Let me start with a confession: I am a bird-nut from a birding family who spends a lot of time in birding circles. Birds are my life. Literally – being a bird-nut often puts food on my table.
I was lucky to grow up in an environment where I was exposed to both excellent birders and bird photographers since childhood. I spent many hours poring over the world-class imagery of avi-faunal publications such as Africa Birds and Birding, and I’m honoured to know personally and professionally several incredible bird & wildlife photographers who inspire me to this day.
Birds are in my opinion one of the coolest subject matter to photograph – far too few people actually realize that they are little feathered dinosaurs. Cool-factor (and nerd-factor) through the roof!
This does not mean that birds are not challenging: of all the genres of photography I pursue, I find avian photography the hardest, just purely because your subjects have no intention to make your life easy.
On the contrary.
But the rewards are oh so sweet.
In avian photography, as in wildlife photography, the key is patience, but also solid knowledge of your equipment and its limitations, and knowledge of light and the behavior of light.
In most situations, the same basic principles of portrait photography can be directly applied to bird photography, but because birds can’t be posed, and are in many cases unlikely to wait for you until you got the perfect shot before it moves on, and because your bird photography is most likely to occur outside, you certainly need to master the skills of wildlife photography as well.
Apart from the above, having a good solid understanding and knowledge of your subject goes a long way, and especially for wild bird photography, you’ll probably want to know something about different species and their habits. Southern Africa is home, on and off, to some 980 species of birds, and bird-watching becomes an inevitable part of bird photography.
[For the purposes of this article, when I refer to birds, it is understood that I refer to wild birds.]
As in other areas of photography, it is extremely hard to define a good bird photograph, but let’s look at some ways that can get you on your way to improving your bird photography:
Unfortunately, unlike many other areas of photography, your gear is absolutely essential in helping you create a good bird photograph.
In most cases a wild bird will not come close enough to you to efficiently isolate and capture it with a wide angle lens, so unless you have a situation where you would like to include the landscape, like on a pan with many flamingoes, you are unlikely to need anything below a 200mm.
You should also aim to have at least 400mm of focal length, while 500mm and now even 600mm options are available and affordable and very good to have. I’m not going into the qualities of various lenses now, as I always advise people to buy the best option they can afford and upgrade when possible. I currently use a Sigma 150-500mm with aperture range of f/5.6-6.3. It gets the job done, and when you pair it with a camera body that handles high ISO well, and an external speed light, you should be able to get the shot just fine.
Also in my birding kit is a 55-200mm lens, with which I’ve managed to capture beautiful portraits of wild birds when they were too close for the big gun. These situations are rare, but it’s a nice option to have when the situation presents itself.
Consider a beanbag for your kit, as often this will be handy when shooting out of a car window. A monopod would be a good investment. A solid strap (I use BlackRapid) that attaches to your lens is essential with heavy lenses and makes it easier on your back and shoulders when hiking after birds. Do not ever carry your kit by the body when you have a heavy lens attached, as you’re sure to damage the metal connections of both the body and the lens with the weight dangling from it.
When you get hooked on birding, consider a pair of binoculars and a bird guide, or even a multimedia birding app. 😉
Finding them birbs
Some knowledge of and experience with your subject goes a long way in finding and sneaking up on the birds you intend to photograph. In many areas, birds are habituated to the point where they are not in the least bothered by human presence. In other situations, birds will be wilder, more skittish, and to get close you have to know how, and you have to be patient.
Your car is a brilliant hide – it can move around, and as long as nothing suddenly sticks out of it, it doesn’t make excessive noise, and it moves slowly enough, you can get quite close to birds in parks and reserves where you are not allowed to get out of your vehicle, but even in situations where getting out is an option, you are far more likely to get good shots from a car than when your human figure is visible.
On foot, the smaller the group of photographers the better. You are far more likely to have success photographing birds being one person than ten. And even then, walking in a forest you’ll be able to get much closer than when walking in an open area.
Good places to go to find birds would include: rivers, dams, wooded areas, hides at bodies of water, parks, reserves, and botanical gardens.
Rules for finding birds are:
- no sudden movements,
- awareness of your surroundings,
- knowledge of habitat and habits,
- and most of all: respect.
- ALWAYS keep a respectful distance of birds, especially breeding birds or birds with young.
- NEVER chase them or try to catch them. Birds stress easily and may even die from stress.
- NEVER approach a nesting bird or one building a nest. When a breeding bird is disturbed often enough, they will abandon their nest as they will perceive it as an unsuitable spot to raise their young.
- NEVER walk right up to a nest, especially one with eggs or chicks. Apart from the same reasons as above, predators can follow your scent trail and find the nest. The close-up picture you take of a nest is a family of birds’ death sentence. I CAN NOT stress this enough. Stay away from nests.
