We have all seen amazing photos of birds. Birds in flight, birds staring right back at us, birds ready to strike their prey. Whether it is a hummingbird or a golden eagle, birds are magnificent, majestic subjects for photos. Unfortunately though birds have this advantage called flight, and they don't often hold still to get their picture taken. With decent equipment, some tricks of the trade, and a lot of practice you too can take beautiful bird photos.
Let's just face reality for a moment. Those National Geographic quality bird photos you see out there were taken with fancy equipment. Big, expensive lenses were involved in the production of those shots! You don't need to go quite to the lengths that NatGeo does for their images, but you do need the right equipment.
Birds must be photographed from a distance, so a telephoto lens is a must. If your stock lens is all you have, you can zoom it and give it a try. If you have a fast DSLR and a 300 or even 400 mm lens, you are really in business. A camera with a good auto focus system and high frames per second speed is very helpful.
With that said, you can still use an entry-level DSLR and kit lens and get a good result. Practice and good technique can make up for so-so equipment to an extent. If you don’t have a tripod though, you should invest in one. This piece of equipment won't break the bank, and is extremely useful! Camera shake will make that potentially beautiful bird shot a blur.
One last piece of equipment you could consider is a teleconverter. Using a teleconverter to give the effect of increased focal length is typically cheaper than actually buying a telephoto lens. Do your homework though because there may be compatibility issues between teleconverter and lens. Also, if you try to use a teleconverter with a slow lens your camera may not be able to autofocus properly. This is definitely something that is nice to rent or try out before actually purchasing. See what your local camera store has to offer.
Your camera settings will vary to a large extent based on the camera/lens combination you are using. I recommend shooting in aperture priority mode so that you can control depth of field. An aperture around f/4 or f/5.6 should give a blurred background without too shallow of a depth of field. High shutter speeds are essential to bird photography - somewhere in the neighborhood of 1/800 - 1/1600 sec. Adjust your aperture (use a lower f-number to let more light into the camera) and ISO up (to make the camera more sensitive to light) accordingly to make this happen. Cranking up your ISO a bit in lower light situations is fine, but you don't want to go too high - especially if you shoot with a DX body. Don't go above 800 too avoid excessive noise and loss of detail.
One last setting to check is your autofocus mode. I suggest choosing continuous auto focus so that your camera will continually make adjustments as your subject moves.
There are a few other things to consider. Many bird photographers recommend shooting in RAW to capture all the fine detail that make birds beautiful. RAW will definitely give you a lot more control in post processing over things like white balance and color. The drawback to RAW is its size, and the way it slows down your camera when shooting in burst mode. Taking a few single shots and then shooting in burst is a great strategy for birds, but you may find that RAW bogs you down too much. This is a matter of experience, equipment, and personal preference.
Birds are often ornate and detailed, so you want a simple background that does not detract from your subject. To get that beautiful, pleasant bokeh (background blur) try to orient yourself so there is space between the bird and their background. Look for simple, mostly solid backgrounds to shoot against. (Obviously the bird doesn't cooperate with you, so it is a matter of how you position yourself and the angle you take on the photo.)
The photo above has what I consider to be distracting bokeh. It would be a better shot if the tree in the background didn’t detract from the bird's wings. A cleaner background with pleasant bokeh, like the one below, provides a more powerful shot.
Another consideration when taking bird photos, is the sharpness. Typically you want a photo that is sharp throughout - showcasing all parts of the bird with clarity. This is accomplished with a high shutter speed. In some cases, you may choose to lower your shutter speed a bit to slightly blur the wings and give a motion effect to your picture.
If you want to get started with bird photography, try photographing some of the more common, backyard bird varieties. Ask a birder in your area for a good location. You can even go to a local zoo or bird sanctuary (making sure to keep the fence out of your image). Get your tripod and your most telephoto lens and go out looking for birds. Keep in mind that birds don't typically like people around. Approach cautiously and shoot from a distance. Turn off your cell phone and settle in. Take lots of shots and sort through them later to find the keepers. Birds are beautiful and getting just one amazing shot makes all of the effort and waiting worth it.
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