Bird Photography Equipment and Tips

 

Compact “point-and-shoot” cameras:

If you choose to purchase a compact digital camera, you will need a “superzoom” Image Stabilized (IS) model of at least 18X zoom available in the newer models.

 

The Canon ultra-zoom camera that is rated very highly is the SX10 IS with 10 megapixels and 20X image stabilized zoom, equal to 28 to 560 mm, approximately $350.  Another top-rated model is the Panasonic DMC-FZ28 with 10 megapixels and 18X zoom, equal to 27- 486mm. About $300.

 

 Another newer model is the Olympus SP-590UZ ultra-zoom digital camera with a 26X zoom lens that covers a 26-676mm equivalent focal length range. Due to past issues with Olympus ultra-zooms, I’d be surprised if it rates as highly as other superzoom models. Just announced is the Sony SC-HX1 with 20X zoom, image stabilization and HD movie recording with stereo sound and the. Pentax X70 superzoom with 24x optical zoom up to 624mm and Image Stabilization.

 

For camera reviews, go to http://www.dpreview.com and http://imaging-resource.com

SLR Cameras and lenses:
For bird photography you need an SLR with a 300 mm or longer lens. Sony and some other brands like Pentax and Olympus have models with stabilization built into the camera so you can use non-stabilized lenses, but check lens availability at their own websites and then price the lenses at bhphotovideo.com to see how they compare with Canon and Nikon models. Sometimes these brands have much higher lens prices than Canon and Nikon. Sigma and Tamron also make lenses to fit most cameras. If you are in the market for an SLR, read my article on Buying an SLR. Here's another of my articles Tips for SLR Photography.

Often it’s is better to spend more money on the lens than the camera. Investing your money into the best lens you can afford will yield better photographs than a more expensive camera body will. Birds are very small subjects and in order to get a reasonable image size you need long telephoto lenses and with fast lenses rated f4 or wider you can use a 1.4 x extender. The Canon 300 mm with an extender is a popular choice. There is also a nice Canon 400 mm lens and 500 and 600 mm lenses that unfortunately are heavy and expensive.  I use the Canon 300 mm Image Stabilized f4 lens +  the Canon 1.4X extender for a total of 420 mm.  I also have and favor the Canon 100 – 400 mm IS zoom lens. Nikon also has a 200 - 400 mm lens. Sigma makes a 150 – 500 mm stabilized lens in Canon and Nikon mounts. Used lenses can be found at some dealers like KEH.com, Adorama.com and B & H (bhphotovideo.com) and at the Fred Miranda buy/sell forum.

 

A good camera for those who don’t want to get into the higher price range of the 15 megapixel Canon 50D like I have is the Canon Rebel XSi with 12 megapixels.  In most cases more megapixels is not necessarily better, but with birds being small subjects, more megapixels makes the image larger so 12 is a good size.

 

For shooting stationary birds, try to keep your shutter speed at least 1/200 second or more to avoid blurring from the bird moving or camera shake.  For birds in flight, try to maintain a shutter speed of 1/500 second or better.  Use a higher ISO value if your shutter speed is too low, or a larger aperture setting.  If you are still shooting in the automatic modes, be sure to use P mode on the camera so that you can change some critical settings if need be. 

 

With an SLR or other camera with multiple focus points, always choose the center focus point for birds and wildlife to be sure it focuses on the bird and not a branch or other object.  You must use Program, Aperture or Shutter priority or Manual modes to be able to change the focus point and ISO and to use Exposure Compensation to increase or decrease the amount of light or exposure, as when you have a bird against a light sky or water, you must use plus exposure compensation so you won’t get a really dark image.  Exposure compensation is also available on nearly all compact cameras.

If you have a digital SLR, shoot in Raw format which contains all of the raw image data captured by the camera's sensor without it being processed by the camera’s software. You can interpret this data any way you want instead of having the camera do it for you. If you want total control over exposure, color, contrast, saturation and sharpness, this is the best format to use. It’s much more forgiving of exposure mistakes so you have more leeway to salvage under-exposed shadows and over-exposed highlights.  You can correct color casts and really make your photos “pop” when using the Raw converter to process your images the way you want instead of letting the camera “bake” the adjustments into a jpg image. Read my article Why Shoot Raw?

Bird Photography Tips:

 

Using your vehicle as a blind:
In many locations you can use your vehicle as a blind.  Birds are not usually as spooked by vehicles as when you are on foot.  Some locations are easily accessible by vehicle so take advantage of this whenever possible. I shoot from my van most of the time at the lock and dam and at other sites. You must turn the engine off, as even the slightest vibration will blur your images. Move the vehicle and your camera slowly to avoid flushing the birds. If you see a bird, don’t jam on the brakes as this may scare them. Go on past, turn around and ease back slowly with your camera gear ready and the window rolled down to the proper height.

 

First you must do your homework by scouting the area to find out what times the birds are present and to choose the best time of day to photograph them when the light is good because good lighting is critical to getting good photos. You can shoot any time with light overcast skies, but on sunny days, avoid the midday sun if possible, and shoot in the early morning or late afternoon for best results as the light is softer and won’t tend to create harsh shadows and washed out colors.

 

It’s important to stabilize your camera when shooting from the vehicle when using a long lens. The simplest method is to rest your camera or lens on a rolled towel or beanbag placed on the window. There are also car-window mounts that mount directly to the window and screw into the tripod mount on the camera.  These are available online from bhphotovideo.com.

