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Bird Photography - Getting the Perfect Bird Photos

written by: A. Jitesh•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 5/18/2011

A bird captured in your camera is worth a hundred out in the bushes! Bird photography is tricky and requires a lot of effort, patience and time. Many simply give up as they overlook certain essential rules. This article outlines what one needs to know to enter this amazing genre of photography.

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    The Challenges & Rewards of Bird Photography

    Of all forms of nature photography, I feel bird photography is the trickiest. For one, birds are very agile and move fast. Secondly, they sit amongst branches making them not only hard to spot, but also hard to frame and hard to meter, because of the less then optimal light. Thirdly, they are extremely aware of the lurking photographer, whom to them is just as dangerous as a lurking predator. They need just the slightest of pretexts to either fly off or create a din and warn all other birds in the neighbourhood! And it's these very constraints that make bird photography extremely rewarding. But be aware that bird photography is not for the casual ‘snapshot’ camera wielders. It requires a lot of patience and a fair bit of knowledge about the birds themselves to get a good photograph. If you’ve been experimenting with bird photography and want to improve your results, read on. Here are 10 tips which will definitely help you get better bird photos.

    (Click on any image to enlarge)

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    A close-up shot of a bird
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    Image Credit : law_keven

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    1. Get Real

    All of us have been awed by spectacular photos of birds in action. Little do we realize that most of those photos are a result of painstaking effort, multiple trips to the same spot over and over again, dealing with nature’s elements and taking quite a lot of shots to get the perfect one. Anybody who expects to simply waltz out one fine day with a camera hanging around the neck and return with amazing bird photos is either extremely unrealistic or extremely lucky! So first set your expectations right. That would depend on the gear you have, the amount of time and effort you’re willing to put in and the kind of birds you want to photograph.

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    2. Prepare Accordingly

    Simply studying bird photographs which intrigued you will help you get a similar shot. Try to find out the conditions under which the photo was taken. Was it a causal or lucky ‘snapshot’ taken while on a vacation or did it involve some planning? How many shots were taken to get the final one? Was a blind used? The lighting, exposure and shutter speed…in general, try to find out the story behind the photograph. That will help immensely in planning your own shot.

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    3. Know Your Subject

    Like all animals, birds are creatures of habit. If you see a particular bird visiting a particular spring one morning, it most probably would be doing it every morning. By reading about and simply observing the birds on the first day of your shoot, you can get a fair idea of their behaviour. This will help you plan your shoot…where to position yourself, and when to expect some ‘action’. Birds are usually most active during morning and evening hours. So if you arrive at your location at noon, simply relax till evening and you won't be disappointed you didn’t see any birds! Develop a passion for birds and try to learn as much about them as possible - you'll find yourself bagging much better shots!

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    4. Plan Things Out

    Once you have some sort of an idea what to expect, make sure your gear is in shape. Charge your batteries and fix the longest possible lens on your camera. Take as much memory with you as possible, and keep the spare power and memory in easily accessible places – you don’t want to be rummaging through your sack and risk disturbing the birds! Also, locate good vantage points.

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    5. Keep you Senses Active

    The jungle or park is full of cues, visual and aural. Keep a keen eye for any movement around you. Avoid jerky motion. Listen to bird songs or calls. As a bird spots you approach, it’ll first give you a warning call. Heed it and stop advancing. Take a circular route around the bird, till it begins to trust you. Keep your ears open for any alarm calls. If you’re the reason for the alarm call, there’s a very high chance of almost all wildlife in the area moving away from you. But if it's a predator who's the cause of concern, you've just landed yourself a wonderful photo opportunity!

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    6. Practice Being Invisible

    If it were for real, Harry Potter's Invisibility Cloak would be a standard in every wildlife photographer's kit. As that's not possible, we'll have to go for the next best alternative - practice moving around very slowly with mild and smooth movements. Locating a good vantage point and waiting there for quite some time, till the birds are comfortable with your presence, is also necessary. Sometimes it may require multiple visits to the same place to convince the birds that you’re harmless, and they go about their normal lifestyle with you around.

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    7. Have Extra Eyes

    Try to keep a pair of binoculars handy. It's very helpful to spot birds and plan the shot. There've been times when I've taken a shot without actually being able to see the bird with my eyes, relying solely on my binoculars. Having extra eyes also means that one needs to be on a constant lookout all around, for any bird movements.

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    8. Composing the Image


    Capturing a bird in motion 

    Bird photography has two extremes…a long waiting period and a burst of activity. Use the waiting period to compose your shot. Position yourself to get a good background. Take your initial shots on static birds. Get your exposure, ISO and white balance right. For shooting birds in motion, set your camera to continuous focus (AI Servo or similar) mode, focus on the eye and pan your camera trying to keep the bird’s head around the center of the frame. Choose shutter speed depending on how fast the motion is. A high shutter speed of 1/200 or 1/500 or even more will freeze all action (image on left, credit dobak). A mid range speed 1/60 or 1/100 will freeze most of the bird except the fast moving parts like wings (image on right, credit hans). The image of a sharply focused head and blurred wings gives a beautiful ‘action’ photo.

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    9. Charity Begins at Home

    birdseye (Image credit : Paraflyer)

    Practice and practice some more in your backyard or at the neighbourhood park. If you live by the sea, the gulls make for excellent practice, as they’re quite human-friendly. Try to capture local avian fauna and understand these birds and their behavioral patterns first. With time, you’ll begin to predict their activities and have more opportunities come your way. Don’t crave for ‘exotic’ species. If you can’t get a good shot in your backyard, there’s no reason why you should at Madagascar!

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    10. 'Luck' is Just a Four Letter Word!

    You can get lucky once and get an exceptionally good shot. But for consistently getting good bird shots, you have to plan and persevere. Luck has no role in it. Relying solely on luck for good bird shots is bound to discourage you sonner rather than later.

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    Furthering Your Photography Skills

    For related articles that apply to bird photography, please read the following articles:

    How to Attract Hummingbirds & Take the Best Pictures

    Guide to Animal Photography

    Additional Aspects to Consider When Buying a Digital Camera (Shutter noise is something you should take into consideration with bird photography!)

    Wingscapes BirdCam Review