Friday, 8 May 2015

BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY. Getting down to basics

Bird photographers fall into roughly two groups; 

(a) those that are close to bird-watchers in their thinking in that they want to get good shots of many different species of birds. Like bird-watchers they use such terminology as ‘lifers’ to refer to a first time experience in seeing or photographing birds. 

(b) The other type of bird photographers are those that are more aligned to photographic perfection rather than recording a number of different species. 

I am a type (b) bird photographer. I am likely to work a promising situation for hours and days to get that WOW shot. The two shooting styles of course overlap. I am a wildlife photographer and shoot birds because they are more available where I live than herds of Wildebeest crossing crocodile-infested rivers.

An example of a detailed portrait

An prototype action shot

I will not mince words here. If you are serious about bird photography you need the following; (I am of course not allowing for budget constraints, which affect most of us)
1.    A late model Canon or Nikon professional camera body.
2.    A 500mm(f4) or 600mm lens (800mm a less desirable option).
3.    A steady tripod with a gimbal head, such as a Wimberley
4.    A 1.4 or 1.7 tele-extender
5.    A zoom lens in the range 100-400mm for flight shots and close-quarter work
6.    A compatible flash system

Hides, play-back systems, remote controls, bags...may  supplement your photography or aid you in getting shots but will not be discussed here. Just don't play call-back calls for too long and too loud.

Gitzo tripod, Wimberley head and Canon 800mm lens

As dedicated flash is necessary but used less than previously

I bought my 500mm lens close to 15 years ago and it is the best purchase I have made in my life. I have had incredible fun with it and it has help produce over 90% of my best images. Around 5 to 8 years ago fitting a flash onto your camera was standard procedure before setting off to shoot. I seldom use my flash these days owing to the huge increase in ISO capability in modern cameras.

Shooting Birds
Compared with film days there are now three exposure parameters to concern ourselves with when shooting birds, or any wildlife;
1.    ISO Value
2.    Shutter speed
3.    f stop

First we will look at the shooting modes available to you;
1.    P mode…..close your eyes and let the camera do everything
2.    Aperture mode…..set the aperture (f stop) you desire and let the camera sort out the rest.
3.    Shutter mode…set the speed you want and let the camera decide the other parameters
4.    Manual mode…… are in control of all three of the above parameters

I use manual mode and have done for years. Most professional photographer shoot the same way. YOU SHOULD BE IN COMPLETE CONTROL!!! I use one point for spot metering a subject and will often set my reading on something that is close to neutral gray in the vicinity of my primary subject. It is my opinion that if you use any of the other modes you will have more wasted images as the camera computer is programmed to give you an image of overall neutral gray in tone. A number of bird photographers shoot in aperture priority and use exposure compensation. This is fine but if any image needs exposure compensation you can allow for that when you shoot in manual mode. For example I have photographed White-throated Kingfishers a lot……if they are facing me I know I have to under-expose by one stop to avoid a blowout on their white bib. If they have their back to you I shoot at minus one third of a stop because there is no, or little, white showing.

Exposure based on a point reading of parts of the perch (-1/3).

Exposure as per reading on perch minus 1 to compensate for the white bib

Two different shooting circumstances

To simplify things there are two types of bird picture we want to record;
(1)  Record shots or portraits
(2)  Action or behavioural shots
…..let us look at them

(1)  Record shots or portraits
The desired outcome is a nicely focused shot of a ‘bird on a stick’. This can be added to a collection of birds in an area, birds of a feather (some birders pursue all the world’s Pitta species) publications….especially where clarity is essential, such as bird identification manuals. We have to assume the bird is sitting relatively still.
How do we shoot in this mode?.....remember we are doing it manually. The object is to have a clean shot of the bird that is all in focus and hopefully isolated from the background (except for deliberate environmental shots)
a.    Set your ISO number to as low a value as you are comfortable with…..say 400 to 800.
b.     Set your f-stop to f8-f9. Why? Birds have a certain thickness and you want to choose an f-stop that will accommodate this in focal terms without giving too much background detail. For example f-16 would ensure the bird is in focus but will have more background detail. As the three exposure parameters are linked an aperture of f6-22 will also compromise shutter speed.
c.    For portraits as long as the shutter speed is over 1/100 and the bird is not hyperactive any shutter speed is acceptable…..although as always the faster the better. Anything under 1/100sec flirts with motion blur

There are clearly low light circumstances where your ISO is set very high and you have to compromise on all other parameters. In these circumstances you will get a lot of failed shots but the ones that work are likely recording things that have not often been recorded before

Canon EOS1DX, 500mm f4 lens, ISO 2000, f8, 1/125 (low light in a forest setting)

Canon EOS1DX, 500mm f4 lens, ISO 2500, f8, 1/60 (low light in a forest setting)

How should the image look?
In the ideal situation the image should have the following features
     a.     The bird should be all in focus and well exposed
b.     The perch is considered as part of the bird and should ideally also be in focus
c.   The background should at best be smooth but at worst contain no distracting elements.

