Birds of Oklahoma

The Basics of Bird Photography



The following page(s) is a primer for those who are either new to bird photography or have limited experience with photography in general.  Creating interesting bird images presents a formidable challenge even for seasoned professionals.  The following text contains advice, lessons learned, and suggestions on  technique gained from my 25 years experience in the field.   If you are seriously interested in learning how to take better pictures of birds, I suggest you read further.  It is divided into progressive categories, so you can start at the beginning or skip to the applicable subject of interest. Send questions or comments concerning  either the content or bird photography to Bill Horn.

Getting started: The modern technology present in most camera systems today has automated functions such as aperture, shutter speed, focus and light metering. But automatic modes are seldom best for photographing birds, as we want to be able to control certain aspects depending on the given situation. So before beginning to seriously undertake bird photography, it would be wise to gain an understanding of the fundamentals. Two things affect exposure: shutter speed, meaning the amount of time the film is exposed, and aperture, which determines the lens opening size. The camera meter determines correct exposure. Aperture and shutter speed combine as the exposure setting. Fast shutter speeds are needed to freeze wing motion or other movement.  An increase in shutter speed requires opening up the lens a proportionate amount.  Several combinations of shutter speed and aperture can be used to take a single photograph. You have to decide which is best for each image.  Depth of field (DOF) is the area of the image in focus.  Large apertures reduce DOF, and serve to isolate the subject. Learning how exposure works to affect an image is imperative. Practicing by taking photos in varied conditions is the best way to learn.  Believe it or not, more images are ruined by camera shake than any other cause. So a steady hand, brace, or better yet, tripod will eliminate unwanted blurring. We'll elaborate more on tripods later.  Reading books on photography technique is another way to learn. A plethora of information is available through libraries, book stores, and the Internet. If reading books doesn't hold your interest, a local camera club might be the answer. They can help with hands-on training, and you can measure your individual progress against that of the group. Don't be afraid to ask questions. The more knowledge you can acquire prior to going afield, the better your chances will be of creating images you'll be proud of.  The learning process never stops.  I still read everything I can get my hands on about bird photography. And let's not forget about the other half of this equation: birds. Again, read about and study the birds where you live. It doesn't matter whether you occasionally want to photograph Cardinals at the feeder or pursue bird photography as a serious hobby.  Once the fundamentals are learned, then you can experiment with the various automatic modes which work wonderfully well under ideal conditions.  Armed with a basic understanding of the fundamentals of photography, you'll be better prepared when it comes time to lay out the bucks for equipment.

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The right equipment: Much has been written on this subject, and it is largely a matter of personal choice. 35mm is the accepted format and is used by nearly all professionals and serious amateurs for birds. Larger format cameras are too bulky for the mobility required. Digital cameras are making a strong impression as of late, especially those which are used with 35mm Single Lens Reflex (SLR) style bodies and allow use of existing telephoto lenses. We'll limit this discussion to 35mm.  Several companies make exceptionally good cameras,  Nikon, Canon, Minolta, and Leica to name a few.  You don't have to spend thousands on gear to get decent bird images, but as a general rule, an expenditure of around  $1,500-$2,000 is average.  Ideally, an auto-focus body with multiple modes such as Manual, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and auto-wind motor makes the job much easier.  As for lenses, a telephoto is a must for birds, and they can be expensive. I used a 300 mm for several years, mostly with a 1.4X converter for an effective focal length of 420mm.  It was portable and sharp, but I really needed more reach, especially for smaller birds.  Now I use a 600mm with 1.4X for an effective focal length of 800mm over 90% of the time.  A full range of brands and focal lengths are available, but try to get at least a 300mm or plan on stalking very close.  Third party vendors such as Tokina, Tamron, and Sigma manufacture quality telephoto lenses made to fit Canon, Nikon, and other bodies.  They cost less and are very good.  If funds are available, go with matched,  Name brand lenses and converters for the best quality possible. Be aware, the cost of a Nikon or Canon super-telephoto in the 500mm-600mm range is around $10,000. They obviously are not for everyone, and price isn't the only reason. My EOS-1V/600mm/tripod rig weighs in at 30 lbs. It is not easy packing it around or carrying it on a plane. Avoid the cheap 1.4X and  2X converters, as too much quality is lost using them.  With long lenses, a good tripod is required to avoid the old nemesis, camera shake. Good means heavy and sturdy.  Bogen and Gitzo are the top two brands going, and both now offer carbon fiber models.  CF is lighter but more durable, and yes, they are expensive.  A vest with many pockets is handy for toting film, filters, lenses, rain poncho, and other gear.  Start with a good camera body, tripod, and as much telephoto as you can afford. Become familiar with the controls on the body, and learn to use them without taking your eye from the viewfinder.  Small birds move in and out of the viewfinder very fast, so speed of operation counts.  I live by the old adage -  Take care of your equipment, and it will take care of you. Sun, rain, sand, and dust can wreak havoc on equipment. Today's modern AF bodies and lenses have CPU chips in them, thus they are both durable and delicate. Avoid moisture as it can destroy expensive electronics, and always clean your equipment daily after use.

