The absolute best way to find birds to photograph is to go out with an experienced birder. No field guide will reliably get you to birds as rapidly. If you don’t know a good birder, join your local Audubon club or call a birding store and ask about local birding hot spots. And, even when you’re out without a birder, stop anytime you see a group of people with binoculars and spotting scopes. Birders share their delights.
Field guides are the second best way to find birds to photograph. Most field guides have been reduced for your smart phones and computer tablets and they show it. Get the real book. National Geographic’s is the most comprehensive, followed closely by Sibley’s and by Ken Kaufmann’s. Not only do they show you the bird and tell you where it lives and travels, they tell you about its habits. Birds, like all animals, are creatures of habit. More about that in a moment.
For the best telephoto lens, take ten steps forward. Wear dull clothing, use trees, bushes, grasses, and other natural obstacles to sneak up on the birds. If necessary, crawl, don’t walk. The sooner you forget your natural dignity, the sooner you’ll get fantastic photographs.
SIT DOWN AND WAIT
You have, as Wendell Berry puts it, come into “the peace of wild things.” Find a likely habitat, sit down, and be silent. The birds will come to you as soon as you are at peace.
Create a bird photography station in your backyard. All you need are feeders, bird seed, and a comfortable place to sit. You can even sit indoors, next to a window.
MAKING THE PHOTOGRAPHS
CHECK YOUR CAMERA
You are in place, quietly waiting for the birds. Now is the time to check your camera. Is it turned on? Lens cap removed? Are the settings correct? If you are shooting with a modern digital camera, 90% of the time its automatic setting will deliver acceptable photographs. Beware: It has a built-in bias for a wide aperture and fast speed, meaning that the depth-of-field – the area in focus – will be limited. If you can, manually set the ISO to 200 (Good light) or 400 (Bad light) to minimize digital “noise.”
Ready to shoot? Take three more seconds to compose the photograph. In your mind’s eye divide the scene you are looking at through the camera into equal thirds, vertically and horizontally. Adjust the camera so that the bird or, even better, the bird’s eyes are at one of the nine points where the lines intersect. Don’t put the bird in the precise middle of the frame. That results in a static, boring composition.
Unless you are waiting for the bird to look directly at the camera, leave space on the side of the photograph where the bird is looking. Otherwise, your viewer’s eyes will leave the photograph before seeing all the photograph. And even though almost all birds’ eyes are on the side of their heads, your photographs will be more interesting if the bird is looking toward the camera. Include some habitat that is in focus. (That will be difficult or impossible if you are shooting with large telephoto lenses which have severely limited depth-of-field.)
There is nothing wrong with photographs of perched birds, but action will add interest to your photographs. Try to get shots of take-offs and landings.
Birds telegraph their take-offs. Cranes and shorebirds often stare in the direction of take-off before starting their take-off runs. Birds usually take off and land into the wind. Raptors and other mid-sized birds will crouch just before leaving their perch. Almost all birds defecate in the seconds before take-off. Focus on the bird’s head when you see this behavior and start clicking the shutter at the first move.
Birds in flight require forethought. If you wait until the bird is flying by you, it’s going too fast for your camera’s automatic focus system to keep up. Predict from where the bird will come, pre-focus by depressing the shutter button part way, and wait for the bird to reach that point before taking the photo. If your camera allows burst shooting, take several shots, increasing the odds of getting one that is sharply focused. And remember that a photograph with a bird flying directly toward your camera will emotionally make your viewers participants; not observers.
FOCUS, FOCUS, FOCUS
You’re almost ready now. The only thing left to do is focus, focus, focus.
For bird photography the old maxim of documentary photography, “F8 and be there” works best. You can substitute F5.6 or F11 aperture settings for F8. Modern digital cameras allow you to substitute “automatic” settings.
There is no substitute for being there.
Finally, and most important, remember why you are there.