast shutter speed.
12. Check the aperture. Whether photographing birds in flight or perched, make your aperture wide open for small birds and stop down by one or two stops for larger birds. Sometimes when photographing birds in flight I will stop down two or even three more stops if Im working against a blue sky. Increased depth-of-field is your friend when photographing a small, fast-moving object.
13. Sometimes get off the tripod. When shooting birds in flight you’ll usually get more keepers if you work hand-held. Tripods are too bulky in flight situations. Spread your feet shoulder width apart to get more support when working hand-held. Try leading the birds with your lens. Aim slightly ahead of the bird and estimate its trajectory.
14. Go tight. For flight shots, select a lens in the 300-400mm range. These are typically hand-holdable and will get you close enough to fill the frame in most cases. Also use high speed continuous shooting mode and activate all your focusing points. A good, fast, accurate auto focus is usually mandatory when photographing birds in flight.
15. Draw them in. Its nearly impossible to photograph song birds, some raptors and other birds without setting up a perch and drawing the birds in. You need four things to do this. A clean place for the bird to perch, cover, food and water.
16. Go local. If you decide to set up a perch make sure you use local vegetation it both aids in drawing in the birds and it makes the photograph more believable. You won’t find many arctic terns nesting on a cactus. Darker colored perches are less troublesome exposure wise.
17. Consider a bird feeder. Bird feeders are the easiest way to attract birds but if youre going to put out a feeder make sure you use quality feed, and that you feed consistently, otherwise the birds will get sick or grow to rely on the feed and perhaps not find sufficient nourishment if you stop feeding. Tray feeders located near a water source and good perches will keep you shooting all day.
18. Use a small tray. Use the smallest tray feeder you can find. Otherwise too many birds will just stay on the feeder and not land on the perch.
19. Be patient. Remember that birds tend to fly or hop from perch to cover while they eat. They typically like to land on the same perch over and over so just be patient. When the bird leaves the perch theres a good chance it is coming right back.
20. Practice, practice and practice some more. Don’t get frustrated and don’t give up. If I can do it you can do it.
Where to Make Great Bird Photos.
People often ask me where I go to shoot. Heres a list of my top bird photo hotspots. In no particular order:
#1 Bosque del Apache, New Mexico http://www.fws.gov/refuges/profiles/index.cfm?id=22520 Bosque del Apache (Woods of the Apache) is a 57,191-acre national wildlife refuge 18 miles south of Socorro, New Mexico. More than 300 species of birds migrate to the Bosque each year. Great place for blue herons, mallards, snowy egrets, sandhill cranes, roadrunners, Ross, Canadian and snow geese, bald eagles, Coopers and red-tailed hawks and wild turkeys. Surely no place in the western US can boast such a concentration of birds and wildlife. ??The migrating geese and cranes start to arrive in earnest at the Refuge in November.
Any visit between mid-November and early January should yield a Refuge filled with tens of thousands of birds. Visit http://www.friendsofthebosque.org/ for more information. NOTE: This is probably the last year Bosque will be on my list. The refuge management and police are not easy to deal with. They don’t like photographers and will use pretty much any excuse they can to harass you. Be careful and avoid them if possible.
#2 Northwest Trek Eatonville, Washington http://www.nwtrek.org/ This is a great place to photograph eagles and owls. But also deer, elk, moose, bear and a number of other birds and animals native to the northwest. There are several options here. You can enter the park and ride the tram around the free roaming area. There aren’t many photographic opportunities from the tram but it does give you a good idea of the lay of the land. You can also arrange to take a special photography tram. These are offered every quarter. In either event, you can also walk around the staged exhibits and this is where the best shots are. Even though some people would refer to these as cages, they are really natural enclosures designed to mimic the animals natural habitat. Some favorites here are the porcupines, snowy owls, raccoons, deer and elk.
#3 The Alligator Farm St. Augustine, FL http://www.alligatorfarm.com/ is an amazing place that offers bird (and alligator) photographers a chance to photograph birds in breeding plumage from as close as four feet. In late spring and early summer, you can photograph baby chicks at arms length. The birds nest here because of the alligators. By the way, The Alligator Farm boasts every type of alligator and crocodile found in the world. The place is extremely photographer friendly and a yearly pass ($60) entitles you to early entry.
#4 Arizona Sonora Dessert Museum http://www.desertmuseum.org/ This is a great place to photograph all sorts of raptors, lizards and other dessert wildlife. Its close to Tucson and there are many other bird photo opportunities in the same general area. Also don’t miss the nearby Saguaro National Park.
#5 Denali National Park http://www.nps.gov/dena/ Go in Autumn. You will see Alaskas state bird, the Willow Ptarmigan here. There are all sorts of song birds here along with caribou, moose, grizzly and black bears. You may see the wolf pack. Also possible is beaver and one of the three privately-owned hotels operating in the park all of which are expensive.
Note you can’t drive your car all the way into the park. You’ll have to take a bus to the interior unless you rent a night in one of the three hotels inside the park.
Resources for Bird Photography
Here is a list of resources you might find helpful when planning your next bird photography outing
1. e-Nature.com (http://www.enature.com)
Your complete wildlife discovery source. Lists of all North American animals plus additional wildlife resources.
2. BirdWatchingDaily Formerly Birders World Magazine (http://www.birdwatchingdaily.com)
A great way to study quality bird photography.
3. National Wildlife Federation (http://nwf.org)
Since 1936, the NWF has educated people about wildlife. Patient photographers can comb through this material and find great information on wildlife behavior, habitat and yes, wildlife photography.
4. National Geographic (http://www.nationalgeographic.com)
If you want to see pictures of wildlife, learn about wildlife or get access to wildlife resources, National Geographic is a great place to start.
5. National Park Service (http://www.nps.gov/)
Information, maps, interpretation and education for wildlife photographers. You can locate some tremendous wildlife subjects in Americas national parks.
6. Americas National Wildlife Refuge System (http://refuges.fws.gov/index.html).
The very best places in America to photograph wildlife, period!
7. U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service (http://www.fws.gov/)
Conservation and wildlife management. A great resource if you want to understand wildlife conservation, learn about the animals you photograph and find good wildlife photography locations.
8. U.S. Naval Observatory Sun & Moon Data (http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/RS_OneDay.html)
Get the sunrise and sunset, moonrise and moonset times you need to plan your photo shoot.
9. Weather.com (http://www.weather.com)
Get the weather forecast you need to plan your photo shoot.