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Know your subject: If you read the bio of today's top professional bird photographers, you'll learn the one thing they share in common other than talent is an intimate knowledge of their subject. Tom Mangelsen, Arthur Morris, and B. Moose Peterson are all well known, nationally acclaimed bird photographers, and they are as good as they get.  Mangelsen is a wildlife biologist, Peterson has studied and worked extensively with wildlife biologists, and Morris is a former teacher.   It makes sense to study your quarry and know their biology, habits, travel patterns, and behavior.  A variety of sources are available on migration patterns, and hot spots in your area for bird photography.  Consult your state wildlife department.  They can provide a list of species present in your state during various times of year.  I scout a number of preferred locations which have paid off in the past, and I  rely on numerous sources for additional information on what birds have been spotted where recently.  Weather plays an integral role, and it can radically change behavior.  Knowing the effect weather can have on birds is an advantage.  See my Fox Sparrow article as an example of how to turn bad weather into a plus situation for your photography.  Another way to improve your chances of seeing more birds is to become affiliated with your local Audubon Society chapter. My local chapter makes monthly field trips to different locations state-wide, and they always seem to know where to locate birds.  Working with them has improved my birding  knowledge in general, and in particular my ability to identify species .  Networking is another important tool for me.  People around me know I shoot birds, and they let me know when and where they observe certain species. Once or twice a week, someone calls about a "sighting". Occasionally someone looks at one of my images and says, "Well, you were lucky to have gotten that close," or "You were lucky to get that pose." I smile and agree.  Luck, good or bad, often does factor in.  But spending countless hours in the field after endlessly studying habitat, behavior, and biology outweighs luck.  I believe "chance favors the prepared mind."   

