improving your bird photography

Five Killer Tips for Improving Your Bird Photography Skills

I absolutely love bird photography. Birds are magnificent creatures and capturing a great shot of a bird makes me feel like I’ve really accomplished something noteworthy. I was fortunate enough to visit Costa Rica recently and got some great bird photos I’ll be sharing in the not-too-distant future. I’ve learned some great tips from birding and photography experts that I wanted to pass along in this post, in the hopes that it will help with improving your bird photography skills. With that…here are my top tips:

Use The Best Equipment for Bird Photography

Unlike most other types of travel and nature photography bird photography requires some pretty specific equipment in order for you to be successful. You can try to do bird photography with a cell phone camera or with a point and shoot, but it’s almost certain that you’ll be disappointed in the results.

Improving Your Bird Photography

The best equipment for bird photography is either a digital SLR or a mirrorless camera. These allow you to capture action much faster, to shoot in burst mode (multiple frames in a single second), and to manage your settings easily. I shoot with a Nikon D610 digital SLR. I’ve also had good results doing bird photography with my Panasonic Lumix GX8 Body Mirrorless Camera. My go-to camera is the Nikon, but I’ve learned to be comfortable with both.

The other piece of equipment that’s critical for improving your bird photography is a telephoto lens. At a minimum you’ll need a lens with a focal length of 300mm. 500mm is even better, if you can manage the weight – most 500mm lenses for DSLR cameras are heavy beasts. The more focal length you have, the better your chances are of getting a great shot. You can’t get to close to most birds, and the telephoto lens will bring you much closer to the scene while keeping you a safe and respectable distance.

Because of optical physics, cameras with smaller sensor sizes extend the focal length of your lens. If you’re shooting with a APS-C camera (sometimes called a “crop-frame camera”), your effective focal length will be about 1.4x the stated length on the lens. Put another way, an APS-C camera turns a 300mm lens into a 420mm lens – again, just because of optical physics. The effect is even better with a mirrorless camera, because their sensors are even smaller. On my Panasonic LUMIX GX8, the focal length is extended by 2x. So my 400mm lens for this camera effectively works out to be an 800mm lens.

If you’re looking for more information on various camera types, sensor sizes, etc., please read my post on The Best Camera for Beginning Travel Photographers.

Use The Right Shutter Speed

mproving your travel photographyThe longer your lens, the more important your shutter speed becomes. This is because longer lenses are more sensitive to camera shake or vibration. A good rule of thumb is that you want your shutter speed to be at least the same as the focal length of the lens. So if you’re shooting on a full-frame camera that has a 500mm lens, your shutter speed should be at least 1/500th of a second. If you’re shooting with an APS-C or crop-frame sensor, your effective focal length is around 720mm – so again, you’ll want your shutter speed to be at least 1/750 or faster. Getting a fast shutter speed requires a lot of light, and sometimes the conditions you’re in may not lend themselves to a fast shutter. If that’s the case, there are a couple of backup strategies you can use:

  • See if your camera body and/or lens have vibration reduction (VR) technology. A vibration reduction lens has a mechanism in it that makes micro-adjustments to the position of the lens glass. If you’re holding your lens freehand and you make a slight movement up or down, the glass in the lens will move in the opposite direction to compensate. Generally, vibration reduction can give you two to three extra stops of light. This means that you could shoot at 1/250, but the VR makes your camera operate as though the shutter speed is 1/500 or 1/750. Not all cameras or lenses have this, but it’s really handy to have when you need it.
  • Use a tripod. This is an old-school way of resolving the shutter speed issue. If your camera is mounted on a tripod, it will be immune to vibrations and movement, which helps you produce a crisp image with a slower shutter speed. You’ll still have to consider whether the bird you are photographing is moving or not, as this will affect your final image. If you’re shooting at a 1/100 shutter speed and trying to capture a hummingbird, you will likely have some motion blur even if you’re on a tripod.

Practice With Common Birds First

“Oh…a Canada goose! How cool!”…said no Chicagoan, ever. 😛

I’ve done bird photography in some pretty far-flung locations – everywhere from driving 6 hours from my home to photograph nesting birds in a marsh in Wisconsin, all the way to bird photography in Tanzania. But I absolutely wouldn’t have taken these trips if they were my first bird photography excursion – it’s not worth the time and investment to go that far just to learn the basics.

