Tips for Bird Photography

In this article, 20 Tips for Bird Photography, I have penned down what matters most to me for photographing birds in the field. Nasim & Elizabeth already have great articles on the most common tips. So, the thoughts below are simply a way to gather the most useful tips I’ve found, as well as common mistakes a lot of bird photographers make at first.

Understand Your Subject

I have put this as the first above all else. This is because, when it comes to bird photography, if we do not understand our subject’s temperament we will end up with no subject at all.

Of course, this holds true for any wildlife, but it means all the more when it comes to birds. Some birds are very cooperative and allow us to get really close, while some will take off at the slightest sign of any movement. Even more so, the same individuals behave differently with respect to different environments. Take an example of the Sarus crane below, which I photographed in the Bharatpur bird sanctuary. I was pretty close to the bird when I shot this photograph:

Inside the confines of the sanctuary, the cranes do not care much about humans. But, the same individuals fly off to nearby farmlands where they start to get very shy. This is because, in the sanctuary, no human tries to shoo them away. In the farms, farmers are always vigil of their crops guarding them from birds.

Some birds are seen only during certain hours of the day, like the Himalayan Monal. Monals feed on grassy patches during the early and late hours of the day. They would be nowhere to be seen during mid-day. This knowledge comes in handy when photographing such birds. Along the same lines, a lot of birds are migratory, sometimes traveling far and wide enough to traverse the earth. Other birds display vibrant colors during breeding but are not as colorful at other times of the year.

So, you should be aware of the time of year if you are planning a bird photography trip. I have seen quite a few photographers leave on a bird photography trip the moment they have their holidays approved – only to realize that the most interesting birding season has already passed in that location. Research beforehand and plan your trips to harness the maximum opportunity.

Don’t Fire on Sight

At one point in time, I kept doing this, and I am certain many of us do it: The moment we see a bird, we start firing in Continuous mode.

It is true that our anxiety to grab a photograph before the bird would probably take off is understandable. But a photograph is much beyond just the subject. It includes the story that is being told, the light that adds emotion, the background that adds to the aesthetics and many more. To understand all these, you need to relax for a few minutes, understand the scene and then press the shutter. Such a picture will almost always be better than the one you clicked the moment you saw the bird. There might be patches with good light and the ones with not so good light. A photograph of a bird in shadows with harsh sunlight all around will get it nowhere. Similarly, there might be patches with distracting background. Move around to see if you get a better angle or a less distracting background. It takes a few minutes to process it all, and if you end up taking a photograph before that, it would very likely qualify to get culled.

Mind Your Camera Settings

Every scene is distinct, even if one frame falls a few inches away from the previous one or a few minutes after. There is no single group of camera settings that would allow you to photograph all through the day without modification. (This issue is again one more reason for tip #2.)

For example, you might have set your camera to photograph a bright bird with a dark background, and the image looks good. But the same settings could be catastrophic for a dark bird a few feet away. Always remember your previous photo or the previous setting.

Take a look at the two pictures below. I initially had the camera on group-area autofocus. I focused on the bird’s right eye, which was less illuminated than its beak. The camera acquired focus on the high contrast forehead, leaving me with blurry eyes. Then, I shifted the focus to the left eye which was properly illuminated, giving me a shot with sharp eyes:

It’s not only focus settings that matter so much. Another critical one is exposure compensation, something we might end up forgetting most of the time. If we leave exposure compensation as it was for the previous photo, it is easy to over- or under-expose a set of photos. Sometimes we might be able to fix issues in post, but, as always, nothing beats getting it right in the camera.

I personally have developed a habit of looking into the settings display every once in a while to remind me of the settings that are currently in use, so that I change it when the scene changes. If you do not actively keep track of your current settings, especially vital settings like focus and exposure compensation, you are not going to remember to change them when the scene changes.

“Record Shots” Are Seldom Good Photographs

Bird watching is very different from bird photography. At the same time, if you are one, there’s a good chance you’re also the other.

In bird watching, a “record shot” is merely a picture of a rare bird, and it most of the time serves as a proof that you have seen such a bird. But this sort of documentary shot will seldom make it a good photograph unless it conveys a concrete message and/or portrays the bird with all its textual details. I personally have quite a few pictures of very rare birds and mammals that are sleeping in my hard drives. None of them will never make it to any exhibiting platform.

Many times, I have seen a lot of photographers spot a bird, take a few photographs and move to the next spot. Most of these photographs are likely to be just record shots which would not be interesting for most viewers. Instead, spending more time with one subject will yield better photographs than trying to click every bird that flies around you. So, if your purpose is to capture the highest quality bird photos rather than a plain documentary record of what you saw, you will need to put in some extra effort.

Don’t Ignore Common Subjects

Along the same lines as the previous tip – All of us love to come back with brilliant photographs of rare birds and animals. Great if we get such images. But, most of the time, we tend to ignore common subjects that make great photographs.

For obvious reasons, most viewers might not admire a common crow or a household sparrow. But do not forget that a photograph is much more than merely the subject! It goes beyond that – things like light, behavior, and composition are just as important if not more so. Below is a picture of a humble Indian pond heron, which is a very common bird in India, but the light and the frame were too good to miss.

On top of that, there is only one way to master photography: Practice! Photographing common birds is a great way to practice, which one day will help us out tremendously when we are photographing rare birds.