In the following examples ISOLATION of the main subject element is the key

Canon EOS Mk4, 500mm f4 lens, ISO 500, f8, 1/1600

Canon EOS Mk 4, 500mm f4 lens, ISO 500, f8, 1/1600

Canon EOS Mark 4 500mm f4 lens, ISO 500, f8, 1/1600

The above is the ideal situation, which usually is the exception rather than the rule. As mentioned at times it is desirable to place the bird in a natural environment and a certain amount of the background or territorial cues are desirable in these cases 

In some images the surrounding elements are essential to the story-telling element of the image.

There are many situations in between the environmental and the ideal. We cannot remove trees behind an eagle that arrives at a nest with a kill… might look ‘messy’ but that is how it is an we are recording a natural phenomena as best we can. The main subject is sharp and there are few distractions in the image.

Action or Behavioural shots
I personally like recording action and behaviour of birds and this is how I would set up for that;
(a)  Set ISO number to a value you know by experiment or trial and error that gives you a relatively noise-free image. I have a Canon EOS1DX and although the manufacturers claim it is capable of ISO values approaching 100,000 my experiments have deduced I am comfortable with a value of 2000. I still usually have to use some noise reduction in the background (I use Topaz de-Noise).
(b)  As before I set my f-stop at f-8….to allow for 'fat' birds
(c)  The important parameter is the shutter speed. My brain is programmed to reject anything on the main image element that is blurred or out-of-focus. Therefore I desire frozen wings with clear feather detail. I realise other folk think differently but anyone can get blurred shots…..the skill is in freezing action. To maximise the chance of freezing wings in action, or indeed any other action you need speeds above 1/2500……and the closer to 1/4000-1/5000 the better.  You need good light to get such values, such as full unobstructed sunlight…..preferably coming from a direction over either shoulder. For speeds involving hummingbird wings you need a specialised flash set-up where the flash duration essentially becomes the shutter at around speeds of 1/20,000sec.

A special flash set-up is needed to freeze the wings of Hummingbirds

How should the image look?
The three parameters listed for portraits essentially still hold here. In fact the perch element is sometimes eliminated……unless the bird is flying to or from such an object.
(a)  The main element of the image, the bird, should be well exposed and sharp…all over
(b)   The background should be smooth and devoid of distracting elements. I often use a 1.4x extender in conjunction with my 500mm lens. This has two benefits; (1). It increases the reach with minimal image degradation and (2) it smooths the background

Canon EOS1DX, Canon 500mm f4 lens, ISO 3200, f8, 1/4000

Canon EOS1DX, Canon 500mm f4 lens, 1.4x extender, ISO 2000, f8, 1/3200

Canon EOS1DX, Canon 500mm f4 lens, ISO 1600, f8, 1/4000

Canon EOS1DX, Canon 500mm f4 lens, ISO 3200, f8, 1/3200

Canon EOS1DX, Canon 500mm f4 lens, 1.4 extender, ISO 1600, f8, 18000

Canon EOS1DX, Canon 500mm f4 lens, 1.4x extender ISO 1250, f8, 1/3200

Canon EOS1DX, Canon 500mm f4 lens, ISO 2000, f8, 1/3200

Canon EOS1DX, Canon 500mm f4 lens, I1.4x extender, SO 2000, f8, 1/4000

Canon EOS1DX, Canon 500mm f4 lens, ISO 2000, f8, 1/4000

Shoot birds when they are in good condition
Just one note of caution when shooting either portraits or action shots; IF THE BIRD LOOKS BAD (ie IT IS NOT IN GOOD CONDITION) IN YOUR VIEWFINDER......FORGET IT YOU WILL THROW THE IMAGE AWAY LATER ANYWAY.
What do I mean by that? Birds undergo a moult...often once a year and can look a bit ragged at that time....their photo won't look good. I have spent quite a bit of time with ground-hole nesters in the last four seasons. They dig cavities in the soil to nest.....the tunnels can be a metre in length....they lay eggs in the cavity and incubate the eggs then when the chick hatches they fly in regularly with food.  A nest can have deliveries of 6 times an hour at a minimum and I have seen mature nests have deliveries at 12-15 times an hour. In an 8 hour day this amounts to 50 to 100 deliveries into the tunnel. That means is the feeding is split equally between two adults in 28 days of a chick growing an adult may make up to 1400 deliveries and that is on top of incubation duty and digging the hole. Adult Bee-eaters and Kingfishers are therefore not in prime condition at the end of the nesting cycle. If you want nice portraits take then when the birds assemble for nesting.

End note
I think getting action shots is the most exciting aspect of any nature photography and in any competition judgment falls heavily in favour of action shots. As cameras improve the boundaries get pushed further back and we can visualise things images that our eyes cannot process. There is room for both modes of photography and anything that adds to our knowledge or aids in conservation is highly desirable.
Recently I have tried to visualise action with multiple images taken from a still or video camera

Canon EOS1DX, Canon 500mm f4 lens, 1.4x extender, ISO 2000, f8, 1/5000. 4 images stitched
A sequence of still shots taken from a GoPro camera


  1. Thanks for sharing your experience , and ur photo are so amazing!

  2. Your information is quite impresive ..thank you for sharing your tips on bird photography. I alsolove and intrested in wildlife,national parks and bird species.

  3. Another great post. Interesting and informative.

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