Bird Photography Tips

 Cattle Egret in flight, Canon 7D, Canon EF 400mm 5.6L USM, 19 point AF, ISO 400, 1/6400s, f/5.6, Philippines.

Many people ask, how to photograph birds? There are numerous articles and tutorials on bird photography over the internet. Here I'm going to share my thoughts and experience on the subject. Bird photography is one of the most popular genres of nature photography and it is my biggest passion. Photographing birds is very interesting and challenging. You will need some special skills and equipment to capture attractive avian images. It is very unlikely, but possible, to make great bird photographs with a general purpose zoom or point and shoot camera. However, having the World's best photographic gear for the task does not ensure success either. It seems the most successful bird photographers are not only skilled in photographic techniques. They also have an in depth understanding of birds behavior and habitat. Most importantly, they are all in a deep love with their subjects.

Mastering bird photography is a step by step process. Making the first step on your way to become a world known bird photograper is relatively easy. The simpliest way to start bird photography is to get a lens that is at least 200mm long and go to a park or even your own backyard. Birds in parks get used to people, so they are much easier to approach than birds in wild forests or fields. Birds near feaders are usually very friendly and will not be frightened by you if you have a little bit of patience. You will learn how to make friends with birds and get some photos as a reward.

Cormorants fight, Canon 7D, Canon EF 200mm 2.8L II USM, Single point AF, ISO 200, 1/2500s, f/5.0, Spain.

Now I want to share some tips how to photograph wild birds in their natural habitat.

1. When you go out for birding you should be calm and quiet. Don't make loud noises and try to avoid making any noise. Don't talk loud and watch your steps so the dry branch woudn't crack under your feet. Don't run towards birds, you will scare them and it is very unlikely to get any shots at all. However if you whistle some melody you may even attract some birds. Don't wear too bright or contrasty clothes. Camouflage is not nessesary, but your outfit should be of natural, not very bright colors.

2. When you are out in the field the first thing you should do - observe the surroundings. Don't be in a hurry and rush towards the birds you see or hear. Take a few minutes, especially when at a new location, to observe the activity around you. What are the birds doing? Where they sit or feed? Birds are creatures of habit, and once you learn their habits, you are halfway to success. They usually sit singing, feed or drink at the same spots. Birds usually have some route that is made up from several points and they keep returning to the same set of spots. You should observe surroundings to find these spots. Birds will get used to you over time and as they understand that you are not harmful or dangerous, they will fly closer to you. You can find a spot where a bird is singing. Than position yourself nearby, use natural cover like small trees or bushes, remaining motionless for several minutes. You may prefocus your lens on the spot where you noticed the bird previously. Within minutes a bird may be back, and you may get several frames before it flew away.

Cormorant in flight, Canon 7D, Canon EF 200mm 2.8L II USM, 19 point AF, ISO 100, 1/1000s, f/5.6, Spain.

3. Learn the biology of your subject. Study online articles about your local bird species. Reading books is even better. This may sound boring, but think about it - would you go fishing for pike with a carp bait like boilies, corn or worms? No, because pike would not be interested in such food. It is exactly the same with birds. Learn their migration patterns, ration, natural habitat and behaviour; familiarise yourself with with the subject. Species vary with the season, bird behavior differs during each season of the year, and is very special during mating or breeding season. Scout locations based on knowledge, rather than just assumption or good luck. Once you are armed with knowledge you will be able to predict their next move and thus your chances of getting an awesome shot greately increase.


4. Rarely a bird sits silent. Birds produce a lot of sounds usually. They sing songs and call other birds. Listen to the birds voices carefully. Most birds have distinctive songs and calls, and they are often heard before they are seen. Learning the songs of your favorite species will enable you to both locate and identify them e. Playing songs of certain male species during mating season, will attract other males to you, as they are looking for males invading their territory. There are a couple ways to study bird songs. Some bird photographers and bird watchers prefer CDs while others use websites with online audio files. You may choose any way you like, but nothing replaces being out in the field and hearing magic flutes of nature with your own ears.


