By now, you’ve made a choice about what file format to shoot in, and you’ve set your camera for the best quality and size image for that format. You’ve also read about some of the accessories that I use in bird photography. So we’ve talked about some of the tools needed to get the job done. Now let’s look at what the job entails.
Below is a list of some basic attributes that can make a good bird photo–at least to my way of thinking. There are different styles of bird photographs to be sure. I lean toward close up bird shots as opposed to shots of birds from a distance where the emphasis might be on the artistic side of things. Check out my website galleries and you’ll see what I mean. The type of shots you want to emphasize is entirely up to you. Regardless of what style you pursue, I think the ways to make those shots are pretty much the same when out in the field.
Qualities of a good bird photo that I believe should be present most of the time
- A close up, sharp shot that shows as much feather detail as possible
- A sharply focused eye with a catch light
- A pose that shows off the bird in a good light and shows off its beauty and amazingness
- A well lit shot with primarily natural light that shows off feather details and colors
- An interesting, angled perch that can add color or texture to the image
- A smooth, creamy, non-distracting background colored to compliment the other colors in the image
- Good depth of field (DOF) where the bird is set apart from the background due to the background’s intentional lack of detail (bokeh)
- A clean shot that doesn’t have harsh shadows projected onto the bird, causing distractions
- A perspective where the camera is approximately the same level as the bird
- A shot with no distracting elements or objects
Great shots don’t necessarily have to have all of these characteristics but most of them should be present in most images. I want to discuss each characteristic in detail so that I can explain what I mean by that last sentence. I’ll be covering the above attributes using the “shotgun” approach, i.e., where you’ll be seeing explanations for each sprinkled throughout the discussion. Be looking for these as you read through the rest of the article.
Shooting bird photos
You’ve probably scouted out some wildlife areas around where you live and know where they are located. Some of you may be lucky enough to have a wildlife refuge or park that allows you to stay in your car and shoot from there. Others may be fine with the fact that there isn’t any place like that where you live and you’d rather get out on foot and take shots that way. Either one is fine — I’ve done both.
I’ll start with the driving scenario where you get to stay in your nice comfy auto or truck and shoot photos out your windows or even from your sunroof, if you have one. I consider the Ridgefield NWR, in southwest Washington state my home base. I find myself going there most of the time to shoot. It has a 4-mile gravel road at the River S Unit and a few miles of walking trail at the Carty Unit. I go to the Carty Unit occasionally but the River S Unit is my main place for shooting.
I wouldn’t normally bore you with the rules of the refuge where I shoot but I think it is important that you understand them so you can better understand why I do what I do when I’m out shooting. I can hear this question now….”Why do you sometimes go to all the discomfort of hanging out your truck window in strange contortions when you could just step out of the truck and shoot normally?” The answer is that it’s against the rules to exit our vehicles for most of the year at the refuge. So, by understanding the rules I have to live by, you’ll understand better the next couple of pages.
The River S Unit rules require visitors to stay in their vehicles from Oct. 1 thru May 1. From June through September we can walk the gravel road or the Kiwa Trail which is a walking trail off the road located about half way around the gravel loop. Many times during the warmer months I will combine walking and driving by stopping at the Kiwa Trail parking area, securing my camera to my monopod, and walking the trail. After about an hour, I will usually return to my truck and get back into driving mode.
I have to say this….I have taken some of my favorite bird shots by walking trails into various types of habitat with my equipment in tow and it’s fun to do. But when I calculate the effort to keeper ratio from walking compared to that of driving, driving wins every time. I suspect the reasons are: 1) I can cover more ground faster (even driving very slowly), which probably converts to more opportunities (on average). 2) I can continue to shoot relatively comfortably even when it is raining. 3) Being “hidden” in the vehicle does help in a lot of instances with not spooking birds and animals. I’ve had Juncos land on the hood of my truck—but this is an extreme example! 🙂 So my vehicle acts as a decent hide. 4) I can comfortably bring snacks, drinks, etc., to sustain me for a whole day of shooting if I want. 5) Even though the weather can be cold in winter and I almost always have both cab windows completely down so I’m ready for a shot opportunity, I can crank my truck heater up to at least take the chill off. And if things get too bad, I can temporarily close the windows and wait out a down pour or really cold winds.
A couple of disadvantages of driving are 1) I have to stay in the car most of the year but even if I get out during the summer, there are strict rules on where I can go and signs keep me close to roads and trails. This, for instance, keeps me from shooting a water-level shot of a duck. 2) Shooting out of a vehicle has some serious limitations to where I can point my camera, especially for flight shots. I’ve missed lots of good flight opportunities due to this limitation.
Get to know your shooting venue – One advantage to shooting at the same venue repeatedly is that I become accustomed to where good specific tree branches and perches, that are favorites of birds, are located and I automatically check these known perches each time I pass them. Of course, I always keep my eyes peeled for anything, anywhere, as I drive the course. If I see any movement in the brush in my field of view from the truck, I attempt to pull to the side of the road that will allow other cars to pass by and pull to a position where I am not closer to my potential subject than my lens’ minimum focusing distance. I’ve learned not to come to a screeching halt, too. This can flush a bird very easily when they sense sudden movements or stopping of your vehicle, or you.
Once I have stopped the truck, I reach for and pick up my camera as quickly as I can but also with as smooth a motion as I can so not to spook the bird. Sometimes I’ll have my camera positioned in the window (sitting on my bean bag in the driver’s side window) while I’m slowly moving around the gravel road course. I always keep my left hand on my camera though to keep it from falling off the bean bag and out onto the road. By following this procedure, I’m gambling that the next bird I see will be on the left side of the road and I’ll be ready to shoot without possibly spooking the bird with camera motion. But if the next shot appears on the right side of the road, I just bring the camera over from the left window to the right window hopefully without spooking the bird.