I started learning about bird photography by experimenting with birds I found in my neighborhood or close by. I live near Chicago, and for most of the year Canada geese are plentiful and easy to find. Maybe I’m a little over-exposed to them – but the the adults aren’t really all that interesting to me anymore. That said, they’re a great bird for the beginning steps of improving your bird photography skills. They’re either in flight or on the ground – since they don’t rest in trees, they’re pretty accessible. The ones I find in our area are used to being around humans so they’re not terribly skittish unless they have younglings around. So while I didn’t really want to collect thousands of Canada goose photos, but I found that taking all these photos was critical to helping me improve my bird photography skills.

What birds do you have in your area that are plentiful, and are easy to photograph? Most major cities in the US and around the world have birds all around, and some cities even have sanctuaries or reserved areas for birds and other wildlife. Also, don’t forget about your local zoo. The shooting conditions may not be optimal, but it gives you a lot of subjects with which to practice and hone your skills.

Learn About Your Subject

Timing is everything! I was able to get this shot by understanding the behavior of bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).

Fun fact: if you’re watching eagles or other raptors that nest in trees, they will always poop before taking off into flight. Always. Like 100% of the time. Why is this important to know? Because I’ve gotten some of my best eagle photos ever by waiting for them to “lighten the load,” so to speak.

I learned this tip by listening to a podcast by Scott Bourne, who is one of the most accomplished and recognized bird photographers in the world. That small tip made a huge difference in my skills at photographing eagles.

If you’re trying to photograph a specific type of bird, read everything you can get your hands or eyes on about that bird. The more you know about its habits, the better your chance of getting a good photograph. Another example – I happen to recognize the way that herons and egrets walk when they’re about ready to pluck a nice juicy fish out of the water for breakfast. It’s a bit tricky to catch because it happens so fast – but knowing the way they hold their head and walk before they strike helps increase my chances of getting a great story-telling image.

Focus On The Eye

improving your bird photography
It’s hard to catch a bananaquit (Coereba flaveola) at rest…I was glad this one was so still, which enabled me to really focus in on his eye.

As the old saying goes, the eyes are the window to the soul. The way your subject’s eye shows up in the photo can either make or break the end result.

Most digital SLRs will allow you to shift the focal point. As the name implies, the focal point is the part of the photo that your camera will zero in on. You’ll want to practice the skill of moving the camera’s focal point without taking your eye off the viewfinder or eyepiece. This skill is critical to getting a great bird photo.

In most circumstances you should try to have everything in a bird photo in focus. But if the conditions are such that you can concentrate on one part of the image, the eye is what you should go for.

You’ll also ideally want to be in a situation where the bird’s eye is well-lit. I’ve taken some shots where the light is in a bad location and the bird’s eye is totally black. This looks vaguely creepy – we’re all used to the idea that living creatures should have at least a little bit of light reflecting from their eyes.

The ideal situation is something called a “catchlight”. A catchlight is a small dot of bright light on the surface of the bird’s eye. It just makes your subject look more alive and is a more pleasing look.

Check the Background

While you’re zeroing in on your subject’s eye, make sure to scan the background to make sure it’s not cluttered and doesn’t distract from the subject. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked away from a shoot thinking I had a great bird photo – only to find out later that there was a telephone pole, or a branch, or a car, or…well, something…that distracted from the image. Sometimes these things can be removed in post processing, but that’s not always the case. It’s better to focus on getting it right in the camera and on location as opposed to having to fix it later.

improving your bird photography

Take the photo above. Granted, the photographer was probably trying to tell a story about a typical barnyard chicken. But to me, the background is too cluttered. The “X” on the barn door makes the chicken look constrained, and like it’s too close to the boarders of the image. The other bird in the background – what is that? What’s it doing? Why is it there? Those questions distract me from what is ostensibly the main subject of the photo.

This doesn’t mean that this is a bad photo – whether a photo is “good” or “bad” is highly subjective. That said, I typically don’t like photos with crowded or busy backgrounds like this. And most professional bird and wildlife photographers would caution you against a crowded background.

Final Thoughts on Improving Your Bird Photography

There’s lots more to say about improving your bird photography skills…it’s a pursuit that never ends. But I hope this brief post has helped you improve your game.

Do you have any additional tips or advice you’d like to offer? Drop a comment below, or shoot me a note via the Contact Me page. I may incorporate your insights into a future post!

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