A soul-satisfying pursuit for nature photographers, bird photography denotes stalking, observing and photographing these little fidgety, feathered creatures when they are least suspecting. Bird photography combines the principles of birding with the essentials of photography.
There is a miss-conception around that in order to successfully pursuit bird photography you ought to have the best of tele lenses and the fastest of DSLRs. Yes, to some extent you need good equipment to do the job. Equipment which are fast and which can help you to zoom in up close and make a tight compositions can certainly help, but then it is not everything about bird photography. If you don’t know the first thing about birding, you might as well say bye-bye birdie and move on to less fidgety subjects. For starters here is a good course that details the essentials of buying photography gear.
What’s the First Requirement for Good Bird Photographs?
The first thing you need in order to capture good bird photographs is, to re-iterate, a keen understanding of birds. If bird photography is a new found love you could nurture that by educating yourself about the ones that thrive in your locality or state. Pick a book on the birds of your state or region and study it. You could also pick a good field guide that will give you valuable insights into the world of bird-watching. There are excellent guides available as hard copy, smartphone apps, CDs and DVDs. Make the best use of these resource to learn the features, call signs and habitats of the birds you are trying to photograph. Smartphone apps are the best as they serve as a ready reference when you spot something. Just make sure not to turn it on at the wrong time!
Buying good feeders, books and good field practices are not going to be enough when it comes to capturing those wow shots. You also need a good camera and a tele lens. To say, tele lenses can be very expensive will be an understatement. A good 300mm f/2.8 prime can cost you upwards of $5500! In fact you can still manage to shoot great photos with a basic DSLR, but you cannot hope to get those breathtaking shots that people will look at and say “how did you do it?” with a cheap lens. Lens, as such, is something that you simply cannot compromise with. The reason is your feathered friends will spend a lot of time perched in thick green foliage. Not the nicest of places to get a lot of light going in your favor. The only thing that can save your day is a good lens.
If you have some spare money to spend, try the Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 ED VR D lens. Be warned, however, that this lens does not have an internal focusing motor. It means it will not auto-focus on the cheaper Nikon D5100 and the D3100. In spite of the fact that this lens sometimes have problems auto-focusing especially when the subject is moving, this is a bargain lens for the kind of reach it gives you at less than $1800. If you have a crop sensor DSLR like the D7000 your focal length extends to a 35mm format equivalent of 600mm. Not bad for a start!
Going forward you will find both cheaper and dearer options. The 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G IF VR ED is a FX format lens that retails at just under $550 and thus offers good value for money for the numbers features that it comes with. At the end of the day, you can pick any lens, depending on your budget, but it must have a minimum focal length of 300mm, image stabilization and fast maximum aperture.
Image Stabilization is a Must
One cannot over emphasize the importance of image stabilization. No matter what make your lens is or what focal length, it must have image stabilization as otherwise you will lose out on a world of good photos. Image stabilization is required because half of the times you will be shooting hand-held and at long focal lengths. The slightest bit of hand movement will transform the priceless moment into a garbled junk.
The other half of the time you will need a tripod because it will help you to pan and capture birds in flight. Imagine an albatross just taking off or about to land. It is quite difficult to capture those shots without additional assistance. A tripod is something that you need to invest in. Your tripod should not only allow you to shoot while standing up but it should also allow you to shoot lying on your stomach. Many a times you will be shooting from inside a hide and that means there will be very little room to maneuver. It thus makes sense to buy a tripod that is flexible.
AF Sound, the Bane of Bird Photographers
One thing that you don’t need, though, is the curious sound of the auto-focusing motor. Ring-type Ultra-sonic motors are good, micro-motor type ones are not. Nikkor’s Silent Wave Motor (SWM) technology based lenses are the ones that you should be looking for. Canon has similar acronyms to mark their quieter lenses. The last thing that you want is to scare the living daylights out of these little things and then capture a beautiful exposure of a fleeting tail!
Some photographers prefer Canon’s system for the sole purpose that they have faster auto-focusing. Nikonites whose bread and butter depends on their gear would strongly object to that statement. The matter with auto-focusing is that it is somewhat subjective. The latest technologies such as Canon’s on-sensor phase detection promises a lot. The decision ultimately comes down on you. Rent, beg, steal a camera and a good tele lens from somewhere and check it out yourself before investing your money in it. Renting lenses is a good idea when you are unsure, or only starting out or don’t have a spare organ to sell.
The last, but not the least, important criterion is the aperture of the lens. The wider the maximum aperture the more light it can capture. When shooting birds this is a handy thing to have because these fidgety creatures will never give you more than a few seconds to compose and press the shutter release button. For amateurs on the learning curve, this excellent course on the basics of DSLR photography will reveal how important it is to have fast aperture as well as explain the creative uses of it.
While still on the issue of fast aperture, you may also want to check out this course which deals with the problem of chromatic aberration that is so typical of fast lenses. Chromatic aberration or color fringing and especially longitudinal chromatic aberration can ruin your images. This course explains how to deal with that problem.
Photographing Near Your Home
Take a leaf out of a birders handbook. Here is a great resource that you can use. Leave a bird feeder out in the backyard to attract birds during fall. It can help you to get a gracious visitor or two. Small birds usually start scouting for locations where they can get plentiful food during fall. Leaving a feeder outside may not attract any boarders yet but if you do get one or two you can count on them to come back regularly and stay for the winter. You will thus have all the time in the world to photography them with your newly purchased 300mm f/4 prime.
Join a Bird Photography Tour
Join a specialized bird photography tour. These are arranged by travel companies for the benefit of birders and bird photography enthusiasts. They provide excellent logistics and other facilities picking the locations, accommodation and arrange for the permits (if necessary). It leaves photographers to concentrate on their work.
Some More Tips: Not Looking Down When You Spot a Bird
An important tip borrowed from a birder’s field book is not to take your eyes off the bird when you have spotted it. Most enthusiastic amateurs do this. They spot a bird and in the excitement look down to pick up their camera and then lose sight of it in the leaves. Vital seconds are then spent to re-spot the bird, which can result in a lost opportunity. Instead, the right method is to not take your eyes off while slowly raising the camera to the eye level. Next, looking through the viewfinder zoom out slightly to locate the bird and then zoom in to compose and then take the shot.
Use the Hides Effectively
If you are photographing inside a reserve and they provide hides, try and make the most of these. Some hides are absolutely not workable, they have too small a room to fit a large camera and a tele lens. Sometimes, the hides have precious little to provide you as cover. Sometimes they are too far away to get a decent shot. Getting close without scaring the birds is the best way to get great shots. Sometimes the hides look in the wrong direction, so if you love photographing during the golden hour you could very well be shooting straight into the sun. If you are having trouble trying to get close to your subjects check this wonderful course on animal photography. It deals with the specific issue of getting close to wild animals which will come handy in your bird photography pursuits as well.