Bird Photography:
Techniques and Tips

Birds, more than any group of wild creatures, offer the ultimate challenge to all who pursue the art of nature photography.

I took my first fuzzy birds on the wing photographs in 1975 on a field trip to south-west Queensland for the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service. I had just begun a photo-career with the Park’s Service and I recall my embarrassment that none of the in-flight images were in focus! In those days, we worked with poorly designed cameras that were heavy and entirely manual. Fast forward forty-five years through many technological advancements, to find cameras and lenses that provide unprecedented technology to meter, create breath-taking sequences and focus-track our avian wonders. Nonetheless, what remains unchanged is that we still need to apply patience and persistence to both find and approach our feathered prey; the latter comes with some hard work and long hours often in physically uncomfortable wild places.

Australia is renown for its birds, and as of 2014 Australia and its offshore islands and territories have 898 recorded bird species. Of the recorded birds, 165 are considered vagrant or accidental visitors, of the remainder over 45% are classified as Australian endemics: found nowhere else on earth. While that’s a lot of species, we should also appreciate the threats that confront our birdlife. The list of endangered and vulnerable species is long; alarmingly this list includes many that have become extinct since European settlement.  

 

Don’t just photograph the birds, research them, write about them, promote them far and wide and let’s all become an ambassadors for their continued survival.

Above from left to right:  Male regent bowerbirds lotus bird; golden bowerbird and Macleay’s honeyeater.

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A progression from film to digital photography

The above capture was made during 2004 on my first trip with a digital camera, a Nikon D2X. My destination was Fogg Dam, south-east of Darwin. I arrived late, well into twilight, and the weather was overcast. I recall thinking at the time that if I had been using a film camera I simply wouldn’t have been making images because the formulae required at that time of day was at least 1/320 second at ISO 4000 with a 300 mm lens setting of f4.5 While making the images I realised that this nature photographer’s dream had come true! That after many years struggling with slow rating film speeds with correspondingly slow shutter speeds the door had swung wide open for ll nature photographers. It’s not just that we can shoot in low light, it has more to do that this is when birds can be the most active.

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Choosing a camera for bird photography

In my Masterclass Photography: A Pathway to Purpose I describe the capture technique for bird photography under the heading – ‘Hand-held or tripod-based action photography’. In terms of camera brands and models my ‘action photography’ experience has only been with Nikon D2X, D3 and D3s and Canon EOS 1DX – see above with the 200-400 mm lens with a built-in 1.4 converter, each providing the necessary features for action work.; I now work on new bird captures exclusively with the Canon EOS 1DX series. Nonetheless, Canon and Nikon aside (both of which lead the world in the sports photography market, I also process and publish and teach classes where photographers use a range of state-of-the-art cameras (all over $3,000) for action photography. See link below for further information about brands and models.

Yes, you can get outstanding results for far less investment. We presented the work of Scott Osbourne in Module 1 of the Masterclass. Scott, a relative newcomer, has refined his bird action photography using a camera that you can buy today for under $1,000A; although he has recently upgraded from a Nikon D7200 to a Nikon D7500. As with most camera brands and models, it is possible to Google a comparison; here’s Scott’s Nikon D7500 compared with Nikon’s top of the range sports camera, the D5 (I use Canon 1DX which has many similar features to the Nikon D5).  Scroll down this graph and it will give you an indication of how to compare the top of the range Nikon D5 at around $8k A cameras with those further down the scale Nikon D7500 under $2k A.

While the APS-C cropped sensor size may be no issue for Scott, it is for me. I like loosely composed images because they provide a lot more application for cropping. Cropped sensors are also not as friendly as far as noise is concerned; I often shoot at 10,000 ISO which would be very noisy on a APS-C cropped sensor. Larger sensors also give photographers more control on the depth of field and blurry background compared to smaller sensor when shot in same focal length and aperture. Other important issues for a serious bird photographer are focus speed and focus adjustment capabilities.  Nonetheless, I suggest that if you are new to bird and action photography that the Nikon D7500 (or an equivalent in another brand and model) is a great place to start.  When I began shooting digital I used a Nikon D2X with a 12MG sensor.  I had three bodies and while I use higher-level cameras today I still process and use thousands of images taken with a camera only half as well specified as Scott’s current D7500.

