I have always been fascinated by birds. Perhaps it’s because they can fly, and as a child I would dream of soaring with the eagles. It may be that they are like a window into the distant past, with birds often described as living dinosaurs. Or it could just be that they often have quirky personalities and come in so many fascinating forms.
Whatever the reasons, I have always been drawn to birds and when I took up photography more seriously, they quickly became my favourite subjects to capture.
In Australia, we are truly spoilt for birdlife and now that I find myself living at the foot of Sydney’s Blue Mountains, birdlife is in abundance all around. It means I don’t have to go far to see birds of all varieties, and chances are if you’re reading this in Australia, you’ll be surrounded by birds too.
In this practical guide to bird photography, I want to share with you some tips and techniques I have learned over the years to capture images of birds I am proud of.
Before we get to equipment and settings, let’s talk about knowing your subject. It’s easy enough to shoot a bird on a branch, but if you sit back and study them for a while you will come to understand something about their behaviour. This will put you on the right path from taking a good photo and turning it into a spectacular one.
All birds have specific habits and quirks. If you watch them long enough you will recognise feeding patterns, flight paths and other unique behaviours. You may even like to do some research on a specific species that you want to target, this will give you more insight into their habitat, behaviour, and rituals.
One quirk many birds have is that they tend to take a ‘potty break’ before they take off. So, while you are waiting for a perched bird to take flight remind yourself this, “They take a dump before they jump. If you see the poo, you know what to do.”
There’s no getting away from it, bird photography requires very specific gear in your kit. And before you consider the right camera, you need to think about the right lens to get the job done.
A telephoto lens of at least 400mm is a must, unless you plan to spend most of your time photographing at a zoo or bird show where you’ll be able to get much closer to your subjects.
Many bird photographers choose to use a fixed telephoto lens somewhere between 400-800mm, but I prefer to use a zoom lens. This allows me to adjust my field of view as required. Birds rarely hang around for long and the more time it takes you to reposition your shot, the more likely you are to miss it.
The reason you’ll see pro photographers using huge fixed focal length lenses is that they are usually ‘fast’, which means they have a larger maximum aperture than a zoom lens. In turn, this lets more light into the camera sensor and allows for faster shutter speeds and less noise. However, unless you’re making money from your bird photography, it’s hard to justify the price of one of these specialised tools, which could set you back easily $20,000 or more.
Amazingly, in 2012 Leica produced a one off custom 1600mm f5.6 lens with a hefty price tag of over $2M USD. It required a custom 4WD to carry the lens as a mobile tripod. I reckon that might be overkill!
My weapon of choice is the most popular wildlife focal length of 100-400mm attached to a Lumix G9.
Being that this is a Micro Four Thirds system the lens has an equivalent focal length of 400-800mm in full frame terms. It’s also lightweight at under 1kg, a huge plus when shooting handheld, and it can easily fit in a backpack or satchel.
The goal of most bird photographers is to capture a sharp image of a bird, and to do this you must choose the right shutter speed. Birds can move very quickly, and if you want to freeze the action of a bird in flight, the moment it takes off, or some other activity, then you will need a fast shutter speed. A good starting point is at least 1/2000s.
Generally, you should open your aperture to its widest setting to allow as much light as you can to reach the sensor, but you’ll need to balance this against the depth of field, or what is in focus and what isn’t, in the shot.
Your priority should be to get at least the eyes in sharp focus for a ‘successful’ image but depending on the light you may like to close your aperture a couple of stops to keep more of the bird’s head and body sharp.
On top of this, you’ll need to balance your ISO. Spend some time testing the limitations of your camera, and you will soon decide on a maximum ISO and level of noise that you are comfortable to shoot with.
For me this is 3200, however, I will shoot at 6400 if it means that I get the shot as a noisy image is always better than a blurry one.
Lastly, have your camera set to a fast motor drive. Many new systems will shoot up to 30 frames per second and this can help you in capturing the decisive moment.
Look out for part two next week.
About the author: Tim Robinson is the creator of the TV program Snap Happy, the photography show. He has been shooting professional video for over two decades, with a focus on telling people’s stories through documentary. He is a keen wildlife and nature photographer and loves the opportunity to combine his passion of film making with photography.