Introduction

This is a high level summary of lots of topics covered better in lots of books. Use it as an overview to many of the issues faced by nature photographers. I strongly advise reading lots of books to get a variety of suggestions and viewpoints.

I also suggest trying out the recomendations to see if you understand them and if they really work for or matter to your goals.

Finally, nothing will help you learn faster than taking lots of photos and sharing them in an open forum with other photographers. Comparing your results to the results of others with simialr equipment will quickly show how you are doing and how much more work you may need to do to reach the quailty levels of more experienced photographers.

Find one or more photo critique forums on the web and participate actively in them. Keep an open mind and be ready to accept the negative input as well as the positive comments. You will learn more from the negative ones than the positive ones only if you set aside your ego. And you'll also learn a lot from commenting on other people's posted images because it will force you to look critically at those images and analyze why an image is successful or not.

(download complete tutorial as pdf file)

Reasons for Taking Bird Photos

There can be as many reasons for photographing birds as there are bird photographers; most people take bird photos for a multitude of reasons:
  • record personal memories of a birding trip
  • documentation of rarities
  • restore interest in common or overlooked species
  • study of plumages and behavior
  • creation of fine images for display, publication, or sales
  • share interests over the Internet

The Photo Process

Many factors are involved in creating a bird photograph. All are important to obtaining a quality final image.
  • locate subject
  • evaluate surroundings
  • evaluate light
  • set camera controls correctly
  • use proper focal length lens
  • position relative to subject (closeness and viewing angle)
  • post processing digital captures

What Makes a Good Bird Photo

Fundamentally, a "good" bird photo is one that meets the needs of the photographer. So, what is "good" to one person is not necessarily good to another viewer. But even photos taken for documentary reasons can benefit from the photographer's attention to the basic qualities of the photograph: proper technique and good composition.

Technical Factors:
  • sharp
  • proper exposure
  • detailed
  • decent image size of primary subject
  • accurate color

Aesthetic Factors:
  • composition
  • mood
  • lighting
  • proper/supportive surroundings
  • avoid image amputations
  • convey photographer's passion for the subject

Ethics of Bird Photography

Simple: the Bird and the Habitat are more important than the Photo.

So:
  • don't stress birds by getting too close
  • don't trim around nests
  • don't create a path for predators to follow to a nest
  • don't keep a bird from feeding or tending to young
  • don't force feeding birds to fly
  • don't habituate a wild bird to feeding by humans anywhere but your own back yard

Equipment Considerations

Although the photographer's technical and artistic abilities are the most important factors in producing excellent photos, inappropriate equipment can limit the results. Determine what equipment you really need, get the best optics you can afford, compromise on body features to save money before compromising on optics, and stick with proven brands.

Equipment Recommendations & Generalities

  • Format: DSLR (digital Single Lens Reflex) for quality, availability, optics, portability, features
  • Brand: Canon and Nikon dominate and are both excellent choices; consider range of lenses and accessories available before going with another brand
  • Desirable Features: auto focus, a matte focusing screen, motor drive, aperture priority exposure mode, manual mode or override for focus and exposure
  • Other Nice Features: depth of field preview and a dedicated flash that determines exposure through the lens (TTL)

Choice of Lens

The lens forms the image and is the most important piece of equipment. Factors to consider in selecting a prime bird photography lens include:
  • quality of image delivered (especially at maximum aperture where it will be used the most)
  • focal length to give sufficient magnification of small subjects (300 to 400 for hand held flight shots; 500 to 800 for most subjects)
  • maximum aperture of lens for light gathering ability (f/5.6 is the practical limit for reliable auto focus in most systems; f/11 is the practical limit for manual focus in good light)
  • close focus limit (closer is always better)
  • size and weight (very important if portability is required for hiking, working from boats, etc.)
  • are matched teleconverters available to magnify the focal length by 1.4x or 2x
  • are extension tubes available to overcome close focus limitations, and will they maintain full functional coupling with the camera body
  • rugged built-in tripod collar that rotates
  • focus that is fast and accurate, and doesn't drift when controls are touched or the lens is tilted up or down

