Bird photography tips – what you do


A few people have asked me how to take pictures of birds, and I often get asked by casual observers how I do bird photography. Most bird people know this already, so this is really just for the people who ask me so I can point them somewhere. I often get “you must have good equipment”, sometimes even from people with better equipment than me! This post is an answer to those questions. I will divide this into two parts: how to (what you do), and technology (what to use).

1. Time of day. Early morning and late afternoon are the best times. The time 2-3 hours after sunrise and 2-3 hours before sunset are the best times for photographing birds. It is when birds are most active, and when the light is of the highest quality. The closer you get to mid day, the harsher the light (ugly shadows, light on the top and dark below, over an underexposed in the same image).

African green pigeon

African green pigeon, Kruger Park, early morning when the light is from the side, so nice even light with no shadows.

2. Distance. Get as close as you can. No lens can solve this challenge for you. Even 1 metre closer makes a difference. For really small birds, such as cisticolas, warblers, sunbirds, you need to be no further than 3-5 m from the subject with a 400mm lens, preferably as close as your lens will allow. I have a basic 400mm F5.6 Canon lens, and anything more than 4-5m away is generally a shot for the trash for smaller birds. For large birds, even 10m is pushing it. Faced with the challenge to extend the glass with an extender, getting a longer lens, or getting closer, I would choose getting closer every time. It is cheaper and better.

Tawny-flanked prinia too far away

Tawny-flanked prinia at 7 metres is just too far away.

3. Know your birds. Getting close means studying the bird species you are trying to photograph. Find a place where they perch, and get as close as you can. Hang out until they return to the perch. Look for bird parties, and get yourself in a position where they will pass you. Find a spot where birds land while bringing food to the nest, but under no circumstances disturb their nesting activities. Before you start taking photographs, walk or drive around with binoculars first. Learn the birds, get to know their names.

Black cuckoo-shrike male and female

Black cuckoo-shrike male and female. I had to do a lot of reading on them, talking about them with other birders, and finding a good place to go look for them. The photos are not great, but they took two years and lots of learning to obtain.

4. The eyes. Focus on the eyes. This is true for any animal, whether bird, mammal, reptile or invertebrate. The eyes are where people look, and the eyes should always be open and in focus. You can never tell when a bird will blink, so take a short burst of the same image, and discard the ones that have the eyes closed.

Golden-tailed Woodpecker, female

Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Campethera abingoni, female. Note the sharp eye focus.

5. Activity. Catch them doing something. Maybe the bird has caught some prey, is bringing nesting material, is calling, etc.

Bluewaxbill bringing nesting material

Bluewaxbill bringing nesting material

6. Interactions. Interactions are great. Watch birds at places where they are likely to interact. For example, courtship, agonistic behaviour, allopreening all make good interactions to photograph. Setting up close to water in dry areas can lead to interesting shots of birds bathing as well as interacting around the water. Ducks and geese often interact with one another late in the day, so finding a nice place where they come to rest can make for interesting photos.

The passing of a caterpillar from male to female Diederik cuckoo

The passing of a caterpillar from male to female Diederik cuckoo, a good example of an interaction.

7. Take lots of photos. Take lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of photos. If you only take one photo of a bird in a given situation, it is unlikely that you will get a decent picture. At least not without considerable expertise to bring to bear on it. Take lots of photos, take bursts of a bird that is active. Take it from different angles, on different perches, etc. Get as many as you can, and delete most of them, they will be of no use.

Take lots of pictures

Take lots of pictures.

8. Patience. The most important tip about photographing birds is ‘have patience’. You have to be prepared to spend time. Sometimes it can take years to get photographs of a particular bird. Sometimes you have to go back to the same spot many many times. The longer you spend with attention on a particular species at a particular location, the better your photos will become.

Female and male narina trogon

Female and male narina trogon. Gettting these two photos took weeks of reading about their behaviour and habitat, discussions with the late Chris Krog from whom I learned such a lot, followed by three days of patient stalking where they were known to occur.

9. Non-photography time. Spend time watching birds without your camera. I was lucky enough to spend a few days birding with the the late Chris Krog, whose photos are just magnificent, and he said to me in his patient and considerate way, “Derek, the most important thing is to spend time out with the birds. Get to know them, where they live and what they do. Spend time not taking photographs.” His amazing photos certainly show the value of that advice.

Hopefully this will be of use to someone who is starting bird photography. In the next part I will talk about technology.

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