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Bird Photography (On a Budget)


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Bird Photography (On a Budget)

12 Aug 2022 3:07PM   Views : 220 Unique : 125

Not everyone can afford extreme telephoto lenses for bird photography. Lower cost gear is perfectly effective and getting the best out of it will improve you as a photographer.

We've all looked at fantastic bird images and thought that if we too had a 600 mm f/4 lens we'll get spectacular images too. Absolutely wrong. If you don't get something decent from the 300 mm end of your telezoom, then you'll flounder with something larger. That 600 mm is a beast and needs to be tamed. As an analogy, if you can drive a Ford Fiesta one litre well around a track it'll stand you in good stead for a Ferrari (or other supercar of your choice). Wildlife photographers are never satisfied though, they always want something longer.

The current cost of living means exotic gear is a pipe dream for many. Even second hand gear can be pricey but offers significant bargains. If you still can't stretch to that, or are just starting out and don't want to commit a large amount of cash at the moment, until you're sure, then you can still produce great images. You'll have to put in some effort, but that's true of any genre, gear per se is never a silver bullet.


The bird is small (this is the complete frame) but there are some cropping options that are non too drastic (in terms of image quality)

When I wanted to get into photographing birds the longest lens I had was the 210 mm and of a Tamron telezoom. I acquired a teleconverter but the results were soft and with a limited maximum aperture of f/8 and ISO 400 film back in the day being grainy, it would have been easy to call it a day. I soon bought a Sigma 400 mm f/5.6 which gave good results, more so with the APO version. Not inexpensive but reasonably affordable, nd lightweight. In decent light exposures were reasonable.


By waiting for the bird to get closer will give you a larger subject (again this is the full frame, taken from the same spot

That focal length is perfectly good for wildlife. Today, with an APS-C format camera for example, the 300 mm end of your telezoom is equivalent to roughly what a 450 mm lens would give you on a full frame camera. Back in the day film cameras were only full fame (on the whole, thee were half frame models and later APS format but that's a different story). So the good news is you just don't need to spend big. Many older imges are still good, have stood the test of time and were taken with modest gear.

There are further advantages these days too. ISO 400 is pretty much noise free (evn on some older cameras) so smaller apertures aren't a huge issue in many cases. Sensors have, on the whole, sufficient resolution for cropping (within reason), something you didn't get if you shot transparency film or didn't print your own negatives. So the odds are more in the photographer's favour than they used to be.

Now it's still down to you to make the most of it and it's the hardest bit. There's something you neer to perfect and it can take some time. Fieldcraft.


With larger birds a long lens may be too much giving a cramped feel (but great for detail)

Photographing small birds from 15 metres away or more and heavily cropping will give only mediocre results I'm afraid. Reducing the distance between you and the bird is important. Setting up feeding (and water, especially so in dry conditions) will get the birds coming closer. The birds will have to get used to that, some species will take to it sooner than others. Another option is to sit quitly and calmy and let the birds approach you. Some species tend to be bolder, and, for example, chaffinches in the Lake District at places like the Whinlatter Centre will be more accommodating than those in open farmland.

Whichever method or combination of methods you use, it's important you learn about and observe your subject. Put the odds in your favour. Note their behaviour (ground or tree feeding), favourite perches and so on. Using the kitchen or lounge window or even a garden shed to base yourself in is fine (who's going to know or evn are) if it works.


Ensure the eye is sharp (you will need to practice) especially if the bird is small in the frame. This was a crop of about half the original image

I mentioned cropping. It is so easy to crop an image to give an impression of being really close. Don't crop too heavily. Improve your fieldcraft as that will be by far the best way to improve your results. That had to be the case in the past but it's a lesson that is just as relevant today. Even with higher resolution sensors and noise reduction software, heavy cropping produces rough images with loss of fine detail and loss of smooth tonality. It also shows up any deficiencies in technique. Small focus errors become noticeable and you're effectively using a massively long lens so camera movement can't be ignored. That said, if you come across a rarity and can't get close a heavy crop is fine for the record and may be acceptable for web use.

One advantage of having a wider view apart from showing something of the habitat is that you have options as regard cropping and final placement of the bird in the frame. That's a positive for you photographic creativity so don't discount it.

Image stabilisation can help but it's just that. It doesn't stop subject movement and small birds can twitch so much so high shutter speeds are required though waiting for a brief period of stillness requires patience which will be well rewarded. Because of the long focal lengths involved, evwn if the lens is lightweight, use of some support is recommended. A monopod will suffice but for longer periods a tripod, or beanbag in a hide for example, does prevent tiredness. You need to stay alert and even holding a lightweight camera and lens combination for two hours or more isn't so welcome. Yes you could be waiting that long or mnore. Did I mention patience?


Wider views place the bird in its habitat and show some of the environment

Position yourself so that backgrounds are unfussy (some birds still won't perch in your preferred spot, it's true) and as far as possible get on their level (so a wall or fence post at camera height will do nicely). Those alone will make for a stronger image that will keep the viewer interested even if you've had to crop in somewhat.
Modest equipment is perfectly capable. Perfect your technique.

And most important of all, respect the birds, don't endanger them or their young or cause them stress.

Happy birding.

All text and images © Keith Rowley 2022


12 Aug 2022 11:11PM
Great article, I love spending time photographing birds. I donít always come home with decent images but for me this adds to the challenge.
Many photographerís who want to get into wildlife will soon realise having the right kit isnít always the answer for a great photo.
The experience spent with nature can be reward enough, having a photo to share with ephotozine is a bonus.

GwB Plus
2 100 United Kingdom
15 Aug 2022 8:11AM
Sound advice, Fieldcraft and technique is more important than bazooka sized lenses, just be careful to not stress the birds specially with young. As you say let the birds come to you, sit and wait where you know where your target will likely turn up, fortune rewards the patient. I get moor keepers from my light fuji 70-300 and find it easier to keep the focus point on the bird than with my heavy 100-400. I did purchase a second hand 150-600 mistakingly thinking I would get better shots when birds were further away but found by the time you take into account atmospherics the results were no better than cropping with the 300. For every 300 hundred shots I'll get a couple that I'm over the moon with around 20-30 that I deem good enough to post on birding social media to show what's been spotted for the day in a given area. I have sometimes more positive feedback from scenic shots that I deemed not good or sharp enough for cropping.
dark_lord Plus
18 3.0k 826 England
16 Aug 2022 2:22PM
That's an imporant point about the enjoyment Steve.

Useability imakes a big difference Graham. A physically big lens in a cramped hide for example isn't conducive for good shots.

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