A used lens from a major manufacturer such as Nikon or Canon is likely a better investment than a new lens of similar focal length from an independent supplier if you need to save money on the purchase price

Some specific recommendations:
  • avoid mirror lenses - they have modest apertures, cannot be stopped down for more depth of field, generally have lower contrast, suffer from very noticeable light falloff in the corners, produce distracting "donuts" from out of focus highlights. But if portability is of significant importance then a 500/8 mirror lens may be a necessary evil if you can tolerate the loss of image quality
  • avoid wide range zoom lenses from independent manufacturers as they are usually at their worst at the longest focal length just where a bird photographer will be using them most (although I've seen excellent results from people using the Sigma 50-500)
  • a 400/5.6 auto focus lens is a good choice for portability and hand held flight shots. Coupled with a quality 1.4x to make a 560/8 lens you get a decent optic for shooting in good light but may give up auto focus.
  • a 300/4 AF lens with a matched 1.4x converter that yields a 420/5.6 AF lens is a good alternative to a 400/5.6.
  • a 300/2.8 with a matching 2x converter that makes a 600/5.6 can be a good compromise of image quality, optical power, portability, and affordability, but isn't something that you will likely try to hand hold.
  • a 500/4 is a good lens by itself, and quite usable with a matched 1.4x as a 700/5.6 lens. One possible drawback is the close focus limit isn't as good as a 300/2.8 with a 2x and often requires an extension tube.
  • a 600/4 has become the lens of choice for many bird photographers. This lens has good optical power, plus enough speed to be usable in low light conditions. It also works well with a matching 1.4x converter as an 840/5.6 lens, and even with a quality 2x as a 1200/8 lens. Canon's Image Stabilization technology even allows their 600/4 to be used with both a 1.4x and a 2x at the same time.

Camera Supports

Long telephoto lenses coupled with low ISO settings that deliver best image quality are an instant recipe for dangerously slow shutter speeds. Although Image Stabilization (Vibration Reduction on Nikon lenses) has made it possible to hand hold lenses at slower shutter speeds, some form of camera support is called for in a lot of bird photography. Some suggestions on what you can do:
  • use a quality tripod that is big enough and stable enough for your longest lens with teleconverter attached
  • consider a Bogen 3021 series or larger tripod (crude and noisy but strong and serviceable)
  • consider a Gitzo 13xx or 15xx carbon fiber tripod (expensive, harder to find locally, but strong and of high quality)
  • use a head designed for big, heavy lenses
  • professional grade ball heads like the Arca-Swiss are preferred by some photographers, but I don't like ball heads alone for big heavy lenses
  • Wimberley gimbal heads are the favorites of photographers with 600/4 lenses, especially for flight shooting (they are also expensive, heavy, and not suited to small lenses without a rotating tripod collar)
  • Wimberley Sidekick (and similar prooducts from others) on a good ballhead are a servicable alternative for all but the largest lenses
  • use a quick release system to mount your lenses on the tripod head (Kirk and Really Right Stuff make "Arca-Swiss" style plates for all the high-end cameras and lenses)
  • use a commercial window mount (Kirk, Rue), build your own custom mount, or try a good bean bag to work from your car

Other Accessories

  • matched 1.4x and 2x teleconverters made by your camera and lens company and designed for their long lenses are essential
  • use extension tubes between the camera body and lens to improve your close focusing limit. For a long lens you'll want at least 25 mm of extension, and you may need to use as much as 75 mm with a really long optic.
  • a powerful electronic flash, also from your camera company, that calculates exposure Through-the-lens (TTL) will be useful for fill flash
  • a Better Beamer, a light plastic lens that mounts in front of the flash head, to concentrate the output of the flash
  • if you plan on using flash a lot with a big lens then invest in an extension bracket (made to work with your quick release plates by Kirk or Really Right Stuff) to help prevent red-eye in subjects

