Top Tips for Better Bird Photography

I often get asked what are my top tips for bird photography? In reality there are innumerable ways to take great bird images and each photographer develops their own style and list of priorities. Set out below are my Top Tips for becoming a Better Bird Photographer. Each of these deserves its own article... hmm... I have a lot of work to do in the future!

Number 1

Be Ethical and Honest. 

Ethics is just another way of saying that you always put the welfare of the bird above your need to get a photo of it.  Nature around the world is under enormous threat from human activity. Let's not compound the problem.

Being ethical sometimes requires you to educate yourself about the potential impact of, among other things:

  • using call playback (there is scientific evidence, and lots of anecdotal evidence, that it does negatively impact certain bird species);
  • deliberately (and often repeatedly) flushing birds;
  • going off the designated paths in protected reserves. In Western Australia our native vegetation is under dire threat from the introduced plant disease Phytophthora cinnamomi, commonly known as dieback. Dieback is easily transferred on the bottom of muddy boots or car wheels and can kill up to 40% of all native plant species in an area.  
  • live baiting (there is a reason why this is banned in photo competitions like Wildlife Photographer of the Year (UK));
  • photographing nesting birds. The birds are snookered. Personally, I never photograph or publish images of nesting birds (even if you have not disturbed the bird yourself, the publication of the images undeniably encourages others, many who may use less care or skill, or with shorter lenses, to disturb nesting birds in order to replicate the shot. Monkey see. Monkey try to do).

One good test is to ask yourself whether, when you show someone the image or post it to social media, you are going to mention exactly how you took the photo. If you find yourself 'editing out' certain aspects of how you took the photo because you are scared other people will think less of it or be critical of your methodology, then that is a good warning sign. Be honest to the public, but most of all be honest to yourself. You are not doing the bird, or yourself (in the long run), any favours by engaging in conduct that is not 100% bird-friendly.

#ethicsbeforeimages
 

Number two

 Use Manual.

See my Blog article: Aperture Priority, Shutter Speed or Manual. In order to use your camera effectively you need to know how each of the settings for aperture, shutter speed and ISO interrelate and how to change them quickly. Nothing teaches you this quicker than working in Manual mode! Dig out the camera manual and read how to change the settings, practice and then practice some more.  

Number 3

 Turn on the Blinkies! 

One of the most important aspects of bird photography is getting the exposure right in camera. An overexposed image, for instance, means that you may have lost crucial detail in the whitest areas of the image. If this is in the background, it may not be a biggie. However, if it's the bird that is underexposed, well... Houston we have a problem! Photoshop can do many things but performing miracles is not one of them.

Fortunately, there is an easy solution. On most modern digital cameras there is a setting in the Menu called "Highlights Alert" or similar. With it enabled, when you take a photo and the preview appears in your LCD, any blown highlights will blink black and white. If this is happening anywhere on the bird (usually happens with a white bird against a darker background), then adjust your exposure (either by increasing the aperture value or shutter speed, or decreasing your ISO. Take another shot and check the Blinkies again. Repeat until the area you are concerned about stops flashing.

Congratulations, you now have a perfect exposure. Simples!  

Pied Stilt 

 

Pied Stilt (Black-winged)

F6.3, 1/5000, ISO 250. If I had relied on the cameras automatic settings, the white parts of this bird would have been blown out (in other words, have no detail at all). To get the correct exposure, I had to underexpose by 5 or more stops (I cant be exact because the arrow on my camera meter disappeared completely!). 

  

Number Four

Get close. 

 

Leaving aside habitat shots, generally the closer you get to your subject the better. Every bit of space between you and your subject can reduce the clarity. There are many ways and techniques to get closer to your subject (eg. camouflage/blind, long lens, teleconverters, remote triggers). I will cover this in more detail in a future article: Watch this space!

Egret up close

 

Number Five

Get Low and Dirty:

If the bird you want to photograph is on the ground or in the water, then get yourself down and dirty. There is no doubt that photos taken at the bird's eye level have an intimacy with the viewer that photos taken from above or below can't match (See the image below). Getting at eye level with the bird also helps to reduce the amount of background and foreground in focus, resulting in pleasing blurs around the bird. 

