Bird photography is a supremely satisfying pursuit if you do it the right way and get results to show for your hard work. It combines knowledge borrowed from Ornithology with techniques that are used in wildlife photography and create a wonderful synergy. It’s a truly inspiring genre, to photograph birds that is, and brings together technology and the love for nature on a common platform. I have a lot reverence for nature. It never ceases to surprise or awe-struck me. She is also a great source of inspiration. She always manages to surprise me.
Gear: What you need to Photograph Birds
To photograph birds you need some specialized tools. These can be rather expensive for an amateur looking for a toehold in this genre. Unfortunately, a good camera and a good tele-lens lens are mandatory to photograph birds. At the minimum you need a lens with a focal length of 200mm to even think about working in this genre.
Nikon has a wonderful 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II G lens. You can think of it as your first really good lens that can take your reach to telephoto lengths. Though the focal length of 200mm isn’t really exciting, pairing it with a 2X tele-converter makes it a respectable 400mm f/5.6. It still has VR and handles exceptionally well. Plus, it has an excellent build quality. It also auto-focuses really well and is a joy to use in both good and bad light.
There are plenty of choices on the higher priced segment. The 400mm, the 500mm and the gigantic 600mm are choices for photographers with deep pockets. Both Canon and Nikon has plenty of options in this range. The trade-off with cheaper lenses is their image quality. At the lower (cheaper) end, lenses come with a small maximum aperture. These lenses struggle in high-speed and low light situations. The only way to shoot with slower lenses in these scenarios is to use a higher ISO number. Lenses like the Tamron 150-600mm f/5 – 6.3 is a case in point. It tends to struggle in low light and high speed shooting scenarios. In bright light the Tamron is a respectable lens to photograph birds with.
Using tele-converters is not without perils though. The maximum aperture that you can use drops down by one to two stops depending on the tele-converter that you use. For example, the 70-200mm lens I mentioned above becomes a 400mm lens when you add a 2x tele-converter to it. But the maximum aperture drops down to f/5.6. The dedicated Nikkor 400mm prime, on the other hand, has a maximum aperture of f/2.8. It thus gives an incredible advantage in low light. With this lens you can shoot at twice the shutter speed that a 70-200mm f/2.8 with a 2x tele-converter on and shooting at 400mm. But there is a catch. The 400mm prime comes at a price of around $11K, Meaning it is out of the reach of most photographers.
To photograph birds you need a camera with high speed continuous shooting. It’s not that a camera with 5-6 frames per second is unusable. However, you have a higher chance of getting one sharp photo out of a long burst when you shoot continuously. A sweeping hawk, a kingfisher popping out of the water or a flock of geese flying in synchronization can only be captured when your camera is capable of shooting 8, 9 or higher frames per second. Needless to say, you will need to set your camera to continuous high speed shooting hen attempting such compositions.
If the lens you are shooting with is a prime there is no changing the focal length. In order to work on the frame the only thing you can do is change the position you are shooting from. Thus, to shoot with primes you need to use your feet a lot more than you would do with a zoom lens.
The aperture you want to use will depend on what you are shooting and the Depth of Field (DoF) you need. If the bird is in its elements and you want to show that in the final image use a smaller f-stop. If, on the other hand, you want to isolate the bird from its surroundings and therefore create a beautiful background blur, use a wider aperture. Smaller apertures can also create substantial background blur provided the background is further away. So, both subject to background distance as well as aperture are important.
Know the settings possible on your lens. These super telephoto lenses come with something caller Focusing Distance Delimiter. Use this feature to lock the focus hunting range to what you are shooting at. This speeds up focusing.
I have already mentioned the all-important camera setting in one of the previous paragraphs. Another setting for your camera, and this one is for Nikon users, use Focus Tracking with Lock-on and set it to Long. This prevents your camera from losing focus on a bird in mid-flight as you pan. Let’s say there are obstacles between your camera and the bird. With a short setting the camera will immediately attempt to refocus thereby focusing on the trees. When the bird re-emerges it will take that extra few micro-seconds to lock focus and you could lose invaluable photo opportunities.
Prepare, read, scout and gather intel
To photograph birds you need meticulous research and preparation. You need to not only know what your target birds are, but also their habitats and habits as well. There is a vast repository of information on the internet. Apart from that you can pick up some books and magazines on the birds endemic to your surroundings. You will get details about their habitat, their habits and the destinations you can travel to in order to photograph them.
In India, for example, swamps and wetlands are prime destinations as these are the locations migratory birds coming in from central Asia during the winter months spend the entire Winter at. Local knowledge is helpful but not entirely a requirement. Social media is a good place to obtain information. Many photographers willingly share where they have shot an image giving you the opportunity to try your hand out.
Shoot with the sun behind you
Always shoot with the sun behind you, especially when it is lower towards the horizon. This means the best times of the day are sunrise and sunset. The reason is at 400mm or longer focal lengths keeping focus on a tiny bird and making its eye appear sharp is going to be a real challenge when the light is coming straight down. Slanted light, such as the one that you get during sunset and sunrise is best as it produces a nice catchlight as well as allow you a better exposure at faster shutter speeds.
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