Getting Close

The real challenge of bird photography is getting close enough to the subject to get a large size image of the bird on the film. Birds are quite leery of a close approach, and the bulky equipment that photographers must carry makes getting close even harder. Expect that as a photographer, you will need to get two or three times closer to any bird for a good photo as you would need to get with binoculars for a good look. Don't expect that you will be able to get good bird photos as part of a general field trip with a group of birders, since they won't appreciate the much closer approach you will need to make, or they won't want to spend as much time as you need to get closer once they have already viewed the bird. The best bird photos are usually taken on solitary outings.
  • work with birds that are used to people: backyard feeders, national parks, national wildlife refuges, urban parks
  • avoid places where others hunt as birds will be very wary of people
  • be patient
  • approach slowly
  • get low
  • keep quiet
  • use your car as a mobile blind on low volume back roads

Exposure

It used to be that all camera meters were designed to render any subject as a middle tone with 18% reflectance. Spot meters and center weighted meters still take this approach. The latest meters (matrix in Nikon, Evaluative in Canon) try to determine when a scene is other than 18% and adjust from a middle tone reading. Nikon meters seem to do this better than Canon meters.
  • learn what "middle tone" 18% gray looks like
  • learn to judge a scene's departure from middle tone
  • if the subject is brighter than middle tone and you want the photo to be brighter, then give more exposure than the meter indicates
  • if the subject is darker than middle tone and you want the photo to be darker, then give less exposure than the meter indicates
  • learn when you can trust your meter
  • read the chapter on exposure in Art Morris's book if you have a Canon camera

Digital makes it much easier to get good exposures than was regularly possible in the days of film. Learn to use the histogram display on the camera monitor to see if the exposure is clumped at either end of the graph (bunched up at the left indicates likely under exposure; bunched up at the right means over exposure). Don't rely on just the image preview as it is highly dependent on the brightness setting of the LCD and of the ambient light. Be sure to check the histogram early in a shooting session and make adjustments before taking scores of images that are badly exposed. Be especially careful when photographing bright subjects (strong reds and yellows as well as the obvious white birds) and dial in some negative exposure compensation if you are in danger of overexposing the brightest parts of the subject.

Composition

Composition is simply the arrangement of the various elements within the frame of the photo. Composition is a matter of esthetics - what pleases one person may not please everyone else. There are many published books and articles that talk about the Rules of Composition, but I like to think of these not as rules but as guidelines that suggest a starting point for your own vision. Here are some things that guide my photography:
  • get the largest possible image of the bird in the viewfinder
  • don't crop the body of the bird along one of the image edges
  • simplify the image whenever possible
  • include appropriate habitat, since each species has evolved in relationship to the natural world and is enhanced by it
  • a natural background for a smaller image of the bird is preferable to an incorrect background with a somewhat larger bird image in almost all cases
  • the subject dictates the format - use vertical orientation for "tall" birds; crop to square format when it looks better
  • don't cramp the bird by placing it too close to the frame edge
  • give moving birds space into which to move
  • use directional lighting to create shadows and give shape to the bird and depth to the image
  • there's nothing wrong with a central placement of a strong subject
  • there's nothing wrong with direct eye contact with the subject

I strongly believe that every photographer should use personal judgment and react to the scene emotionally and with thought for the particular situation, rather than relying on so-called Rules of Composition. Much of the impact and artistry of photography comes from the composition, and this can not and should not be dictated by arbitrary rules. As Edward Weston once said: "Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph, is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk."

Where to Take Bird Photos

Good bird photos can be made almost anywhere, as long as the photographer has mastered the basics of photography and is prepared for the opportunity. But some places offer something special that makes an observant photographer return to them frequently. Places to consider include national, state, and local parks, national wildlife refuges, back country roads with little traffic, the coastal beaches, and your own back yard.