 Red-necked Avocets

 Red-necked Avocet.

Toodyay, Western Australia. Taken with a Canon 1Dx and Canon F/4 600mm IS USM II Lens, F4, 1/2000, ISO500.

Number 6

Learn to Work with all kinds of Light.  

There are many ways to use light to alter the feel or impact of an image. One of the most common recommendations is to photograph in the first few (preferably golden) hours after sunrise and before sunset and shoot with the sun at your back. This will not only give you beautiful light on your bird, but also if its head is turned towards you, you will get the much-desired catch-light in its eyes. 

This is great advice, but don't be limited by it.

In my free e-book, the Art of Bird Photography - 10 Inspirational ideas to turn common birds into Art, I talk about shooting with 'indirect' soft light, backlighting, silhouettes and deliberate underexposure. Only through experimenting with different light conditions will you truly start to understand the power of light to change the impact and feel of an image and, therefore, learn how best to use it to its full potential in every situation. 

Rainbow Bee-eaters silhouetted

Number 7

Experiment with Aperture.

Sometimes people become obsessed with getting every single detail on the bird in focus from the bill tip to the wing tips but I have a question for you to ask yourself: Does it really matter if the wing tips or bill are out of focus as long as the eye is sharp?  My professional bird photographer friend hated the image below with a passion because the whole bird was not in focus. On the other hand, the judges of the Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year liked it so much they chose it as the winner of the Threatened Species category in 2015. 

Australian Fairy Tern

 Australian Fairy Tern

Taken at Woodman Point, Western Australia with Canon 1Dx, Canon 500mm F4 lens + 1.4X teleconverter, F5.6, 1/2500 and ISO1000.

The aperture you use not only affects how much of the bird will be in focus, but also how much of the background or foreground will be in focus. Experiment with different aperture settings and angles and check the effect on the resulting images. Do you like them?

There are many great effects you can achieve with different aperture settings in differing situations. You will never truly know or understand until you give it a go yourself.  

Number 8

Backgrounds and Foregrounds.

A distracting background can break an image, but what people often forget is that a beautiful background can make an image. Photographers are often so focused on the bird (pardon the pun), that they forget to think about what is behind, in front or next to it.

I cover a bit about backgrounds and blurs in my e-book Art of Bird Photography - 10 Inspirational ideas to turn common birds into Art, but backgrounds (and foregrounds) are so important. So stay tuned for a future article on the subject. In the meantime,have a look at S.KeysImages, in which Scott Keys has written a fantastic four-part BLOG series on backgrounds, as well as the joint video by Scott and Ray Hennessy on YouTube: Backgrounds and Foregrounds with Wildlife Photography 

Reef Egret

Number 9

Spray and Pray.

'Spray and Pray' refers to shooting in Continuous High Speed shutter mode (you know, the one that sounds like a gatling gun) and hoping you get a great shot. I have only recently discovered this expression for it and it's only partly accurate in the sense that you are still choosing when and what to photograph (so it's not as random as it sounds).  You can only really 'Spray and Pray' effectively if you have a reasonably fast camera card with a good amount of storage.

As I said in my Birds in Flight article, if you are still using the 2GB card you got with your camera then it's not going to matter how fast your camera is supposed to be (that is, its shots per second speed) because the 'buffer' between shots (that time when you can't take a photo because it's still writing the last image to the camera card) will be huge (you will also run out of space pretty darn quickly!!).

So, sorry, the moral of this story is get the BIGGEST card with the FASTEST speed FOR YOUR CAMERA that you can afford.

To find out what is the fastest card for your camera, check out CameraMemorySpeed.

We have the privilege of shooting with digital cameras where it costs nothing to take an extra photo or two and delete the rubbish, so don't be stingy. The more shots you take, the quicker you'll learn and the more likely it is that you'll capture that perfect moment. 

Number 10

Location. Location. Location.

Sometimes we can get obsessed with the idea of photographing the rarest or most exotic looking bird. But if you have a choice between photographing a rarer bird in bad light against a bad background or a more common bird in the perfect light with the perfect background (location), choose the latter.