Get Close to Your Subject

Bird photography is, in part, about getting the textual details. This is where most photographers say, “Reach is almost everything in bird photography.” It is true to a certain extent. But there is a difference between you getting close to your subject and getting a similar frame using a large focal length.

Personally, I do not think most photographers would need anything more than a 600mm reach (in full frame terms). Beyond that, issues like haze come into play, which affect the overall contrast and colors to a noticeable extent. A person sitting closer to a bird shooting at 300mm is likely to get more textual details as compared to one getting a similar composition at 750mm.

It does depend upon the gear to a large extent, but most of the time we get much better pictures when we are at the closest possible to our subjects. Also, the closer we are to the subject, the better the quality of bokeh that aids in subject separation.

Approach Your Subject with Patience

Now that we know there is no substitute for getting close to your subject, the next question would be, how to get close? Below are a few pointers that I use, and it works out most of the time:

  • The speed with which you approach your subject is indirectly proportional to the probability of it flying off. In other words, the slower you are, the greater are your chances of getting the shot.
  • Most birds seem to have a circle of comfort. They will be cool until you cross a particular radius, after which they become very cautious. This circle will vary with every individual.
  • Once a bird gets cautious, it will look around to take off – and, worse, it will turn away from you. If you see the bird take a deep breath, it often means it is going to take off. Once you see that the bird is stressed, you have probably entered its circle of comfort. Stop moving. There is a chance it will cool down and stay. Sometimes, the bird will even come close to you. If your subject gets comfortable with you around, your chances of getting a head-on shot maximize. The bird is also more likely to display its natural characters.
  • Stay low. Crawl toward your subject if possible. Crawling freaks out your subjects way less than walking at full height.
  • If you see a bird in a particular perch, chances are you might see it in the same perch again later. If you find feces on one particular perch, it means that’s a favorite.

Get to Eye Level

This could be a cliche, but an article on bird photography is incomplete without it. The best bird photographs are mostly eye-level shots. The feel and the connection that eye-level shots give is unmatched. Especially, if you get your lens to the eye level of your subject or a bit lower and get your subject to look into the lens. Then there is nothing more you can ask for.

Eye-level shots also throw out the best possible bokeh. When you are above the eye of the subject, you mostly get the ground which most often tends to be distracting. If it happens to be water it is even less desirable as the reflections from the surface make it way too distractive. Eye-level shots mean that the background is farther away by comparison, making it more likely to look interesting and less distracting.

Don’t Crop Too Much

Let’s admit it. Most of us do it. Cropping becomes almost inevitable with bird photography. But, in reality, the quality of my pictures increases exponentially when I do not have to crop my images to 30%, 50%, or almost 100%.

It is true that modern cameras like the Nikon D850 give us 48MP, and other brands are just as strong in the megapixel war, allowing us to crop quite a lot. To a certain extent, it does help. But if your subject is a tiny dot before cropping, you will end up with a low-quality image most of the time even if the image is acceptably sharp.

I have found that, regardless of what megapixel camera you use, if you crop a picture more than 50% you are compromising heavily on its quality. I generally make sure not to get over the 50% crop mark. Most of the time, the cropped portion is about 20% or less, where I have to straighten the lines or get a perspective that I want. But it takes some practice to get to that point, especially in terms of learning your subject’s behavior so you can approach close enough.

The reason why most photographers go for crop bodies when it comes to birding is, in part, the crop factor. The pixel pitch (no. of pixels per sq. inch) is higher in a 24 MP crop body than a 24 MP full-frame camera, meaning you can get more total pixels on your subject at a given focal length. This is certainly a good thing sometimes, but it is no substitute for approaching your subject properly and using the right lens. I would much rather be close to my subject on a full-frame camera than farther away on a crop-sensor camera with the same composition.

Lastly, there is one more issue with over-cropping. Most of the time with bird photography, we are forced to shoot at higher ISOs. It literally means more noise. By cropping the image too much, we are magnifying the noise. We could use noise reduction algorithms in post-processing. But noise reduction has its own problems, like loss of details, so it is best to keep at a minimum.

Wait for the Action

A close-up profile shot of a perched bird with all the textual details can sometimes make a good picture. But in many cases it makes it boring, as there is no activity going on.

This is another reason why it is not a good idea hopping from one bird to another after bagging their profile picture. Capturing a courtship dance, a hunting action, a flapping of wings or at least the fine art of preening makes a photograph all the more interesting. This is one more reason why subject knowledge becomes a must. You can actually anticipate an action. Some birds take a gulp of air before takeoff. Some birds stretch out their neck before preening. Some raptors poop before takeoff. Mating calls have a great chance of being followed by a courtship ritual. If you see two birds in close proximity there is a chance of a fight. And so on.

Whatever the action may be, anticipate it and be persistent until it happens. There is a chance that it might not, and you may have to walk away empty handed. But if it does, you will end up with one picture that will make the whole thing worthwhile.

Break Stereotypes

A photograph that surprises people will pull in a lot of attention. By comparison, a stereotypical photograph does not attract that much attention.

If I have seen a typical composition quite a few times before, no matter how appealing it is, it would not invoke much interest in me. Most of us are aware of rules like the rule of thirds, the golden triangle, and so on. Sure, they help some of us in making composition easy. But it has to be understood that they are merely guidelines, at most. Many of us follow those rules too strictly. Instead, getting out of the herd mentality will improve the individuality of your photos, which, in turn, leads to originality. A piece of work that involves originality – in composition or otherwise – is one that will have the widest reach.

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