Bird photography, what is it about:
Nowadays growing number of people interested in bird photography. I thought in this article I give some thoughts about the basics. First: bird photography is not easy. Usually lots of times involved, sometimes with little or no results, or results not preferred. Some birds are easily can be photographed, while others is extremely hard even to see. In spite of the difficulties I like this mostly outdoor activity a lot. It can be a real adventure, very interesting moments can be captured, and possible to learn a little bit about the nature. It helps a lot relaxing from the otherwise quite stressed life.
In Hungary Spring and early Summer is the best time for bird photography. This time arrive the migrating birds, singing, prepare nests, feed the chicks. The lights are the best in summer, use long lenses with high shutter speeds usually lots of light needed. Fall colors are interesting different colored leaves makes a good background. Winter also can be special because not so many people outside this makes the birds more easy to find and photograph and snow also can make pictures special. Winter feeding is also a good option see the picture below. Nowadays summer in Hungary is quite hot, it is hard to go outside except dawn and dusk which is the best timing for photography.
Get the best equipment you can afford
Unlike many other types of photography the equipment has a big factor in the quality of the pictures you can make. If you cannot afford the most expensive “L” primes, no problem. Check which equipment withing your budget and choose the best you can afford. Used good lenses always better than bad new lenses. Concentrate on lens more than camera bodies. Longer superzoom cameras with long lenses perhaps better than Dslr cameras with low quality lenses. For long lenses the tripod is a good asset even for superzoom cameras.
Find a good location
First perhaps needs to find a good interesting area for photography. How to find it? Internet, suggestion of friends, can be a lake, forest, abandoned area, check the map, where are lakes, abandoned areas. You can spend lots of times seeing nothing seriously. National parks and reserves are the most useful areas or the neighborhood. You can ask National park people what they suggest. Other possibility if you have a garden to make it attracting for birds. Put out nest-boxes, drinking bathing plate, put shrubs in the garden. If the garden is not in a particularly interested area mostly smaller garden birds expected not very often more interesting rarities. For effective bird photography usually lots of time needed. At least several hours, but if you have several days are much better. A good naturally interesting abandoned area is preferred where you can sit in the shadow or in the hide and wait. You spend 30 minutes – 1 hour calmly and you see what you can photograph. According to me best pictures you can make in a shore, bank of the river or seaside. In a forest not so easy to make good photos because usually quite dark there, a small meadow between the forest can be a better idea.
There are more and more paid hides are available. This places usually gives good opportunity to make quality photos. Other way it is not so easy to make photographs of unique species like Rollers, Owls, or Eagles. A fee can be 100-150 EUR/day or more. Need to check the place carefully if you pay what you get for it.
Try to keep the sun behind you
To make it easy better if the sun is behind you if you walk. Plan the direction if you walk. If you see something immediately can have a nice photo with high shutter speed. If you build a hide Northern direction is the best on the Northern semisphere, this way the sun always bee at your back or at the side and you can make photos all day. Opposite direction on Southern hemisphere if I guess well.
Thinking in projects can help
If you always do random photographs perhaps not the most effecive way. Thinking in projects can help to make quality results. I have an idea to make photographs of white storks. I can concentrate on this task as a project, I think about it, and wants to have great results.(Everything is given to me already expect the time, I have the location, timing, ideas). Obviously there different level projects, making pictures of blackbirds are much more easy than for example of great bustards or rarity birds. But to grow in your technique blackbirds or mallards are great, you can experience how good photos you can make of them.
This is perhaps the most challenging to find enough time for photography in this spinning world. Some time is needed usually with travelling. According to my experience several days or longer period in few times a year are much more effective than small times(1-2 hours) frequently. Earlier I tried to use my smaller times(1-2 hours) for photography, but the results were not so great. If there is no other option these times also can be useful but longer periods like tours are more enjoyable.
Composition and framing
Almost all of my pictures are cropped. If you cannot afford a super-long, super-expensive tele it is hard to fill the frame with the bird. From a good hide (good location) sometimes possible. I don’t have a very good hide, sometimes I have an opportunity to use my mobile hide in very good locations few times a year. But if you have a good place next to a good lake or forest it can be a very good opportunity to make high quality pictures tightly framed. I mostly use the center point of the camera and the sharpest area of my lens. If you want to fill the frame must use one of the side points, if you don’t want to crop. If I want to keep quality I cannot crop to much. It is good if you know how much percent you can crop to retain quality. For example the picture above is a 25% crop of the 8Mp image. It is depend on your camera lens quality how much you can crop from the image.
