Poor Man's Guide to Bird Photography

Version 2.0


Introduction

It is often assumed that one needs many thousands of dollars worth of equipment in order to do bird photography well. At the very least, people believe they need a very expensive camera with a super long lens to have a decent chance at getting good results.

Well, it's just not true. This tutorial will show that it is much more important to know what to do than it is to have expensive equipment. In fact, even photographers with modest equipment have the chance to make great bird photos if they know enough about photography and particularly, how to photograph birds.

Let me start with an example. The Superb Fairy Wrens photo below was taken with a Canon Powershot S3 IS point-and-shoot camera. The camera costed around US$500 when I bought it in 2006. It has 12 times optical zoom and a maximum of 6 megapixel images.

Superb Fairy Wrens

The remaining shots in this tutorial were done with a Canon EOS 450D (also known as EOS Rebel XSi) which is an entry level DSLR. The lens used was the Canon EF-S 55-250mm F/4-5.6 IS lens, which is an entry level telephoto lens. The camera with lens together costs less than US$1,000 (much less in some places). The white plumed honeyeater feeding on the bottlebrush flowers photo (image was accepted at Ocean State International Exhibition of Photography 2013) below was taken with this camera and lens combination, and so were the rest of the photos in this tutorial.

White Plumed Honeyeater

Before I get into the details of how to take great bird photos with inexpensive equipment, I should be clear that I am not saying that expensive equipment does not help in bird photography. Instead, I am only saying that it is not necessary. The expensive equipment does give you benefits, such as in conditions like not being able to get close to the bird, or poor lighting, or flight shots. Inexpensive equipment will generally not produce good results in such conditions, so you are forced to limit what you attempt to shoot and when you attempt to shoot it. But there are still many great opportunities you can make with what you have, so drop that long-lens envy and go out and do what you can with what you have.

This tutorial is aimed at beginning to intermediate level bird photographers. For example, birds in flight are an advanced topic so this will not be covered here. The tutorial does not assume that the reader knows much about how the camera works. It is also intended to be brief and to the point, so it doesn't go into technical details of photography. For this reason, the tutorial sometimes tells what to do without communicating why. Those who already have a good understanding of photography should already know the whys anyway, so I hope they are not disappointed in the presentation.

Camera Settings

The five main things that are of concern are aperture. ISO, metering, white balance, and focal points.

For Canon cameras, you should have your camera in "P" mode to take advantage of these. (Alternatively, you could use aperture priority mode with a shallow depth of field.) See your camera's user guide to figure out how to set these on your camera.

It is very useful to know the relation between ISO, exposure time, and aperture. In my mind, this relation is the most important technical concept in photography. For those who do not want to spend the time to read the theory, here is the minimal amount of what you need to know for bird photography.

We start out with aperture. For bird photography, you should have your camera in aperture priority mode. This is most likely labelled "Av" or "A" on your camera dial. Aperture is measured in terms of "f-stops". For bird photographry, a lower f-stop is better. In most cases, you will want to go with the lowest f-stop that the camera will let you use for the lens you are using. For me, it is f5.6. The low f-stop has two purposes: it gives you fast shutter speed (very important for bird photography) and a shallow depth of field (to minimise the impact of background distracting elements).

This will work for most photographers. However, for some they might find that the lens can't produce a sharp result at such low f-stop. If you find yourself in that situation, then you will need to up to the f-stop to the minimum that your lens can handle well. This will take some experimentation, but once you figure out the right value, you won't need to worry about that again, at least until you get a new lens.

The next one is ISO. The main thing is that the higher the ISO is, the less likely you will get blurry shots but the more likely you will get grainy shots. "Grainy" means that you can see the pixels (i.e. tiny squares that make up the photo) in the image. You generally do not want grainy or blurry images, but sometimes you have to make a choice. You are forced to make that choice when the light is not strong enough.

What you need to do is for your camera, decide what the highest ISO you can use for results that are acceptable to you (i.e. not too grainy). If you are doing photographing in low light (for example, storm clouds or in a shaded area), then you set your camera to that ISO level. If the light is strong (for example, bright sunlight), then you set your camera at the lowest ISO level that it has.

For my Canon EOS 450, the highest level that is acceptable to me is 200. The lowest ISO level is 100. So if it is cloudy or I am shooting in the shade, the camera is set to ISO 200. If the sky is clear and the light is strong, then I use ISO 100.

An example of a grainy shot is in the New Holland Honeyeater shot below. Taken at ISO 400, the quality level is a bit below what I consider acceptable (you can click on the image to see the larger view where the grain is more evident). However, if the grain was not there, I think it would have been a nice photo.