Bird Song Resources on www.birdwatching.com

Long tail tits, Canon 7D, Canon EF 400mm 5.6L USM, Single point AF, ISO 800, 1/640s, f/5.6, Russia.

5. Use cover, sometimes the best idea is to shoot from a specially built hide (a camouflage tent disguised with leaves, grass and branches), that will prevent you from disturbing birds even few feets away. This is very efficient but it is time consuming. I nearly always use natural cover to conceal myself whenever possible. By hiding in a natural surroundings like small trees, high grass or bushes, remaining quiet and motionless, birds will not fear me and often come within few steps near me. The best idea is to find a birdy area, settle in a comfortable position and wait for the birds. If you use tripod or monopod you should make more efforts to conceal yourself. Birds are alerted when they see a human with a stick in his hand. If you master concealing techniques and be patient enough you will learn how to approach birds really close to get awesome shot, even without the longest, the heaviest and the most expensive lenses like Canon 800mm f 5.6L USM. Sometimes one can shoot from a car. It may sound surprising, but when you are in a car, birds will let you much closer than if you were walking.

6. Make friends with you subject. When you walk and observe surroundings, you will find some places where birds live. If you have plenty of time and patience it is possible to make friends with birds. Try not to disturb birds in their habitats, especially those on the nests. Avoid approaching nests as it may be dangerous for the nestlings. Please read note below*. The best place to make friends with your subjects is where they feed or drink. Just walk calmly around and try to approach bird slowly. If the bird is alerted, slowly walk away. After some time return and try again. Don't touch your camera at first, shutter sound may distract or even frighten them. After some time (it may take several days or even weeks) the bird will get used to you and beleive that you are not dangerous. Being accepted by your subject is the main goal here. If you succeed it will allow you to approach very close, the bird will behave natural and you will be rewarded with a chance ot observe its natural behavior very close. Look at the image below. I was just 2-3 feet away, and the bird was not frightened. I took several shots and walked away, very happy.

*Important note: Never try nest photography if you are not fully prepared and educated to do so in a responsible fashion that ensures the well being of the subjects!

Please read this article on Nest photography by Jasper Doest.

Blackcap at the nest, Canon 7D, Canon EF 70-200mm 2.8L II IS USM, Single point AF, 170mm, 1/50s, f/4, ISO 400, Canon EF 25mm extension tube. Russia.

How to make your bird pictures look more attractive?

7. Best lighting for every kind of photography is in the mornning and in the evening. Bird photography is no exception here. Best time for birding is early moning. About three hours after the sunrise the birds are most active, it is usually feeding time. At this time the sun is relatively low and will give you the best quality light with pleasent colours and not too harsh shadows. Two hours before sunset can also be a very fruitful time. Don't hesitate shooting in bad weather like rain or snow, resulting images may have unique mood and look awesome.

Blue tit in snow, Canon 7D, Canon EF 400mm 5.6L USM, Single point AF, ISO 1600, 1/100s, f/5.6, Russia.

8. Remember about the composition. Frame your subject carefully, try to put the main point of attraction at 1/3 or 2/3 of the image. Avoid distracting backgrounds. Shoot from the birds eye level, images from the same level with your subject will look more natural and attractive. Try to capture an interesting moment in birds life. Images where birds interact with each other, singing, hunting, etc. are more interesting, than images with birds just sitting still.

Male Reed Bunting with prey, Canon 7D, Canon EF 400mm 5.6L USM, single point AF, ISO 400, 1/1000s, f/5.6, Russia.

9. You should know your gear. Birds are very fast creatures, so it is not wise to waste precious moments on learning how to set up your equipment. Learn how to switch between focusing and exposure modes, manual and automatic settings. It is essential to be able to make all this changes while looking through viewfinder. These skills may save you some awesome shots! You should learn which focusing mode suits best to a given shooting conditions. Use continous AF mode for shooting birds in action. (Ai-Servon on Canon). For example if you shoot birds in flight over even background like clear sky, the best idea is to setup manual exposure mode and set AF to automatic point selection. Using wide AF area will give you more opportunities to capture a moment, and on the clear background AF system will not distract to objects in background. Shooting on a busy background is more challenging. If your subject is contrasty, like white egret over green foliage, the same setup as for clear sky will work. But if you have similar colored subject and background, setting AF area to be smaller than birds size in a frame may help. If you are shooting in difficult conditions, for example photographing small birds in a foliage, the best idea is to use spot metering linked to active single AF point. If your camera doesn't support this, use center point with spot metering and crop later for better composition.

