Bird photography, due to the very nature of its often-flighty subjects, is a challenge. Though it’s certainly helpful, having the best equipment and bird knowledge does not guarantee the best shots. Think you’re up to the challenge? Here are ten tips to take your bird photos to the next level.
1. Pick up a bird guide or download a bird ID app.
The first step to becoming a better bird photographer is to get to know your subjects. What birds are found in your area? When? Where are they most likely to be seen (in tree nooks, along shorelines, etc.)? Birds are often relatively small and apt to move quickly, so preparation has a large part to play. Study their behaviours (such as their songs, wing beat patterns, etc.), and it will help you to find and identify species in the field.
2. Be prepared for the weather
Shooting birds takes a lot of patience and time, so leave home prepared to ensure your session isn’t cut short due to prevailing weather conditions. Pack accordingly: a toque and gloves go a long way when it’s cold out, as do a rain cover when it’s wet, or sunscreen and sunhat when the UV index is high.
3. Try a long lens on for size, but don’t leave your shorter lens at home
Tight, detailed shots are highly sought after in the birder’s world: a telephoto lens of at least 300mm will allow you to get closer to your subjects without disturbing them. But don’t discredit the power of a shorter (200mm or less) lens. Wider shots can tell bigger stories when the bird’s surroundings are included in the shot.
4. Look for better backdrops
In the excitement of the moment, it’s easy to forget that it’s not only your subject that matters, but what’s behind it, too. Cluttered or distracting backgrounds can take away from otherwise flawless images, so it’s best to consider everything in the frame before pressing the shutter. If your backdrop is less than ideal, try moving to a better vantage point. If you can’t, decrease your depth of field enough to blur the distracting object(s) into oblivion.
5. Look for the light
The golden (or magic) hours, just after sunrise or before sunset, are highly sought after by many types of photographers due to the warm, soft quality of the light. Experiment with front, side and back lighting (which is by far the trickiest, but can have fantastic results).
6. Shoot on the bird’s eye level
Perspective shots are often the most compelling. Be prepared to get down low or climb up high to get on the same level as your bird subject for a more engaging, intimate shot.
7. Use back button autofocus
For DSLR users, if you don’t already use back button autofocus, I highly recommend trying it on for size if you feel confident operating your camera. It’s extremely useful for action shots in particular, as it allows you to track moving subjects and maintain focus at the same time. Learn more about how to set up your camera using your camera manual.
8. Don’t miss a wing beat with continuous shooting mode
Anticipate the bird’s movements and watch for interesting behaviours or moments (for example, interactions with other birds and action shots). With your camera set to continuous shooting mode (burst mode), you can get quickly shoot a sequence of images when the moment’s right — practically ensuring you don’t miss a beat. In the beginning, you may find yourself rapidly filling your memory card, but as you improve you will learn to be more selective and take fewer shots.
9. Practice, practice, practice. Then practice some more
Get out to shoot often and you are likely to see your skills improve.
10. Don’t forget to have fun
I’ve done it myself, getting so wrapped up in getting “the shot” that I’d forgotten to take stock of the beauty and nature around me. Look with not only your eyes, but your ears, too — and you’ll be surprised at the sort of opportunities that present themselves.