Top Tips for Better Bird Photography
Updated: Apr 20, 2020
I often get asked what are my top tips for bird photography? In reality there are innumerable ways to take great bird images and each photographer develops their own style and list of priorities. Set out below are my Top Tips for becoming a Better Bird Photographer. Each of these deserves its own article... hmm... I have a lot of work to do in the future!
Be Ethical and Honest
Ethics is just another way of saying that you always put the welfare of the bird above your need to get a photo of it. Nature around the world is under enormous threat from human activity. Let's not compound the problem.
Being ethical sometimes requires you to educate yourself about the potential impact (including the cumulative impact) of, among other things:
using call playback (playing the taped calls of birds to get a bird to come closer, as has become increasingly popular, implicitly is interfering with the bird's natural behaviour. Apart from the raised stress levels/hormones, you might be calling a bird from it's nest, away from feeding, into the open and drawing the attention of predators etc. Under most environmental legislation, such deliberate interference with a bird's natural behaviour, causing it stress, would constitute 'harrassment' and be illegal. In addition, at worst, ancedotal evidence shows that excessive use of call playback has resulted in some species stopping to call altogether).
deliberately (and often repeatedly) flushing birds.
going off the designated paths in protected reserves. In Western Australia our native vegetation is under dire threat from the introduced plant disease Phytophthora cinnamomi, commonly known as dieback. Dieback is easily transferred on the bottom of muddy boots or car wheels and can kill up to 40% of all native plant species in an area.
live baiting (there is a reason why this is banned in photo competitions like Wildlife Photographer of the Year (UK)).
photographing nesting birds. The birds are snookered. Personally, I never photograph or publish images of nesting birds (even if you have not disturbed the bird yourself, the publication of the images undeniably encourages others, many who may use less care or skill, or with shorter lenses, to disturb nesting birds in order to replicate the shot. Monkey see. Monkey try to do). If you do publish images, please include the precautions you took in photographing the nesting bird so that others understand the need for care.
One good test is to ask yourself whether, when you show someone the image or post it to social media, you are going to mention exactly how you took the photo. If you find yourself 'editing out' certain aspects of how you took the photo because you are scared other people will think less of it or be critical of your methodology, then that is a good warning sign. Be honest to the public, but most of all be honest to yourself. You are not doing the bird, or yourself (in the long run), any favours by engaging in conduct that is not 100% bird-friendly. #ethicsbeforeimages
Learn in Manual
In order to use your camera effectively you need to know how each of the settings for aperture, shutter speed and ISO interrelate and how to change them quickly. Nothing teaches you this quicker than working in Manual mode! Dig out the camera manual and read how to change the settings, practice and then practice some more.
Turn on the Blinkies!
One of the most important aspects of bird photography is getting the exposure right in camera. An overexposed image, for instance, means that you may have lost crucial detail in the whitest areas of the image. If this is in the background, it may not be a biggie. However, if it's the bird that is underexposed, well... Houston we have a problem! Photoshop can do many things but performing miracles is not one of them.
Fortunately, there is an easy solution. On most modern digital cameras there is a setting in the Menu called "Highlights Alert" or similar. With it enabled, when you take a photo and the preview appears in your LCD, any blown highlights will blink (usually black or red). If this is happening anywhere on the bird (usually happens with a white bird against a darker background), then adjust your exposure (either by increasing the aperture value or shutter speed, or decreasing your ISO). Take another shot and check the Blinkies again. Repeat until the area you are concerned about stops flashing.
Congratulations, you now have a perfect exposure. Simples!
F6.3, 1/5000, ISO 250.
If I had relied on the cameras automatic settings, the white parts of the bird above would have been 'blown out' (in other words, have no detail at all). To get the correct exposure, I had to underexpose by 5 or more stops (Nb I shoot in Evaluative Metering mode. If you use Spot Metering, you will probably need to underexpose by only 1/3 - 1 stops to get the same effect, depending on how accurate it is).
