If you're interested in getting started with bird photography, the spring is the perfect time to do so as warmer tempetures mark the start of bird migrations north! Of course, when starting with any genre of photography, there are plenty of things to learn and consider. For example, with bird photography, It’s important to recognize your situation and be able to make quick adjustments on the fly (pun intended!). In this guide, I'll present 10 tips and ideas to get you started and help ensure the best chances for some fantastic shots!
1) Get to Know Your Subject
The best approach to starting out with bird photography is to familiarize yourself with your subject(s). If you're interested in capturing certain species, learning their habits, diet, habitats, and behaviors can go a long way to ensuring you have plenty of opportunities to photograph them. Equipping yourself with this knowledge will allow you to plan the "when" and "where" aspects of your shoots with ease. There are so many resources online that you can utilize for studying birds (see tip #10 for suggestions). Another helful resource I like to tap is my local used book store. I have found lots of reading materials and guides that I can bring with me into the field simply by visiting these local book shops.
This is perhaps the best tip I can provide for this genre of photography. We can’t control nature, and we should never disturb our feathered friends. Yes, there have been many times that I wish things would have happened differently, or even happened at all. However, there have also been many times where the wait was worth every minute and these moments allow me to appreciate that final image that much more. With any wildlife photography, you are at the whim of your subject and patience couldn't be more important when attempting to capture the "perfect shot".
3) Camera Settings
It’s important to use a high shutter speed for birds in flight. I recommend 1/1000 as a starting point. For birds on land or in the water, you can get away with about half this speed, but the idea with bird photography is (usually) to freeze the entire moment. If you end up trying a slower speed, you will likely introduce some blurriness into your shot. There is a very fine line to walk with blur for bird photographers. Some subtle blur is a good way to portray movement, so as you perfect your craft, do consider this option.
Most of the time I will shoot in aperture mode. My metering mode will be spot. I always shoot in RAW because I can adjust color balance later (white balance is on auto) and recover significant amounts of data that jpeg files cannot. It is ideal to keep your ISO as low as possible, typically 400 or lower. Although cameras have made great strides in noise reduction over the past few years, I'd recommend only increasing your ISO in extreme situations. Also consider turning any sound off on your camera. Birds are easily disturbed so the less noise the better in most situations. Birds are also very unpredictable subjects, so camera focus can be a challenge. I've found that continuous autofocus works great so that even if the subject suddenly moves, your camera will continue to adjust. AI Servo yields great results while panning your camera and tracking a moving target. When capturing an intimate shot of your subject, make sure you have the bird’s eye in focus. I encourage you to really perfect shooting with these focus settings. There’s nothing like capturing what you thought was a fantastic shot, only to be disappointed by soft focus!
4) Shoot in Burst
Bird photography is not an easy genre to obtain the “perfect” shot. More often that not it can be a numbers game, especially for birds in flight or while landing and taking flight. I encourage you to know what your camera buffer is and utilize it. With a burst setting, you will have better odds of getting your ideal shot, but the drawback is you'll end up with more sorting and far more hard drive space used. I will often review the series in camera and immediately delete images that I know are not "keepers". While sorting through these images, I am looking for certain qualities within each shot. Things like subject overlap and blurriness are immediate cause for deletion. Images I keep include graceful wing formations, sharpness, and ideal compositions. Negative space is your best friend in bird photography shots. When tracking a bird or cropping the image in post, be sure to leave enough space for visual interest and to allow the bird to "flow" into the image.
5) Expose for the Highlights
You want to capture as much data as possible yet stay within your histogram without any clipping. Paying attention to your histogram will help you maintain as much data as possible while yielding the least amount of noise.
6) Get Creative
Perhaps you've found a swimming duck, an owl sleeping soundly in a tree, or a hawk swooping down on its prey. Before you capture the scene infront of you, I encourage you to think creatively. Consider using reflections, lighting (based on the time of day), depth of field, angles, background, and foreground as ways to help your image come to life. If there's a lot going on in the frame, isolate your subjects in the shot to help maintain the focal point. When possible, I try to capture my subject at eye-level. In my opinion, this point of view helps an image become a "photograph" instead of a "snapshot". When capturing birds in flight, you can add visual interest by including surrounding elements, such as a mountaintops, to give the viewer an idea of the bird’s graceful heights. Similar to a lot of photography genres, using the surrounding landscapes can help to tell a story. When shooting during sunrise or sunset, try to capture some silhouette shots as these can make for pleasing images. To achieve a silhouette, meter the brightest scene in the sky within your shot.
7) Post Processing
When it comes to post processing bird photographs, subtly can go a long way. For instance, when sharpening your final piece, consider sharpening selectively on only the important parts of your image. As mentioned above, leave some negative space when cropping so that your subject appears to fly into or out of the image. Consider the rule of thirds when cropping to help ensure you achieve the perfect amount of negative space. If you edit in Lightroom, use hesitation with the many slider and adjustment options available to you. Watch for over saturation and inceased clarity. Less is definitely more with wildlife and bird photography!
Given the varied locations of everyone reading this, I will try to provide some general ideas for bird photography. To start, check areas with water, such as your local parks, lakes, and rivers! If you're just getting started, you can always practice at your local zoo which allows for a more controlled subject. When there, be sure to practice perfecting your focus settings with close-ups and continue fine-tuning at home with cropping and post-processing. In the beginning, it is helpful to practice these techniques with common birds as well. You can even consider setting up a bird feeder at home to attract birds to your yard.
If you are the traveling type, then getting out of your city and into more remote areas yields far more opportunities for capturing varied species. Once you feel more comfortable with this genre, I encourage you to get adventurous and research migrations. There are lots of organized photography gatherings all over the country depending on the time of year.
9) Helpful Mobile Apps
Often times, I find mobile apps to be more convenient and helpful when out exploring. There are plenty of useful phone apps available when you're getting started with bird photography. Unfortunately, most of these suggestions pertain to iOS users (but I am sure you can find similar on Android apps). Start by downloading Merlin ID; an incredible free tool for all bird enthusiasts. This app is used for identifying bird species and can ID a bird by asking a few questions about location and appearance. This app recently added a feature that lets you upload a photo for identification purposes as well. So far, this app has never failed me and comes highly recommended. The Audubon Bird Guide app is also an excellent resouce! This is an outstanding "pocket" bird guide to always have with you and is also completely free. Lastly, if you're looking for an all-in-one resource, I will recommend The Sibley eGuide. This paid app is packed with maps, reference images of birds, audio, and much more. It should be noted that Sibley writes some of the best books and field guides out there for birding.
10) Have Fun!
Last but not least - enjoy yourself! At the end of the day, this is what photography is all about. However, I remind you to be respectful of the birds along with their homes and surroundings. The more you blend in quietly with the scene, the better your odds of coming home with magnificent shots to cherish and share.
Have you tried bird photography? Share your images, tips, or tricks in the comments!