Sometimes I’ll find a bird perched down low at camera level and this is great when this happens. Camera level shots are what I strive for in as many shots as I can. Sometimes my target bird is perched up in a tree 10 to 30 feet, requiring me to hold the camera with both hands and point up at the bird. This takes a little more effort because you are hampered by the window frame of your vehicle. Holding the camera still while pointing it up can be a real challenge and these types of shots benefit greatly from practice. This is true for all shots but the shots where you find yourself hanging half-way out the car window, pointing the lens at a high perch, and holding the camera still, can be a test of muscles you never knew you had! This is another good reason I like the shots where the bird is at camera level and the camera can sit on a bean bag [But, if you rest your camera and lens on a bean bag, be sure not to let the manual focus ring on the lens get moved, resulting in a blurry shot. I have gotten into the habit of resting the lens collar on the bean bag so that the lens itself is up off the bag and no movement of the focus ring can occur–unless I move it intentionally.]
Many times I’ll approach a brushy area on the side of the road and see movement within the brush. Say the movement is from a small flock of kinglets or chickadees. Neither of these birds will sit on a branch motionless and you’re lucky to have more than a second or two to aim, focus on the eye, recompose, and then shoot. After searching for birds and wildlife in this manner, time after time, my eyes automatically look for a perch that is not blocked by other branches, leaves, or objects, and one that has some color behind it so that I end up with a nice background. I’ll try to stop the truck in a position such that if a bird would land on one of several perches, the backgrounds for these perches are as pleasing as possible. Sometimes, moving the truck or the camera, as little as an inch can make the difference between a pleasing background and a distracting one. For instance, I usually choose a tree trunk in the distance, as a background over a white or gray sky. Of course, this is all personal preference.
On occasion, a bird is already on a good perch when I pull up and stop. The faster I can get the camera ready to shoot, the better chance I’ll get the shot. Other times I’ll pull up in an area where I see birds deep in the brush or tree, and I’ll stop anyway and be prepared to shoot if one comes out from behind all the branches and leaves. Both scenarios happen but it’s typically the latter one. Like most things in life, sometimes we are handed ‘easy’ shots but most of the time we have to work for them.
Oh, and don’t forget a very important item—always shoot with your vehicle’s engine turned off. There’s nothing like a vibrating engine to shake your camera and cause camera shake blur.
When I first began this hobby, I took pictures of about every bird I could see that was within a reasonable distance no matter what the lighting and background situation. I have since become a lot more selective in what shots I take. But, I encourage folks who are just starting out to do just what I did at the beginning and take all the shots they can. Find out how successful you are at achieving good focus on the eye of the bird. Are you shaking the camera without knowing it? Discover if you have good lighting in many of your shots. If not, try to understand and learn what you can do to improve lighting. Are you finding a lot of distracting backgrounds in your photos? Can you crop the image where you want it and still have a good quality image? Are you getting a lot of unwanted noise in your images? Does the bird have a nice pose or are you looking at the back of its head? Are your images exposed correctly? These are some of the quality areas that you can only master by 1) shooting, 2) learning what circumstances contribute to a nice looking shot and to a not so nice looking shot, and 3) going back out to shoot some more.
Bird Behavior – Wouldn’t it be great if we had a bird in our sights and knew exactly what it was going to do next? Will the bird take off in flight? Will it fly to the ground from the branch it’s on or just hop to another branch? If it’s on the ground will it likely stay on the ground? Does it like to land on tree branches? Teasel? Cattails? Tree trunks? Sticker bushes? Does it like to forage in fields? Is it drawn to berries? Bugs? Seeds? Fish, frogs, mice, voles, or even other birds? What time of the year is it?
Of course, no one can predict the next movement of a bird exactly but to an extent, they are creatures of habit. By repeatedly searching for, watching, and photographing different species of birds, you will become more knowledgeable about their behaviors, likes and dislikes. In time you will become more efficient at guessing what their next move is and, in turn, you’ll get more quality opportunities for a nice bird photo. So make mental notes of where birds like to hang out and how they get their food and you’ll have an advantage.
A few examples of bird behavior that come to mind are: 1) Virginia Rails, usually found on the ground and rarely fly unless in danger or perceived danger. 2) Flycatchers usually prefer to land on bare branches so they have a clear view of flying insects and also so nearby branches do not obstruct their flight when they leave the branch to catch an airborne bug. They’ll return to that same perch several times in a row on occasion and that is good for photographers. 3) Kingfishers like bare branches that protrude above water for hunting but I’ve seen them perch on top of tall trees, and on bridges, too. 4) American Bitterns are seen at fresh water shorelines where tall grasses are abundant and they can blend in. Every once in a while you’ll see a bittern take to the water and swim short distances to the other side rather than fly. The more behavioral patterns you can anticipate, the better your chances are of getting that great shot. 5) Mourning Doves are among the least skittish of birds, as are juveniles of many other birds, including raptors.
Birds can have very different behaviors at different times of the year. The skittishness of a bird can change from season to season. During cold fall and winter months, a Great Blue Heron standing on the road at the refuge will, many times, let me drive by them (slowly) within 8 feet of my vehicle. In spring and summer, they are likely to fly much earlier upon approach.
Plus, by taking many shots you will learn how to operate your camera more efficiently. It is imperative that you become very familiar with your camera and its controls. Let’s talk about camera operation and settings, beginning in the next section, Part 12. [Good time to grab a beverage! :)]