How to photograph birds ?


How to photograph birds ?

How to photograph birds ?

How to photograph birds?

Anything I speak about here also can be applied in any kinds of wildlife photography as well, with one thing to add, that deers or other animals has very good sense of smell, this means we should take care about wind directions as well.

Take attention of the hunters, to avoid problems where hunters don’t see you. In forest take care of ticks, they are very dangerous (you can get very serious deseases by them like Lyme), but if you sense them in time just remove them without any problem, closed clothes helps.

I am not the master of bird photography, but I thought I can share what I have learned so far. There is a separate article about equipment, so here I don’t go deep in detail, just assume to have a dslr and a long lens, or a compact camera with a long lens (best 600mm and longer in compact camera or Full frame camera, 400mm or more on APS-C).

How to photograph birds
In the process of photographing birds somehow the process includes to getting closer to the bird, because this is one of the most important factor regarding picture quality. This is the most challenging task. (It is not so much if you have a money for a good 600 or 800mm prime but these lenses are extremely expensive) The most best quality photographs you find in the internet, has been made from close distances(2-10m), with very high quality, super expensive equipment. My experience so far than a not as good 600 or 800mm is more useful than a super sharp 300 or 400mm lens. With a shorter lens you simple miss many opportunities. If you have lots of time it is not the case in this case you can sit days in a hide or other places.

To see this point look at this photograph:
This lens was made with a 280mm lens on a Aps-C camera, cannot be any better at this distance. I was quite close in a car the possibility to come closer than this in this setup is absolutely minimal (must spend irreal amount of time). With a 500 or 600mm lens this picture would be an absolute keeper. With a longer 800mm prime it would be very hard to get the two bird in the frame, not just pointing with a small FOV but the depth of field is extremely shallow as well (you must guess the distance very precisely in advance to at least see the birds in the viewfinder).

How much time is needed:

At first this question seems weird, but can helps to understand the nature of the matter. Before I spent lots of times photographing birds but each time was usually short (1-3 hours). If you know what you want to photograph and where is it perhaps this method can work. My experience is that I prefer to spend more time (several days or almost a day) but not so many times (usually travel is required). This method is much better: usually the best method is to go a very good place and spent relatively more time there, this way we can make much better and more quality pictures, and perhaps we enjoy the time we spent much more. The best times are at sunrise and before sunset, the “Golden hours” as referred in landcape photography.

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Usual methods: – how to photograph birds ?

1. Use a hide, or stay waiting

2. Car as a hide, or boat

3. Approach by walking, or from boat

Don’t think the birds will wait for you. You need to be in the shade, or covered behind the tree or bushes. Move very slowly and quietly. Be patient.

How to photograph birds ? – Trick No 1

I try to figure out where going to the bird occur I go that place and wait. Perhaps this is similar to sit in a hide but perhaps not everywhere is possible to put the hide, and we don’t bring it anywhere. For this we need to study a little bit the behaviour of the birds. If we have the place first we have an advantage to see the birds first, and possible can make a photo.

How to photograph birds ? – Trick No 2

Lets say the bird is sitting on a tree 50m from us. What I do, I stay calm, and try to not show any particular interest, make no movement. I lift my camera up very slowly firstly perhaps other direction. After slowly turn the camera towards the bird. (In any case I observe that the bird don’t care about me so much if the camera is in front of my face, perhaps eyes, or eye contact scare them most). After I look at the bird through the tele lens, and wait when the bird is looking other direction. This is my moment I come closer, after stop and make no movement, I don’t lower the lens. And next time repeat this process again until I find the appropriate distance. I don’t approach the bird too close, in order to disturb, and try to find the good perspective. The first shoot needs to be perfect, perhaps no other going to happen, I wait for the perfect moment when the bird is in right direction, good lights, etc. I rarely use continuous shooting. Usually scare the bird away, and focus usually not precise. If I shoot one shot usually the bird not escape if I am not moving. Sometimes I can make lots of shots without disturbing the bird. I photograph a wren for example several times from 3-5m and not disturbing the bird at all without hide or anything. This method seems not working with birds of prey in the field (they see anything and fly away even from 100 meters), perhaps works in forest or more mixed area (tree, river, bushes).

Wren ökörszem

Using the hide

Other effective method is using a hide. Usually needs a very good place, lots of time, but can make lot better photographs. There are lots of non-free hides awailable, you pay and shoot. There are many forms existing like tent, small wooden boxes, etc. If photograph waterfowl a simple green blanket or military net is enough towards the water. I have a mobile hide, you can find the picture below.

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How to use the hide ?