New Holland Honeyeater on Bottlebrush

For metering, on my DSLR I use partial or centre-weighted metering which works quite well for bird photography. This means that the camera's measurement of how much light to let in is decided more by the middle of the image than the outter part. For my point-and-shoot, these metering methods are not available. Instead I use spot metering. When you take the photo of your bird, compose it with the bird in the middle of the image. You will be able to change this later if you choose when you crop it (see post processing section below).

The topic of white balance is a sensitive one, with different photographers holding different strong opinions about the topic. I'm not going to get into that heated debate here, instead I just tell you what I do. The rule is very simple: set the white balance according to the conditions you are in. If it is cloudy, tell the camera by setting the white balance to cloudy. If the bird is in the shade, there is a separate white balance for this condition. If it is bright, sunny skies, then set the white balance accordingly. The simple rule will make your photos so much more accurate to what your eyes saw.

Some will argue that there is no point in setting the white balance in advance if you do RAW image processing. However, when you open a RAW image in your image processing software such as Adobe Camera RAW, it will default to displaying the image in the same white balance that you had your camera set to when you photographed the bird. If you chose the right white balance in advance, you will not need to make any further white balance adjustments to the image. If you did not, then I wish you good luck at getting the right white balance in your post processing efforts.

The last topic is focal points. Look in your camera's manual to find out what focal point options the camera has. For bird photography, set the camera so only the centre focal point(s) is/are used, and then most of your shots will focus well on the bird. If all focal points are used, you might find your bird out of focus because the camera is focusing on some branch to the side.

I suppose I should also mention image size. Your camera will have the option of recording images in various sizes. Unless you have some practical limitation such as limited storage or a slow computer, you will want to use the maximum size that your camera allows. However, I am fully aware that some camera today allow an insane number of pixels, so you have to be practical.

Finding Good Bird Shots

You really need to figure out what locations near you are good for photographing birds. For me, there are several garden areas that get a fair amount of tourists where the birds are comfortable with humans being around, which helps me get closer. At the same time, I'm trying to avoid unnatural human elements that take away from the quality of the photo. Ideally, you don't want any evidence of humanity in the photo.

From my experince, the best tool you have to find good birds to photograph is your ears. Birds communicate with each other and often sing loudly. Go where the birds are singing to find your good photographs.

Approaching the Bird

For those of us who do not have super long lenses, we can make up the difference by getting closer to the bird. This is one of the most important tricks I have for getting good bird pictures.

Suppose you see a bird you want to photograph, and you want to get closer to it. There are a few things you don't do. Among them are walking directly towards the bird and looking at the bird as you get closer. As you see the bird, stop for a minute and relax: sudden movements might scare it off. Then, look for a place to walk to that will get you closer to the bird, but that place should not be directly between where you are standing then and where the bird is. Instead, choose a place to the side, so you are not walking directly towards it. Then, once you have that spot, look down and walk to it at a normal pace as if you had no interest in the bird whatsoever. When you get to that spot, then stop and at a calm pace look up to see if your bird is still there. This doesn't always work but it does work often enough to improve your bird photography a lot.

Another thing you don't do is point. The less interest you show of the bird, the more likely you will get close and have a good shot.

Taking the Picture

Some of the post pleasing shots have very simple bokeh backgrounds. This is accomplished using the technique of "selective focus". To do it, put yourself in a position (if possible) so that whatever is in the background is far behind the bird. Then focus on the bird and the background will blur out.

You should be thinking about the technique when you are trying to compose the shot. Sometimes it is just a matter of take a few steps to the side or raising/lowering the camera to get this result. As an example, consider photographing a bird on grass. Normally people will stand up and aim downward to photograph the bird. The result is a picture of the bird with all the individual grass blades around it visible, which makes the shot look messy. An alternate approach is to get down on your belly, so you are at the same level as the bird. Then, when you take the picture, the plane of grass is approximately parallel to the direction your lens is pointing. Consequently, the grass behind the bird that shows up in the photo is not near the bird, but instead far in the distance, which makes it blur into something that no longer looks like grass. You end up with a pleasing green bokeh background. This technique was used to photograph the rosellas below.

Crimson Rosellas Sharing

In general, you need to be paying at least as much attention to your background as your main subject. When you compose a photo, look through the view finder at what is in your picture: if it is a bunch of messy branches behind the bird, then this is going to detract from the quality of your shot. If there is a car in the background, then it will take a lot away from the quality of your shot. In these cases, you have to ask yourself "Where can I go in order to get that messy background out of my picture?"