Leaving aside habitat shots, generally the closer you get to your subject the better. Every bit of space between you and your subject can reduce the clarity. There are many ways and techniques to get closer to your subject (eg. camouflage/blind, long lens, teleconverters, remote triggers). I will cover this in more detail in a future article: Watch this space!
Get Low and Dirty
If the bird you want to photograph is on the ground or in the water, then get yourself down and dirty. There is no doubt that photos taken at the bird's eye level have an intimacy with the viewer that photos taken from above or below can't match (See the image below). Getting at eye level with the bird also helps to reduce the amount of background and foreground in focus, resulting in pleasing blurs around the bird.
Toodyay, Western Australia. Taken with a Canon 1Dx and Canon F/4 600mm IS USM II Lens, F4, 1/2000, ISO500.
Learn to Work with all kinds of Light
There are many ways to use light to alter the feel or impact of an image. One of the most common recommendations is to photograph in the first few (preferably golden) hours after sunrise and before sunset and shoot with the sun at your back. This will not only give you beautiful light on your bird, but also if its head is turned towards you, you will get the much-desired catch-light in its eyes.
This is great advice, but don't be limited by it.
In my free e-book, the Art of Bird Photography - 10 Inspirational ideas to turn common birds into Art, I talk about shooting with 'indirect' soft light, backlighting, silhouettes and deliberate underexposure. Only through experimenting with different light conditions will you truly start to understand the power of light to change the impact and feel of an image and, therefore, learn how best to use it to its full potential in every situation.
Experiment with Aperture
Sometimes people become obsessed with getting every single detail on the bird in focus from the bill tip to the wing tips but I have a question for you to ask yourself: Does it really matter if the wing tips or bill are out of focus as long as the eye is sharp? My professional bird photographer friend hated the image below with a passion because the whole bird was not in focus. On the other hand, the judges of the Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year liked it so much they chose it as the winner of the Threatened Species category in 2015. Everybody has their own opinion. Personally, I don't think you should get hung up on f-stops. If the image looks good to you, the you used the correct settings.
Australian Fairy Tern
Taken at Woodman Point, Western Australia with Canon 1Dx, Canon 500mm F4 lens + 1.4X teleconverter, F5.6, 1/2500 and ISO1000.
The aperture you use not only affects how much of the bird will be in focus, but also how much of the background or foreground will be in focus. Experiment with different aperture settings and angles and check the effect on the resulting images. Do you like them?
There are many great effects you can achieve with different aperture settings in differing situations. You will never truly know or understand until you give it a go yourself.
Backgrounds and Foregrounds
A distracting background can break an image, but what people often forget is that a beautiful background can make an image. Photographers are often so focused on the bird (pardon the pun), that they forget to think about what is behind, in front or next to it.
I cover a bit about backgrounds and blurs in my e-book Art of Bird Photography - 10 Inspirational ideas to turn common birds into Art, but backgrounds (and foregrounds) are so important so stay tuned for a future article on the subject. In the meantime, have a look at S.KeysImages, in which Scott Keys has written a fantastic four-part BLOG series on backgrounds, as well as the joint video by Scott and Ray Hennessy on YouTube: Backgrounds and Foregrounds with Wildlife Photography.
Spray and Pray
'Spray and Pray' refers to shooting in Continuous High Speed shutter mode (you know, the one that sounds like a gatling gun) and hoping you get a great shot. I have only recently discovered this expression for it and it's only partly accurate in the sense that you are still choosing when and what to photograph (so it's not as random as it sounds). You can only really 'Spray and Pray' effectively if you have a reasonably fast camera card with a good amount of storage.
If you are still using the 2GB card you got with your camera then it's not going to matter how fast your camera is supposed to be (that is, its shots per second speed) because the 'buffer' between shots (that time when you can't take a photo because it's still writing the last image to the camera card) will be huge (you will also run out of space pretty darn quickly!!).
