Spring is rapidly approaching and many birds are slowly but surely making their way back from the warm South. And whether you like small, colourful singing birds or impressive birds of prey, almost everyone can enjoy a beautiful photo of a bird. Unfortunately, it can prove quite difficult to take a snap of our feathered friends. That is why we would like to give you some advice on how to best do this.
600mm, f/8 with 1/250 sec, ISO400
Know your birds
If you wish to photograph a specific bird, it is wise to read up about that kind of bird, and adjust your plan accordingly. For instance, if you would like to photograph a beautiful kingfisher, you could place a branch in the water at a spot where they are often spotted. Then, you can hide there until a kingfisher lands on the branch. Kingfisher often use branches to hunt from, so you will have the best chance of photographing one this way. However, if you want to snap a picture of a spotted woodpecker, you will have to come up with a different plan. Additionally, it is good to keep the season in mind. If you go out in the dead of winter to photograph an oriole, you are in for a disappointment.
When taking pictures of birds, you rarely have time to think about the composition of your photo. Birds are unpredictable, and hardly ever wait around for you to find the perfect framing. And of course, asking a bird to move a little to the left or right is pointless. Fortunately, a lens with a large zoom will quickly make the background of a picture blurry, so that the focus will be your subject. This blurry background is also an advantage when photographing birds with camouflage colours: by focusing on the bird, it won't blend in with the branches and leaves in the background. A high-resolution camera can prove to be very useful in bird photography. You can crop a photo after taking it to improve the composition, without the photo becoming so small that it's unusable.
When using a large lens, photographers make use of a tripod. With a large lens, every movement of your hand is enlarged considerably, increasing the likelihood of movement blur. The obvious answer would be to put your camera on a tripod to prevent this, but unfortunately this causes more problems in this field of photography. When you attach your camera to a tripod, it becomes difficult to move it quickly. This makes it rather awkward to photograph a flying bird. A tripod may help when you want to photograph a bird that is sitting somewhat still, like a bird that's drinking, but otherwise you are going to have to consider shorter shutter speeds and higher ISO values. A camera and lens with good image stabilisation can be a solution, these allow you to use longer shutter speeds without movement blur.
If you own a really large lens, such as a 600mm lens, it could prove very difficult to take clear pictures without a tripod. In that case, it is wise to choose a monopod over a tripod. They have, as you might suspect, only one leg and offer more freedom of movement. This is somewhat at the expense of stability, but when it comes to birds, it is good to be more flexible.
Sensors and large lenses
Bigger isn't always better. Although bigger telephoto lenses can often help capture a bird in beautiful detail, this is usually not the case for sensors. A smaller sensor might in fact make it easier to photograph a bird.
The focal length indicated on the lens gives you an idea of how far you can see with it. The higher the number, the further you can see with it. The focal length indicated on a lens presumes a full frame camera; a camera with a sensor the size of an old-fashioned 35mm film. There are also many cameras with a sensor 1.6 or even 2 times as small. The first are called APS-C cameras, the latter Micro Four Third or MFT cameras. These cameras are much more useful for bird photography than full frame cameras.
That is because a smaller sensor enlarges the effective focal length. A lens with a 300mm focal length on a camera with an MFT sensor gives you the same image as a 600mm lens on a full frame camera. So, a smaller sensor allows you travel with a smaller and lighter lens and still take the same beautiful pictures.
Large zoom lenses are often quite expensive, heavy and cumbersome. Luckily, there are extenders available that enlarge the focal length of your telephoto lens, allowing you to photograph longer distances with a smaller lens. These extenders, also known as teleconverters, give you a larger focal length at a fraction of the cost of a new lens, and without making your current lens much bigger.
A drawback of extenders is that they decrease the maximum aperture, forcing you to use longer shutter speeds or higher ISO values and limiting your image quality in general. That being said, extenders are an excellent addition to the equipment of every nature photographer.
300mm, f/8 with 1/2000 sec, ISO250
Before photographing birds, set your camera to continuous focus. In this setting, your camera will continue to focus if you press the shutter half-way down. You'll have a better shot at getting a clear picture when a bird is flying your way, than when the camera in on single focus. More and more cameras offer the possibility to adjust the autofocus as to focus on a subject as soon as it appears, track the subject, even when it's temporarily not visible, and when the subject speeds up or slows down. Make sure you know all about your camera's autofocus options and optimise them to meet your needs.
600mm, f/6.3 with 1/200 sec, ISO320
Photograph in RAW format
Out in the openness of nature, where birds dwell, it is fairly impossible to control the light completely. Combine this with the fact that birds move often and quickly, giving you very limited time to take your picture, and you might understand that it is tricky to capture a bird when perfectly lit, at once. Fortunately, cameras nowadays capture lots of information, making it possible to adjust some settings afterwards. For instance, when you use RAW format, it is possible to lighten or darken the picture a little. It is also possible to adjust the colour and increase the contrast, among other things.
Patience is a virtue
Even when you have the very best equipment, have set the camera to the perfect settings, and are waiting for the birds at the right spot, you might still return home empty handed. This can be frustrating of course, but it is part of the sport. Remain calm and wait for the perfect moment, and when it's there, take lots of pictures. Memory cards offer plenty of storage for little money, so don't be afraid to take enough pictures to fill one up, so you can select the best photo afterwards. It would be a shame if you miss the perfect shot because you're holding back.