Five Steps to taking Good Bird Photos with a Mobile Phone
So you think its impossible to get a decent bird image with a mobile, right? Wrong! It's not impossible, and below I'll tell you what exactly you have to do, but, and I'm gonna be straight with you, it IS hard. Like really, reaallllllly HARD!
I mean, there are some incredible mobile phone shots out there, but when you examine the subject matter of those images, you will see that 95% are of landscapes, especially urban landscapes.
That is because the small sensors and lenses used by mobile phones, whilst suitable for wide angle/landscape shots, present two HUGE problems for bird photographers:
1. to get good detail on a subject like a bird with a mobile phone camera, you need to be CLOSE to it, as in almost touching it, and be shooting in good, clear light; and
2. mobile phone cameras give you too much depth of field, that is, too much in focus.
You can definitely take good wide angle 'birds in the environment' type shots but what you cannot do is sit in the car and snap great, sharp detailed bird shots from the window like I can with my Canon 1Dx full frame DSLR with 600mm F4 lens (a.k.a the Bazooka).
In other words, it is much easier for me to get good photos with my equipment than it will be for you.
"If you are shooting with a mobile phone or small compact camera, you are going to have to be MORE CREATIVE, THINK SMARTER and TRY HARDER than everyone else."
I know because last year I put down my expensive gear for a month and shot bird photos exclusively with a mobile phone. And you know what? I learnt more about photography in that month than I had done in the last 10 years shooting with a DSLR. Not having access to top of the line telephoto lenses, good low light noise control and advanced auto focus etc meant that I had to actually use my brain. I had to plan trips carefully, picking the locations most likely to get me the shot I wanted, I had to be more patient, I had to observe bird behaviour closely and I had to think harder about getting pleasing compositions that would trump the clear technical limitations a phone presents.
And I did succeed, at least in some measure. The photo below, for instance, of a Nankeen Night-heron (wild) netted more LIKES (over 5,000) on Instagram at the time than any photo I had ever taken with a top-of-the-line DSLR. It's not going to be able to be enlarged to poster size and hung on a wall, but for a website or social media, it's perfect.
Nankeen Night-Heron (John Oldham Park, Perth city)
So how did I take this photo? By following the FIVE STEPS BELOW.
Invest in a remote-controlled, extendable selfie stick and switch to manual (often called 'Pro') or semi-auto mode
As regards selfie-sticks, I used a JOBY telepod like the one below (make sure it has the Bluetooth® remote for iPhone and Android) and it did the job very well. It also doubled as a tripod which is good for those night time shots etc.
Images swiped from Joby website but something tells me they won't mind a bit of free advertising!
I should warn you though. You are going to look like a narcissist. I used to get some odd looks as I sat there, with selfie stick extended, for long periods. In hindsight I realised that everyone thought I was taking photos of myself! How embarrassing!
If your phone does not have a mode which enables you to take control of shutter speed, ISO, white balance, focus and exposure, then you need to download an app that allows you to do that. I would suggest 'googling' to find out which 'manual camera control' app is be best for your phone.
Once you are in the 'pro' or 'manual' mode, spend time familiarising yourself with it. In particular, practice being able to apply exposure compensation. How and when to do exposure compensation is a critical skill that every bird photographer needs to learn, regardless of their gear. On the Huawei P30 Pro this is done by selecting "EV" (Exposure Value) and moving a slider to the left or right - with left decreasing exposure (ie overriding the phone's internal light meter and deliberately making the image darker) and right increasing exposure i.e. overriding the phone's internal light meter and deliberately making the image brighter). The reason you might want to do this will be explained under Point 4, below.
Research and go to locations where birds are very habituated to humans
Several times, I attempted to get images of wild birds in wild places. However, unless you have the time to set up a bird hide and wait, it is next to impossible to get close enough to a wild bird that is not habituated to humans to get a decent shot.
And let's be honest, why make your job harder than it needs to be? Urban areas where birds are used to seeing people come and go are the best places. Start with your own backyard, then progress to botanic gardens, city parks, zoo gardens and tourist hot-spots. For the Australian Pelican images in this blog, I went to Monkey Mia, a popular tourist destination where I knew that the pelicans regularly hang out on the beach next to sun-baking tourists. It was super easy to get close-up shots with good detail and even some action.