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What film is best Deciding on which film to use begins with type. We have two basic categories to choose from: slides or prints. The overwhelming majority of amateur photographers use print film.  Why? Because they can have them developed in labs ranging from inexpensive Wal Mart on up to costly custom photo labs. Prints are easy to view and store in albums, and they last for years if kept out of direct light.  Print (or negative) film is available everywhere and in a wide variety of speeds. Film speed or ISO/ASA rating refers to its emulsion rating. "Fast" films such as  ASA400 and up can be used to capture action, allowing faster shutter speeds which freeze motion.  Slower films contain less grain and require more light, i.e. slower shutter speeds.  Another advantage to negative film is a wider latitude when it comes to exposure. Whether under or overexposed by up to 2 stops on either end, the lab can usually correct by compensating when enlarging the print. Quality enlargements up to 11 X 14 can be made from ASA 400 print film provided you start with a sharp negative.  Disadvantages to negative film include: Due to the fact that enlarging is required to get a "positive" print, arguably some detail is lost in the dual process. Varied results are possible as labs have  numerous correction software and techniques.  Editors much prefer submissions for publication be in slide (positive) format. That is the principal reason nearly all professionals use slide film.  Slide film doesn't require the second step, as prints can be made directly from the slide.  As a general rule, positive film contains more detail and sharper, more vivid color.  All images on this site were taken with Fuji slide film, either ASA 50 or ASA 100.  Pros refer to slide film often as E-6, the term describing its processing. E-6 is the way to go if you want the ultimate in sharpness and color saturation, or if you ever anticipate the image being in a major publication.  Drawbacks include: exposure must be within plus or minus 1/3 EVA, or under/over exposure results.  Processing is not as widely available for slide film.  And storage and viewing require more preparation than does prints.  Fast film such as ASA 400, widely used in print film, usually results in excessive grain.  E-6 users for the most part stay with ASA 200 and below. A note on manufacturers: Kodak, Fuji, Afga, and others all make film in many resolutions, and the color varies with each of them.  It is always recommended to experiment with several different brands and resolutions until finding the exact combination of color, contrast, and saturation which best suits your taste.   

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Lighting conditions: No doubt, understanding light is among the most difficult challenges we as photographers face. We primarily use two light sources to expose images: ambient or available sunlight is normally the prime source.  The other is flash and is provided by flash units.  In all cases either one or the other is used.  The next section deals with combining them. Ambient light well serves us for most outdoor shooting.  The most common mistake I see amateurs make is shooting in harsh, direct sunlight, say from 11:00 a.m.- 4:00 p.m. During that time the sun, if unobstructed by clouds, is too direct, and the result is too much contrast and washed out color.  The ideal time to shoot outdoors is either early or late or on a slightly hazy day.  The "magic hour" occurs just after sunrise and before sunset when light is soft and color is fully saturated.  Also, that is the time when birds are most active, scurrying to gather food.  Have you ever seen a television ad for a car filmed in direct sun? Nope, notice next time, they are filmed under late or hazy skies or just after a rain, so the colors will be bright and saturated.  The same holds true for birds or any other subject.  Occasionally we are forced to shoot under bright, sunny skies, and there is a way to get good images in bright sunlight.  Use of a polarizing filter will take out annoying reflections and saturate otherwise washed out colors.  Don't hesitate to use your flash outdoors especially in the shade.  Shooting indoors usually requires use of flash.  But what if your using ASA 400 fast print film under bright fluorescent indoor lighting? You still need flash because it is color balanced to match ambient sunlight. Using only the fluorescent lighting with daylight film will cause the colors to be wrong unless an FLD filter is used. The FLD filter corrects the fluorescent light. Light is a crucial element rudimentary to photography.  Volumes have been written about technique under varied lighting situations.  Read all you can  and experiment.  That is half the fun of it.

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Exposure Modes: Like most serious photographers, I have always been hesitant to trust camera meters in automatic modes.  But, that all changed with the introduction of the Nikon F5.  Arguably, Nikon’s 3D Color Matrix metering system is the best and most reliable at this time.  Using various types of data including scene brightness and contrast, the camera’s microcomputer analyzes the data and sets exposure automatically.  I have to admit, it is a marked advance above any others I have used.  My preferred method is AP (Aperture Priority) mode, and I always shoot at or near wide-open. About 50-60% of the time, I use AP with complete confidence the F5 will deliver accurate exposure.  Why not use AP all the time? There are situations, especially with bird photography, where getting correct exposure requires an alternate method – manual exposure. Birds are often photographed against the sky or a background differing vastly in brightness and contrast to the subject – a tough test for any light meter. I want to be able to control exposure and other factors including DOF in these situations to get the most out of the final image.  This Great Egret posed a number of challenges and is a prime example of when NOT to use auto exposure. He was at a city park, and I wanted a full-frame, perfectlyClick to view a larger image exposed image without any evidence of the hand of man. Working around the pond, I positioned myself so the background was a shaded (man-made) retaining wall. I knew a properly exposed bird would render the wall almost completely dark. I metered manually off of green vegetation in the same light as the egret. AP metering of the scene, influenced by the dark wall, suggested opening up 2/3 stop, which would have over-exposed the bird and showed clearly the man-made wall. I use the green vegetation technique whenever there is a 2-stop or greater variation between subject and background.  But, what if no green vegetation is present nearby?  Look for a similarly lit, medium toned subject to meter from.   The decision of when to use/not use auto exposure is dictated largely by experience too. Each of us makes that decision every time we go into the field. Get out there more often.  Learn your equipment and its limitations.  Experience is the best teacher of when to sit back and photograph on “auto-pilot,” and when you need to take over the controls.  

