Bird Photography


Photographing our feathered friends is fascinating, fun, but often frustrating. What do we need for successful bird photos? Digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera Telephoto lens (70-300mm is good to start with) Sturdy tripod Remote shutter release Fast memory card; minimum of 16Gb.

It is quite easy to get some really nice photo s of birds on the ground or a perch; bribery with bird food usually pays. A useful trick is to set the camera, disguised if possible, on a tripod 8-10 feet away from a bird table or feeding area and take the shots using a wireless remote release. These aren’t expensive; the Hama CA-1 at around £20 ( $23, $31) and will work up to 30 metres from the camera and, just as pressing the camer a shutter, it operates in two stages, light press to focus and full press to fire the shutter. Even when perched, birds move quickly so it is important to set a fast shutter speed; I use a minimum of 1/500th sec but prefer 1/1000th sec. If the light is good this will allow use of an AS A of 200-400. How ever, you will often find that the lens will be working at or near full aperture so focus is vital. On the other hand a shallow depth of field that you will get working at full aperture usually gives a pleasing look with a blur red background.

Scarlet Macaw

I saw this beautiful Scarlet Macaw high in the trees close to the Peruvian Amazon; his mate was busy cracking open Brazil nuts.

I saw this beautiful Scarlet Macaw high in the trees close to the Peruvian Amazon; his mate was busy cracking open Brazil nuts.

Most DSLR camer as have a ‘sports ’ setting that features ‘follow focus’. With this selected a half press on the shutter will lock focus onto a moving tar get. Set the camer a to take continuous images for as long as you hold the shutter down; this will vary from around 3-6 images per second; the actual rate will be determined by the camer a and speed of the memory card. When you have a ‘target’, half press the shutter to let the focussing system lock on, and then keep taking pictures for as long as your subject looks good. As you will be taking photographs in bursts and will probably take several hundred at a sitting you will need a decent capacity and fast memory card. Under the circumstances it is highly unlikely that you will be able to compose the photo perf ectly. With digital photogr aphy that doesn’t matter as y ou will be able to edit the images later.

Given that you will pr obably wish to edit I would strongly recommend capturing both JPG and RAW images. RAW images are much larger as they are recording the full output from the camera’s sensor. In the case of my Canon 5D Mk III the RAW file size from a 21Mpixel sensor varies from 25-35Mb according to the complexity of the image. The JPG file sizes are 5-12Mb. How ever, the RAW files allow far better editing latitude, especially when there is a need to adjust expo sure, highlights and shadows. Be prepared to delete over 90% of your images and just keep the really good ones. The commonest edit with bird photographs is to crop and straighten them; I open all my RAW images in Adobe Lightroom and, when edited, output them as JPGs. Be ruthless in deleting images that are not in perfect focus.

How and where to photograph birds?

Other than tempting birds with food it is a matter of finding out where birds congregate. Rivers, lakes and the seashore are usually good places to explore.

Sometimes there is humour to be had. A single gull seemed to be sulking by facing away from all its mates. Bay of Islands New Zealand.

Also local knowledge is helpful; pop into a café or bar and chat to the residents, the bird enthusiasts or ‘twitchers ’; they will usually tell you where to see birds and at what time of the day. Bird sanctuaries will never fail to give you all the opportunities that you could wish for. When, as a teenager, I got my first SLR, a Nikon F , I hired a 500mm mirror lens for the day and sat in a hide at Welney Marshes in Norfolk photographing Bewick Swans. Those were the days of colour transparency film. I used Kodachr ome 64ASA as it just gave me the speed I needed; the lower speed Kodachr ome 25 ASA was higher resolution but simply too slow. 200ASA colour transparency film would only appear a year or two later. Two of those photos were published in the ‘Amateur Photographer Magazine ’.

When you find a venue spend some time watching the birds and working out your best shooting positions. Although back lighting on a birds wing can look good it is much more difficult shooting towards the sun. If you are near a colony of birds watch the direction from which they approach for their landing. Photos of the back of a bird flying away from you are worthless.


About the Author:

Retired Consultant Surgeon Brian Ellis has been an enthusiastic amateur photographer since the age of 8, when he was given a Kodak Brownie 127 camera. As a teenager he kitted out a darkroom above his parent’s garage where he produced many large prints.

Armed with two Nikon Fs he shot with Ilford FP4 and Kodak T ri-X, excellent B&W films of the day. Fifty-five years and many cameras later he now uses a Canon 5D Mk III. His lenses include a Canon 17-40mm L series, the popular 24-105 L series and the Canon 70-300mm DO telephoto. He also has a Canon 24mm series II tilt-shift lens. In this series of articles Brian hopes to share his enthusiasm and tips picked up over many years.

To capture birds in flight it is best to have a telephoto lens that focuses fast. Sports photogr aphers use very large telephoto lenses often supporting the weight on a monopod as a tripod would be too restrictive for them. These lenses are huge as they have a very large maximum aperture; the Canon 600mm IS II f4.0 weighs almost 4Kg (just short of 9lb). They are also expensive, that same lens would set you back nearly £10,000 ( $11,620, $15,500). I use the Canon zoom f4.5-5.6 70-300mm dispersion optics (DO) lens. Dispersion optic s allows lens makers to produce telephoto lenses that are about 1/3 lighter and smaller than using conventional refractive elements. I use that hand held to photograph birds in flight.

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