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Lenses: personal experience and suggestions

On both film and digital cameras I have used Nikon’s prime 500mm f4 IF-ED II Super Telephoto AF Lens for decades. Comparing both film scans and digital files over time I have had the opportunity to judge files and reproduction quality across a plethora of product applications with more recently released big zoom telephoto lenses. I am now a big fan of the better quality zoom lenses; trials have included the use of teleconverters.  Sure there are prime high-speed lenses that create wonderful images, however, when I balance the advantages of close-focus zoom lenses I find the latter wins hands down.
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My current longest telephoto lens choice for bird photography are the Canon EF 200–400 EXT 1.4 L lens (see above mounted on a Manfroto tripod with a Jobu Gimbal head; this lens has a built-in 1.4X converter which extends the focal length to 560mm and, with an additional external 1.4x converter, to 850mm with no apparent loss of resolution.  I have found with the Canon 1DX the ability to increase ISO to compensate for light loss more than compensates; the 1DX (now available as the idX Mark II) is of course designed for high frame rate captures in low light conditions. I always use a Jobu Tripod head with the 200-400 lens due both its weight and its potentially longer reach.  Over three years of use I have found that the zoom capabilities provide a very high return rate of return in terms of image capture possibilities; apart from birds and general action wildlife photography I also use this kit for city and landscapes and even wildflowers look wonderful through long focal length lenses.

OK, this lens is not cheap, around $10k A! Less expensive is the Canon 100–400 mm lens which is a preferred lens due to its weight and overall portability, vibration-reduction and close-focus capabilities; 1.8m in the case of Canon and 2.3m in the case of Nikon. Attached to a full-frame camera like the Canon 1DX, this is one of the most versatile rigs I have ever used.

Lens price alternatives in the under $3k bracket that I have tested are Tamron’s 150–600, Sigma’s 150–600 mm and Nikon’s 200–500. Even when these third-party lenses adapted to top range camera bodies, I found the result comparison had more to do with more limited close-focus capability, focus speed and accuracy and resolution consistency. Nonetheless, the aforementioned third party lenses are a great place to start, primarily when handled with care.

The more recently released Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L is II USM Lens at around $2.5k is now a preferred lens for bird photography when I wish to walk distances and or travel light for quick ‘out-of-the-car’ opportunities.  This is due to its overall size and weight compared with theCanon EF 200–400 EXT 1.4 L lens.  This lens has excellent vibration-reduction and close-focus capabilities; 1.8m in the case of Canon and 2.3m in the case of the Nikkor AFS 80-400mm F/4.5-5.6G ED VR Lens. The Canon EF 100-400mm lens attached to a full-frame camera like the Canon 1DX is one of the most versatile camera/lens combinations I have ever used. This lens is excellent for everything from flying birds to macro of flowers. There are many lenses available for most makes of camera that cover similar zoom ranges; just check on how close they will focus as there is nothing more frustrating than have birds so close you can’t focus on them.

Above:  This black-browed albatross image was made with a Nikon D3s with a 70-200mm f2.8 lens at a focal length of 145mm. The settings were /4000 sec at f8, ISO 1600.

My standard bird capture processes

Selecting an appropriate ISO, shutter speed, lens aperture combinations can be particularly challenging with birds, simply because they generally don’t remain still for long enough to ‘play’ with options as we do with subjects like flowers, trees and landscapes. However, as challenging as bird photography may be, it is possible to apply camera setting procedures that greatly enhance your chances of making those beautiful captures that your pre-visualise as you approach your quarry.

The settings procedures fall into two categories. The first is the primary lens and camera settings I make before I have even selected my quarry. The second are those variable settings that will most likely be adjusted pending the capture situation. Further down this post, I have shown some examples of the more challenging situations that will confront you as you explore bird photography on an ongoing basis.

Appreciate that the following processes may vary between photographers, however, it has proven time and again to work for me.

Pre-set camera and lens settings

These setting are fixed and I apply them to all image captures, not just birds.

  1. Back focus – All cameras are set to back-focus – more info here.
  2. File quality setting – All cameras are set to RAW capture regardless of the subject.
  3. Colour temperate – If you insist on capturing files in JPEG you will need to adjust the colour temperature settings on your camera. Colour temperature settings do not apply to RAW files, all temperate adjustments are made in post-production.

Variable camera and lens settings

 

