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How To Photograph Wild Birds

Aug 17, 2007
Late fall is a perfect time to photograph wild birds. Leaves are falling off the trees, opening the view and birds are eager to feed. And if you're participating in one of the several organized bird counts taking place between now and mid-February, a photographic record can be invaluable in identifying the counted birds.

As common as birds are, and as photogenic as many of them are, they are maddeningly difficult to photograph. It's challenging to get close enough for a decent shot, and birds never seem to sit still for the camera. Lighting, focus, and exposure can be tricky, fooling even the best automatic exposure and focus mechanisms. So what do you do?

As with any photography, knowing your subject will improve your photographs. Spend some time watching the behavior of birds around your feeder. You'll notice certain patterns. Do they first land on a nearby branch before going to your feeder? Do they return once they have grabbed a morsel? Do some birds feed off the spilled seed on the ground? Do they favor a certain spot on your feeder? What time of day do various species feed? When will the best light fall on your birds?

Getting close to the subject is the key to successful bird photography, or any photography, for that matter. Cameras have a funny way of making things look larger through the viewfinder than they will on the print. If you've tried to photograph birds, you know that the bird often appears only as a small dark spot on the print. But with a little ingenuity, you can get close enough for decent photographs. Here are some ideas for getting close to your subject.

The most common solution is the blind. You can buy blinds made for the purpose from professional camera stores, but an old tent or tarp can be just as effective. A visit to your big-box sporting goods section can be worth while as well. Even a car can be an effective blind. What ever you use put it in place two or three days before you plan to photograph so the birds will get used to it.

Patience is a virtue. When you go into your blind, the birds will leave, but only temporarily. But you should plan to be in your blind for some time, maybe a few hours. So have some water and snacks with you, and take care of necessities before you go to the blind. You will be sitting still, so in cold weather layers, gloves and a hat will be needed.

A great solution is to place your feeders near a clear window, and you can photograph from the comfort of your own home! Feeders are even available that fit on the window sill or stick to the window glass. You will need to darken the room as much as possible to avoid reflections and, of course, clean the glass.

It is only necessary that the camera be close - you don't necessarily have to be close yourself. Remote releases, both wired and wireless, are available for most popular camera brands. To use this method, you will need to set your exposure and focus the camera on a spot where you know birds will land. Experiment with your aperture setting to provide some focusing leeway for birds that aren't exactly at your focus point.

Before we leave the topic of blinds, keep in mind that the safety of the birds is more important than any photograph you may get. Do not position yourself or your blind where you will interfere with nesting birds.

As mentioned, getting close is the most important technique, but here are some other tips to help you get the knock-out image. First, get familiar with your camera's aperture and shutter priority modes, as well as its manual mode because you will want to set the shutter speed and aperture yourself. Try a shutter speed of about 1/1000 or 2/1000 seconds to stop the motion of the birds. Open your lens almost - but not quite - as wide as it will go. This will help "fuzz out" the back ground, and moving down from wide open improves image sharpness. Set your focusing mode to use its center point focus - don't let the camera pick the focus point, because it will likely pick the wrong one.

Exposure can be tricky as well. A bright bird against a dark wooded background that fills most of the frame is sure to cause over exposure of the bird. As mentioned above, don't rely solely on the automatic exposure modes (automatic, program, aperture priority, shutter priority) of your camera. You will need to learn the exposure compensation feature, or better yet, the manual mode, in which you set the aperture and shutter speed yourself.

If you use flash, practice with it before hand so that you can get the right amount of flash dialed in. You want just enough flash to open the shadow areas, but too much flash overpowers the background and makes the entire image look unrealistic. The right amount of flash will make the bird "pop" against its background and will provide that pleasing catch-light in the eye.

Photography is painting with light. You simply cannot - cannot - take good images in bad light. Study the lighting of your bird photography area. Look for times when your birds will be side lit, generally in the morning or afternoon. At those times the light will have a pleasing "warm" characteristic that will enhance your image. Avoid the middle of the day. The strong down light and harsh shadows don't make for good photos. Cloudy days are great too, because the light is so even and colors pop. (Hint: exposure is much simpler on cloudy days.)

Professional wildlife photographers will spend many thousands of dollars on cameras and big telephoto lenses, and will go to enormous effort and personal discomfort to get "the shot." However, you can get great bird photos with relatively modest equipment and without wading through swamps.

Although it is possible to photograph birds with any film or digital point and shoot (PS), a digital single-lens-reflex (DSLR) will be more satisfying and produce superior results. The DSLR does not suffer from the frustrating shutter delay of most digital PS cameras. This delay may be up to one second, rendering them unsuitable for fast moving birds. The DSLR will also offer burst exposures of three or more frames per second, and the capability of accepting telephoto lenses, which will help with the getting close part.

The sensor in a DSLR is many times larger than the sensor in a PS, meaning that the DSLR images will enlarge better with less noise. The DSLR has much higher ISO capability (800, 1600 and beyond) than PS cameras, allowing you to use fast shutter speeds even in relatively dim light. Finally, with a DSLR, you can shoot as much as you want - for free.

The next required piece of equipment is a tripod. The tripod is necessary to stabilize even moderate telephoto lenses if you want sharp images. Holding the camera to your eye for some period of time will tire your arms, and lifting the camera to point it out of the blind will scatter the birds. Make certain you get one that will solidly support your camera, the largest lens you anticipate using, and possibly a flash unit. The tripod head (the part that attaches to the camera) should allow the camera to be aimed and re aimed without making any adjustments to the head itself. Tripods come in all sizes and prices, and the better ones do not come with a head. Your best bet is to consult a good, professional photo shop.

Using flash can help a bird's natural colors "pop," even in bright daylight. The purpose of flash is not so much to supply the light, as it is to reduce contrast by "opening up" shadow areas. Most entry level and "prosumer" DSLRs come with a built in flash, but an external flash will provide better results. They have more power, and are less likely to cause shadows in the image from long lenses and lens shades. Good flash units are expensive, so the built in flash is certainly worth a try.

Many books have been written about photographing birds, and there's a huge amount of information on the Internet. While it's not possible to cover the entire topic in one article, these tips should get you off and shooting. Bird photography is challenging, but with the right equipment, technique, and some practice, you can produce wonderful images.
About the Author
Janet Winter is a web designer, owner of three e-commerce sites, and writer on many topics including dogs, babies, wild birds, the Internet and travel. Her e-commerce sites are: WildBirdGoodies.com , APamperedDog.com , and WelcomeBabyGifts.com
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