7 Quick Tips for Shooting Birds – Guest article by Steve Russell
Desperate for sun, warmth and shooting opportunities I recently joined a group of experienced wildlife photographers in the San Diego area to shoot birds. What I learned from them and from my own trials and errors over five days has opened up a whole new, exciting world of nature photography for me and I’d like to share some lessoned learned for increasing one’s chances for success.
1) Equipment. I shot with a Canon 7D (7 frames per second), 70-200mm 2.8 IS lens, 1.4 and 2.0 teleconverters (TC), and a sturdy tripod with gimbal head. Others had longer and better prime lenses that I drooled over but I enjoyed the portability and flexibility of my lens. Big lesson regarding the TCs: all my “keeper” shots of flying birds were taken with the 1.4 TC, which focused noticeably faster and more accurately in the AI Servo mode than the 2.0. The 2.0 TC did very well for still birds farther away. I also had the most success handholding flight shots and using my tripod for the stills.
2) Camera settings. I learned that an aperture of f/8 or more is essential if one wants as much detail in the wings and body as possible; shoot as a minimum speed of 1/1200 and faster if at all possible (especially for fast-flapping birds like cormorants); keep the ISO as low as one’s camera can handle, but the speed and aperture settings are more of a priority to maintain. I tried shooting in aperture priority, shutter priority, and auto-ISO and I’m still not sure which I like the best.
3) Composition. Not unlike shooting bugs, leave room to fit in all of the bird’s parts like wings; strive to keep the lens parallel to the parts of the bird one wants in focus; first priority is getting the eye in focus preferably with a catch light; be acutely aware of background, what one wants or doesn’t want complimenting or distracting from the subject.
4) Light. As usual, it’s all about the light, right? As a general rule keep the sun to one’s back to get the light on the bird’s eyes and body; low light in the golden hour before sunset can magically transform, warm up and saturate birds as it did with the pelicans and flamingos I shot at this time of day. I was amazed. Low to the horizon source light also better illuminates the birds’ undersides.
5) Shooting still birds. Even still birds move and do interesting and funny things like when they are preening, yawning, cawing, eating, hunting, taking off or landing, or in the case of the pelicans, throwing their heads back. Still birds in groups are hard to isolate but on the other hand my eye was drawn to when two or more lined up in symmetry or interacted with one another like when I caught an adult flamingo feeding a juvenile.
6) Carrying stuff. I tried and loved using a Cotton Carrier vest system to support my camera and lens but I also wore a small backpack for extra lenses, batteries, cards, etc. The Cotton Carrier bore the weight evenly at my chest level and freed both of my hands, but my camera was retrievable at a moment’s notice.
7) Post-processing. Not much different here than it is for bugs: in Lightroom, highlight desired features (i.e., eyes), orient the subject with the rule of thirds in mind, bring out detail in the fringes of light and dark, improve contrast, minimize or eliminate distracting elements in the background, enhance color, sharpen, etc.
Boiling down the art and technique of shooting birds of one person’s experience into 600-plus words doesn’t do the subject justice, but maybe it’s enough to spur one to try something new or refine one’s own techniques. One thing is for sure: shooting birds, especially in flight, is easier said than done and there is no better way to get better than to go out and learn from one’s own experience. My thanks to my new-found bird-shooting friends in San Diego who led the way for me.