Photographing birds requires discipline to create an effective photograph that captures their beauty and nuances… when not in flight. You’ll need to call upon all your photographic knowledge to make these images pop out of the page, plus a little bit of luck. Be sure to bring the necessary equipment (tripod, long and/or macro lens, lens stabilizer) be patient, quiet and above all move slowly! You don’t want to scare away your subject just when you get everything perfectly set! For close-up photography rookies, here are few pointers to consider while making this part of the art fascinating, fun and rewarding.
Focus on the Eyes
Extreme close-ups can only be achieved with either a macro lens (50mm-180mm) or a zoom lens with macro mode. A lens that will allow manual focus is preferable - autofocus may not be quick or quiet enough to capture the moment. Place the camera on a tripod to avoid camera shake and use a large aperture (f/2-f/8) for a shallow DOF (depth of field). To ensure that the close-up photo draws the eye to a potent element in the photo, focus on the eyes of the bird.
Consider the Background
When you’re composing your close-up bird shot, the background is extremely important for ensuring an effective photo. You usually want a dark or neutral background, so the subject pops out. Set the exposure metering mode to spot metering, so you can get a reading of just the subject while ignoring the background. Otherwise the camera’s light meter will be fooled into thinking that the image is darker than what you want, and overexpose the photo.
Catch them in Action
Nothing fascinates more than capturing a bird in flight, but if you’re not careful, you’ll only get a blur. To stop the action cold, you need to quicken the shutter speed to at least 1/500th of a second. The fast shutter will be able to stop the nearly invisible motion of a humming bird’s wings. Consider using the burst mode which will shoot simultaneous images for you quickly.
Capture their Behavior
Because birds are often most active early in the morning or late in the afternoon, you might need to get up before it gets light to capture special photographs. Get out there early and perhaps use a blind (a camouflage hiding place) to discover what they’re eating, their mating habits, and to witness the care of their young. It might take a couple days of going out and not shooting anything, just observing and taking mental notes to build up your knowledge in order to capture that outstanding photo.
Get Up Close
Macro focusing is extremely susceptible to camera shake. Once you’ve found your subject and have remained still so as to not frighten the animal, we still have to consider camera shake. In addition to using a tripod, which is really vital, there are two ways to avoid camera shake. The first (and best) method is to use a cable release (a cord that attaches to the shutter release to imperceptibly engage the shutter). This is most effective if your DSLR has a mirror lock-up feature, in which you can raise the camera’s internal mirror and then use the cable release or timed shutter release to engage the shutter. There’s virtually no camera shake in this situation. The second method of avoiding camera shake is to use the timed shutter release feature on the camera. Unfortunately, this method is probably not practical for most bird photography because the delay doesn’t let you choose the image exactly. Your photo will happen several seconds after you press the shutter release.
Look for Vibrant Colors
A zoom lens or a long focal length telephoto lens will give the most detailed images for close-up photography. In order to be able to get the shot, you need to hide yourself from birds, which can be extremely skittish. In order to get the best color, you need to set the white balance. Most cameras come with a light sampling feature in the white balance selections. Depending on the time of day that you shoot, you’ll want to use a color card to adjust the white balance to obtain the most vibrant colors – and birds tend to have a wide array of colors on their feathers and in their surroundings.
To get the best exposures possible when shooting bird close-ups, you’ll need to consider that the subject could fly away in the blink of an eye. So you’ll want the shutter speed to be as fast as possible, say 1/500s, that way you’ll be able to capture the bird even if it’s about to take flight, and have an acceptable image. However, with shutter speeds that fast, you need as much light as possible, which means as wide an aperture as possible. This works in your favor, because not only do you get the light you need, but the wide-open aperture dramatically reduces the depth-of-field, thus eliminating any distracting background objects.
A macro zoom lens is important if you want to take very sharp close-up images. When going out into the wild to get these types of photos, there are a few things you need to bring to make sure you can be satisfied with your session. A telephoto lens with an aperture of at least f/3.5 or f/4, a tripod or a monopod, perhaps even a lens support (if you have a 300mm or 400mm lens). It’s hard to maintain a steady camera lens without one.
Birds are amazing subjects to photograph when you can get close enough to capture the details, and how the birds interact with each other and their surrounds. You’ll enjoy spending the time outdoors finding that perfect moment in which a bird is completely oblivious to you, and goes about its natural business. If you’re the type of person who isn’t going to sit in a blind, then you need to be flexible enough and nimble enough with the camera controls to capture bird photos that are in-the-moment. Using camouflage and stealth, as well as getting up early, will put you in a position to get the best shots. Unfortunately that doesn’t always mean that you will get a great photo. Birds are notorious for not doing what you want them to do, and are easily spooked. Time spent in the field, for those who enjoy it, is always rewarding.