Some usual methods
-winter bird feeder – if we start to feed the birds don’t stop it. Mostly effective in snowy weather, we better not stop until the area in snow covered. Where to put the feeder? Don’t think that the birds go anywhere, where the feeder is. Try to guess what the birds are prefer: the more quiet sides or back places in the shade if we think about a garden. Perhaps we can make a perch on more lighted place for photography, but the feeder is better on tree in the shade or partly in the shade according to sun movement. Better to try the place we think the birds going to like, after we can make our setup hide, car, etc, than put the food in the window. Some places the window is also works, most of the places not. Somehow the birds find more easily the food we gave them if they are there naturally. Birds usually avoid places where people occur very frequently. We also need to think about which places is best photographically where we can put the hide, where the sun are going. Best the hide looks at North direction in North hemisphere, this way we can make photos almost whole day.
-drinking station in hot dry environment, the shallow water is preferred, the birds using it for bathing as well, to get rid of parazites
-next to a lake or river, or shallow water salty lakes – dawn and dusk is the best times, if people often visit this lakes or rivers, this is more true.
-near to Bee eaters area
-Tower hide near good areas
-Winter eagle or buzzard feeding place for example in Hungary Eastern areas like Hortobagy plains
-Floating hide in the water


better to have behind. Seems obvious, but as I check my somehow bad photos, 90% the problem is that the sun shining from the object. There are situations also when we want backlight situation, but usually that is not the case. Usually the best photographs somehow involve the sun. It is possible to make good photograps in the shadow as well, but the best pictures made the photographer in the shade, the object in the sun. It is important that if half of the frame is in the sun, other half is the shade, that makes most cameras struggle, better to have the frame either in the sun, or in the shade completely. Or if we choose a mixed light situation have an idea how is going to look the picture.

Camera settings:

Be a master of your machine. Know how to quickly adjust ISO, focus points, aperture, etc. Try before the ‘real situation’ what you gonna do. Adjust anything, check the batteries, cf card, before you go out of the car or arrive.

Most usually I use Aperture priority in my Dsrl. With aperture we can control depth of field, also can control shutter speed. I usually try to use the sharpest aperture setting if enough light available, or at least near to the sharpest. This means in my Canon 200/2.8L aperture f4-f8 without the teleconverter. As I attach the teleconverter, with the 1.4 X converter becomes f5.6-f11, with 2x teleconverter f8-f16, with two converters attached f11 – f22. As I attach more converters more and more light needed. In good lighting max f11 is realistic with an ISO of 800-1000. I do not hesitate to use my Dslr up to ISO 1600, if I want very good quality up to ISO 400. On a consumer 70-300 zoom usually f/8-f/11 is the sharpest setting. The more sharpest setting needed the more far the bird is. If the bird is near perhaps the ‘not so sharp setting is ok’. Try to use the biggest aperture possible in order to keep ISO low, and keep the picture sharp. For example my Canon 200mm sharp at f2.8, with 1.4 converter at f4, with 2X converter at f8, with two converters stacked at f13, my former Soligor 100-400 was only usable at f8.

Shutter speed:

For a sharp picture, that can freeze action, usually 1/1000s shutter speed needed handheld. (around 280-400-500 mm focal length). At a tripod depends on how stable it is, but can be lower, even several seconds, but this case the birds cannot move during shooting. How can obtain 1/1000 shutter speed ? Higher the ISO, or bigger aperture. If I can manage really close to the bird, for example from a hide smaller aperture needed, and lesser shutter speed can be okay). The smaller aperture for example f8 is a must in this situations because of depth of field. From 4m the depth of field paper thin. For a picture showing some kinds of the movement a shutter speed of 1/400s is perhaps good. Can experimenting with the shutter speed what kind of picture we can make.

For metering

I mostly use evaluative / matrix metering most of the time, and adjust exposure with exposure compensation if needed. In harsh lighting I usually shoot with -1/3 or -2/3 correction. Center weight average also good if you get used to it. Spot metering is tricky, very easily can ruin the photo. What is very important how the bird lightness or darkness compare to the whole frame. If the bird is black in an otherwise brightly lit environment should put some extra exposure compensation like +2/3. If the bird is white, perhaps should set exposure back in order to not burn the colour of the bird. If the bird is white in snowy circumstance, perhaps set exposure +2/3 in order to be white bird, not grey.

In darkness sometimes I use +1/3. In winter snow situation usually use +1/3-+1, depend on situation. For black birds I usually set exposure compensation +1/3-+2/3 in order to see any detail. Most camera metering system work as it would have 20%gray on the picture. If the scene is darker we need to adjust backwards, if it is lighter we adjust forewards. If I use two converter I set exposure compensation automatically to -2/3 in order to have right exposure.

I use the center focus point most of the time, this is the most reliable on my 30D, and sometimes in challanging situation Manual focus. Pre-focusing is very useful especially for flying birds, I adjust the lens around the distance I expect.

In my 30D there is a picture style menu. My setup can be seen in below picture. I like vivid colours, and good contrast. For a not so good lens, more correction is needed.