When I first started doing bird photography, I would push the shutter button many many times when I saw a nice bird, hoping that one would come out good. Now I use a more calculated approach.

What is the most important part of the bird to have in good detail? In most cases, it is the eye. There is a term called "catchlight" that describes the light reflecting off the eye which draws the viewer's attention directly to it, feeling a connection with the subject. If you look at your bird, you may see parts of it in the shade and parts of it in direct light. Is the eye in direct light? Is the eye very visible to the camera? If you answered yes to both, then that's when you take your shot to get that catchlight. If not, wait. Birds move their heads a lot and it is fairly likely that it will get in the right light soon. What if you wait and it doesn't happen? In this occasion, I will make a "clicking" noise and very often the bird turns its head to look at me curiously. This rarely scares birds away, and it usually sets up a good shot. I know there are some bird photographers that try to get their shots without the bird knowing he/she is around. I take the exact opposite approach: I want the bird to know I am there so I don't scare it off when I take its picture (so I can take multiple shots), but I have to demonstrate to the bird that I am not a threat. Either pretending I don't care of its existence, or trying to communicate with it by making noises similar to how it communicates often works.

The picture of the silvereye on wattle flowers below gives an example of catchlight.

Silvereye on Wattle Up Close

Another thing: are you trying to just do a shot that shows only the existence of the bird, or are you trying to capture a behaviour, feeding, singing, or flight? Any of these shots is more esteemed than an "existence" shot. Don't let that put you off from existence shots because they can be quite pleasing in themselves, but understand that you are taking it to a higher level if you can go beyond the simple shot.

For an example of a behaviour shot, the black swans have a ritual prior to mating. The ritual includes coming face-to-face in such a way to form a heart shape as in the photo below.

Black Swan Courtship

Four minutes later, they were mating (another behaviour shot). This latter shot has been accepted in national and international photography exhibitions:

The Moment

Last, I ask the following question: What's more important, an ordinary shot of rare bird or extraordinary shot of a common bird? Think about that for yourself. For me, I'd rather get the extraordinary shot of a common bird. If you want to enter your photos into competitions, you probably will say the same thing. If you want to show some documentary evidence of a rare species, then you may differ in opinion.

One of my favourite shots is of a very common bird, the noisy miner. They are very easy to get close to and very easy to photograph. Despite this, I believe the shot below is special because it shows the "personality" of the bird. It is arching its back with an angry look on its face that says "stay away from my bottlebrush flower!" The shot also contains the preferred environment of the bird with a simple background bokeh and good catchlight.

Stay Away from my Bottlebrush

Post Processing

You've got your great bird shot, so what do you do now? A minimal amount of photo editing that does not compromise the integrity of your shot is standard in nature photography. But don't do anything that substantially changes what you saw.

The most important thing is to crop the image! The bird might only occupy a small part of the picture, so why should I look at some mess which is not relevant to what you are trying to show me? Show me primarily what you want me to see, and leave the other stuff out! This is why you use the maximum image size: so you can crop out the junk and then still have the bird in fine detail.

Other image adjustments that I commonly use are sharpening, adjusting shadows/highlights, and a minimal amount of cloning out background distractions. If the image was shot in RAW format, then I would do a white balance correction if necessary. There is no need to buy expensive photo editing equipment: I use the inexpensive Photoshop Elements (less than one tenth the price of the full Photoshop), but the same edits can be done with GIMP which is free.

Be aware that the judgment of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable for nature image editing varies depending upon whom you ask. If you want to get serious about it, I'd suggest start by reading the PSA Nature Definitioni. There are various sources that dig deeper, such as thisi and thisi. However, for early starters in their bird photography journey, I'd suggets not worrying too much about these guides and instead worry more about making good photos.

Display

Only show your best shots off. If you take the attitude of "I will put everything up on my website and then I'll know which are the really good shots by how many comments I get", then you won't find many people going through your pictures. It is your job to pick out the good ones if you want many people to look at your work. You might find that you display only 1 in 50 pictures of even fewer, which is good. If you stick to this strategy, you will eventually build up a fan club of your beautiful bird photos!

Critique

Never feel too proud about your photography that you cannot learn more. Getting critical feedback about your images is an important step in improving your skills. For this, I strongly recommend Flickr's Photography Critique group, which played an important role for me getting to where I am today. A number of my best images were improved substantially due to excellent feedback I got from this group. Best of all, it is completely free!

Closeup of Female Superb Wren


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