10 Tips for Photographing Birds

10 Tips for Photographing Birds

A professional photographer, and past Audubon Magazine Photo Awards winner, offers advice for capturing stunning bird shots.

By Paul Bannick
Published: 01/16/2014
0 0 1 901 5139 National Audubon Society 42 12 6028 14.0 0 0 0 1 901 5139 National Audubon Society 42 12 6028 14.0 0

I love to photograph birds. The variety of shapes, sizes, and colors--and what this diversity reveals about species' adaptations to diverse habitats--makes them fascinating subjects. Yet their lively, often secretive natures make them challenging to shoot. Here are a few pointers to consider when you set out to photograph these endlessly interesting animals.

 

Identify your subject and isolate it

Birds are often found in the most cluttered of settings: Branches or grasses intersect at various angles and distract from the central subject, or other birds distract the eye. That said, elements of habitat and even the entire landscape are often part of the message and artistry of the image, and you want to include them to some degree. The trick is to decide what is absolutely necessary for the most beautiful or compelling image. Use your f-stop, your angle of shooting, or your proximity to the subject to eliminate all but the essential elements of your desired photo.

 

Make an original photo

Lots of people take inspiring images, and it's natural to want to try to replicate them. Unfortunately, that wastes lots of time and is rarely productive, as the power of an image comes partly from its originality--a redo of a great image rarely evokes that same awe. Aim for different angles, new subjects, and unusual behaviors to create photos that are entirely new.

 

Anticipate behavior

Birds move. They fly, scamper, swim, mate, fight, and dive, sometimes constantly, sometimes all at the same time. I usually see my best shots in my head first, watching behavior and anticipating what the bird will do next. If I know how my subject will move, I can select shutter speeds, f-stops, and ISO that maximize the potential quality of that image. In order to be successful, I spend a lot of time learning about my subjects, watching them closely and reading up on them, so that I know how they might behave under different circumstances.

 

Let the birds come to you

It is tempting to chase birds, since most are timid and move away from us. This often results in photos of birds turning or leaning away or, even worse, with their backs to the camera as they flee. By studying behavior and habitat ahead of time, you can anticipate where a bird will land, walk, or fly, and set yourself there in advance so that the bird comes to you, resulting in a much more compelling and intimate photograph.


Arrive early and stay late

Get out early and stay until the last light fades and your photos will be much better. The magical light just after sunrise and just before sunset is when color looks its best, shadows are farther from subjects, and birds are most active. These are the times to maximize your shooting.


Select your background

We tend to naturally take photos from a vantage that is comfortable for us, whether it be standing up or leaning over with the legs of our tripod fully extended. We tend to position ourselves with the sun at our backs, and assume that the bird has a "given background." As a result, we often miss the best shots. By changing the angle you shoot from, you can change the background dramatically. A cluttered tangle of branches might be replaced by brooding dark-blue storm clouds if the photographer drops to the ground and shoots up at the bird; a warm blanket of gold can become the setting by rising up to shoot down at the subject with yellow winter grass as a backdrop.


Test exposure regularly

Light conditions change regularly. It may be a gradual shift as the sun moves across the sky, or the more abrupt change when clouds alternatively obscure and expose the sun's rays. Consider the change in exposure that might be required if your subject moves from a light background to a dark background, especially when shooting in Aperture Priority Mode.


Know the required shutter speed

It's heartbreaking when blurry wings or heads mar an otherwise perfect photograph. To avoid this, learn which shutter speed you need to capture different behaviors in crisp detail. Which speed freezes which species in flight? Which is needed for birds that are walking or standing still? As you anticipate what behavior is about to unfold, you can be sure that your camera is set to shoot at a high enough speed to capture the desired behavior, tack-sharp!


Shoot in Aperture-Priority or Manual mode

Although a friend of mine jokes that "P" mode stands for "Pro Mode," it is really the Program Mode, where the camera makes the decisions for you. I almost always shoot in either Aperture-Priority Mode or Manual Mode, which allow you to make the decisions of shutter speed and depth of field, and gain control of your photographs.

