Capturing Winged Beauties
Photographing birds gives us the opportunity to observe, study and be inspired by these majestic creatures. Supriya Joshi shares 15 bird photography tips.
This article was originally published in November 2014.
Making images of birds is a challenge. However, it can also be a very rewarding experience. In fact, birds are the only wildlife subjects that are accessible easily. You don’t have to look far and wide in order to find and photograph them. Simply take a look outside your window, and you will see at least three different types of birds.
With a lot of practice and a whole lot of luck, you can make some fantastic images of these splendid beings. Here are 15 tips to get you started.
1. Study Your Camera Inside Out
Birds are flighty creatures—no pun intended—and a delay of even a few seconds could mean you missing your shot entirely. To make sure you are prepared for any situation on field, you have to make sure you know the workings of your camera thoroughly. Also, if your camera allows it, dedicate camera buttons to specific purposes, such as switching between focusing modes. If your camera allows you to do so, you should assign a button other than the shutter-release for AF activation for added precision.
2. The Cropped Sensor Advantage
Do you need a full frame camera to make great bird photos? Not necessarily. In fact, a cropped sensor might serve you better because of the crop factor that comes into play. So, a 70–300mm lens on an APS-C camera will give a field of view equivalent to a 105–450mm lens (for Nikon cameras) and 112—480mm (for Canon cameras). In effect, you will get much closer to the subject, without having the need to invest in additional lenses.
This aside, there are superzoom cameras that allow you to shoot RAW, have responsive AF systems and are quite fast overall.
3. Study as Much as You Can
If there is a particular species of bird you want to photograph, study them in depth. Learn about their mating and migratory patterns, speak to expert birders and draw your own inferences. You could also simply observe your subject with a pair of good binoculars.
4. Start Small
When you are just starting out in this genre, begin by photographing birds that are easily accessible and accustomed to human presence. City birds like pigeons, crows and mynas can be your ideal first subjects. This will help you hone your technical skills as well as allow you to get a broader understanding of bird behaviour.
You can also install a bird feeder in your backyard or outside your window. It will allow you to observe them without disturbing them.
5. Keep Calm
When you spot a bird, don’t rush towards it. Take a moment and observe the creature. Pay attention to what it is doing at the moment, and decide your photographic approach accordingly. Rushing towards a bird will most likely startle it and cause it to fly away. The legendary Salim Ali had once said that the secret to getting close to a bird is to take one step in several minutes, or even hours. If you slow yourself down, the bird will consider you a part of the environment, and not fly away.
6. Choose the Right Time
Most birds are active about three hours after sunrise and two hours before sunset. At both these times, they are looking for food, or are settling down for the day. While mornings are best for spotting various kinds of birds, the diffused evening light will help you create moodier images like silhouettes.
7. Focus on the Eyes
Use Single Point AF for better precision. To prevent any front or back-focus problems, use a feature like AF Fine-tune before the shoot.
8. Use Continuous Focus
You do not want to miss crucial moments when you are photographing birds, especially when they are in flight. Switch to continuous focus, so that once the camera has locked onto the subject, it will keep tracking it. If you are using a low-end camera and the AF can’t keep up, preempt a bird’s movement and focus manually.
9. Take Care of the Light
Frontal or sidelighting can work best for portraits where you want to show detail. It will also allow you to capture the intricate feathers and plumage of the bird.
10. Use Flash
In low light conditions, you may not be able to get a sharp photograph of a bird in motion. If your subject is close enough, fire your camera’s flash in order to freeze any movement.
11. Experiment with Shutterspeed
Using a faster shutterspeed is encouraged when photographing birds in flight. However, you can use a slightly slower shutterspeed than required to blur the bird’s wings. Smaller birds like hummingbirds look stunning when their wings are a beautiful blur.
12. Watch the Background
If the background is too cluttered, the beauty of the bird itself will get lost in translation. Position yourself in such a way that you get a clean background, in order for the bird to be the centre of attention.
13. Be Careful of the Corners
Before you hit the shutter, take a look at all corners of the frame. Do not cut off the bird’s tail or its talons. You can make a tight close-up, but if you want to photograph a bird in its entirety, make sure there is enough breathing space in your frame.
14. Be Prepared to Think on Your Feet
Become so intuitive that you can predict a bird’s next move. The best of bird photographs are shot after hours, days and weeks or persistence, and not in a one-off half-hour shoot.
15. Be Persistent
Be patient, tenacious and keep practising. Make different plans around the year, as each sanctuary will pose its own share of challenges. It’s easy to say you need a better lens. Use what you have and make a progress report by comparing how you’ve shot a particular bird on different occasions.
Bonus! Four Essential Bird Photography Books You Must Own