Opening a blog discussion about bird photography can begin from any of several starting points, equipment, techniques, locations. First I wish to express what pleasures I get from my attempts at bird photography. Bird photography has overtime increased my understanding of the nature of birds, both in my ability to identify more species by sound or sight, and to also better understand their habits.
Ultimately, I venture out with my equipment in hopes of capturing a great bird photo all the while relaxing and reducing stress, because the only thing I think about while out doing birding is "nothing" if you know what I mean. The joy for me is taking a journey into the world of the bird along with my camera and be drawn into a pleasing experience. Most species of birds are shy, inquisitive, and beautiful to admire: It is amazing to think a tiny bird no larger than the palm of your hand flies 2,000 miles to raise a family each year then returns home for winter is nothing short of amazing. I warn you to bird photography is habit-forming.
I feel it is appropriate to start with a basic understanding of the birds you have access to in your area. If you live in the North American region a good resource is the Audubon Guide to North American Birds (link below), while other readers living abroad will have similar access to an on-line reference to birds that inhabit their geographic areas, you will need to do a few internet searches to find it. Once you find a reference, I would highly suggest you spend some time looking at the migratory patterns, the time of year the birds are living in your area, nesting periods. All this gives you a better understanding of what to expect at any time of the year.
We will not deep dive into the facts of migratory patterns and the very short periods of opportunity for a particular species. In my living area, there are a few species that I only have access to for about a month. So, with your knowledge built on those various aspects, let's begin to cover what equipment fits best to you and your approach to bird photography.
Big birds, small birds, birds in trees, birds on the ground or water, birds in flight each situation having theirs on challenges.
Understanding yourself, expectations, access to birds, and your budget helps solidify a decision on what equipment you will most likely need. First and openly stated you can capture bird photos with just about any camera and lens, but having a "system" designed for birding increases the number of images you keep needless to say.
This article will cover my personal recommendations and also some basic tactics for better bird photography. So regardless, you should pick up something useful here, if nothing more than inspiration to go out and give it a try.
My first recommendation
- the camera body: As a general statement I prefer crop sensor camera bodies for my bird photography because as we will see later - crop sensors provide a perceived larger image and increases the reach of the lens which is important to bird photography, out in the wild where we have little influence on where the birds land and perch reach matters to fill the frame. Crop Factor cameras provide a narrower Field of View (FOV) when used with lenses - for example, a 300mm used with a Nikon D7200, for example, = a 420mm lens FOV because Nikon DX sensors have a 1.5 crop factor while canon has a 1.6. Other manufacturers have various crop factors all the way to 2.7 for the CX sensor. I have achieved very good results with a modest Nikon 1 and 70-300 combo, some images are in the gallery. See my review on the Nikon 1 V3. At the end of the day, you really need a camera with a longer telephoto lens for the best results and success. The brand is less important than the size of the lens as stated earlier shop for all the lenses you can afford - money well spent on a good quality lens is well worth it for bird photography. Sigma makes some nice zooms out to 600mm at a reasonable price.
My second recommendation
- Lens: Try to obtain the fastest and longest lens you can afford and can carry (check the weight), newer lenses have gotten lighter but they are still heavy. This subject alone is complicated, with some people swayed by the pro lenses costing several thousand while others have the idea of being more portable with a reasonably priced lens that allows for a more mobile and agile approach to bird photography. Hunt around for a used bargain, nothing better than finding a hidden jewel. I personally have three favorite combinations I work with for my bird imagining, one is a lightweight agile carry while shooting from the trail's edge and in nearby trees, that would be my 300mm set up. I also have the long, heavy lens I take out when I spend time in spots taking bird photos, and finally, I have a good zoom 200-500 and with all zooms offers the flexibility of close in and slightly farther out shooting. Finally, for your first lens try to find a good F4 at 300mm or longer, or zoom out to 500mm, but with the understanding of zooms normally have a slower F stop - but when used in good light zooms offer a nice sweet spot for us at longer focal lengths and less cost.
When I mentioned carry, this is about how! I carry my larger lens on a tripod - yep and throw it over my shoulder which makes it much easier to haul around. Others feel comfortable with a harness such as Rapids. I only use the Rapids on my smaller lighter lens. Stability is key in sharp images, even with good Optical Stabilization or Vibration Reduction. Hand Carry has it's own set of challenges.
The eagle photo would not be possible without the use of a TC, for this photo I used a 2x. Leading to my third recommendation
- Teleconverters. After you are hooked with bird photography your next choice is normally buying a longer lens or extending the reach using teleconverters. I am not saying it is impossible, but if your lens is slower than an f/4 - I recommend you find a different way to obtain a longer focal length, buying a TC and using it with a lens of 5.6 may be usable but not as reliable as an f/4. Hear me when I say this, focus acquisition has just as much to do with the camera body as it does with the lens. Teleconverters are a great accessory and compliments a bird photographer's bag after you mastered the basics of the lens without the teleconverter attached. Long lenses with a teleconverter increase the chance of motion blur, especially at slower shutter speeds.
It took me 30 minutes of waiting which leads to my fourth recommendation
- Patience. Bird photography unlike the captive audience of a game of players in a sports arena. Birds are unpredictable and weary of humans. As I stated in the opening having a good understanding of where and what birds can be expected in your area for the time of year and day is a must. To simplify this you can find a good local wildlife area and go out when the lighting is good as the sun rises and just observe and shoot what birds are there. The one thing I found out, is to move in, stay still and wait, normally the birds you just scared off will return or others will move in. I try to stay in the shadows. Some birds are more observant and tolerant than others. Don't be discouraged, when you move into an area and the birds all take flight, just try to wait it out - birds will return.
As much as patience pays off - knowing that birds need food to survive = knowing where they will go. Where I live small berries and vines are growing up in a few trees where I visit. This offers a perfect opportunity for Cedar Waxwings, Flickers, and other berry eaters. So, I just find a good position and hang out.
This Cardinal photo was taken with the early morning sun coming from the front
Early morning directional light - worked wonders for this image.
: The position of the sun is extremely important in obtaining good images. It is very hard shooting birds who are in the deep shadows of trees or bushes, and who are back-lighted with the sunlight coming toward the front of the lens. Remember you don't have control over this but just be aware there will be times when birds are all on the wrong side of the trail. In summary, try to move along the trail with the sun coming from behind you, this may require a bit of planning on which direction or trail to take at a certain time of day. On the trails, I walk I go in the direction that places the sun over my shoulder the most.
Location: I find most of my images come from areas that have both open and old tree growth. Eagles love the high trees and perches with open spaces in front of them so they can launch their wide wings to hunt. Ospreys love the river banks and are found in and around larger rivers where they fish. In summary, my best general-purpose locations include areas with good water, food, and cover, and this can even be in your backyard. The second location is specific to a particular bird such as a Prothonotary Warbler who will be found near marsh areas with trees nearby in the early spring during the nesting season then P. Warbler migrates south from where I live. This species is in decline due to habitat loss.
So, what is this thing called bird photography? It is an aspect of photography that challenges you, your equipment, and patience but at the end of the day, you are highly rewarded with the freshness of the outdoors and a higher understanding of the lives of birds.
Don't get discouraged. Even on the best of days - you may only get a few great shots. Like this past weekend, I only had 6 usable photos after spending hours out in the cold and wind.