How to improve your bird photography


This short guide is based on my personal experience and does not intend to be the only way or the right way. I hope it's helps the reader to take better pictures. Some key factors are:

1. Light

2. Position and expression of the bird

3. Background


Light

The most important about taking pictures is “light”. It’s in fact all about light! Many Dutch painters were famous about the light in their paintings and always looking for the best light conditions and angles. While taking pictures it’s the same story! Look for the right angle and type of light, hard or soft, so the bird is well illuminated. This means, choose the right moment of the day and move around the subject until you find the right angle without disturbing the bird. Not easy!

Move slowly without abrupt movements. Most birds do not like sound but social living birds don’t mind some sound, it can even help them to feel save. Birds react mainly on movement, if you don't move they don’t see you very well. The slightest movement can trigger their attention. Some birds are really hard to approach but that’s the challenge ;-)


  • Watch from witch direction the light is coming. You don’t want sunlight entering in your lens.
  • Keep the sun in your back or at your side, angles of approximately 45 degrees (left or right) with sunlight from the rear works the best for beautiful shadows and good illumination of the bird.
  • Avoid a high sun position; make your pictures in the morning or afternoon. High sun position gives hard shadows and to much contrast. 
  • In the most situations a cloud covered sky gives the best result with colorful birds. Strong sunlight overloads your camera sensor and colors will look to shiny and harsh or even washed out. Even heavy cloud cover can give great pictures. Only hummingbirds with their fluorescent colors do well with some intens direct light. Avoid strong sunlight.
  • Even when the light looks dull, this can give great results! Don’t forget, camera sensors don’t react like human eyes. A camera sensor clips easy under strong light conditions.

Position and expression

It asks a lot of patience to take bird pictures. Our first reaction is to push the button and make a lot of pictures, unaware of light, position and background, happy that we have our bird in sight.

Sometimes that's the way to record a rare bird but in general it doesn't give great pictures. The bird needs to sit in a nice position and not half way behind a branch for example. A scary bird looks stressful and doesn't give nice pictures, you can read the fear on it's face! So we want relaxed birds who sit comfortable and free, without leaves and branches in the way. We want a nice contrasting background so the colors look deep and vivid.

We need to learn to approach a bird by slow, even movements without abrupt actions from our side. Everything needs to be slow motion so the bird has the feeling we are not some kind of predator stalking him. This is really important if you want to get close! With my relatively short 300 mm lens i need to because i print my images. Many photographers use a 400 or 500 mm lens. 


Background

  • Look for a nice contrasting background by choosing the angle when you make a bird picture. Slowly walk around your subject until you have an even background without light “spots” and the best contrast. Many times light passes between the leaves of trees and gives hard ugly light spots in your pictures, try to avoid that.
  • A even natural background with a few branches gives good result
  • Taking a picture from a bird high up in a tree results in a to steep angle and gives lots of chance for light spots between the leaves. Try to take pictures at eye level or at small vertical angles. For birds on the ground position your self as low as possible, belly on the ground position.
  • A beautiful blue sky can give nice results, a milky white or gray sky results in dull and many times unattractive pictures.
  • The background is almost as important as the subject.


Editing

To get the best results you need to shoot in RAW format files so you can edit the picture in two stages. A RAW file is a file that is not processed by the camera software like a compressed JPEG file. It is a file that comes straight from the sensor and is unprocessed. This means that you can decide how much exposure, sharpening, saturation, high lights and contrast you will add without damaging the image quality. This is important because camera software pre cooks your compressed JPEG image in a standard way. With RAW files you are in charge how the picture will be. After editing in RAW (stage 1) you convert to JPEG and edit again (stage 2). On You tube you can find many good videos about editing in Photoshop.


You need:

  • A camera with RAW support and a program to edit RAW files. After editing the RAW file you convert the file to a JPEG file (or TIFF file) and edit this file in a program like Photoshop.
  • This two stage approach gives the best results. Some basic knowledge about the programs is necessary and time demanding.
  • If you don’t want all this technical stuff, stay with a super zoom or DSLR and shoot in JPEG.


Camera

  • Birds are in general small and fast so you need optical zoom on your camera, the more the better, but the lens quality counts for more then 80% of the end result. The camera is far less influential. Almost al modern DSLR cameras have good sensors. The difference is the lens and the user! 
  • Birds are fast and don’t stay long in one position so you need a fast auto focus to capture that “one possibility”.
  • Taking pictures of flying birds is a even bigger challenge, you need a really fast auto focus in your camera and lots of zoom. This means that normal point and shoot compact camera’s and smart phones won’t work well. They have almost no optical zoom and tiny sensors.
  • Good starter cameras are the super zoom cameras. A modern super zoom camera has 30x optical zoom or more. Above 30x is hard focusing and image quality gets less because of the small sensor type they use. Super zoom cameras are not the fastest focusing cameras and mainly good for sitting birds. For flying birds a DSLR camera is a better option, like a Canon 70D / 80D or Sony, Nikon or other brand with minimum a 300 mm lens, preferential a fixed focus type. 

Ronald Gruijters