Australian Pelican (Monkey Mia, Western Australia)
Similarly, the images below were taken at O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat in Lamington National Park in Queensland, a popular tourist destination for bird photographers. In the bird feeding area, it is very easy to get close to numerous bird species.
Eastern Yellow Robin (O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat, Queensland)
Red-browed Finch (O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat, Queensland)
When you find a bird, get as CLOSE as possible or go WIDE
There are two main ways to get close to birds. One is through some kind of 'zoom' and the other is physically moving closer (including using the selfie-stick extender). To get decent bird images with detail you will need to employ both techniques.
Zoom Lenses on Mobiles
You may not realise this, but the most recent mobile phones don't have only one lens; they have up to 4 different lenses (eg for wide angle, macro, bokeh effects and telephoto).
In terms of telephoto capabilities, a dedicated telephoto lens will help, but only in so far as it offers optical zoom capabilities. Digital zoom does not actually get you closer to the bird (it only 'crops in', so to speak) so its usefulness is extremely limited. See the image below which was taken with a 50x digital zoom (said to be the equivalent of a 1343mm focal length on a full frame). The detail is, relatively speaking, not very good.
Australian Pelican (Monkey Mia, Western Australia)
By contrast, an optical zoom does help. In the Zebra Finch image below, I used the phone's 10x optical zoom (equivalent to 270mm focal length on a full frame camera) and it has done a reasonable job (albeit still lacking fine feather detail) for such a small camera. However, I was already very close to the bird (taken at a bird park).
Zebra Finch (Kalbarri, Western Australia)
In the shot below, I used somewhere between a 5x and 10x optical zoom and I was so close to the bird I could almost have touched it. You can see that the image quality is much better (in fact, it almost looks as good as an image taken with a quality DSLR).
Juvenile Pacific Gull (Kalbarri, Western Australia)
And in the below Emu shot, I used the 5x optical zoom (135mm equivalent) and was very close, hence even better detail.
Emu (Monkey Mia, Western Australia)
How to get Physically Closer
So you have your optical zoom armed and ready to go, now it's time to get physically closer. You do this by:
as per above, going to places where birds are habituated to humans (and yes, I will keep repeating this, over and over and over again... and again... and... well, you get the drift);
Use your selfie-stick (obviously, back of the phone camera pointed away from you, otherwise you really are a narcissist), and remote shutter button;
when you find a bird, get to eye level (the classic rules of bird photography still apply!). If the bird is on the ground, you should also get on the ground, not only because of the eye level shot but because HUMAN ON GROUND is far less threatening to a bird than HUMAN STANDING. It's bird psychology 101.
gradually move as close as you can, pushing selfie-stick forward (birds will allow a selfie-stick to be much closer to them than a human arm), without scaring the bird away. When you are in position, take the photo using the remote shutter button (Note: to do this successfully, before you extend the selfie-stick make sure you have the phone focussed on the bird and, as you extend the stick, keep the bird in the focus area. If the phone loses focus it can take a long time to get it back on track and you may need to reel it back in, refocus and try again).
In the case of the night-heron image above, I was fortunate that the bird landed near me. I then got down on the grass, put the focus on the bird and extended the selfie-stick as far as possible towards the bird as I slowly crawled closer.
Quality of Light
How much detail you can get in a bird will be not only directly proportional to how close you can get (including using an optical, but not digital, zoom and a selfie-stick) but also to the quality of light. The darker it is the less detail the phone can record (a mobile sensor is getting about 1/20th of the light for the same exposure time as a full frame camera). So limit your bird photography, especially if using a zoom, to when there is good light available.
And, if can't get close...
Don't forget that you can always GO WIDE.
Birds in the environment shots are becoming increasing popular and, using the phone on wide angle, you can get some really great images.
