Photographing Birds in Nature

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In my short time of attempting any form of bird photography I have found it incredibly frustrating. With that in mind I thought I would explore the art of the possible and find out a few tips and tricks on how to photograph birds. Now, after doing some research I realised that it only gets less frustrating once you come to terms with the fact that patience is a virtue! So this leads me to my first piece of advice for the day…

Patience, patience, patience.  Now patience with the birds is one thing, but patience with yourself is another. With bird photography, particularly with birds in flight, you need to be prepared for failure. Sometimes you can literally take three or four hundred photos and perhaps get one or two “keepers” at best. It must be remembered that every perfect shot of a bird in flight that you might see is invariably the product of hours of frustration and hundreds of blurred attempts previously.

Capture their behaviour

In order to do this, there is a certain amount of knowledge about the birds that is needed. For example, understanding the signs just before a roller is about to do his display, or reading the body language of a bird that is about to take flight.

Feeding birds, particularly those hawking insects, will often return to the same perch. Focus on the perch and wait for the bird to return in order to get a shot of it landing, wings spread. Sometimes a bird that has caught something and returned to it’s perch will toss it’s prey in the air in order to re-position it for easier passage down the throat – if you are ready for this you may get lucky with a well timed shot.

In this white fronted bee-eater shot, knowledge of the bird's behaviour ensured Chris Kane-Berman captured this shot of it re-positioning it's meal.

In this white fronted bee-eater shot, knowledge of the bird’s behaviour ensured Chris Kane-Berman captured this shot of it re-positioning it’s meal.

Nothing fascinates more than capturing a bird in flight, but if you’re not careful, you’ll only get a blur. To stop the action cold, you need to quicken the shutter speed to at least 1/1000th of a second. The fast shutter will be enable you to freeze the action. Consider also the species of bird you are shooting – a small, fast flying bird might need a shutter speed of over 1/2000th of a second, whereas a large, soaring eagle might only require 1/1000th of a second or less.

This photo of a juvenile yellow billed kite came out sharp thanks to a 1/4000th shutter speed. Although this is faster than required for a bird like this, rather too fast a shutter than too slow.

This photo of a juvenile yellow billed kite came out sharp thanks to a 1/4000th shutter speed. Although this is faster than required for a bird like this, rather too fast a shutter than too slow.

Check your reflexes

Compared to mammals, birds are not only small, but very fast. You have to be thinking in advance of what you are going to do – whether it is panning the lens with the bird, or pressing the shutter in time as it takes off. By the time you have seen the bird spread it’s wings to take off, passed the message from your brain to your finger and released the shutter, it is invariably too late – you need to constantly think of releasing the shutter before the bird flies – this will reduce your reaction time and help get the shot.

Quick reflexes ensured that Duncan Maclarty managed to freeze this image of a white fronted bee eater as it left it's perch.

Quick reflexes ensured that Duncan Maclarty managed to freeze this image of a white fronted bee eater as it left it’s perch.

Settings are important

Everyone has their own preference when it comes to settings. The non-negotiable however, as mentioned previously, is a fast shutter speed. How you achieve that is up to you. Some important points to remember are:

  • Up your ISO – this will help with a fast shutter speed and if you have good light, a high ISO won’t result in as much noise as a high ISO in low light – most modern DSLR’s will show up very little noise in good light with an ISO setting of up to 1000
  • Up your aperture – although this will lower you shutter speed, so bear that in mind, it allows a bit more room for error in your focal point, as it brings more of the image into focus
  • Continuous focus – this will help you track a bird in flight as your lens and camera will continually re-focus as you track a bird
  • Continuous shooting – taking one shot at a time will limit your chances of success – set your camera to it’s highest rate of frames per second to improve your odds.

The right gear

Bird photography is one area where you can’t get away with anything less than top quality equipment. A decent camera body with a mega-pixel count that will allow for a significant crop is a must. Anything less than a 300mm lens will battle to capture a decent image – a fixed focal length lens of 400 or 500mm is ideal – not only are birds small, they will seldom let you get as close as mammals, so the reach of a long lens is usually needed.

With a big lens, the next requirement will be a support system. Most of these lenses weigh a fair amount so operating them hand-held can be tough. A good quality tripod or beanbag is a must.

A hyde or some sort of cover can be a useful tool in allowing you to get a bit closer to capture the image you are looking for.

 

Other than that, a fair bit of luck always helps! Please feel free to add to these tips in the comments below…

 

At nine days old and spending at least two hours a day, this was one of the only pictures I could get of these Ashy Flycatcher chicks

At nine days old and spending at least two hours a day, this was one of the only pictures I could get of these Ashy Flycatcher chicks

Hammerkop

A Hammerkop fishes at the causeway

A White-fronted bee-eater takes off from its perch in search of prey.  They are incredibly agile fliers with acute eyesight, allowing them to hunt on the wing with swift manouvers.

A White-fronted bee-eater takes off from its perch in search of prey. They are incredibly agile fliers with acute eyesight, allowing them to hunt on the wing with swift manouvers.

Pied Kingfisher by Graeme Marais

Pied Kingfisher whilst hovering above the water.

Roller Flying

A lilac breasted roller just after take off

Written by Kate Neill