A professional photographer, and past Audubon Magazine Photo Awards winner, offers advice for capturing stunning bird shots.
By Paul Bannick
I love to photograph birds. The variety of shapes, sizes, and colors–and what this diversity reveals about species’ adaptations to diverse habitats–makes them fascinating subjects. Yet their lively, often secretive natures make them challenging to shoot. Here are a few pointers to consider when you set out to photograph these endlessly interesting animals.
Identify your subject and isolate it
Birds are often found in the most cluttered of settings: Branches or grasses intersect at various angles and distract from the central subject, or other birds distract the eye. That said, elements of habitat and even the entire landscape are often part of the message and artistry of the image, and you want to include them to some degree. The trick is to decide what is absolutely necessary for the most beautiful or compelling image. Use your f-stop, your angle of shooting, or your proximity to the subject to eliminate all but the essential elements of your desired photo.
Make an original photo
Lots of people take inspiring images, and it’s natural to want to try to replicate them. Unfortunately, that wastes lots of time and is rarely productive, as the power of an image comes partly from its originality–a redo of a great image rarely evokes that same awe. Aim for different angles, new subjects, and unusual behaviors to create photos that are entirely new.
Birds move. They fly, scamper, swim, mate, fight, and dive, sometimes constantly, sometimes all at the same time. I usually see my best shots in my head first, watching behavior and anticipating what the bird will do next. If I know how my subject will move, I can select shutter speeds, f-stops, and ISO that maximize the potential quality of that image. In order to be successful, I spend a lot of time learning about my subjects, watching them closely and reading up on them, so that I know how they might behave under different circumstances.
Let the birds come to you
It is tempting to chase birds, since most are timid and move away from us. This often results in photos of birds turning or leaning away or, even worse, with their backs to the camera as they flee. By studying behavior and habitat ahead of time, you can anticipate where a bird will land, walk, or fly, and set yourself there in advance so that the bird comes to you, resulting in a much more compelling and intimate photograph.
Arrive early and stay late
Get out early and stay until the last light fades and your photos will be much better. The magical light just after sunrise and just before sunset is when color looks its best, shadows are farther from subjects, and birds are most active. These are the times to maximize your shooting.
Select your background
We tend to naturally take photos from a vantage that is comfortable for us, whether it be standing up or leaning over with the legs of our tripod fully extended. We tend to position ourselves with the sun at our backs, and assume that the bird has a “given background.” As a result, we often miss the best shots. By changing the angle you shoot from, you can change the background dramatically. A cluttered tangle of branches might be replaced by brooding dark-blue storm clouds if the photographer drops to the ground and shoots up at the bird; a warm blanket of gold can become the setting by rising up to shoot down at the subject with yellow winter grass as a backdrop.
Test exposure regularly
Light conditions change regularly. It may be a gradual shift as the sun moves across the sky, or the more abrupt change when clouds alternatively obscure and expose the sun’s rays. Consider the change in exposure that might be required if your subject moves from a light background to a dark background, especially when shooting in Aperture Priority Mode.
Know the required shutter speed
It’s heartbreaking when blurry wings or heads mar an otherwise perfect photograph. To avoid this, learn which shutter speed you need to capture different behaviors in crisp detail. Which speed freezes which species in flight? Which is needed for birds that are walking or standing still? As you anticipate what behavior is about to unfold, you can be sure that your camera is set to shoot at a high enough speed to capture the desired behavior, tack-sharp!
Shoot in Aperture-Priority or Manual mode
Although a friend of mine jokes that “P” mode stands for “Pro Mode,” it is really the Program Mode, where the camera makes the decisions for you. I almost always shoot in either Aperture-Priority Mode or Manual Mode, which allow you to make the decisions of shutter speed and depth of field, and gain control of your photographs.
I use Aperture-Priority mode when the subject is either still or moving across backgrounds of similar tonal values, or if I’m unlikely to get close enough to use more than the minimum depth of field. With Aperture-Priority, at any given ISO, I choose the aperture (to determine depth of field) and the exposure compensation, and the camera gives me the fastest shutter speed at those settings.
I use Manual Mode when the background changes often or when I am frequently changing my f-stop (depth of field). With this mode, I select the desired shutter speed and the desired f-stop, and make adjustments to each depending upon how much light I have to allow for my desired exposure.
Photograph unique subjects you love
Use your passion to your advantage: Shoot what you love, especially if what you love is somehow different from what others love. Everyone adores eagles and hummingbirds, and thus it is more challenging to get photographs of these species that feel fresh or new. But if your passion is nightjars, sparrows, or gulls, you might find you have less competition for creating that compelling, never-before-taken photo.
Great photos take lots of time and effort. Make the most of that time and energy by learning about, and living with, the birds you love. Then the perfect photo becomes one more reward of time well spent in your favorite spot, with your favorite subjects.