A great photo of a common bird is much better than an average photo of a rare one (unless it's a Night Parrot of course...!).

Number 11

Good post-processing of RAW images.

In my role as a judge of several bird photography competitions, and as a moderator of a Premier Bird Images gallery, I have seen potentially great images that have been let down by bad post-processing (or no post-processing at all). Some of the common issues is that images are too dark, too noisy, badly colour toned, cropped too tightly or have too much vignetting. I will cover post-processing (and what to avoid) and why you really should shoot in RAW in a future article.

 

Get a good monitor. And when you get it, calibrate it. This point has been brought home to me in the last couple of weeks because I have had computer issues and I am currently operating with a 'generic', un-calibrated monitor and it is awful. Why? Well, the colours are all wrong. In fact, some are off the scale! Images that I know I processed well on my beautifully calibrated monitor, are showing up on my screen as giant fluoro marshmallow pinks! And what terrifies me is that there are many people out there with generic monitors who think that is what my photo should look like!

Noooooo!

Similarly, if you are using an uncalibrated monitor, you can never trust what you see when you edit the photo. It may look good on your screen, but it may look horribly over-saturated, or way too dark, on everybody else's screen.You can buy monitor calibration tools like a Spyder (below). The best option is to get a good quality photo-editing monitor with its own specialised calibration software and tool.

Datacolor Spyder 5 Express

However, this costs money. If you can't afford to spend any more money on your already expensive hobby, there are some online free monitor calibration tests you can look up (I have no idea how well they work). You can also double check by sending the images to as many other screened devices as you can get hold of, eg ipad, mobile, laptop, and check it looks ok. It's not ideal, but it's better than doing nothing.

  

Number 12

Seek out critical review.

There is no progress without objectivity. Friends, family and social media sites are not good places to look for critical review or photographic improvement. 

Learn from the best photographers, not just any  photographer. 

Entering a competition is a good way to improve your photography because it forces you to be objective about your own work. Even if you never end up submitting any images, the process of reviewing their potential and image quality (eg, whether they meet minimum size requirements) will teach you a lot. See my article: How and Why to Enter Photo Competitions.

And if you do enter and don't get into the finals, don't get disheartened. You are not alone. Also, it does not mean that you didn't take a great image. It only means that on a particular day, those particular judges thought there were others that were better.

Magpie geese

Number 13

KLKL. Keep Looking. Keep Learning. 

NEVER assume you know everything already. Nobody, no matter how good they appear to be, can know everything and everybody, no matter how good they are, will, sooner or later, have someone come along who is better than them. 

The trick to success is to know what it is that you don't know. Never be embarrassed to ask questions if you don't understand something. It is the people asking the questions who will learn the most and the quickest.

KLKL! 

Number 14

Be bold. Break the Rules.

If you look at the portfolios of the very best bird photographers around the world, they all have one thing in common: a diverse range of images. Sure, they can give you the pin sharp bird on a beautiful lichen covered branch against a clean background, but they will have that image side by side with a beautiful backlit Great Crested Grebe or an Osprey taking off where everything is blurred except for the eye. The secret to their success is that they know the rules and they know how to break them.

"Learn the Rules like a Pro so that you can break them like an Artist."

Pablo Picasso

 Pacific Black Duck preening

Number 15

Learn, experiment, fail, experiment, learn, share and above all, love what you do!

 

Did you find this article helpful? Is there anything else you'd like to know about bird photography? If so, please be sure to leave a comment.

I would really love to hear from you!

 


5 comments

  • Lovely photos, been birdwatching most of my life, only been taking pictures since getting Nikon coolpix for present, wish I’d started earlier now, been happy with pictures taken, now got the bug and moved up to sonyrx10iv. Your pictures are inspiring, and hopefully your tips will help me move up a grade.

    Peter morris
  • Love your communication style. Very informative. And very honest.

    Keith James
  • Thanks for the wonderful resource – the Art of Bird Photography e-book

    David Edwards
  • Ok one admission! I read your articles often Georgina and then I read them again often! Keep reading, keep remembering :-)

    Dean Sewell
  • Learned quite a lot from your first article. Looking forward to read next ones.

    Kailash Mongs

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