Amy K. Hooper
Birdfeeders with fresh fruit and grape jelly can lure many species, such as Baltimore Orioles, into your camera’s view.
As birders, we often watch wild birds, seek them out, lure them in and try to create good snapshots of them. Of those in the shooter ranks, who among us hasn’t wished for a better photograph of "that one bird”? Many elements go into creating a great photo, and room for improvement always remains. Even professional shooters say that about their photography skills.
We gathered advice from professional and advanced amateur photographers and then condensed their wisdom into 25 tips. These experienced individuals use digital SLR cameras, point-and-shoot digital cameras and even digiscoping setups: the combination of a digital camera — a DSLR or a P&S — with a camera adapter and a spotting scope on a tripod. We guarantee that beginning and intermediate-level bird photographers will find at least two ideas for making better images of your wild bird models.
Light: It stands out as the most important element of your photography. More than one person cited this aspect as the primary topic to study. Brian L. Sullivan of Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird program said, "Learn the basics of lighting. You want to keep the sun at your back, because then everything is lit with a spotlight. Don’t fight the sun by shooting into it.”
The early hours of the day and the later hours in the afternoon offer better lighting options, said Alan Murphy of The Woodlands, Texas (Alan Murphy Photography). "You have less contrast when the sun is at a lower angle, when it creates more pleasing colors,” he said. "They’re also the most active times for the birds.”
If your schedule won’t allow those opportunities, you still have options, said Rolf Nussbaumer of New Braunfels, Texas (Rolf Nussbaumer Photography). "Not to fear if you must shoot in the harsh light during the middle of a sunny day or on a heavy overcast day,” he said. "Simply use a fill flash, or just use your camera’s flash. This will help remove the shadows on your subject.”
Photography is all about light and capturing it at a certain time and place, said Brian M. Henry of Johnstown, N.Y. "Three factors affect how much light reaches the camera’s sensors: ISO, shutter speed, aperture,” he said. "They all control how much light creates the image. No matter how expensive your camera, its light meter will get fooled at some point, so you need to learn about light and learn to shoot in Manual mode instead of relying on the camera all the time.”
Mike Freiberg, Nikon birding market specialist, mentioned the relationship between ISO and shutter speed. "Remember: Lowering the speed of film (ISO) can give you grainy images but actually increases shutter speed,” he said. "This lets the camera catch up with action in low light. Make sure to keep a steady hand.”
Many photographers concurred on a particular point: Learn how to use your camera well. Clay Taylor, Swarovski Optik naturalist market manager, said, "Too many people have their cameras on Program mode when they’re doing bird photography, but P is designed for birthday parties and graduation ceremonies, not warblers on treetops. Learn how each camera setting will affect what you’re shooting.”
As part of learning your camera, read the manual that came with it, said Bruce Taubert of Glendale, Ariz. (Bruce Taubert Photography). "If you don’t read your camera manual, you might as well not travel to take pictures of birds elsewhere,” he said. "Practice at home in your yard.”
Many photographers concurred on a particular point: Learn how to use your camera well.
While practicing at home, you’ll likely use birdfeeders — offering bird seed, sugar water, suet, jelly, peanuts or mealworms — and water to lure the wild birds into your field of view. Arthur Morris of Indian Lake Estates, Fla. (BirdsAsArt), suggests setting up attractive perches near your backyard bird feeders. "Strive to place the perches in spots where there are pleasing backgrounds a good distance from the tip of the perch, at least five feet or so,” he said. "The greater the distance, the softer and more pleasing your backgrounds will be.”
When working with perches, think creatively, Nussbaumer said. "Use anything from a berry-laden branch to a pumpkin to a leafy branch of fall colors,” he said. "Keep your perch fresh by keeping it in a container of water.”
Water features offer other possibilities, said Francis Bergquist of Saratoga, Wyo. "If you want a natural-looking picture, you can build a birdbath made from rocks,” he said. "That makes a good background, and at ground level, birds love it.”
While shooting at home, think about using a photography blind — such as your home — that gives you a clear view of birds visiting your bird feeders, said Cliff Beittel of York, Pa. (AgPix.com). "Use an enclosed place to shoot from, maybe an enclosed patio or a house window,” he said. "You want to be in the dark and less visible to the birds.”
Portable photo blinds offer another option, Taubert said. "Learn about the bird’s daily behaviors, and move your blind to where you get closer to the bird’s habits,” he said. "I find that the hunting blinds are less expensive. I love a one-man blind called a chair blind that sets up in 20 seconds.”