So, sorry, the moral of this story is get the BIGGEST card with the FASTEST speed FOR YOUR CAMERA that you can afford.
To find out what is the fastest card for your camera, check out CameraMemorySpeed.
We have the privilege of shooting with digital cameras where it costs nothing to take an extra photo or two and delete the rubbish, so don't be stingy. The more shots you take, the quicker you'll learn and the more likely it is that you'll capture that perfect moment.
Location. Location. Location.
Sometimes we can get obsessed with the idea of photographing the rarest or most exotic looking bird. But if you have a choice between photographing a rarer bird in bad light against a bad background or a more common bird in the perfect light with the perfect background (location), choose the latter.
A great photo of a common bird is much better than an average photo of a rare one (unless it's a Night Parrot of course...!).
Good post-processing of RAW images
In my role as a judge of several bird photography competitions, and as a moderator of a Premier Bird Images gallery, I have seen potentially great images that have been let down by bad post-processing (or no post-processing at all). Some of the common issues is that images are too dark (this one's a biggie), too noisy, badly colour toned, cropped too tightly or have too much vignetting. I will cover post-processing (and what to avoid) and why you really should shoot in RAW in a future article.
Get a good monitor. And when you get it, calibrate it. This point has been brought home to me in the last couple of weeks because I have had computer issues and I am currently operating with a 'generic', un-calibrated monitor and it is awful. Why? Well, the colours are all wrong. In fact, some are off the scale! Images that I know I processed well on my beautifully calibrated monitor, are showing up on my screen as giant fluoro marshmallow pinks! And what terrifies me is that there are many people out there with generic monitors who think that is what my photo should look like! Noooooo!
Similarly, if you are using an uncalibrated monitor, you can never trust what you see when you edit the photo. It may look good on your screen, but it may look horribly over-saturated, or way too dark, on everybody else's screen.You can buy monitor calibration tools like a Spyder. The best option is to get a good quality photo-editing monitor with its own specialised calibration software and tool.
However, this costs money. If you can't afford to spend any more money on your already expensive hobby, there are some online free monitor calibration tests you can look up (I have no idea how well they work). You can also double check by sending the images to as many other screened devices as you can get hold of, eg ipad, mobile, laptop, and check it looks ok. It's not ideal, but it's better than doing nothing.
Seek out critical review
There is no progress without objectivity. Friends, family and social media sites are not good places to look for critical review or photographic improvement.
Learn from the best photographers, not just any photographer.
Entering a competition is a good way to improve your photography because it forces you to be objective about your own work. Even if you never end up submitting any images, the process of reviewing their potential and image quality (eg, whether they meet minimum size requirements) will teach you a lot. See my article: How and Why to Enter Photo Competitions.
And if you do enter and don't get into the finals, don't get disheartened. You are not alone. Also, it does not mean that you didn't take a great image. It only means that on a particular day, those particular judges thought there were others that were better.
KLKL. Keep Looking. Keep Learning
NEVER assume you know everything alredy. Nobody, no matter how good they appear to be, can know everything and everybody, no matter how good they are, will, sooner or later, have someone come along who is better than them.
The trick to success is to know what it is that you don't know. Never be embarrassed to ask questions if you don't understand something. It is the people asking the questions who will learn the most and the quickest. KLKL!
Be bold. Break the Rules
If you look at the portfolios of the very best bird photographers around the world, they all have one thing in common: a diverse range of images. Sure, they can give you the pin sharp bird on a beautiful lichen covered branch against a clean background, but they will have that image side by side with a beautiful backlit Great Crested Grebe or an Osprey taking off where everything is blurred except for the eye. The secret to their success is that they know the rules and they know how to break them.
"Learn the Rules like a Pro so that you can break them like an Artist."
Learn, experiment, fail, experiment, learn, share and above all, love what you do!
Did you find this article helpful? Is there anything else you'd like to know about bird photography? If so, please let me know.
I would really love to hear from you!