Bird photography is an exciting photographic pursuit. There is a great diversity of birds, all with interesting habits, vibrant and varied coloration and antics. Bird photography can often be difficult and challenging, but it is also easy to find "tame" subjects to practice on. Here are 10 tips to help improve your bird photography.
Tip 1: "The Early Bird Gets The Worm"
Birds are very active in the early mornings and late afternoons. You need to be in the right place at the right time and this can be done by rising early with the birds, researching your subjects before heading out into the field and by moving carefully and quietly once in their presence.
1. Early risers, early morning light and a mornings meal in the bag. Bird photography is at its best in the early morning hours.
2. A Juvenile Pale Chanting Goshawk preens its plumage in the early morning light.
Tip 2: Practice at locations with "relaxed" birds
When starting out in bird photography, bird-viewing hides and local botanical gardens provide excellent opportunities for getting close to relaxed birds where you can test and refine your bird photography skills.
3: A Cape Spurfowl and chick in the Kirstenbosch National Botancial Garden.
Tip 3: Do not disturb breeding and/or nesting birds.
Ethics: Birds are extremely sensitive to disturbance and the number one rule is to approach your birding photography with the highest ethical standards that promotes the welfare of your subjects at all times. They are particularly sensitive during the breeding season and at their nest sites. They become easily stressed when call-up tapes are used and so use these with extreme caution!
4. Birds are extremely sensitive around their nest sites and when feeding young and care must be taken not to disturb their natural behavior. Swift Tern carrying food to its young.
Tip 4: Learn your Camera Settings. Get that first shot quickly.
Birds seldom sit still for long and in order to be able to quickly get the first shots off when you locate a subject, set your camera to Aperture Priority. This allows you to set the desired depth of field while the camera sets the correct shutter speed. Use continuous servo-mode, single point auto-focus and matrix metering. Once you have been able to capture some initial images of your subject, you can adjust camera settings manually or as the scene requires.
5. A Cape Sugarbird photographed using a narrow depth of field to provide a crisp and clear image.
Tip 5: Use Vibration Reduction / Image Stabiliser if you have it.
Many digital camera lenses now come with vibration-reduction (VR) that greatly enhances the handholding capability. This function however, does take getting used to and it should not be turned on when using a tripod or when shooting at over 1/500 of a second. It is also extremely important to engage VR mode prior to taking the image so that it may be allowed to settle.
6. An African Penguin returns to shore after a day spent at sea fishing
Tip 6: Keep it clean and simple.
For striking and memorable images it is often best to try and keep compositional elements to the basics. Before pressing the shutter, study the entire viewfinder, especially the edges, to make sure that there is nothing unnecessary included within the frame. Long tele-photo lenses help eliminate background clutter and by also using a shallow depth of field to your advantage, a clear background can be obtained. Another technique is to zoom in close to your subject to “cut-away” distractions.
7. A Cattle Egret follows at the feet of an Ostritch and in the hope of snatching up insects disturbed by the Ostrich. Use that zoom lens.
Tip 7: Use Visual Draw-cards.
Experienced photographers will make use of basic visual stimulants to make a stronger image. Obviously, the strongest draw-card is the bird itself, but here are another five basic tips that can be used when using visual draw-cards.
1. Large objects draw the eye quicker than smaller objects.
2. Diagonal lines are stronger than horizontal lines in drawing the eye.
3. Bright objects draw the eye far quicker than dull objects.
4. Subjects that are in focus are stronger that those that are out of focus.
5. Images that have emotional significance are more easily remembered.
8. An African Black Oystercatcher photographed with high shutter speed to freeze the motion and capture the bird running in mid air. The colours are a strong visual stimulant.
Tip 8: Birds in Flight. Learn to anticipate the action.
The beauty of action and flight can be captured in many ways. It can be graceful, showing lots of fluidity or it can arrest motion. Fluidity shows implied motion while the latter freezes it capturing sharp detail. Birds in flight are difficult to capture and it is always important to keep the focus-point on the head and where possible photograph against clear, non-distracting, backgrounds. Leave space around the bird while at the same time try to anticipate where it will fly. Motion can be arrested with shutter speeds above 1/250 of a second and above, while images with implied blurred motion are achieved via panning and using shutter speeds of 1/15 or 1/30 of a second.
9. A Martial Eagle takes flight in the Kgalagadi as its mate watches on.
Tip 9: Focus on the eyes.
The eyes of the bird are an important focal point. Make sure that they are in focus and sharp. This can be tricky when there are more than one bird in the photograph. Increasing the depth of field can help you get both sets of eyes in focus, otherwise try changing your "plane of focus" in such a way that the birds eyes are aligned.
10. A pair of Red-headed finch sit an acacia branch above a waterhole. Both birds eyes are in sharp focus.
11. A Marabou Stork patrols past a Lesser Flamingo colony in search of sick and ailing birds upon which it can prey.
Tip 10: Practice. "The more I practice the luckier I get"
The most important bird photography tip is to get outside, experiment, play and always expect the unexpected to happen through your viewfinder! Don't despair and keep practicing.
12. Always be on the look out for unusual angles and compositions that will create an eye-catching photograph.
13. Bird photographers should always be on the lookout for interesting behaviour such as this Fork-Tailed Drongo riding on the back of a Burchells Zebra.
Text and Images by Peter Chadwick and Arne Purves