- NEVER feed wild birds in protected areas. Garden feeding should be kept to a minimum too, as overfeeding can really disturb the natural balance. Plentiful food = ideal breeding conditions, leading possibly to overpopulation of certain species, where that could possibly lead to oppression of other species and all sorts of imbalances caused by unchecked human interference.
- [A controversial matter]: When making use of recorded calls to attract birds, be sensible about it. Birds that are territorial will often respond best to calls during their breeding seasons, meaning that you may be interfering with their breeding activities. Keep it short, be respectful, and don’t repeat a recording to the point where the bird is completely stressed out by the ‘intruder’.
- ALWAYS be respectful of their habitat. You are in their home. Don’t destroy flora to get a shot, don’t leave designated paths and roads in protected areas, and be aware of your impact on the environment you are in. You are a guest on sacred soil. Check your manners.
- When you do approach a bird on foot, NEVER walk straight down on it. Instead, approach it indirectly, and immediately cease any movement the moment the bird looks uncomfortable by your approach. Stay absolutely still until the bird continues doing what it was doing, and then slowly begin approaching it indirectly again until you are near enough to get a good composition.
In many cases, driving or walking around in natural areas will produce many sightings of birds, and no interference will be necessary, so simply keep your eyes open and be aware.
In nature, the more you are out there to see things, the more things you will see. You will also become more adept at predicting behavior and spotting birds the more you expose yourself to them and study them.
Birding and avian photography requires patience and persistence above all.
Lucky for photographers, birds are most active in the best hours of day for photography: early morning and late afternoon, with a definite higher margin of activity in the early morning than late afternoon.
During late morning hours birds tend to siesta, with a slight increase in activity right over noon when they seek water, and then a second siesta in the early afternoon. This is valid for all seasons, but more so in the hot summer months than in the cooler winter months.
Take note of direction and quality of light when you spot a bird you would like to photograph. Make good use of backlight, side-lighting and direct light, and even shade. Cloudy days can produce soft, even lighting, but it may be hard to achieve the essential catch light in a bird’s eyes when there is no one strong source of light, so you may have to make use of fill-flash to liven things up a bit.
In some instances, like in dense forests or with strong contrast-y light situations, or in the dark, you may also need to make use of an artificial source of light. When making use of flash, don’t use it on full power as it can temporarily blind the bird, making them more vulnerable to predator attacks. Instead, use your flash unit on half or even one quarter or one eighth of its power, and increase ISO a bit to include ambient light and not set the bird in pitch black surroundings.
In most cases, a higher ISO setting is recommended to freeze the rapid movements birds are prone to, so, using a longer lens like my 150-500, I will set my ISO to 400 during bright daylight conditions and push it up as needed as the light decreases during the day. This allows you to shoot within a range of wide open (f/5.6-6.3 in the case of this lens) to f/8, depending on the distance of the background in relation to the subject and exactly what sort of effect you have in mind for the picture, without compromising shutter speed.
Make use of Shutter Priority modes when you’d like to freeze action in lower light. Make sure to set ISO to Auto in this case. You can also use slow shutter speed to achieve creative effects – switch ISO to 100 in this case. Low-light conditions are great for experimenting with slower shutter speeds, so try panning a bird in flight, or using rear-flash to freeze the bird in a trail of its own movement.
Remember that the longer your lens, the faster your shutter speed needs to be for sharp images. This means that for a 500mm focal length, you need to have a shutter speed of 1/500 of a second or faster to keep things tack sharp. If your camera doesn’t handle higher ISO too well, opt for a flash unit to help freeze things.
Using these semi-automatic modes allows you to focus on finding, framing and shooting the bird, and will spare you much frustration fiddling with settings while the bird disappears and you miss the window of opportunity.
Use Manual priority only when you can control the light, like when you’re using flash, or when the light conditions are too tricky for your camera to figure out on its own; or when the setting allows, like in the case with large numbers of birds that won’t flit off and make you miss the shot.
Composition is EVERYTHING. It is the alpha and the omega. If every other element in your picture is perfect, but your composition is off, your shot is practically ruined.
Composition is not only about the placement of the subject in the frame, but about the placement, inclusion and exclusion of every other element in the frame, and how everything comes together.
Take special note of shapes, lines, colours, environment, and relative distance between elements. The placement of every element becomes an integral part of the story your images tell, or fail to tell.
Make use of the rules of composition – the golden triangles, the rule of thirds, phi, symmetry, and others to strengthen your image with strong and deliberate placement within the frame.
Make sure that your bird is the star of the photograph, unless having a tiny bird somewhere in the frame contributes to the story you are trying to tell.
Eliminate a busy background with a shallow depth of field, or reposition yourself if you can, to obtain a different background in your picture. Branches growing out of heads and wings are no more good in bird photography than in human portraiture, and the fewer distractions there are in your image, the better.
