Disclaimer: this post is not about what settings to use, what type of lens, even which camera is best. There are ample resources online to help guide you over those hurdles. In today’s post we talk about the nature, habitat, and behavior of birds to help you gain confidence using whichever device you have. Many folks think bird photography is a niche area reserved only for those with the money to spend on it, and there is no denying equipment costing thousands gives you an advantage, but here’s a secret: it’s not all about the gear. There are plenty of amateur and even professional photographers out there who use inexpensive devices, yet capitalize on their enthusiasm, preparation, and knowledge.
The subject matters
Technological advances have led to greater affordability, so it’s not surprising that people have taken to bird photography over the years with relish. The pandemic lockdown led to a huge surge in camera, outdoor clothing, and field guide sales. Social media continues to be awash with images of every bird you can think of, some amazingly captured, others less so. But unless you understand the subject matter, all your efforts are worthless, no matter how top of the range your gear.
Flight by nature
Birds have a seemingly endless array of wardrobes, personalities and habitat, but are also quick, shy, and pretty hard to spot. The thing that intrigues us most about birds is also the most frustrating: they fly. They will usually see you first and be gone before you even get a glimpse, leaving you with a gently bouncing empty branch or some ripples on the water. Getting to know your subject is the best way forward.
1. Behavior - yours and theirs
You must spend time reading about and watching birds to understand how they live and move. Some birds dive, swoop, flit up and down, swim, run low to the ground, rush from bushes. Pick a species that you are likely to see and learn about them. Flycatchers hunt perched on a peripheral branch, dart out in a tight arc, and return to the same perch. Wrens and blackbirds sift at ground level then fly in straight, low-level bursts; upright robins hop about; some thrushes sit at the top of trees for hours, calling; sparrows hang around in gangs on the edges of large bushes and small trees; starlings lift off as one huge group and noisily settle on the ground or on the crowns of trees. All birds are different yet all species do the same thing.
Start with those that you may see every day, for example at your feeders. (If you don’t have any, now is a good time to get one). Birds that come to feeders have developed an understanding of their environment and fully expect you to be in it at some point. They rarely vacate the area and hide nearby, but are back soon enough. How you behave around them will greatly influence your chance of getting a good shot. You should wear neutral, earthy tones and in clothes and footwear that don’t make noise when you move. Don’t wear items that will reflect the light, so keep watch faces hidden and take off those dangly earrings.
The key is to make them feel safe in their habitat. If out walking, keep your pace measured and arms still with no sudden movements, and when you see a bird in the distance, transition from a walk to a slower pace with intermittent stops. If the bird is watching you, stay still until it carries on doing something else.
2. Habitat / background
Many photographers say the bird is only half the picture: the background completes. You often can’t influence what will be behind them, so using the environment is a great skill to learn. The inevitable intersecting mesh of branches and leaves creates a cluttered background and is distracting, so getting some distance between the bird and this can work wonders with focusing and muting those jagged shapes behind. Change your position to being more side-on with the vegetation if you can.
Discomfort is a no-no. You won’t be able to maintain an awkward position for long and you will disturb your subject when you move to relieve pain. Finding somewhere to sit or lie beforehand and waiting for the birds to appear may sound time-consuming, but it will pay off. If you are lower and they are higher, the angle you shoot from is different, giving you various backgrounds: a dark and broody or bright blue sky will highlight your central figure; different tones of grasses, reeds, or other vegetation that is uniform in structure will help the focus fall on the contrastingly colored and shaped bird. The key is ensuring a smooth backdrop. You can also use seasons to your advantage: birds are often camouflaged, but at different times of the year not even they can hide among the leafless branches or against a blanket of snow.
3. Early (and late) birds get the worm - time of day
The best time for any photography is early or later in the day, and with birds this holds a double advantage: they are certainly more active in the morning when looking for food, especially in breeding season with more mouths to feed. The light just before sunrise and just as sunset approaches casts a different hue over everything, and can make any picture look magical if timed right. Be aware of the direction of the sun, and clouds, with a good rule of thumb to have the sun behind you, or a little off to the side but still behind. Some birds like hawks won’t come out until the day has warmed up and thermals can help them hunt, so figure out where the sun will be in the afternoon, get in front of it, and look up. Birds are very active before a storm to cache food: keep an eye on weather forecasts.
4. Other tips
- Let the birds come to you – patience is a virtue because it is worth it. Chasing birds gets you tired and frustrated and them far, far away.
- Try to focus on at least one of the bird’s eyes if they are perched; if you have the sun in the right spot behind you, you should be able to see the “catch light”, that circular glimmer of white reflected in the bird’s eye.
- If they are flying, aim for the upper chest or head, and wait for them to pass over you. Silhouettes do have a certain charm, but that’s not why you’re here.
Photograph what you love. If you love ducks, take photos of ducks. If you’re partial to black-headed gulls, pigeons, sparrows or starlings, make them your subject du jour. Trying to capture a gyrfalcon or a hummingbird won’t happen if your heart isn’t in it. What matters is you are watching, learning, and having fun.