Factors that I find important in defining a "bird photo hotspot" include the following:
  • it has birds of interest, whether these be wintering flocks, restricted breeders, migrant traps, etc.
  • it allows access by car, making it easy for me to bring the necessary equipment, and permitting me to use the car as a mobile blind.
  • it provides suitable lighting.
  • it is close by, so I can visit it frequently.
  • it has usable backgrounds, either plain or naturally compatible with the birds.
  • the birds are relatively tame so that I can get close enough to them for large images, such as around feeders, or in National Parks or wildlife preserves.
  • it lacks other people who may spook a subject, which rules out many popular birding hotspots.

Pelagic Trips

Boat trips off either coast offer interesting opportunities for those who don't mind the risk of getting seasick, sprayed with salt water, or bored. There are regularly scheduled trips on both coasts, now conveniently summarized in a single issue of Winging It from the American Birding Association.

Pelagics pose some special problems for bird photographers. Space is limited on the boat; the boat is constantly bouncing up and down or rocking from side to side; salt water spray coats camera bodies and optics; you cannot escape sea sickness or restock your supplies until you return to shore. But there is the potential for some truly rewarding photography for those willing to make the trip.
  • Plan on hand holding your equipment for all shots (forget about taking along a tripod)
  • Limit the amount of gear you bring (you don't want to misplace $10,000 worth of gear that can get wet or fall off the boat)
  • A 400/5.6 AF lens is a great choice - light, mobile, and with decent magnification
  • A 300/4 with a matching 1.4x is a worthy alternative
  • Shoot at maximum aperture at all times to maximize shutter speed and minimize blur
  • AF doesn't work on all pelagic subjects, so don't forget to try manual focus if you are having trouble
  • Use a higher ISO than you normally do - noise is more acceptable than a badly blurred subject
  • Use a protective skylight or UV filter on the lens - it will get covered with salt spray
  • Use a clean white cotton cloth to wipe salt spray from your gear
  • Try to avoid bumping the railing with your dangling lens
  • The front of the boat has the best air, but also the most motion and salt spray
  • The back of the boat has the least motion, but the worst air (diesel exhaust) plus engine vibration
  • A second body with a zoom (80-200, 75-300, 100-400) is handy for gulls that make close passes or follow the boat
  • Large sealable plastic bags are handy to protect gear when not in use
  • Never place a bag of gear on the deck and let go of it

Documenting Rarities

Taking documentation photos of rare birds is a special case of general bird photography, with its own unique conditions. Since the main purpose of such photos is to document the occurrence of a rarity to an area, the aesthetics of the photo become of lesser importance to the shot. The first priority is to get a photo, regardless of all other factors. When you have the opportunity to document an unusual bird, don't waste time trying to get perfect conditions. While you wait for the light to change, or the bird to move into more pictorial surroundings, it may disappear into a dense bush or fly away completely, never to be seen again. Even the worst of photographs can document the bird, as long as the subject is identifiable in the image. Often, photos can be examined after the fact to reveal subtleties that were missed in a brief view of the bird in the field. Photos can support or contradict a natural origin for the bird by allowing examination of feather wear. So, start taking photos immediately.

After getting the first few shots, work on improving the record by getting closer, getting into position for better light, or showing the bird from a different angle. Remember that key field marks may not be visible at all times or from all angles; the more photos you take the better chance that you will capture important details.

Pay attention to the bird's behavior, as this can often help clinch an identification. Try to capture in photos the bird's activity when feeding, moving, and perching.

Include a size indicator if possible in some photos. This could be another bird, a nearby beer can, a dollar bill from your wallet, or whatever common object is available. Try to show the rarity with other, familiar, birds for comparison purposes.

In cases of extreme rarity, be sure to take photos on more than one memory card to avoid loss or a failuret that could destroy all the photographic evidence of the bird. Having more than one photographer take pictures of a rarity greatly increases the odds of getting decent documentation as it avoids loosing all photos due to a camera malfunction or setting error.

References

There are a number of good photo reference books available that can provide more information or inspiration to the bird photographer. I recommend that you start with both:

- Art Morris - The Art of Bird Photography, Amphoto

- Larry West - How to Photograph Birds, Stackpole Books