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Fill-Flash: Learning how to effectively use fill-flash will dramatically enhance your bird images.  Why? Because in a lot of cases, birds are in trees or other shaded areas out of direct sunlight. The indirect lighting often actually increases color saturation in feathers, but we need to fill in the shadow areas.  How do we do that? We use our flash units.  Some of them can be set to automatically fill shadows, while others must be set manually. Consult the manual for your individual unit.  I prefer to set mine manually for a number of reasons. 1.) I want the fill-flash at less than one-to-one with the ambient light.  2.) Depending on conditions, I vary the amount of fill. 3.) Relying on automatic fill can be disastrous if my light meter gets fooled under difficult lighting conditions.  Advanced flash units will allow you to set fill at +/- 1/3 increments. I normally set mine at minus -1 1/3 EVA.  That means the flash is underexposing by 1 1/3 f-stop.   

Click to view a larger image Click to view a larger image
Fill-flash No Fill-flash

 The effect we are trying to achieve is an image that  does not look "flashed." Another plus is in many cases, fill-flash will put a catch-light in the bird's eye. The difference in fill-flash and no fill-flash can be dramatic.  See the above photos of the Myrtle Warbler.  In the first fill is used at - 1 1/3, and you can see the catch-light and no shadows.  In the second, we see an ugly shadow on the bird's neck which ruins the image.    

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Get close: I still remember the first time I photographed a bird. It was many years back, and I was on my back porch when I noticed a Northern Cardinal in a tree in the yard.  It was snowing, and he stood out against the snow on the tree.  I grabbed my Nikon F w/300 F4 and took several frames. I was sure the images I would get back from the lab would grace the pages of Audubon magazine. When the slides arrived, I couldn't believe what I was seeing, a big snow-laden tree with a diminutive red speck in the middle. The experience is one many have shared.  We fail to realize at the time we are firing the shutter how small the subject is in relation to the frame.  Birds are not only small, but they are in most cases, a moving target. Getting close enough to produce quality images is no small task.  Movement represents a danger signal to birds. Nothing frightens them faster than seeing a huge tripod raised in their direction. Approach them slowly, and stop frequently.  Look for natural  formations that break your silhouette and use them.  Never endanger the welfare of a subject for the sake of an image.  I have found that studying an area of high activity and hiding close by in dense foliage works well. If you remain still for several minutes after entering such an area, birds will return to their normal activity, often just feet away.  Avoid jerky motion or making noises.  After a while, they even get used to an electronic flash. Working from portable blinds works well for some, but I have never liked them. For me they are too cramped.  Find a promising area, slowly work in close, and wait. The operative word here is PATIENCE!   On many occasions, I have spent 4-6 hours waiting and left empty handed. Birds will not be rushed; they have their own agenda. You can however attract them under certain conditions. See the section on Feeding the Birds in your back yard. If you have feeders, then you have an excellent "staged" opportunity for bird photography.  Some of my best images were taken in my own back yard in or near the feeder area.  