Try to get to eye-level of your subject. Shots from above or below rarely stand out (with some exceptions of course).
Where you can, try not to have the plain blue sky as the background. It’s flat, and the blue rarely works well as part of your colour composition. When this is unavoidable, try to de-saturate the blues in your picture ever so slightly when processing the image so that it doesn’t steal the show.
AVOID any man-made elements in your bird study where you can – with exception of studies of birds in urban environments of course. In this case, make it clear that this juxtaposition is intentional, and use the elements to create drama – don’t just include them as a matter of fact.
Do try to include natural elements, like foliage, earth, rocks, or anything else that contributes to the story of the bird’s habitat and habits.
The ultimate aim is normally to present the bird as if you were never there: undisturbed, and uninfluenced by human presence or infrastructure.
Get close. As close as you can without disturbing the bird, and then, get closer by using your telephoto lens. When the bird isn’t actively doing something, but is being obliging and posing nicely, aim for a nice and tight portrait. Portraits of birds from the breast up is especially compelling because we seldom get to see them up close in real life, and then seldom get to study their details like we are able to with a close-up portrait.
Zoom out. Include the environment the bird finds itself in. The interactions it is having or about to have. Leave room for the imagination.
When there is a single bird in the photograph, barring some special circumstances, eye-contact with the viewer is absolutely essential in a bird portrait.
The special circumstances would be when the bird is actively hunting, foraging, or engaged in some other activity that justifies its attention and hence gaze. In these cases you would still absolutely want to see the head of the bird, and at the very least the eye.
The rule would be that if the bird is not engaged with the viewer, the thing with which it is engaged should be included in the frame, in the story, so that the bird’s gaze makes sense.
If the bird is looking up (which birds very often do as they are checking for predators in the sky constantly – even if they are the predator!), the thing at which it is looking must be included in the picture, and seeing as there is very seldom something there, it is not recommended to take a picture when the bird is looking up at the sky.
Including the thing at which the bird is looking makes for a more engaging story, and may even add drama. If there’s nothing around to justify the bird’s gaze away from the camera, wait and time your shot so that it is making eye-contact, instead of just snapping and moving on and thereby missing The Shot.
Also make sure that the head is turned slightly towards you rather than slightly away – engagement makes for a better picture.
It is worth mentioning that it is essential for the eye of a bird, or any living thing with eyes, for that matter, to be in focus. So make absolutely certain you focus on the eyes, especially when using shallow DOF.
Get the action
A photograph in which something happens is much more interesting than a photograph in which nothing happens, as a rule of thumb, so aim to capture action. A flap of the wings, beak open mid-song, eating, hunting, foraging, walking, flying, all make for interesting activities in photographs of birds.
With wildlife and bird photography you are going to want to set your camera to its rapid shooting mode, and also to the Continuous Auto-Focus mode (switch off any vibration reduction settings on your lens in this mode as it hinders with the smooth focus tracking), so that you can follow the action unhindered while rapidly shooting which increases your chance of getting the one shot in a series where everything is perfect. It is therefore not uncommon for a bird photographer to shoot a thousand images and trash 999 of them. Don’t be afraid to dump the shots that aren’t great.
When you shoot action, try to increase your depth of field to at least f/8 so that you don’t miss focus so easily while the bird is moving around. This is especially true when preparing for a perched bird to take flight. Shooting too shallow will make you miss focus on the important bits and your shot will be useless.
As mentioned, many birds seek water during midday, but also early morning and late afternoon. Take advantage of this by positioning yourself at watering points and capture the action at the water. You are bound to witness loads of interaction and drama around a watering point.
Bird photography, being a sub-category of Wildlife Photography, which is essentially a sub-category of Documentary Photography, should aim to stay as true to the original scene as possible. In some instances a more artistic interpretation may work well.
Monotone images of birds can be special, but should be executed with care. There is nothing worse than a colour image which had just been desaturated and not processed to make the best of Black&White.
In general, overly processed, over-saturated and over-sharpened images fail, and should be avoided. Keep it natural, keep it simple, even within your style of processing. Avoid heavy vignettes. Let your image, the composition and the subject matter, do the talking.
The above is not by far exhaustive, and I can go on for days more about the different aspects of bird photography that make me chirp. Instead, I’ll leave you with some inspiring women to follow.
Women to Follow:
Female bird photographers are under-represented and underrated in the industry, but we have some incredible talent grown on local soil. I recommend you follow these South African avian and wildlife photographers for inspiration and incredible imagery:
For more incredible nature imagery from both South African and international female photographers, check out this website: http://www.femalenaturephotography.com
Are you a female South African avian photographer? Join the group, send us your portfolio, and post your images! We select the best images to feature on our SAWP Instagram where you will be exposed to a wider audience with links to more of your work.