How to photograph birds

Photographing BirdsOf all the nature shots I’ve explored so far, nothing compares to the exhilaration obtained from bird photography. There is always that dynamism of imminent movement that puts the heart beat in a crescendo.

The variety of colors, forms and behaviors of birds keeps the interest in looking for more to photograph. One is mesmerized with the elegance of the nesting or the forcefulness of hunting flights.

For me, the challenge is not on capturing bird images. The challenge is capturing satisfying moments.

Appreciation of nature

Before one pursues the “hows” of photographing birds, one must first ask the “whys.” Photographic birding is not about just capturing bird images but more of a state of mind the ability to enjoy nature and have fun doing so.

Different photographic techniques abound but seldom is there a discussion on the appropriate attitude. If ones goal is just to look for bird subjects and try to take shots, the success factor will be limited and frustrations easily obtained.

Appreciation of nature must be the prime motive in any photographic birding adventure. Capturing images is only a bonus. When the mindset is conditioned to this motive, the satisfaction level and fun factor increases. If some shots do not materialize, charge it to experience, as there is always another day. If all you capture are body parts, take them home and who knows, you may be able to do image stitching to form a “new” species. With the right attitude, one can proceed with the basic requirements.

A whole book on the subject is needed to cover all the ins and outs of digital camera settings and techniques for photographing birds. But to begin, here are the very basic requirements and setups that I find work well.

Getting close to the subject

Taking Photographs of BirdsA critical factor related to photographic equipment is the ability to get closer to the subject. Unless one has a stealthy nature, any small movement would scare away most birds, especially small ones. One needs to use a camera with good zooming capabilities for effective photographic birding.

Sometimes a 3X or up to 5X zoom just won’t cut it except for photographing the ever present Mallard ducks and Canada Geese where even close up shots are highly possible.

A number of 10X and 12X affordable zoom cameras are now on the market. I use a Panasonic FZ20 with a 12X zoom plus a 1.5X teleconverter add-on to stretch my reach.

This setup gives me 648mm (35mm equivalent) at maximum optical zoom. Using a long zoom requires image stabilization. If your camera doesn’t have a stabilized lens, use a monopod or tripod with a pan head.

Settings

A fast shutter speed is the baseline for camera settings in a zoomed range. If your camera has it, use the shutter priority mode.

Bird

My preference for shutter speed is at 1/800th of a second to freeze most actions. If the subject is in the shade with expected small movements (eg. feeding/preening), a slower shutter speed such as 1/200th second can be used. This allows the aperture to open up further for more light. If blur occurs, increase the shutter speed.

Another way to maintain a high shutter speed in non-ideal light conditions is to increase the ISO. It is, however, preferable to use the lowest ISO setting available to minimize noise generation. I find that auto white balance doesn’t always give good color reproduction, so I change the white balance setting to sunny in full sun conditions or cloudy on cloudy or overcast days.

Metering

Many digital cameras have more than one metering mode. The three most common are spot, center-weighted and matrix metering. If your camera has a spot meter, use it for photographing birds. Spot metering offers a more precise metering configuration than other types of metering modes as it concentrates on a limited area on the subject.

Importance of spot metering

When half pressing and holding the shutter button in Aperture Priority (Av), Shutter (Tv) Priority, Macro or Program (P) exposure modes, one can preview exposure changes on an electronic viewfinder or the LCD screen as you run the spot meter across the subject.

If the spot meter is concentrated on darker tones, they will be properly exposed but originally brighter tones may become over exposed (too bright). If the spot meter is on the brighter tones, those areas will be properly exposed but originally dark tones may become under exposed (too dark). Spot metering on intermediate tones can give an good balance between the highlights and shadows. Spot metering is critical when one really wants to control the effect of light or other creative pursuit.

Other metering modes

If spot metering is not available on your digital camera, use center-weighted. It may give a better result than a pattern or matrix (evaluative) metering mode. Remember that your subject is often at the center of attraction and thus most of the time, the background is secondary. So you want to make sure you meter on the subject. Matrix metering, which meters an entire scene, may result in brighter or evenly lit images but the overall effect is often flat looking.

Focusing

GooseThe last major setting is the focus mode.

The ideal setup is to use spot focusing if your digital camera has it. It allows faster and more precise focusing on a small area than a large area or multi-area focusing mode.

If you don’t have spot focusing, use center area focusing. A matrix focus mode that has between three to nine area focus points is okay if the foreground, subject and background are in a similar plane of focus. If not, the foreground could get all the focusing needs.

Check the camera indicator when focus lock is achieved.

Where to focus

Most bird photographers tell us that the primary focusing area should be the eyes of the subject. I have confirmed this and use the eyes as my primary area to focus. One mentor I worked with would say “get the eyes in focus and the rest will follow.”

Viewing bird images usually directs us first to the eyes. If the eyes are not in focus, it affects the impact of the whole image. If focusing on the eyes is not possible, alternatives are to focus on the head or feet since they are mostly in the same plane of focus as the eyes. Once focused is locked on the head or feet, recompose the shot. The exception to using these areas to focus is when taking extreme close-up shots.

The settings and setups mentioned in this article are just the beginning stages of bird photography. Continuing to travel the birding road requires one to experiment to discover what works well for a given subject and light condition. Though digital memory is cheap for taking tons of images, the pursuit of a rewarding bird photographic experience requires the investment of one’s heart and time.

Photos Copyright Gil Tuzon All rights reserved

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5 Responses

  1. Rashid says:

    Thanks for your comments which I found helpful specially where to focus and using the spot metering obtion (partial metering – in my camera)

  2. david says:

    Thanks

  3. Gail Bjork says:

    david, Glad you found the information helpful.

    Each lens has what is know as a “sweet spot,” a range of aperture sizes that produces the sharpest images. The actual sizes vary from lens to lens, but they are typically found in the middle of the aperture range. Experiment with each lens you use to find which apertures yield the sharpest images.

    This article will give you a better understanding.

  4. david says:

    Great article
    What will be the best aperture in order to avoid “noise”around the bird and having more details in the background
    Thank

  5. Great article, I enjoyed it and also enjoy shooting many bird shots and editing them to get the best of the group. I do not like shots of only birds, I require the natural background.  Try looking in web shots, chuck4photos or backyard birds of central florida.   It is a great hobby, thanks for your article.