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10 Tips for Better Bird Photography

05/27/2014 — 

From a certain point of view, flowers are easy to photograph. Unless there's a breeze, a flower isn't going to move. You can't spook a flower into running away if you get too close to it. If you aren't satisfied with the angle of your first photograph, you can move to a different angle and photograph again: The flower will wait.

Photographing birds, on the other hand, is another story. Birds are always in motion, flitting here and there, moving their heads and their wings, hopping around when they're on the ground. Getting a photograph of a bird to turn out right is much more challenging.

What can you do to take better photographs of birds? We have nine tips for you.

10 Tips for Better Bird Photography - Geese

@ Milko Marchetti

1. Become one with nature.

Chasing birds around your backyard is completely ineffective. You're much better off setting up your tripod and a lawn chair and waiting for the birds to come to you. Any tripod will provide an improvement to your shot, but the tripod you should be using for bird photography is something with a ball head. A ball head tripod will enable you to quickly adjust the position of the camera when a bird comes your way. If you wait patiently and quietly for long enough for birds to come to you, they will start to accept your presence in the environment and gradually make their way over to the bird bath, bird feeder, or whatever else you have arranged to attract them in your direction.

2. Learn to be an early bird.

There are two times per day when birds are most active: early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Since morning light generally makes for better photographs than shooting as the sun is going down, get up before the sun to set up your shot where you expect the birds to congregate. Getting up early and preparing your shots will help ensure that you'll get the most intimate pictures of the birds you're shooting.

10 Tips for Better Bird Photography - Sunset

@ Milko Marchetti

3. Use a telephoto lens.

You're unlikely to get close enough to a bird to take the photograph you want to take, especially if the subject in question is a fast-moving, easily frightened songbird. Yes, a telephoto lens is expensive, but it's a necessity for professional-quality bird photography. Get a 300mm to 400mm telephoto lens from a reliable brand, such as Nikon or Canon. You can expect to spend at least $500 for a decent telephoto lens.

10 Tips for Better Bird Photography - Water Bird

@ Milko Marchetti

4. Shoot in aperture priority mode.

Have you ever seen those beautiful bird photos with the subject crisp and clear and a background that's blurred out? You can create those same kinds of shots with your own DSLR by shooting in aperture priority mode. When you put your camera in this mode, you can start to control your depth of field. When you're shooting birds, you want to shoot with an aperture of f/4 or f/5.6. This aperture creates a shallow depth of field and enables you to increase your shutter speed.

5. Change your shutter speed.

Speaking of shutter speed, you have a lot of options here. You'll want to set your shutter speed to at least 1/500 to capture bird movements, but if you are shooting birds in mid flight, you'll need an even faster shutter speed than that. Try out shutter speeds of 1/1000 or 1/1500 for your action shots, with an ISO of 400.

6. Enjoy the continuous autofocus mode.

Sometimes, photography professionals think that autofocus is for amateurs. In this case, however, even the pros use continuous autofocus mode. The reason for using continuous autofocus is that this is a subject who will never stay still for you for very long. Continuous autofocus enables you to get the shot you want in focus quickly.

However, with this being said, there can also be an argument made for putting your camera in manual focus mode. Manual focus mode is quieter, so it is less likely to scare the bird off. It will also give you more control over how and what you focus on. Experiment with both and decide what works for you.

10 Tips for Better Bird Photography - Motion

@ Milko Marchetti

7. Put your camera into continuous shooting mode

Besides continuous autofocus, continuous shooting is another mode you should consider using when photographing birds. Continuous shooting allows you to take a quick burst of multiple photographs, which can be very useful given how rarely birds stay still. Your first photograph might not be the one you were hoping for, but in a burst of five or ten photos, you are more likely to find one that captures your subject perfectly.

8. Look into my eyes.

When you shoot portrait shots of birds, always make your focal point their eyes. In terms of shot composition, this is the preferred focal point of photography professionals

9. Learning about birds will make you a better bird photographer.

Do you know which species of birds are most likely to congregate in your backyard? What about which species will congregate by a lake or a stream? Do you know which birds of prey live in your area and what they hunt? Did you realize that different bird species have different personalities and are therefore more likely to display different kinds of behaviors?

The more you know about birds, the more prepared you'll be to take the perfect shot. Hawks, for example, usually scope out their prey from a stationary position, such as a tree branch or a telephone line. When you see a hawk lift off from one of these positions, it's quite possible she has spotted some prey and is about to dive for it -- which would make a great photo! However, if you don't know that about hawks, you might just assume that she's taking off to fly to another telephone line, and you won't have your camera ready for her dramatic dive. By studying birds, you'll come to anticipate what kinds of actions they're about to take before they take them, giving you a second's warning to get your camera ready.

10. Start practicing with birds that are used to people.

You may not find the pigeons who live in your downtown park to be an interesting subject, but the great thing about photographing pigeons is that they are very used to human beings. You can get quite close to a pigeon without it taking flight. Ducks and geese who live around the ponds you find in parks are also good subjects to practice on. While you're still learning the art of bird photography, these kinds of birds are perfect practice subjects.

Tell Us Your Experiences

What other camera and composition tips are important for bird photography? These nine only scratch the surface! Share your own experiences in the comments section below.