  1. Capture mode AV – there are situations where I may use manual; however, 95% of all my bird captures are made in AV mode. By using AV Mode, (aperture priority) you get to specify the aperture setting, while the camera adjusts the shutter speed to set the appropriate exposure.
  2. Aperture setting – before I even start to approach a bird, I preset the aperture to the maximum opening (smallest F Stop, i.e. f4.5 – I may adjust the aperture during a capture session to increase the depth of field).
  3. Focus area modes – are a little more complex than other settings and the more familiar you are with them, the smoother your capture process will be. This is the setting that determines how the prefered focus areas are defined. You can choose from auto-area AF, single-point AF, dynamic-area AF, and 3D-tracking. The mode descriptions may vary from one camera brand to another. These features are well explained in most camera manuals. I tend to be fussy about where my primary focal point is, and usually lock it down in the centre of the frame (I then use back-focus to make the focus lock in on the subject.  I mainly use a single spot focus point; however, for flying birds that are small in the frame, I flip over to a five-point cluster. Photographers develop their own techniques, and many people reading this may well use alternative methods, based on their subjects and style.  If you do please share in the comments below.  As with all areas of photography, an open mind to change is essential.
  4. Metering modes/general exposure issues – Today, every DSLR has an integrated light meter that automatically measures the reflected light and determines the optimal exposure. While the language to identify the modes may vary, generally speaking, there are four modes: Spot, partial, centre-weighted and evaluative. For birds, I more often than not use the centre-weighted average metering which measures light across the entire frame with an emphasis on the centre. If I am able to use the histogram to check exposure I will, however, if the bird is flying from dark to light areas this would not be possible. By shooting in RAW it is rare that I am not able to adjust my light and dark areas in post-production – more on this later in this post.  Exposure compensation is another consideration, this can be applied in situations where it is obvious that the perched and or flying bird is much darker than the background: important that if you use this setting that you remember to turn it back to ‘0’ when the capture set is completed.  Alternatively, if the subject is relatively close a strobe may be used as a way to fill-in shadow detail.
  5. Lens stabiliser settings – When a camera is a handheld, it is best to turn on the lens stabiliser; do not apply lens stabilisation when your camera is tripod mounted. This will enable you to use a slower shutter speed – even with a lens zoomed to its full extent at 4oomm – it is possible to make sharp pictures with a shutter speed as slow as 30th second.
  6. ISO Setting – I always try and use the lowest ISO rating and use the ISO adjustments to set the most appropriate shutter speed to suit the capture situation and the artistic effect; fast shutter speeds for freezing the action and slower for blurring movement. In most cases, my ISO settings vary from 200 ISO up to 10,000 ISO – 1,500 to 2,000 ISO being particularly standard. Of course, with the ISO setting driving the shutter-speed, the only real consideration is the more you increase ISO, the more visible the digital noise becomes; the latter is especially true for cropped sensor and high megapixel rated sensors. However, the Canon 1DX and Nikon D5 sensors have been designed for this very purpose and so generally speaking noise levels up to 10,000 ISO and even higher are easily managed in post-production.
  7. Frame rate settings – my Canon 1DX provides frame rate settings as follows: high speed continuous 14 frames per second (all birds in flight and or when high levels of action are anticipated); low speed continuous (not a setting I use); single frame silent (ideal for very shy animals in close proximity) and self timer (applied when a long exposure is required under low light conditions – in these circumstances the camera is always tripod-mounted and with a mirror-up setting engaged and a cable release connected I can make captures on very slow shutter speeds; note, the subject will need to be still.)

Above left and right:  These two images illustrate the extremes of metering considerations.  The image on the left has uniform lighting with only marginal high-light while on the right the dynamic range between the bird and the background is considerable.  Because I had created both images in RAW I was able to make the desired adjustments to retain feather detail in post-production.

Managing the lightness and darkness of your images

Determining the desired light and dark elements across an image is, without doubt, one of the more creative aspects of photography, and when files are managed in the digital darkroom, as opposed to programming your camera to make your decisions for you – i.e. fully automatic on a JPEG setting –  you will have a plethora of creative choices. For example, in Lightroom Classic CC in post-production you may choose a higher contrast, or you maybe you might just add mid-tone contrast with your clarity slider. Alternatively, you can increase and or decrease the blacks or the whites and even add detail in highlights and in shadows. In today’s digital world we have complete control of the final look of our images.  As skills in the digital darkroom grow you begin to take these options as ideas into the field and subsequently consider these possibilities while you make your capture.

Of course all operational functions aside, we still have to find, approach and capture those elusive birds before we can even begin to apply our artistry in both the camera and the digital darkroom. I would add a footnote here that I canvas all aspects of post-production, including the creation of artistic effects that make your images look more like paintings than photographs, in my Masterclass in Module 5, ‘The Digital Darkroom’

Working in very low light

The eastern whip bird (above) is generally timid. When you do get lucky enough to approach one they can, due to their cryptic colours, be quite a challenge even to find it your viewfinder!  Overall small, fast-moving bush birds are the most challenging to photograph.