Swallow in flight, Canon 7D, Canon EF 400mm 5.6L USM, 19 point AF, ISO 200, 1/2000s, f/5.6, Russia.

10. Choose proper gear for the task. One can go birding with almost any DSLR camera and a lens that is at least 200mm long, but the results may vary depending on photographic skills and gear performance. Bird photography is very demanding for both skill and equipment. Shooting birds in field conditions usually requires fast and robust AF, good low light performance, and quality long optics. Fast shutter is essential too, I mean both low shutter lag and continous drive frame rate. My friends often ask me what camera gear they should use for birding. If you already have a DSLR, it is a good idea to start go birding with it. For those who are keen about bird photography I can recommend following gear:

Canon and Nikon are best choices for serious birding, they both have camera bodies with capable AF and a selection of long, high quality lenses. Other brands are limited to 300mm lenses, so think twice before you pull the trigger.

Canon 7D is the best non-professional Canon body for bird photography, it has highly customisable AF system, fast frame rate (8fps) and good image quality. It is suitable for action shooting. The only serious limitation is the lack of point metering linked to AF point. In the Canon line up only 1D series bodies have this useful feature.

Canon 60D has the same sensor as Canon 7D, but it's AF system is inferior to 7D. You can achieve good results with it, but it will require more effort from you.

Canon 5D Mk II has superior image quality, but it's AF is even more limited than Canon 60D. It is actually the same, but AF points are packed tighter in a frame, as 5D frame is larger. So it is not convenient to compose with selected AF point. Focus and recompose is not best practice in action bird photography. However you can get very high quality images with this camera.

Professional Canon 1D Mk IV is the best birders camera from Canon. It offers best low light and AF performance available.

Nikon offers excellent D3s for professionals, it is probably the best for serious wildlife photography. Nikon D700 is very capable camera too, it is slower than D3, but offers excellent AF and image quality.

Nikon D300s and D7000 can be a good birding options if you prefer Nikon gear and are on a budget.

In bird photography lenses are far more important than camera body. If you have professional Canon 1D Mk IV with EF 24-105 L zoom, and a very basic Canon 1000D with Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM, for example, the chances of getting awesome bird capture is much higher with 1000D. So it is wiser to spend more on lenses than camera body.

Both Canon and Nikon have similar set of long super telephoto lenses. Both have 300mm f/2.8, 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4, 600mm f/4 with image stabilization and superior ultrasonic focusing drive. Both Canon and Nikon offers 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters. Nikon have very versatile 200-400mm f/4 zoom and 1.7x teleconverter. Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM is anounced and have built in 1.4x teleconverter, that can turn it in a 280-560mm f/5.6 lens instantly, but I don't know when this lens will be available yet. On the other hand Canon offers unique EF 800mm f 5.6L IS USM, the longest super telephoto today. Canon recently updated their super telephoto lenses to the second version. New lenses offer superior optical and AF performance, are noticeably lighter, but are more expensive too. Canon supertelephoto Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM and Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lenses will be available from December 2011, probably. Super telephoto lenses have a super price tag too.

So most birders have to choose something more affordable. Canon has superior choice of relatively affordable birding lenses. Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM is unique offering on the market, it is probably the best birds in flight lens ever made. Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM and versatile Canon EF 100-400L f/4.5-5.6L IS USM are very popular birding lenses too.

Best affordable Nikon lenses for bird photography are either the 300mm f/4.0 AF-S or the 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D VR.

Black kite attack , Canon 40D, Canon EF 200mm 2.8L II USM, 1/1250s, f/4, ISO 100, India

Alex Sukonkin is travel and nature photographer based in Russia.   For more details or to get in touch, visit www.alexsukonkin.com.

All images © Alex Sukonkin 2008-2011 / www.alexsukonkin.com