Bird photography is perhaps the hardest form of wildlife photography. You have to be stealthy, you have to be able to understand their behaviour, you have to have super-quick reactions and above all, you have to have patience.
What follows is a guide to the basic skills and techniques you’ll need to have to be a successful bird photographer.
Most birds are skittish and shy, so you’ll need to have the right gear before you can get any good photos of them. A DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) with a fast drive mode of 3.5fps or above and advanced focusing system with nine or more points is a must. You’ll need these to get sharp action shots. You’ll need a fast lens which is 300mm or more. Any smaller than that and you’ll have a lot of trouble getting close enough to the birds for frame-filling pictures. Try and get the fastest lens you can afford – f/5.6, f/4, or even better, f/2.8. The faster the lens, the sharper your shots. Finally, a good sturdy tripod, which can support all your gear, will be invaluable when spending a long time in the field.
Where to go
Any area with a large expanse of woodland, where you’ll have a good chance of seeing many birds such as Chaffinches, Woodpeckers and Blue Tits, grassland, where Red Kites, Skylarks, Pheasants and many other birds reside, and wetlands which attract huge flocks of birds such as Lapwing and Avocets will be a great place to go looking for potential subjects.
There are also many nature reserves with bird-watching hides which are perfect for getting stunning close-ups and action shots. You can go on to the RSPB website to find any good bird spots near where you live. See here: RSPB
Coastal regions are also fantastic places to photograph birds. The vast expanses of mud at low-tide, which crawl with invertabrates, attract many species such as the Curlew and Oystercatcher.
- Study their behaviour and familiarise yourself with it. Once you have done this you will be able to predict their next move and thus have a much higher chance of getting some awesome shots.
- Get within their circle of fear – this “circle” varies between birds, for example: you’ll usually be able to get within 3m of a Robin before it flies off, whereas you’ll be unlikely to get closer than 30m to a Kestrel. Good ways of getting within this circle is by going into a hide; shooting from your car; putting out food to attract the birds closer; going to a place where the bird likes to sit and then accustoming it to you through frequent visits of the area.
- Get down to their eye-level for a more intimate point-of-view.
- Look for clean backgrounds with no elements such as a white flower which will distract from the bird in the final image.
- Wear dark clothes (or white in snowy conditions), and cover your hands and face which will stand out and might scare off the bird.
Use the Light
- Try and take some unique and original photos such as the silhouette of a Gull against a sunset background or a Peregrine Falcon swooping on a flock of Starlings.
- Look for unusual point-of-views, poses and compositions that will immediately grab the viewer.
- Get in close for abstracts of the intricate patterns and magnificent colours in plumage which many birds possess, or focus on the eyes which often are amazingly coloured and marked.
Photography is all about capturing light, so don’t forget to use it to your advantage. If it’s a bright sunny day then use the harsh shadows it will create to take moody and atmospheric shots. Alternatively use the strong light for a back-lit effect; from the correct position you can get a beautiful rim of light around the bird. Bright light also means fast shutter-speeds, which in turn, mean action-freezing shots are to be had. Try to capture photos of birds in flight or of birds landing on water where the spray will be suspended in mid-air in the final image.
On the other hand, the soft, diffused light on cloudy days is perfect for capturing the vibrant plumage of birds, simple, natural portraits and detail-filled abstracts.
There are so many original shots of birds which have yet to be taken, so get out there and capture them!
Words and images by Joe Kellard (WildLight