Bird Photography for Humans

This post was originally written to assist people with a bird photography contest. I hope you learn something! Please let me give you some general tips on how to improve your bird photography.

Get Eye Level
If you want to create a compelling bird photo, you have to get on the bird’s level. Exceptions exist, of course, but the majority of photos of birds high in trees or sitting down on the ground are more suited for bird identification than contests.

If you want a great bird photo, you have to get it from the bird’s perspective. Be the bird. Get dirty (bend over, lay on the ground, stoop). Do what it takes to get on the same plane as the bird.

You don’t know bird photography disappointment until you use a film camera

The Eye’s Have It
When I say “it,” I mean catchlight: the white little Obies that reflect the sky/sun/light source in the eyes. These are a must-have for bird portraits, and can dramatically improve a close up bird shot.
For example, these two photos were taken within a second of each other, but the one with the little white catchlight is vastly superior:

This photo isn’t even that incredible, the bird is above eye level, it has a cluttered background, but the photo with the catchlight really helps capture how adorable this little Verdin is.

Actively Compose Your Photo
Photography is more about what you leave out, than what you include. Sure, we are all here to get great photos of birds, but, what are we trying to exclude from our photos? Distractions! The goal is to have an idea of the subject, isolate it in the foreground, and remove unwanted distractions from the edges of the frame and the background.

Use your feet to help compose your shot by moving to create the most pleasing angle. These photos of Anna’s hummingbirds were taken within seconds of each other.

My thought process: Oh shit! It let me approach. Quick, take a photo! Oh, there is a car tire in the background – that looks like garbage. Look around. There’s a clean red background. The bird’s still relaxed? Lets shift slowly to not disturb our model, get to eye level, aaaaaand take a million photos!

Taking a million photos is important.

Sometimes just shifting slightly so your subject is on a nice solid field of color can make an enormous difference. Try to get clean backgrounds for your photos.

If your goal is to get a portrait of a bird, the fewer distractions, the better. If you are trying to get a landscape photo, be meticulous about what you include, and most importantly, what you leave out.

As your level of zoom increases, this gets easier. If you are taking photos with your cell phone, you have a very wide field of view to consider. By contrast, if you are taking photos through a telephoto lens or a telescope, you may only have to move a few inches to the left or the right to clean up distractions and completely change the mood and aesthetics of your composition.

Take a Million Photos

I took 30 very similar photos of this bird in an effort to get one good one.

Birds move a lot! They are tricky subjects. That being said, the more photos you take, the more chances you have of getting a good shot. When I see a bird in a good location I will take little bursts of 3-4 photos, as many as I can, until the bird flies off.

I have many, many, many bad bird photos. I try to cull the bad ones.
Here is my thought process on culling as I scroll through the photos.

Oh god, what have I done! That’s sooo many song sparrow photos, delete, that one’s blurry, delete, can’t see the eye, delete, blurry, delete, slightly weird pose, save for later. There is a branch sticking out of its head, nope, clean background, good feather detail, no catchlight, next Interesting pose, catchlight, good detail, Keep!

The More Dynamic the Better

When you are taking photos, or selecting photos to submit and share, the more dynamic the better. If you have to choose between a silly pose or a standard bird sitting on a branch, pick the silly pose. Photos of birds doing more than sitting are very difficult to find. This is the reason you see soooo many birds perched.

Try to capture birds doing one of the Four F’s: Flying, Fighting, Feeding, or Mating (I’m keeping my blog PG-13 for some reason). Any time you are able to get a clean, crisp photo of a bird doing more than simply perching, you have accomplished something incredible. Feeding is probably one of the easier behaviors to capture, because birds just keep coming back to food. Ultimately, though, you want your photo to tell some sort of story, and having any type of gesture or action helps create that narrative.

Get Closer (but not too close)

I said “Not too close!”

This should probably be higher up, and I am sure I am preaching to the choir here, but… it should be our goal to get ethical bird photos.  We should try to observe without disturbing. If you end up flushing a bird, in an effort to get a little bit closer to get a slightly better photo, you lost. The good news is, there are lots of chances to win. Each new bird is its own opportunity.

When I am in the field, I usually am a birdwatcher first, and bird photographer second. Most of the photos I am proud of are photos attained when the bird has gotten too close to me, not me too close to it. If I am lucky, there will be one or two experiences a day in which a bird gets overly comfortable. If you are really lucky, they will also be in good light, and not buried in a sea of greenery.

Seeing a bird shouldn’t paralyze you in bird ethics fear. Ideally you will just walk on paths normally without chasing birds from one perch to another. If a bird is in your path, and you want to see how close of a photo you can get, I recommend this strategy: See a bird, take a photo. If it didn’t fly away, slowly take a step or two forward, and take another photo. Don’t move your camera or your body too fast. Just keep creeping forward, stopping periodically, and snapping more photos.

When I see some nice shorebirds, I like to see which direction they are heading, creep up to them, and try to situate myself in a location where they will come to me. This works with birds that move in flocks too. Try to guess where the birds will go, get eye level, and let them come to you.

Scattered Thoughts

Crisp bird photos come from fast shutter speeds, using tripods or monopods, and luck. You can increase your luck by increasing your shutter speed, or carrying around a tripod.

Digiscope – Sarah Swanson, my friend and co-author of Must See Birds of the Pacific Northwest wrote an excellent blog post about digiscoping for Celestron. Read it.
Main take away: get crispy photos by using a cell phone holder and a remote trigger – not by jabbing the phone screen to take a photo. You can often do this with a pair of headphones.

Clean your lens, especially your cell phone lens. Those things get greasy/grimy/dirty and are not treated with the same kind of reverence as traditional cameras.

Practice makes perfect – Go to a place where people feed birds in your area to get great shots of feeding and flight. Get down low and get that shot! Gulls, ducks, pigeons, parrots?

Don’t forget your own front window. Practice with the birds you are feeding. Make them work for that seed!

Wear camouflage in the field. Scientists say it helps you get 28% closer to your subject.

Good luck out there. Bird up!

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