Bird photography can be the most challenging of all wildlife photography. Here iCapture Photo Safaris gives 12 things to think about when photographing birds!
1. Choose the right equipment
The vast majority of professional photographers use DSLRs – allowing you to achieve peerless control over your settings. DSLRs also have very good continuous drive performance, thus giving you the opportunity to capture the action shot that you’re after. Birds are small and fast, thus a long lens with a 400mm focal length or higher is a necessity.
2. Know the ‘Love Triangle’ between shutter speed/aperture/ISO
Shutter speed is like the blinds in your house. The longer they stay open the more light comes in, while the shorter they are open the less light comes in. So in summary the higher the shutter speed, the darker but sharper the image, and the lower the shutter speed, the brighter the image but you will have more blur and movement in the photo. To capture a bird in motion, you will need to set a camera speed of at least 1/1000th of a second. This is usually my starting point.
ISO can be compared to your sunglasses and your eye’s sensitivity when you take those sunglasses off. The higher the ISO number, the brighter the image with more digital noise. A lower ISO is always better. ISO is what you should adjust last.
Aperture can be seen as the size of your window. The bigger the window, the more light will enter. The smaller the window, the less light will enter. A lower f-stop equals more background blur but a brighter image.
3. Select the right mode
Aperture-priority mode is the setting I use for all bird photography because it lets you fix a wide aperture and have the camera set the shutter speed accordingly. You can also set your shutter speed on a minimum speed.
4. Selecting your metering mode
Most DSLRs have a centre-weighted average metering mode and a spot-metering mode. If you understand how these work, they have the advantage of maximum control. However, you will probably also have an advanced metering mode known as matrix metering. This will give good results under most conditions with minimal exposure compensation.
Birds moving from bright sky to dark trees can play havoc with your metering. Use manual mode so the exposure stays the same, even if the background changes. If you use another aperture mode, remember to always overexpose your shot by adding at least one stop.
DSLRs normally let you choose between a one-shot AF mode and a continuous or AI Servo AF mode. The second continues to track the subject as long as the shutter is half-pressed. Since birds are normally moving continuously, you should use the second option in most cases.
With back button focus you can trigger autofocus with your thumb as you track your moving subject, then use your forefinger to press the shutter at the perfect moment.
6. What drive mode to use (single or continuous shooting)
A high-speed drive rate helps to improve your chances of getting the perfect shot. The camera will fire continuously while the shutter button is held down, giving you a sequence of frames to choose from.
7. Use a support
A good quality carbon fibre tripod that can support 6-8kg (camera and lens weight) is recommended. My personal favourite is to make use of a gimbal head, but a fluid head also offers support and smooth panning.
8. Make use of the light
Lighting is by far the single most important aspect of bird photography. The correct use of light is the greatest asset. Different options give different results. No light is sensually more pleasing than the so-called golden/magic hour. The golden/magic hour is the first hour after sunrise and the last before sunset. The light has more atmospheres to travel through, giving it a more ‘golden’ appearance.
The sun is low in the sky at this time, meaning it will illuminate the subject more evenly and give a beautiful temperature to the light. It also lights subjects from the side, creating nice shadows and, therefore, adding texture to photographs. Clouds can be your friends in the form of a very large diffuser, and certain types of wildlife photographs really benefit from this soft and uniform light.
Sunlight from behind works particularly well during take-off, as it filters through the bird’s wings for a beautiful backlit effect.
10. Get to eye level
Try to shoot at eye level. You get more intimate photographs of birds with eye contact. You can also blur both the foreground and background, and a little speck of brightness in the eye of your subject can completely change a photo. Using a flash might be an alternative.
11. Wind direction
Birds rely heavily on the direction of the wind for flight. They will mostly fly into the wind as this gives them the uplift that they need to keep steady. Position yourself upwind to capture them head-on.
Some lenses have two or three modes. Mode one is for standard stabilisation in all plains, while mode two detects the panning motion of the camera and doesn’t correct stabilisation in the direction of movement, thus is better for birds in flight. Mode three only engages stabilisation during exposure.