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Composing the image: Let's look at composition as a way of designing the image.  Artistic skill is a wonderful attribute for gifted photographers, but the rest of us have to learn how to create pleasing images.  It begins well before the shutter is released. "Think" the image through. Nine out of ten images taken by amateurs is in horizontal composition. But 2/3 of images taken by pros are vertical. Magazines and mostClick to view a larger image books are vertical. Nearly all cover shots are done vertically.  Observe bird magazines and field guides, and you'll see most images are indeed vertical. The rule of thirds applies here.  Divide the frame into 1/3 increments, and place the bird at the near one of the imaginary lines.  Early on, I was guilty of always plopping the bird smack in the middle of the frame. An exception to the rule is images for purposes of identification.  Many images on this site have been cropped so the bird is in the center and easily identifiable. Leave enough space for the action to lead into the frame. As you are thinking the image through, decide whether horizontal or vertical format best fits the situation.  If time and subject permit, shoot both and choose the best slide later.  Controlling the background: It is difficult to photograph birds without including protruding limbs, twigs, or other bothersome clutter. Cluttered backgrounds should be avoided if at all possible. Clean, colorful and unobstructed backgrounds make the bird "pop" off the page.   This is not always possible, of course, but often a slight movement in one direction will present a more desirable, less distracting background.  Get up or down to the bird's level when at all possible.  Extreme angles look unnatural and are not appealing to the eye.  This may mean getting on the ground, but the images you get will be well worth the trouble.  Try to include in the frame some of the natural surrounding to give the image perspective. Your audience may have never seen the bird before, so your image needs to convey an idea of size.  How much natural surrounding do you keep in focus?  That is where your "artistic" ability comes into play.  

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Long lens technique: This section is for those fortunate enough to have lenses in the 400mm and up class. These lenses are, large, heavy, and require a great deal of practice in order to get good images.  The learning curve is steep, but just about anyone can master it with a little training and practice.  The gremlins that ruin our images such as equipment shake are multiplied several times over with super teles.   I have known a few that gave up on trying to get sharp images with big lenses and went back to shorter focal lengths. For birds, you need all the lens length you can afford, and learning to use one is not an insurmountable task. A sturdy tripod and good ball head are a must. My everyday rig is a Gitzo 1548 carbon fiber tripod with Wimberley or Arca-Swiss B1 ball head.  Some argue that carbon fiber is too light for big lenses, but I have hundreds of sharp slides taken using the CF tripod. The Wimberley gets a little more use especially for flying birds.  Most shots are of semi-static birds, and this is where technique comes into play. Long lenses are prone to blurring images due to mirror flop. Vibrations travel along the lens and can cause problems with shutter speeds below 1/500 second. Position your face firmly against the viewfinder and place your hand on top of the lens during exposure to minimize if not eliminate vibration.  Some use an electronic shutter release with big lenses, but I find them too much trouble to use, not all that effective, and I prefer the above mentioned practice. Ensure tripod legs are tight and secure before mounting your lens. You don't want to embarrass yourself by dropping a $10,000 piece of glass. I work with the controls on the head slightly snug but moveable. With practice it becomes second nature.  You have to find the right balance between too tight and loose. A tight head  reduces the chance of blur, but some movement is required when trying to locate a small, moving bird in the viewfinder.  If it is too loose, lens flop can ruin your day and your lens.      

