Photographing birds is a real challenge, especially when they are in flight. However, you can take even more captivating images of birds perched, feeding, in courtship displays, or tending young. A beautiful photo of a bird is a challenge worth overcoming, because you will be very proud of the result.
Before trying to photograph a flying bird, it is important to practice your focusing so that you can get sharp images of a moving object, and which is also composed effectively. Set the focus mode to continuous focusing (AI Servo AF Canon/AF-C Nikon) so that the lens can constantly maintain its focus on the flying bird. Choose a fast shutter speed of 1/1000s or higher to freeze the action. Use a good zoom or telephoto lens (at least 200 mm) to get close to the bird. Be aware that smaller subjects are harder to focus.
Get up Close
When visiting a bird sanctuary or zoo, you may get the chance for some stunning photographs of birds at close range. With patience and practice, you can really do this nearly anywhere. You need a good telephoto lens to get close enough to make the image interesting. Zoom in and focus on the animal’s head, which might not be possible, but try. Otherwise, you can focus on the whole body. You may need to follow the bird around for a while before it remains still. Use soft flash to add radiance to the animal’s feathers and the widest possible aperture to blur the background (and foreground if need be) so nothing else distracts from the bird.
From a Distance
When you’re out in the wild, and happen across a bird that is captivating, you need to be ready to capture that image – even if it's at a distance. So pull out your telephoto lens (zoom or prime) to fill the frame with the bird. Nothing shouts louder “boring photo” more than a tiny subject in the frame, so move in as close as you can physically and use your zoom (you’ll likely need a tripod depending on the length of your lens). For some subjects, it’s worth setting up before hand and waiting for the birds to arrive. Use a shallow depth of field (f/2.8-f/5.6) to keep everything but the bird and branch in focus.
Birds on the move create a stunning image. You need to use a fast shutter speed (anything over 1/200s) to capture the moment but at the same time, you want the majority of the animal to be sharp so there is a contrast between blur and sharp. With something like a hummingbird, we might choose 1/400s which is slow considering how fast the wings are moving. You might want to increase the ISO to (800-1600), so you can employ a smaller aperture to ensure that whole bird is sharp except for the flapping wings.
Showing an object in motion is always an arresting image, and to do it most effectively when photographing a bird requires a slower shutter speed (around 1/60s). The trick is to track the bird during its flight. Follow the bird’s flight path and then at the decisive moment snap the photo. It’s nearly impossible to use a flash in this situation, so you have to position yourself so the sun provides the right amount of illumination. Side light is best, so early morning or late afternoon time frames work best to provide visual contrast, shadow-detail and appropriate highlights.
Waterfowl (ducks, geese, swans) make interesting subjects and you can find them in city parks, rivers, ponds, lakes, the seacoast, and wildlife preserves. You’ll need a fast, telephoto zoom (100mm to 300mm) to get close enough for a captivating picture, but not close enough to spook the birds. However, many ducks and geese that frequent parks are more tolerant of people and should provide some easier opportunities to get close. Photographing waterfowl requires a high level of patience and great timing. For some striking photos with great natural light, you’ll want to be in position an hour or so before dawn, shoot for an hour or two, and then come back close to dusk. Move cautiously and use a shutter speed of 1/500s or faster, and perhaps set at ISO 400 (for faster shutters). Look for flattering backlit situations and try to include water patterns in your shot.
Wild turkeys can be found near farms and in many wooded areas of North America. These birds can move quickly if they sense danger, so you might do well to wear camouflage or set up in a blind to get the photos that you want. At minimum, an 85mm to 200mm zoom lens should be used, and ISO of 100 or 200 should work for most shutter speeds that you’ll use. Early mornings in the spring are perhaps the best time to photograph wild turkeys, when the males compete for females in elaborate mating displays. Late afternoon brings the time when turkeys find a large tree to roost in for the night. If you are lucky enough to find a turkey’s roost tree, then you can set up nearby early the next morning for some great photos when it first comes down out of the roost tree.
Hawks, Eagles, and Owls
Hawks, Eagles, and Owls are birds of prey, and present a difficult challenge, because of their wary nature and keen eyesight. As with photographing any animal in the wild preparation and patience is the key. You’ll need an extremely fast and long (easily a 300mm) telephoto lens and a fluid head tripod. If you can train yourself to recognize the “hawk shape”, you can often spot these majestic birds in trees as you drive along in a car. Sometimes these birds can be photographed from the car using a window-mount tripod, or cautiously approached for a good photo. When trying to approach a hawk for a photo, never walk directly at it, as it will most likely fly away. Instead, pretend you don’t see it, and head in a direction that will bring you closer to the bird without walking directly at it. Winter provides a great time to capture images of bald eagles as they concentrate in coastal areas or rivers with open water. Good photos of bald eagles will require a serious telephoto lens due to the distances involved. When photographing birds of prey with the sky as the background, you might want to overexpose the bird by 2/3 of a stop. Spot metering is recommended, but Evaluative metering will help you get your exposure effectively too.
If you want a bird to be static and sharp, then use a fast shutter speed of 1/500s or faster. Choosing sports mode or the multi-shot option, normally gives you sharp images. If photographing a static (non-moving subject), keep the depth of field shallow to blur out the background and use flash if necessary to freeze the movement. If capturing blur, a speed of 1/60s -1/200s is usually slow enough to capture movement.
A telephoto lens is required since we can rarely get close enough to birds without spooking them; and a telephoto zoom is recommended. Image Stabilization (IS) is a handy feature to keep shots sharp and clear, and a tripod is also useful (many long telephoto lenses come with a tripod mount). Camouflage can be used to be less conspicuous. You can even buy waterproof camouflage fabric to cover yourself and your equipment while staying dry and hidden to the birds.
Photographing birds requires patience and skill. If you are a beginner, try easier subjects like pigeons in the park or birds in the zoo before going out into the wild. Experiment with the shutter speed (faster and slower) until you know what will give you the effect you want. It’s also a good idea to be patient and let the birds come to you. You won’t get the perfect shot every time but with practice you will get better. Remember that you need to fill the frame as much as possible with the bird to make an interesting photograph, so zoom or telephoto lenses are a necessity.