Bird photography

(Disclaimer: I am not a professional wildlife photographer. The intention behind this article is to provide an overview for beginners. The write-up is a collection of tried and tested information from prominent people of this field and of course personal experiences as a passionate birder)

Bird photography, in itself, is a huge subject and this is no place for extensive discussion on that. Here, I intend to give a very concise overview on bird photography (intended towards beginners) which I hope will pave the way for beginners to think and work on this subject.

Photographic equipment

Photography is equipment dependent and sometimes they can be heavy on your pocket. For good photgraphy following equipment are a definite requisite:

Camera: Look for high megapixels, high ISO, higher shutter speeds around 1/2000th of a second and with high fps.
Lens: With figh focal length (above 250mm), fast lenses with image stabilization. Prime lenses are always better than zoom lenses.
Flash: Not preferable but may be useful in situations of low light where the subject identified is important and cannot be missed.
Teleconverters/Extenders: used to increase the focal length by fixing between the lense and the camera.
Tripod / monopod: helpful in reducing image shakes.

Use of above equipmet is dependent on the amount of money you can afford to invest. An entry level Dslr with a 70-300mmm IS lens can offer you the scope to experiment. At the least, one can use a point and shoot zoom camera which are quite affordable and at times can catch good bird photographs and at least will help you identify the bird.

Basics of bird photography

Be it of nay kind the focus in bird photography should be on the detailing of the subject. But, the transformation of a mere photograph into an object that appeals to the eye depends on various basic elements which can be learnt through practice or by studying photographs of renowned photographers of this field. Some of these things are related to proper use of the camera (like adequate shutter speed, depth of field, correct exposure etc.) and understanding of factors like composition, lighting, framing, angle, orientation etc. Let’s look at some of the key elements:

Understanding your camera – Basic

Exposure: In bird photography the reaction time is less and at the same time we need a control over the exposure and the shutter speed so among all the different choices of exposure modes we will use Aperture-priority (A or Av) mode. Aperture-priority mode allows you to fix the widest aperture, controls depth of field and have the camera set the highest shutter speed accordingly. We will also forget Shutter-priority (S or Tv) mode as most of the times it leads to unwanted exposure (under-exposer at low lights)and unwanted depth of field.
Shutter speed: With Aperture priority the shutter speed is dependent on the light available. But a minimum shutter speed of 1/125 is recommended for bird photography. There is a thumb rule too: “shutter speed should be inverse of focal length”.
ISO sensitivity: Higher ISO allows us to shoot at very low light conditions.But, we should try to shoot at the lowest ISO possible as higher ISO leads to higher noise. For bird photography, most experts recommends an ISO of 400 at normal times and 800 for low light conditions. With practice one can find out the lowest ISO for a proper shutter speed-aperture combination.

knowledge of some other terms like metering mode, exposure compensation, white balance, exposer bracketing etc. are required for serious photography which is beyond the scope of this discussion.

lighting

It’s difficult to get a good photgraph during a bright, clear day because images end up with too much contrast, washed-out light areas. Morning and late afternoon are the best times to shoot as the light is angled, warmer, and more subdued. This helps to bring out all the details of your bird’s plumage. For silhouette you would prefer to have the subject backlit, otherwise it rarely works well.

Framing

Space: Avoid placing the bird in the exact center of a photograph. It is much more visually stimulating to see the bird off to one side, facing inward. That means, we should keep space on the side the bird is lookin so that it doesn’t look caged. Likewise, avoid placing the horizon line in the middle of a picture which cuts it in half and usually looks bad. It’s better to frame the horizon in the top or bottom third of your photograph.In the case of a flying bird, leave space in front of it, so it appears that the bird has somewhere to go. If the bird is facing you or the head is in the opposite direction, central composition usually works well.

Size: Most bird images looks good if the bird occupies about 50% of the frame. A little less or more is fine too depending on other factors. But if it is too less the bird will be lost and if it is too large the bird would seem to be boxed.

Orientation: The orientation, portrait or landscape, of a photograph depends on the subject and on the discretion or taste of the photographer. some images even look better in a square. generally, tall birds are fitted in portrait mode, and smaller ones in the landscape mode.

Rule of thirds:”Don’t get stuck to this rule. You can’t afford to fit all pictures according to this rule.”

Composition

Objects other than birds (like branches, flowers, rocks etc.) in an image can be either a distraction or a suitable part of the image depending on how they are framed. Bird photographs should include the surroundings to show or undersatnd their relationship with their habitat better. But in the process what we should avoid is, some non-bird object right behind the bird. But usually, incorporating surroundings in the photograph makes it better. For too many non-bird objects behind the bird we should blur the background, by opening the aperture more, so that the subject stands out.
Merging or Aliasing:Merging or aliasing is the term used to describe when a part of the bird lines up with some non-bird elements of the background thereby interrupting the outline. Care should always be taken to avoid merging.

Avoid man-made objects: Human objects are no no in a bird image except in a few cases or Unless the bird is of extremely urban habitat. Best bird images are shot at natural locations.

Angle and level

Shooting from bird’s-eye level results in photos with proper details and adds intimacy that you don’t get otherwise. Avoid shots from the top and photos with the bird looking away from the camera (but exceptions are always there depending on the terrain and the species of bird.)

Subject Knowledge

Capturing the right moment: To be the best you have to know birds. Then you know where you’re likely to find them and what they might do next (eg. where to find a particular species or what is the position of a bird just before it takes off). A little can be very big in bird photography.

To make it short

There are influencing factors like accurate positioning, camera techniques , intelligent cropping…But, according to all leading bird photographers, the key to improving your bird photography is to spend a lot of time in the field, among the subjects, and enjoy experimenting!