Bird photography or birding
It is interesting there is a difference. If you interested in the photographic point of view, you concentrate on picture quality, background, framing, shutter speed, iso, colors, aperture. For this to have the best results you need a hide. Other thing if you just wants to see birds, what they are doing and makes photographs in this time as well, but don’t care about the ugly wire or lamp post, or too high iso value etc. If I am just “birding” prefer the longest focal length without caring too much for high iso or not so sharp images. Put as many teleconverters as possible.
I mostly don’t use continuous shooting, but some situations like action shots it can be useful. In the viewfinder it is not possible to see shots like pictures above, you just guess and shoot.
The keeper rate is low, I made lots of pictures, but few of them are a keeper. Simply lots of pictures needs to through out. You can improve this but I think even with the best equipment many picture is not a keeper.
A book about recognizing bird species perhaps can be handy. I suggest the Killian Mullarney, Lars Svensson,Dan Zetterström, Peter J. Grant Bird guide for Europe available in multiple languages. The book concentrates on Europe, not contains American and other species, there are Bird guides for other places as well easily can find on internet. In short if we want to be good bird photographers we must now the birds we photograph very well. When they wake up, what they eat, drink, where they sit, fly, etc. One of the most important information is the song or calls and other sounds they make. This helps the most to know where they are. Birdsongs are available on the internet in multiple places. We can check the sound our preferred species make, and can listen in the wild if we hear the same sound.
If we want to classify the birds simply, we have big and small birds. Usually big birds are perhaps more easy to photograph but they are much few than the small birds. In the same focal length the big birds is bigger on the picture. To make a very good photograph of the small bird we need to be really close to the bird or needed very long lenses.
In the main menu can be find different kinds of bird orders such as:
-eagles birs of prey
small singing birds, waterbirds, birds of prey, etc. In the same family the birds have common features.
Basically there are the following methods existing:
1. Photographing by walking or going with a car after walking – this is my most used method
2. Photographing from the mobile or fixed hide – can work very nice for example behind a winter bird feeder, or some organised situations, next to a lake, unique place, etc. Can be constructed with or without glass, the problem with it if you are not sure where to put it you can sit hours without seeing anything. The hide is usually installed with the sun backwards. I preferred the hide without glass, because the glass robs light, and picture quality. If you can go very close to the birds the glass is preferred to avoid disturbance. Can make as a boat. The mobile hide height is usually starts from 1.4m (one can comfortable sit in it on a chair) width and depth depends on car size. I would but 25cm rounded holes on it or 70*40cm glass panel for comfortable photography. For fixed hides can be bigger dimensions and can be better, more comfortable for more people can use it. Material can be wood chipboard or what is preferred. Important to have a roof and back part is also covered at least with a blanket.
3. Vehicle – Make photos from the car or boat or anything else
Basically all method contains hiding in some form, unless you scares away the birds very quickly.
First we need something to make the pictures. In short there are the following types of cameras are available:
The best equipment for bird photography
Dslr cameras are the best with a long preferably at least 400mm lenses, even 600 or 800mm. The best really good lenses are the following: Canon 400mm f/5.6, Tamron 150-600mm, Nikon 300mm f/4+1.4 converter. Not a cheap version. If you check the prices, these equipments are not cheap at all. If you don’t have this high budget perhaps a used Canon 200mm f/2.8 with converters or the used Sigma 170-500 are the best options. The lens is much more important than the camera in bird photography. The sharpest brightest longest lenses are the best. Every sharpness and longest focal length you need. Don’t eat cheap long lenses, usually they are not good even useless and waste of money for something you don’t need and don’t like. Check a very good lens to have a preference even if you cannot afford it to help evaluation of your choice. Longer cheap lenses more than 800mm focal length are usually useless because of very few light comes in the camera. Usually prime lenses are better but not all of them, some of them are quite bad actually.
Check carefully what you get.
The other options:
1. Compact cameras – not really useful in bird photography
2. Travel zoom compact cameras – some of them has long lenses but usually they are not so bright, which is not helps to make sharp shots.
2. Superzoom compact cameras – I suggest this category to starting, if nothing else has already
As of today (September 2013) the following cameras are the best in this category:
Panasonic fz 200 constant f2.8 aperture
Canon Sx 50
Olympus Sz-31 MR not the same category perhaps than the above cameras, but also not bad
My suggestion: don’t buy until you check if you like the camera or lens you choose ! In the beginning I often was disappointed after the purchase because I assume with the chosen camera or lens I can make pictures, that can be seen easily on the internet. Some if this pictures was made with the finest high quality high price equipment. Check pictures with the camera, try it in the shop what you see, see pictures on the internet. Websites like flickr.com has groups for pictures dedicated almost any given types of camera. These pictures usually the finest possibly to make with a given equipment don’t think you can make different (much better) images. If you don’t like the quality of these pictures don’t buy it.