White-headed Stilt (Mandurah, Western Australia)
Another option is to get a wide angle shot of a bird in its habitat using the phone on a tripod and a remote shutter. You then watch and wait from a distance for a bird to come close to your mobile before pressing the shutter. This is what I did in the image below and whilst it's not a breath-taking image, you can definitely see the potential of this technique for getting unique and interesting images.
Purple Swamphen (Perth, Western Australia)
Minimise background clutter
This is often the most difficult aspect of using a mobile for birds. It comes down to physics. Basically, the smaller the sensor, the greater the depth of field becomes for a given aperture. So, for instance, whilst an aperture of F4 may be perfect on my full frame DSLR to get a nice background blur, to get the same kind of 'background blur' on my mobile, I would have to shoot at around F0.6! Yikes! In fact, it's simply not possible to even set my aperture level on my mobile without using a different 'mode', which activates a different lens which does not have telephoto capabilities.
But now we're getting complicated. All you need to understand is that you will need to think smarter and try harder to get close to birds where the background is either neutral (eg sky or blank wall) or a long, long, looooooooong way behind the bird OR, it is so pleasing that it adds to, rather than detracts from, the image.
The image below was taken very close to a Southern Scrub-robin at the car-park at Monkey Mia. Normally you could never get this close to this species hence the advantage of researching locations. As you can see, the background is quite distracting, but there was little I could do about it as these birds 'skulk' in bushes on the ground and are rarely in the 'open'.
Southern Scrub-robin (Monkey Mia, Western Australia)
Chiming Wedgebill (Shark Bay, Western Australia)
Similarly, in the above image, the Chiming Wedgebill is 'lost' amongst the surrounding vegetation. Originally, I had hoped that it would make a pleasing 'bird in the environment' scene. However, as I was using the 10x optical zoom the image had lost some of that vibrancy and clarity you might get from using it in wide angle mode (in this case if I had used it in wide angle mode the bird would have been far too small in the frame. For wild birds such as these which are difficult to get close to at the best of times, getting any closer physically was simply not an option without a bird hide).
In the image below, I picked a corella that was feeding on its own on a slightly raised hill. I then moved to the left and right to try and put a background behind the bird that was the furthest away and least 'busy'.
Little Corella (Herdsman Lake, Western Australia)
Use Exposure Compensation Creatively
Another way to minimise or eliminate background clutter, is to try and find a situation where a bird is in the light and behind the bird is shadow, so that there are several stops of light difference between the bird and the background. In this scenario, the mobile phone camera will try to create a photo where it retains detail in the whole photo. However, we can over-ride the mobile's settings, and deliberately make the image darker.
You do this by adjusting the EV (Exposure Value or Exposure Compensation) slider and set it to -3 (minus 3). By making the image darker than the camera intended, we will effectively darken the shadows (to almost black) whilst still retaining detail in the bird which was in the light. The greater the difference in light between the bird and its background, the better this effect works (eg in the Black Swan image below). You can also further darken the shadows in post-processing for a more pronounced effect. This is how I achieved the black backgrounds in each of the following images:
Black Swan (Perth Zoo, Western Australia) - Straight out of Camera
Australian Pelican (Kalbarri, Western Australia) - with adjustments via Adobe Lightroom phone App (eg crop, darken shadows further, sharpen, lighten highlights/whites)
Australian Bustard (Perth Zoo, Western Australia) - with minor adjustments via Adobe Lightroom phone App (eg darken shadows, sharpen, lighten highlights/whites)
Brolga (Perth Zoo, Western Australia) - with adjustments via Adobe Lightroom phone App (eg crop, darken shadows further, sharpen, lighten highlights/whites)
Post-Process Your Images
The final step is to crop (if needed) and finesse the image (eg sharpen, lighten etc) using a phone editing program. I highly recommend downloading the Adobe Lightroom app. It's FREE and allows you to do most things you can do on your desktop, including selective adjustments like sharpening the bird and 'de-emphasising' the background etc.
At the end of the day, what you get out of your mobile phone camera depends upon the effort and thought you put in when you take the images. They do have significant technical limitations, but as with any photographic medium, the more creative and artistic you are, the less those limitations matter.
My advice? Experiment.
BE MORE CREATIVE, TRY HARDER and THINK SMARTER!