Monday, September 3, 2018

7 Tips For Better Wild Bird Pictures

Capturing great bird stock photos can be challenging at times, but with good preparation, the right equipment and a few simple tips, it can also be quite fun and rewarding. What follows are our top tips for capturing better stock bird photos.

Know Your Venue

If you're hoping to capture some great wild bird pictures, the first thing you need to do is get to know your venue. First up, do some research and find out what species you're likely to spot. From there you can work out where and when you're likely to find them

If you can find a map of some description, convert that to a sketch map so you can mark your own details on it. Then when you first arrive, mark out the overhead path of the sun so you can anticipate lighting in different locations, mark in different vegetation/habitat types, and where you can find good cover for yourself.

Then as you spot different species, mark the locations (and times) in as well and you'll soon have a very handy reference guide for future shoots. When you return you'll know where you need to be and what time of day you need to be there, to capture the bird photographs you seek.

Most of the best bird photographers I know tell me they rarely get their best shots on the first visit... the best wild bird pictures usually happen once they know the location as well as their own backyard.

Know Your Subject

This should go without say for any sort of wildlife photography, but it's particularly important for capturing great bird photographs. Birds are incredibly fast and often seem totally unpredictable, so the better you get to know them, the better your chances of anticipating their behaviour and getting the shot you want.

For starters, invest in a good bird guide and learn everything you can about the species you want to photograph. Getting to know their feeding habits, breeding, nesting and migratory behaviours will help you make sure you are in the right place at the right time.

Knowledge of their specific behaviour, from guides and observation, will help you anticipate what they're going to do once you've found them. The more time you spend observing the birds, the better you'll be able to predict their behaviour, and it will give them more time to get used to you.

There are some behaviours that are fairly universal though, so you can start with these.

Most birds will take off and land into the wind, so if there's a prevailing wind direction at your venue, be aware of it and position yourself facing towards the birds likely location with the sun behind you... ie. so you get your photos with the bird flying towards you, lit from the front.

Most birds also 'tense' their feathers just before they take off. When they're relaxed (and going no where) they'll look more 'fluffy'. When they're about to take flight, they almost seem to shrink for a second or two before launching themselves. If you watch for this, it can be a great trigger to start shooting.

Buy the Longest Fastest Lens You Can Afford

This one comes with a caveat... you don't need an exorbitantly expensive lens to get marketable bird photos... but any extra length you can afford will help.

Some of the best bird photographers I know will use nothing more than a standard 100mm-400mm telephoto and they get incredible results. In fact most will tell you it's more about the preparation &research, good positioning and using patient stalking techniques.

So in a perfect world, all bird photographers would have a 600mm f4 auto focus lens, but realistically, anything over 300mm is probably good enough if you hone your other birding skills.

You can of course use a teleconvertor... a 1.4 teleconvertor on a 400mm lens will put you in the 600mm range, but be aware you will lose a couple of stops in the process. In open well lit settings that can be OK, but in any sort of vegetation it's probably going to make life difficult.

A final option a lot of dedicated birders use 'digiscoping'... attaching their camera to their spotting scope. A spotting scope with 25x magnification would be equivalent to a 1500mm lens, so even when you buy the adaptor as well, it can be a very affordable way of getting close to your subjects.

Camera Settings

In most cases, you'll want to use the fastest possible settings to deal with the speed and mobility of your subjects, and also with the long lens you'll be using. When the birds are flying, you'll usually need at least a 1/500 second shutter speed to keep it crisp. Even when they're perched, many birds are fidgets and rarely keep perfectly still.

There will be times when you want to slow it down and convey the motion and this can (should) be done deliberately. Just remember there's a difference between a photo deliberately captured to convey movement, and one that's just not sharp. If you're going for 'movement' my suggestion would be to use panning to make sure there's no question in the viewer's mind that it's deliberate!

Digital ISO settings allow you to speed things up considerably, just be aware of how fast you can go before the picture quality suffers.