3. Milc cameras – they have good picture quality but the lenses are usually not long, and the optical viewfinder of the Reflex cameras are much better than the LCD’s of MILC cameras for bird photography, If a small size is preferred Panasonic has a 100-300 lens, Olympus a 70 300, but in this price range perhaps a Dsrl is a better walue overall. Perhaps can work as well as they have better and better image quality. Electronic viewfinder perhaps not good enough between the branches in the shade or againt the sky.
4. Digital SLR’s (single lens reflex cameras) – this is currently the best option, but usually very expensive
5. Film cameras – also can work, but today not preferred, film costs money, cannot check or post process the results, light sensitivity usually not so good as the digital, but dynamic range is better than the DSRL’s. You need to be a very good photographer for this, long lens also needed.
The equipment we have exactly defines how good pictures we can make. This is much more true in bird photography, the equipment we have defines what are the picture quality we can achieve. The usual problem is the birds are not close, thus we need telephoto lenses to make close-up pictures of them. Some birds are not very shy, thus we can easily make photos of them from 1 meter distance. This is not true for most of the birds though. If we can approach the birds in 7-8 meter distance, it is very good. The good equipment is not cheap, but I don’t suggest to spend too much money until we are not sure, like bird photography or not. Depends on a budget, the best starter kit is a superzoom camera, or a cheap dslr with a long lens. In super zoom cameras Canon and Panasonic are the brands who makes the best cameras. The recommended focal length is at least 480mm, best as long as possible. This cameras is not cheap, other option is to get a used one if our budget not allows the new ones.
The other step is the Digital srl camera with a long lens. Focal length here is at least 300mm in Aps-C sized cameras. Here the lens is more important than the camera. Canon and Nikon are the brands I would choose, because they have the best equipments and lots of proper equipments, and much easily can find used equipments on the market. If our budget allows and we are very serious and determined that we want to photograph birds the Canon 400 f5.6L is the ultimate “budget” birding lens. This lens is very sharp, excellent focus, and used by professional bird photographers as well. Most people don’t have a budget for this. My next suggestion is the 200f2.8 L lens with a 2x or 1.4x or both teleconverter. This lenses are also excellent value used, lot better than a new lower quality lens. If this is too expensive perhaps a 70-300 zoom for example the Tamron 70-300 vc or Canon 70 300 is can be an option, below it the Canon 55 250 is is a possibility, but with this 250mm focal length is not easy to tightly frame the birds, perhaps works from a hide for example. The first two lenses are special prime lenses, this means they have a long focal length and not zooming, this means they have the very best picture quality possible, but not very good at other types of photography except wildlife, this lenses like fixed telescopes. At 400 mm we see 56cm from 10 meters with an Aps-C Digital SRL camera. If don’t have a budget for a Tamron 70-300 vc or Canon 70 300 is or a Sigma 70 300 lens is perhaps better to have a superzoom camera with it’s fix lens. Bad lenses not makes good pictures even on a best Dsrl camera. The lenses of the superzoom cameras are usually pretty good. If we want quick results we need a long lens. For example with a Canon Sx 50 superzoom camera 1200mm lens perhaps more easily gives us good results than a a Dsrl with a 300mm lens. The disadvantage of the compact superzoom cameras that they are mostly can be used in bright sunlight, and their autofocus not so good as the Dsrl cameras. Their tiny sensors not good enough usually to make good quality pictures in darker situations. Full frame DSLR cameras are very expensive, but they have the best picture quality, but not really need for a beginner photographer. Because of their bigger sensor longer lenses needed than for the Aps-C sensors DSRL cameras.
Bird photography lens reviews
Canon 200mm f2.8 review
Canon 200mm f2.8+2x teleconverter
Canon 300mm f4 is review
Canon 400mm f5.6 review
Sigma 170-500mm f/5-6.3 review
Soligor 100-400/4.5-6.3 review
Canon 100-400 review
Canon 400 vs 100-400
Sigma 50-500mm f/4-6.3 review
Tamron 150-600 review
How to adjust the camera
We need to learn by experimenting how to use our camera, how to adjust aperture, iso, exposure compensation, shutter speed, etc. High shutter speed is needed for DSLR’s with a 400mm lens I would say at least 1/1000s, for this usually a high iso lots of times iso 1600 is needed. The cheaper lenses must usually set in its sharpest aperture (sweet spot usually f8).
Things not to do
Disturb nesting birds in any form. enter forbidden areas, scare the birds causeless