 

If you have a small digital camera with a viewfinder, just press it to your face for stabilizing it better. If it doesn’t have a viewfinder, rest it on a beanbag on the window or window sill. You can make a beanbag with dried beans in a Ziploc bag or get a seamstress to make you one. These are also great to use when using your vehicle or a post or stump, etc. as a tripod to set your camera on and keep it level.

When outside the vehicle, you can help steady your camera by leaning on any object such as your vehicle or a tree.  You can press your camera up against any stationary object to steady it.  Always stand with one foot slightly in front of the other for more stable balance and press the shutter release gently, don’t jab it.

 

Winter photography: 

When it’s cold, batteries don’t last nearly as long so take extras and keep them next to your body in a pocket.

 

Condensation is a problem in cold weather.  If your camera is cold and you bring it into a warm place, condensation will form on it and possibly inside it. The best way to deal with this is to put your camera into a plastic bag before you bring it indoors. This way moisture will condense on the outside of the bag.  You have to do the same thing in summer when you take you camera out of an air conditioned house or vehicle, as moisture will condense on it and you won’t be able to take pictures because the lens will be fogged up.  It can take up to 15 minutes for it to acclimate, so keep it in a plastic bag while it warms up.

Photographing birds in your yard at or near feeders:
You should place your feeders so that they will have the benefit of sunlight during the best time to photograph them which are early morning and late afternoon. However, having the sun hitting them from the side is not advisable as one side will be in deep shadow and you will get very high contrast images.  I get the best results since my feeders are situated like this by shooting under light overcast skies to prevent shadows. Dark overcast skies require using higher ISO values and larger apertures and may not result in very good images unless you have a digital SLR.

What I usually do is shoot out an open window. You won’t get crisp images shooting through glass. By photographing from inside the house you can get a comfortable seat, hopefully, and you can also set up a tripod if you want.  It’s a good idea to make a camouflage curtain or do what I do and take a large piece of cardboard and cut out a hole for the camera and wedge it into the window frame. This is helpful to keep bugs out, keep hot or cold air out and hide your movements. A problem with shooting from the house is that the house might block the sun so your subject may be shaded so try to use a window where they will not be in the shade.

Try to keep the feeders within 15 ft. or so from the window if possible and no more than 20 ft.  Try to have the background behind the feeders as uncluttered as possible.

To photograph birds when you are outside, you will probably have to use a blind of some sort. These are available at most stores that carry hunting supplies and online.

Perches:
Pictures of birds on feeders can be fun to start with, but eventually you will tire of that as I did and strive for more natural settings without showing “the hand of man”.  You can create perches near the feeders or use existing natural perches.  Some people use living plants in pots as perches and others cut off branches or use fallen limbs or stumps to create natural-looking perches near the feeders or elsewhere in your yard.  I attached bare branches to the tops of my feeder poles with either duct tape or Velcro straps and the birds love to perch there to wait their turn at the feeders. Limbs or branches with interesting shapes and bark are desirable. Choose darker colored limbs if possible, they photograph better and the colors don’t get whitewashed like light colored branches do.

Logs and stumps make good perches for some types of birds. To entice the birds to stay, drill some holes on the side of the log or stump to hold seed. Be sure to place them on a side not visible to the camera.

 How to make better photos:
I get a lot of comments on my bird images such as “you really capture their personality” or “you really make them come alive”.  This is my intent or goal when photographing birds.  I wait until the bird has it’s head and/or body in a nice pose that shows some expression before taking the picture whenever possible. And I try to focus on the eyes when applicable.  I shoot as many photos as possible when the bird is stationary and usually get at least one good one with an expressive pose.  I cull heavily and discard any photos that are not pleasing to me or not worth displaying on the web, in most cases.  This is after 5 - 6 years of taking bird photos, so I don’t expect your standards to be as high to begin with, but it’s something to aim for down the road.  When starting out, just getting a photo of one that’s sharp and well-exposed is quite an accomplishment!  

If you are shooting for ID or documentation purposes or if it’s a rare bird then those standards go out the window as the idea is just to get a photo of the bird before it takes off.  Sometimes you get lucky and get a really nice shot to boot.

Your digital darkroom is almost as important as your equipment and skill as a photographer.  Any serious or pro photographer will agree with me on that point.  Use a good photo editor such as the one I recommend, Photoshop Elements or PaintShop Pro or at least one that comes with the camera or is available free online to fine tune your images, improving tone, contrast, colors and sharpening, cropping to best advantage, and many other functions including processing raw images from an SLR. 

The last piece of advice is “practice, practice, practice!”  To become proficient at photography you first have to get to know your camera; how to operate it and how to change settings automatically without stopping to think about it and you have to learn how your settings affect your images.  Learn to use features like exposure compensation and how to change the ISO sensitivity to get a faster shutter speed in dim lighting, how to change focus points, how to use continuous focus mode on an SLR camera to follow a flying bird and other important features. Compact cameras also have many features available that you might not know about unless you read the manual and try them out.  In my classes I often hear “I didn’t know it would do that!”  Remember that you will get better images if you take control of the camera in some situations and don’t always rely on Auto mode to get good results.

I teach photography classes several times a year at the Rosenzweig Arts Center in Columbus.  You can check with them if you are interested. Columbus Arts Council 662-328-2787.

Visit my Digital Photography Class website for lots of good tips, tutorials, techniques for photography and photo editing. To start with, check out the glossary of photography terms.

Here's a good article on backyard bird photography: http://www.naturephotographers.net/articles1205/gm1205-1.html

 

Another good article on the ABCs of Bird Photography http://www.naturephotographers.net/wl0201-1.html

 

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