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Photographing Birds

By Justin W. Moore
Birds have been inspiring us for centuries. They thrill us with their mastery of flight and their immense diversity. This guide will focus on improving your ability to capture these magnificent creatures in photographs.

Copyright © Justin W. Moore. All Rights Reserved.

Capturing bird behavior can add tremendous impact to your photographs, like this Killdeer doing its famous "broken wing" display to lure predators away from its nest.
Kodak Gold 200 exposed for 1/125 second at f5.6

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Always Keep Your Subject's Well-Being in Mind

Avoid situations that put stress on your subject. If a bird is showing signs of stress, remove yourself as quickly as possible. Such was the case when I photographed the Killdeer shown above. I had already taken a few photographs when it began its "predator luring" behavior. Knowing this meant that a nest or chicks were nearby, I disengaged and left its immediate area.

Use Fast Shutter Speeds

Fast shutter speeds are synonymous with great bird photographs. Why? Birds are fast. When they're flying, you will usually need at least a 1/500 second shutter speed. Even small songbirds, when perched, will often make sudden and unexpected movements. Learn to love the moments you have with herons, egrets and other birds that stand very still; most of your bird encounters will not be so tranquil!

Get to Know Your Subjects

Invest in a good birding guide and learn as much as you can about the birds you photograph. Knowing a bird's feeding habits, breeding season and other behavioral characteristics means you'll be in the right place at the right time. You will also gain a newfound appreciation for these wonderful creatures. Two bird guides we recommend are All The Birds of North America for obtaining a quick bird I.D., and Lives of North American Birds for detailed information on breeding season, nesting habits and behavior.

Buy the Longest Focal Length Lens You Can Afford

The longer the focal length of your lens, the greater your chance of capturing frame-filling bird photos. This doesn't mean that in order to take great bird photographs you should withdraw $10,000 from your 401k to purchase a 600mm heavyweight. By using teleconverters, blinds and good stalking techniques, you can maximize your photographic possibilities with whatever lenses you can afford. For the best results, it is best to get something in at least the 300mm range.

Push Your Slide Film

Pushing slide film can reap several benefits. When you "push" a roll of slide film, you purposely underexpose the entire roll of film. For example, you load a roll of 100 speed slide film and then manually set the ISO speed to 200. Your camera considers it a 200 speed film when it determines exposures. This results in the entire roll of film being underexposed by 1 stop (since the film is really 100 speed). When the film is taken to your lab to be developed, you indicate a "1 stop push". The lab applies additional development time to the film to compensate for the underexposure. The results can be very satisfactory. Most of today's modern 100 and 200 speed slide films are engineered to push exceptionally well with only a very slight loss in image quality and grain.

Make Your Vehicle Your Newest Camera Accessory

In many locations, birds are more accustomed to vehicles and will often consider them less of a threat than a pedestrian wielding a long lens (that to a bird probably looks a lot like a rifle!). I have used my truck as a mobile blind on many occasions. As with any blind, patience is a must. I've found that by scouting out a good location (maybe a hot feeding spot) and parking nearby that it doesn't take long for the birds to accept your presence. Be sure to park legally - the idea is not to harm the very location your trying to photograph. With the engine off, your vehicle provides a stable platform - I've often found that I can steady a long lens just by wedging myself firmly against the door frame, steering wheel and seat. You'd be amazed at the stability. There are also a variety of commercially available camera mounts made specifically for vehicles, like the Parker Pro Mount created by photographer Pete Parker.

Practice, Practice, Practice

A good place to start is your own backyard. If you have bird feeders, you're halfway there. Set up a temporary (or permanent, hey it's YOUR backyard!) blind close to the feeder and fire away! You don't have to always photograph the birds feeding or bathing either. You'll find that many birds waiting in line (or waiting to pounce on the bird currently on the feeder!) to eat are conveniently perched on a branch. Some of these opportunities can yield excellent results. You'll already start to learn techniques that will prove useful for photographing birds in the field.

Copyright © Justin W. Moore. All Rights Reserved.

Photographing small birds requires quick reflexes. This Eastern Kingbird landed near my vehicle while using it as a blind. He was there for only a brief moment before flying away.
Fuji Superia 400, 1/500 second at f5.6

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We hope you have enjoyed this article. You can find more like it in our Photography Guides.