The autofocus is very important feature of the lens. That is why I use Canon lens, my lens’s autofocus is simply superb. Let’s make a little math: if we want to make a picture of a small bird, which is the most common situation. With a good auto focusing lens we can set the focus in several seconds, or even below a second. How much does it take manually ? First we need to move the ring on the lens, the movement itself can scare away the bird very easily if the bird is close. If we manage to not scare away the bird, we starts to rotate the ring slowly in order to not make to much disturbance. The time we set the focus manually is usually much more, on the other hand the precision is far behind than with the auto focus, unless we use some magnification if our camera supports that. If we want to shoot action the problem is even bigger, let’s say the birds are having fight in the water, perhaps the whole action lasts several seconds, can we make a sharp shot with a manual focus lens ? Let’s see it from an another perspective: we choose between a very good manual focus lens or an average autofocusing lens. I definitely choose the manual one if it is significantly better. Simply a longer better lens make much better pictures. Perhaps we are not so good at action, but from a hide or other controlled situations, or shoot bigger birds we can make better pictures. A manual focus is a significant drawback though.

I do not mess up with RAW files. Perhaps many will disagree, I use finest Jpg setting, on my30D I see no real difference, than lots of time and memory usage with RAW files. I usually post process my pictures with GIMP(free open GL software) if it is needed. I usually make sharpening, adjust contrast, colours, and curves.

Most of the time I photograph birds during walking. My usual setup is 280mm f4 (canon 200/42.8L+Kenko 1.4dgx converter) . This is not the best, 400 mm+ would be the ideal. But the f4 aperture is very good, and I use it often in challenging light situations. (dark, dusk, down.) If I need extra reach I put my 2X teleconverter on. I like to shoot action, for this proper autofocus is a must. If I attach both of the converters, the field of view is very narrow, and autofocus much more hard to use. With the 1.4 teleconverter the setup is very fast, and accurate.

When to photograph birds ?

My experience dawn and dusk the best. Not in complete darkness, but when the sun come out. Dusk also good with more opportunity to photograph deer, foxes, etc. If I wake up 9′ o clock the show is over. It is worth to get up early and go home at 10 or eleven, with beautiful pictures on SD or CF card. In years terms the Spring is the best. All birds collect food for their nestling, singing, flying, etc.

Where ?

If we don’t want to travel much, the general rule, search for places where there are no, or few people, and some nature involved: river, reeds, forest, etc. When I am going to new places I remember what I saw where. Most of the birds are territorial, can be find them at  the same place again. Should stop that place in the shadow somewhere and wait. If nothing happens in hours, perhaps we choose a wrong place. Doesn’t matter if we haven’t seen anything there first. In Spring and Automn there huge migration, you can study where you can find the migratory birds.

Good to choose a bird, and study his/her behavior. Good to recognise the sounds of the birds, this helps a lot finding them.

Perfect situation is the fixed hide at a good place. ( I do not have.) The hides needs to look towards North at North hemisphere. (This way the sun always be somehow behind.)

Usual situations

Below I list some usual situation in Hungary:

-In our garden we can attract birds with threes and shrubs like and with feeder/drink station
-winter time small bird feeder, even better in solitary place to put a quantity of corns, or put in some auto-feeder, but must not stop feeding, because the birds get used to it, effective only in snowy weather
-in hot dry places bird drink stations good for all kinds of birds in a good area, where there are not many drinking possibilites
-photograph bee-eaters from a hide near their gathering place
-photograph feeded eagles in winter
-photographing waterfowl at lake shore or riverside

How to behave: quietly and slowly. Worst we can make is quick movement with the camera in the final second before photograph. The most threatening the birds is quick movement, this makes them escape. If i sense an opportunity to photograph a bird, usually lift the camera, and hold it in front of my face, thus I don’t need to lift it quickly in the last moment makes the bird flying away. Other good technique is to pretend. Not approach straightly, pretend to interest in other things.

Green or green brown clothes are good, but not necessary. I try to avoid strong colours, and high contrast (strong white) clothes.

What I have is a mobile hide, can be used with glass (Stopsol clear 4mm reflective glass, only one direction works properly can check with a lighting match), or without glass, made of chipboard. I prefer the hide without glass, because the glass robs 1/3 stop of light. I make round holes of 25cm. The glass is better when we can manage to really close to the birds. It is good for example in winter, when I feed the birds. I can photograph the birds from 4 meters, even without a glass on a hide’s 70*40cm opening. (No movement, no continous shooting (scare them away from 4 m)). There are many mobile hide awailable, but I prefer my home made one, more comfortable, I usually sit on a chair inside. For photographing waterfowl better to be laying on a ground under a hiding blanket, in order to be in line with the birds.

You can start by making photos of not so challenging species like ducks or Crows. This helps to practice how is it go. You can learn by analising the pictures on computer.(Exposure, focus, lighting, etc).

There are things that are not supposed to do:

Try to protect the nature as much as you can. If you recognise something really interesting tell the official people. Do not disturb nesting birds (visiting or sounds), don’t go to private, or protected areas, that is forbidden to visit. If you not sure, better to ask what is ethical, what is not.

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