Always remember to constantly check your exposures. White, bright skies will trick your camera's auto-exposure so for in flight shots you'll generally need to dial in 1-2 stops or more exposure compensation.

Other Equipment

Usually a tripod would be considered essential equipment when using a long lens, but often the situations you find yourself setting up in might make it difficult. By all means use one whenever you can, especially if you're working from a hide or semi-permanent position, but if you're on the move, I always find a monopod a lot more useful. In wooded areas there's usually a tree to brace myself on,

A lot of bird photographers will tell you their car makes a great hide and tripod all in one. Many birds are quite used to cars by now, so if you arrive on site and sit quietly for a few minutes, many birds will soon forget the car is there. Keep a small bean bag handy for a camera rest and your in business.

Always carry extra battery power and extra storage, and in the field a few plastic bags help for protecting your gear from the elements. If you're really roughing it, a lot of pros will suggest you don't even change lenses... if they really need a choice of lens, they'll carry it already attached to an extra camera body, just to avoid any chance of getting dirt or water inside.


There are a few basic rules that apply to most wildlife photography, and they are particularly relevant to bird photographers as well.

First and foremost, focus on the eyes.
If the eyes are sharp, the rest doesn't matter.
And if the eyes aren't sharp, the rest doesn't matter!
No doubt there will be exceptions, but if you keep that firmly in mind when you're shooting and also when your editing, you will end up with a much stronger collection.

Another 'rule' that applies to most wildlife photography is, shoot from the front. With few exceptions, there's rarely much call for the rear end view of any create leaving the scene.

The approaching view is much more natural, and generally your viewers will find it easier to connect with. With bird it's even more important as you usually find front on is the view they present to their mates, while the rear view is more likely to be plain or even camouflaged.

Finally, as much as possible, shoot from eye height.

For ground or shore birds, this often means getting down on your belly. For high nesting birds it means getting as high as you can yourself. Obviously you can't always get to their level, but the more you try, the better your results will be. Telephoto lenses do help give the impression you're more equal but don't rely on that alone.

If you're photographing birds in flight you need to anticipate and pan, and be extra careful not to crop too tightly. Much better to trim things later than find you repeatedly clipped off a tail or a wing. Always try to capture the birds flying into the frame, rather than out of it.

Always watch the wing position of the species you're photographing and also refer to your bird guide. Different species will present very distinct shapes, and the ability to capture those behaviours and traits that make a creature unique is what separates the great wildlife photographers.

Make sure you get good clear detail shots as well so you can be totally confident in your identification of the bird. That means close up shots of the head & beak, breast and back, as well as wing and tail shapes. (If you are planning to sell the images, ever, accurate identification is essential, so don't ever rely totally on common-names... buyers will usually want scientific names just to be totally sure).

Patience & Practice

When you arrive on site, always give the local inhabitants time to get used to you being there, you will get better images. Don't try to force the issue be going too close to fast... at best they'll just fly away, at worst they'll look visibly stressed... which never makes a good photo anyway.

Instead, wait and watch and work out what the comfort zone is for the species, and stay just outside that. Most birds are instinctively afraid of people, but if you sit and wait quietly, you'll also find most are quite inquisitive, and many will actually approach you if you give them the opportunity.

Beyond that, shoot often and shoot heaps. Don't expect your best shots on your first visit to an area, instead treat is as a scouting trip. Work out your lines of light, wind and where your cover is, and identify as many species as you can... that you can research more fully before your next outing.

If you're just starting out in bird photography,you might even find it useful to set up a feeder at your home, so you can practice and observe the birds in relatively closed environment. Remember, the more time you spend getting to know your subjects, the better your photos are going got be.

Finally, spend plenty of time studying other people's wild bird pictures. Dissect each shot and think about how it was created... in terms of equipment, settings, timing, positioning and the photographer's understanding of the bird and it's behaviour.

The great wild bird pictures don't happen by accident. In fact, quite often you'll find the best bird images aren't shot by bird photographers but by birders with photography skills. Something to keep in mind!

Matt Brading

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