I use Aperture-Priority mode when the subject is either still or moving across backgrounds of similar tonal values, or if I'm unlikely to get close enough to use more than the minimum depth of field. With Aperture-Priority, at any given ISO, I choose the aperture (to determine depth of field) and the exposure compensation, and the camera gives me the fastest shutter speed at those settings.

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Paul Bannick

More of Paul’s work can be found at paulbannick.com and on Facebook at Paul Bannick Nature and Bird Photography.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

Comments

Kay, I used Canon 1D series

Kay,
I used Canon 1D series cameras the most, although the brand of camera matters very little. I prefer fixed lenses such as the 500mm f4, 600mm f4, and 300mm f4, but i also use the 70-200 2.8 and 24-70 2.8.
Happy Shooting!
Paul

Thank you, Paul, for a clear

Thank you, Paul, for a clear and helpful article. I have a "sit spot", where after 10 minutes of sitting still, the birds come to me. I can shoot them in their natural state,and it makes for serenity to start my day. I always shoot during the shoulders of the day. Great hints about mode, too. Our Orcas Island BirdFest this April has a bird photography workshop with our local experts, Rich Lee and Peter Fisher. I hope to learn more, since birds are a difficult subject, challenging but rewarding.

Great article by a

Great article by a photographer whose work speaks for itself! Paul, thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge with all of us who appreciate nature and birds, in particular.

Nice article, Paul. I

Nice article, Paul. I especially like the comment about letting birds come to you. It's amazing how far knowing your subject and planning ahead of time can go towards getting good looks and nice photos of birds with out stressing them.

Since there seemed to be

Since there seemed to be confusion one one point, i would like to clarify.
I have not used program mode in more than 30 years and do not recommend, nor did i recommend anyone use it for birds.

The related tip as it was written is as follows:
Shoot in Aperture-Priority or Manual mode

"Although a friend of mine jokes that "P" mode stands for "Pro Mode," it is really the Program Mode, where the camera makes the decisions for you. I almost always shoot in either Aperture-Priority Mode or Manual Mode, which allow you to make the decisions of shutter speed and depth of field, and gain control of your photographs.

I use Aperture-Priority mode when the subject is either still or moving across backgrounds of similar tonal values, or if I'm unlikely to get close enough to use more than the minimum depth of field. With Aperture-Priority, at any given ISO, I choose the aperture (to determine depth of field) and the exposure compensation, and the camera gives me the fastest shutter speed at those settings."

Shoot a Program

Shoot a Program Mode?????...really?!?!?!?
That's like using cruise control to drive all the time in town....foolish novice!
Your not even close to being a Pro if you shoot any Program mode....what a waste.....

PhotoPhil, I'd suggest you

PhotoPhil, I'd suggest you improve on your reading/comprehension skills before you start calling others 'foolish'. The bit about 'Program Mode' was clearly a joke.

HI Phil, You might want to

HI Phil,
You might want to re-read that part of the article. The point i made is that folks should NOT shoot in Program Mode. I did start with a joke which perhaps made it a bit confusing.
Paul

The full text is: "Shoot in Aperture-Priority or Manual mode

Although a friend of mine jokes that "P" mode stands for "Pro Mode," it is really the Program Mode, where the camera makes the decisions for you. I almost always shoot in either Aperture-Priority Mode or Manual Mode, which allow you to make the decisions of shutter speed and depth of field, and gain control of your photographs.

I use Aperture-Priority mode when the subject is either still or moving across backgrounds of similar tonal values, or if I'm unlikely to get close enough to use more than the minimum depth of field. With Aperture-Priority, at any given ISO, I choose the aperture (to determine depth of field) and the exposure compensation, and the camera gives me the fastest shutter speed at those settings."

Hi Paul, great article. I

Hi Paul, great article. I always shoot Aperture-priority and make changes using Ev, but can you please elaborate on what you mean by 'if I'm unlikely to get close enough to use more than the minimum depth of field.'?

Hi Jeremy, I am glad you like

Hi Jeremy,
I am glad you like the article. My point is that if you use minimum depth of field you will maximize your shutter speed. All things being equal your depth of field increases the further you are from your subject, so if you are not able to get close, you will likely want to minimize your depth of field to allow your subject to "pop" from the background and have the fastest shutter speed. Make sense?
Regards,
Pau

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