The image above is an excellent example of the benefits afforded by the top of the range cameras, cameras designed initially for the massive sports photography industry.  With my Canon 1DX camera combined with my close-focus Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II lens consistent clear, sharp images of fast-moving subjects in extremely low lit situations are achievable and the satisfaction rates can be very high. As mentioned earlier alternative brand and model choices can be made with both these camera and lens specifications as a guide. Hey, don’t forget to check out Gumtree for second-hand cameras and lenses if your budget restricts new purchases.

The settings for this capture were hand-held 1/80th sec at f4.5, ISO 8000 with the lens set at 300mm.

Three challenging capture situations

There is a wide range of challenging circumstances that one faces when photographing birds. Some are physical, like sneaking up on a billabong filled with waterbirds appreciating that one sudden movement could send every bird into a panic. Other challenges are more to do with the need to make sudden creative decisions regarding aperture shutter speed and or ISO combination. Above and below are three examples of challenges that are commonplace.

Situation 1 – above left: When birds fly directly toward the camera, the focus can be particularly challenging.  In this case with a brown falcon flying towards me, I was using a Nikon D3s with a 500mm lens, and so I set the autofocus mode to ‘C’ continuous tracking. On a 1DX the setting would be A1 Servo. The camera settings were 1/1250 sec. f4.5, ISO 3200.

Situation 2 – above right: When the depth of field (focus depth) is essential in, deficient light situations, there is always a challenge choosing the right settings.  In this case, I was using a Canon 1DX with a 100-400mm lens. The camera settings were 1/80 sec., f5, ISO 4000. I then chose a focus point mid-way between the birds and hoped for the best. While the tail feathers of the male satin bowerbird and the immediate foreground are soft overall, the image does work, especially when not over-enlarged. There are times when one need to accept trade-offs to make a capture, and small corrections can be carried out in post-production.

Situation 3 – below:  When the focus and the shutter speed are paramount in a low light situation, there is always a challenge, especially with birds in flight. I was using a Canon 1DX with a 200-400mm tripod-mounted lens to make this capture. The camera settings were 1/5000 sec., f5.6, ISO 5000 and as you can see, the fast shutter speed froze this beautiful barking owl mid-flight.

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Working with the heavy kit: You don’t want to be walking for kilometres ideally, but carrying a tripod-mounted camera with a long lens attached can be relatively easy. Note that my right arm is always slid through the neck strap for extra security. Recently, I had a workshop participant whose mount unlocked; with no neck-strap to catch the fall, his camera fell onto rocks, although fortunately he only broke the hood. Of course, while mounted on a Jobu Gimbal tripod-head, the camera is very fluid and easily managed.

 

Steve’s Forteen Top Bird Photo Tips

  1. Either a DSLR or SL Mirrorless camera is the best camera for bird photography, preferably with a frame rate of 8 fps or faster.
  2. Lenses from 300 to 600 mm are ideal. Shorter focal lengths can be lengthened with a lens converter. High-quality zoom lenses are ideal for general photography because they allow you to take a variety of compositions quickly without the need for changing lenses.
  3. A tripod or monopod may be essential, especially for the heavy camera/lens combinations.
  4. You will need to be patient and calm. Any anxiety or noise generated from physical activity may alarm birds.
  5. Bird hides can be an excellent way to observe birds in open spaces. A car can also be an excellent mobile hide. I have taken many bird studies from my car window.
  6. The foreground and background are almost as important as the primary subject. Before you make a picture try and run your eye around the frame paying attention to backgrounds; of course, this is only possible when birds are stationary.
  7. Do all you can to connect with a habitat; it could be as simple as lying on the ground or wading into the water.
  8. Try to take both horizontal and vertical images. That way you can make a decision about the best shape when you are back at your computer.
  9. Depth-of-field background management can also be applied on occasions when a foreground requires softening. When using a zoom lens and you find small out-of-focus elements like leaves in the foreground, these can be sharpened by zooming out to reduce the lens focal length; the longer the lens, the shorter the depth of field and visa versa.
  10. If you see a bird performing a behaviour that you do not understand, photograph it anyway. You can always seek advice later from one of the many books available on bird behaviour.
  11. Shoot now, ask questions later! On many occasions, I have taken a photograph only to later discover that some fascinating behaviour was recorded. I just did not know what I was watching at the time. If in doubt, keep any of these behavioural studies, as you may have a rarely observed behaviour caught on film!
  12. ­If there is a potential for wet weather; it is always wise to carry camera protection, even if it is only a plastic bag.
  13. If you are going to build a hide, construct it so that your shooting direction provides the best light. Your flash and continuous shooting may need to be muted so that they don’t spoil all your hard work and patience. 
  14. A multi-pattern metering setting on your camera’s light meter will help counteract the contrast of a bright white subject and shadow.

 

Bird Gallery – click, enlarge and scroll

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