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Your car as a "Blind": Ever notice that birds and other creatures will often be on the side of the road and allow a loud, speeding automobile to pass within a few feet of them? They are "conditioned" to seeing automobiles and do not generally perceive them as a threat. As bird photographers, we can take advantage of their conditioning to improve our chances of getting better images.  If you are using a long lens, then a car window mount is a great help.  I use the "GROOFWIN" pod  made by Rue Enterprises.   It attaches to the lip of the window, and when a good ball head is added, it is nearly as steady as a tripod. See my review article on the GROOFWIN in Naturephotographers.net.  I turn the engine off usually to avoid any camera shake cause by engine vibration.  With my car-combo setup, I slowly cruise around the edges of lakes, parks, and other birdy areas and wait for good opportunities to avail themselves. I carry my CF tripod also in case I see off road bird activity and need to leave the car.  If you have a friend that can drive while youClick to view a larger image sit in back ready for action on either side of the car, chances are you will see and photograph birds.  Look for areas with loops or drive-throughs such as are present in most national parks. Animals of all kinds in those type of areas are acclimated to both people and cars. Many professionals utilize their cars as blinds and have taken some awesome images by this means.  One trick often used to attract birds that works wonderfully well from a vehicle is playing a Screech Owl tape. Learn more about the art of "screeching" from Dr. Peter May.  Avoid jerky motion, even from inside the car, and do not get out so you can get a bit closer unless you are prepared to see the bird(s) fly away.  With a little patience and practice, this technique can prove to be a very productive means of adding "keepers" to your stock of images.  And speaking of "keepers".....

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Low percentage of "keepers": When I first began making images of birds, I would conserve film as if it were a valuable natural resource.  Usually one or two frames per bird were sufficient, I thought, to get the job done. More often then not, I was disappointed when the slides came back from the lab. Now I use Continuous High (CH) mode on my F5s, which fires at the rate of 8 FPS. That means I can expose an entire roll of 36 exposure slide film in about 4.5 seconds, and I have done so on more than one occasion. Why the shift from penury to opulence in film expenditure? One word - RESULTS.  Birds move constantly in and out of the frame. They don't act on queue like studio models. If only one or two frames are exposed, even on a static bird, chances are the pose will be a little off, or slight subject movement will cause blurring. Sometimes one or two shots is all we get, but more often we can shoot from various angles, exposures, and distances. Often moving slightly to one side may clear the background of clutter, meaning the subject will pop. The next time you see the sports section of a newspaper, look at the photographs closely. Notice the football, basketball, or tennis player caught at the perfect moment in time, the ball only inches away. The photographers who get those images expose more film per outing than you will in a year. Every play, they fire away exposing up to 100 rolls per game. Bird photography is no different. Shoot a lot of film and expect to keep a low percentage of them. How low? That depends  both on your level of skill and what level of image quality you are trying to attain. I keep an average of about 2-5% of my slides. You are probably thinking that is a pretty lousy batting average.  Well, I am not alone.  Tom Mangelson claims he prints only 1 out of 200 exposures. Most other pros claim similar results.  I am not saying it is necessary to burn a ton of film every time you go out. Use your own judgment based on each instance. Is the subject promising? Maybe not on any given outing. However, if the situation has merit, shoot more film. After all, you may not get the chance to do so again.   

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The perfect image: OK, you have taken the plunge, spent a bundle on equipment, read all you could on the subject, and vowed to become a bird photographer. After checking out some of the best spots for viewing wild birds, you haul your gear out and make some exposures.  Out  of 10-12 rolls of slides, you have about a dozen you feel are genuine quality.  They are well exposed, composed, and pleasing and interesting (at least to you!)  So now what do you do? Several options are available. 1.) Have a good lab make custom  prints.  The choice of paper is endless. Then hang them on the wall or show them to friends.  2.) Send them to Kodak and have them put onto Photo CD. This allows you to bring the image into Adobe Photoshop or any image editor and tweak them to your liking.  3.) Publish them on the web for the world to see. If you do not have a web site, no problem.  Many sites will host your images, so you can post them on-line.  It is a good way for you to see how others react to the images you have created. Most criticism of this type I have seen is positive and allows you to learn more. 4.) If your images are REALLY good, submit them to a publisher and get paid for your work.  Be aware, this is a highly competitive market and tough to get into. Lastly, look at them and enjoy them for what they are: the fruit of your labor.  THAT is what bird photography truly is all about, the self-fulfillment of seeing our best images and knowing the hard work it took to get them.  See you in the field! 

For further, more detailed hands-on instruction on bird photography, consider attending one of my Bird Photography Workshops.

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