Berquist suggested using a vehicle as a portable photo blind away from home. "Most birds are used to seeing vehicles. I take a large percentage of my photos by cruising back roads,” he said. "Raptors and waterfowl are very easy to get.”
If you opt not to use a blind but to move yourself closer to the birds, learn how to approach them, said Lloyd Spitalnik of New York, N.Y. (LloydSpitalnikPhotos.com). "Walk to a bird — don’t run — even if you’re excited,” he said. "You have to approach a bird from an angle.”
Morris and other photographers recommended changing your perspective while shooting. "When photographing birds in open areas like beaches and fields, get as low as possible,” Morris said. "Right down on the ground is often best. It will make you less threatening to the birds as you approach them and allows you to create intimate portraits with soft, out-of-focus backgrounds.”
Taking it one step further, Freiberg said, "When the opportunity presents itself, lie on your stomach on the ground to capture a different view. Wildlife photography is all about creating new and better angles.”
As for backgrounds, Dave Maslowski of Cincinnati, Ohio (MaslowskiWildlife.com), said we often can shift our positions and our cameras’ angles to find better-looking scenes behind the wild birds. "A slight adjustment of just a foot or two can eliminate unwanted or distracting objects or maybe change a contrasty patch of dark shadows into a bright green one,” he said. "I always try to see what’s beyond the subject to minimize distracting elements and maximize the color and lighting.”
Always put your focus sensor on the bird’s eye, Murphy said. "We want to have the sharpest part of the image to be the eye of the subject,” he said. "It creates an intimate relationship between the viewer and the subject.”
When shooting a group of birds, remember that the human eye wants to go to the bird in front, said Gary Kramer of Willows, Calif. (GaryKramer.net). "Make sure the closest subject is in focus. It’s OK for the four birds in the background to be blurry.”
After setting up a photo blind, position an attractive perch near fresh food that might attract Black-capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmice.
Regularly look at the images while you’re shooting, Taylor said. "Recall the shot onto the camera’s LCD display screen to see if it’s good or bad,” he said. "Then you can figure out what to do to make it better."
That review step will increase your learning curve. Like Sullivan said, you can fix some image elements in Photoshop, but you can’t fix the fundamentals of good lighting and sharp focus. "You want to concentrate on making sure that your photos are exposed correctly in the field. You can’t make a blurry picture sharp in Photoshop. It works best when making minor changes.”
You want to create raw image files rather than JPG files, Spitalnik said. "If you shoot in JPG, the camera is throwing away information,” he said. "Think of the raw [or RAW] file as a film negative; you’re getting 100 percent complete information. You can find RAW converters in Photoshop and Lightroom.”
You have options beyond DSLR cameras, and Steve Ingraham recommends superzoom point-and-shoot cameras — also called bridge cameras — as a recent choice for bird photographers. The Zeiss Sport Optics observation product specialist cites Sony DSC-HX100V, Canon PowerShot SX30 IS and Nikon Coolpix P500 as models with 30x or higher zooms. "They cover macro images as well as environmental wide angles,” he said. "The quality is excellent for large birds.” See Ingraham experiments with point-and-shoot wildlife photography at his website.
When you venture into digiscoping, the collective quality of your four pieces of equipment — camera, camera adapter, spotting scope, tripod — determines the quality of your images, said Mike McDowell of Eagle Optics (Digiscoping by Michael Allen McDowell). "What is shocking for a lot of digiscopers is the price tag of the equipment. It’s possible to get equipment for $1,000, but the quality differences will be obvious in the pictures,” he said.
"For instance, if you skimp on the tripod, you’re undervaluing your investment in the spotting scope,” McDowell said. "Consider an aluminum tripod first, a carbon fiber tripod next, and micro fluid heads for smooth panning.”
In the field with a digiscoping setup, use the spotting scope’s eyepiece at its lowest magnification, said Jim Danzenbaker, Kowa Sporting Optics sales manager. "The lower the magnification, the wider the beam of light exiting the eyepiece and getting to the camera lens. The more light getting to the camera, the higher the possibility of a higher shutter speed. The higher shutter speed increases your chances of a less blurry image.”
The photography tips have come full circle with light. As you become more experienced at reading light conditions and knowing how your camera will read them, you can combine that knowledge with your growing ability to anticipate birds’ behaviors. That, my friends, provides the equation for increasingly successful photo sessions. Happy shooting!
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