In the world of wildlife photography, the photography of birds is arguably the most popular and widespread. After all, birds are hugely varied in size, shape and colour, and they inhabit virtually every habitat we have access to. They’re constantly all around us, even in the midst of a city, so they represent a wildlife photography resource immediately and almost always to hand.
And yet, photographing them can be a truly infuriating experience. Many are small, making it necessary to get quite close to achieve any meaningful images. And this is where the problems immediately start because, of course, most birds are rather shy and sensitive to human movement.
Much of wild bird photography revolves around techniques and technology that enable us to get in close without disturbing the subjects.
The purpose of this article is to outline various techniques that will help in both areas of wild bird photography – being able to get close and then managing to capture beautiful images.
Bird Photography Equipment
Not surprisingly, strong telephoto lenses are very much the order of the day, with a minimum effective focal length of 400mm, and preferably with image stabilisation incorporated. The camera body should be capable of fast continuous shooting, with rapid, high-quality image processing. The choice of whether to have a camera with a full-frame or cropped sensor comes down to several factors, including budget (the former are usually significantly more expensive).
Another important thing to consider is that a cropped sensor will magnify the effective focal length of any lens you use, giving a lens rated at 400mm, for example, something like a 600mm capability or more, depending on the magnification factor.
It’s also worth having a teleconverter or extender – a small lens that fits between the camera and your telephoto lens to increase the lens' focal length. They are hugely valuable in gaining extra focal length for only a very small increase in size and weight.
However, they do have several downsides. The first is optical quality: use only the best available, as cheaper brands will cause a loss of image quality. Even the best teleconverters will cause loss of light, causing a halving or four-fold reduction in the amount of light reaching the sensor.
Then, there is the need for a tripod and/or monopod, the latter useful when stalking wildlife, the former if you're stationary, shooting from inside a hide.
Field Techniques: coming in close
Now we come to the matter of getting yourself as physically close as possible. No lens can do it all, and in the end, you just have to work yourself in as close as you can manage. Here are a few ideas of how you might manage this:
- Concentrate on those species and/or individuals that have become thoroughly used to the human presence
- Make use of situations where the birds are distracted by another activity
- Photograph from fixed, permanent hides
- Use a personal portable hide
- Stalk your bird subjects
Behaviour and sensitivity vary among different species, with some relatively approachable and others taking flight the moment you appear. Even within a single species, there can be variation between different populations and even from individual to individual – although this is a lot less common in birds than it is in mammals. So, it can be useful to find populations or individuals that have learned to tolerate the human presence and simply don't see you as a threat.
These opportunities are often discovered by accident, though word of mouth can also be important. The most obvious example of this is probably in the humble suburban back garden. If feeders are set up, then many of the local birds – mostly various tits, robins, dunnocks and blackbirds - will be habitually present, particularly in winter. Initially, they’ll be quite shy and nervous, but with time will come to accept your presence, making your photography more feasible.
Linked to this is photography of birds that are distracted by another behaviour and so are less bothered by your presence. In the garden birds example, this would be feeding activity on and around your feeders, particularly in winter when food elsewhere is in short supply. Another example would be in spring, when courtship and territory defending can keep some birds very busy and focused on each other, sometimes leaving the door open to you being able to approach more closely than usual.
Bird photography from hides
The establishment of fixed hides across many of our nature reserves has proven quite a boon for both birdwatchers and photographers, enabling us to set up in comparative comfort, hopefully in a location well chosen for its grandstand view of bird activity.
However, one downside is that hides set up primarily for birdwatchers are generally too far from the action to enable great photography. Being close enough to see, appreciate and enjoy the wildlife is one thing, but being close enough to allow for great photography is quite another.
A potential solution is to have your own portable hide, essentially an adapted tent design that can be put up in minutes and whose viewing ports allow you to see out without enabling the wildlife to see you. Of course, the mere act of putting up the hide will drive all wildlife away, so you have to be quite sure you're choosing a good location, one that the wildlife will come to once you're quietly hidden. Do plenty of research in advance before potentially wasting a lot of time!
Stalking is probably the most widely used method of getting close enough for photography, though not necessarily the most successful. It can work well with certain species and in certain settings, but there are many species for which it will never be successful.
It certainly works well with garden birds, and it’s definitely a good place to start your bird photography, honing your photographic skills and working on your patience. Stalking in this situation normally consists of sitting down quietly within a good photographic range of some feeders or a tree/bush that the birds like to use and waiting for them to become disinterested in your presence.
A similar approach can work in other wild settings with birds that have become used to people or which are distracted by their own activities, though it normally takes longer and probably won’t result in you being able to come in as close as possible with many garden birds.
Stalking can also be reasonably successful with larger birds, especially waders like herons and egrets. These are often reasonably approachable in the UK, and since they're so much larger than, say, robins, there’s no need to be as close. Similarly, some ducks are approachable – especially those that have chosen to take up residence in a park.
The keys to any stalking success also hinge on your behaviour. Remember that birds have razor-sharp eyesight and will spot you coming long before you see them, so anything you can do to play down your appearance has to help. So, no bright colours; dull and shabby is essential. You'll also need to walk very slowly and carefully, making no sudden moves, and if necessary, stopping and quietly sitting regularly to allow birds to become used to your presence before moving forward a few more metres. Once you see becoming restless, you know you've reached the limit.
Having worked out how to get yourself close enough, you can finally worry about how to capture great images.
Speed and focus are two of the most critical and problematic aspects of bird photography. You may have only a few seconds in which to grab a successful shot, so you need speed for both your own reaction time in lining up the composition and in the ability of the camera to focus accurately.
Autofocus systems have improved massively in recent years, but even so, the precious second or two it may take for the camera to lock onto your subject can feel like an eternity.
One of the biggest problems is a lens' propensity to lock onto something other than your subject, such as a branch a short distance in front of or behind the bird. For this reason, when photographing birds surrounded by vegetation, I often switch the autofocus off and manually focus the lens, ensuring that it’s honed in on my subject.
Then, there’s exposure. If you’re handholding a big lens (i.e. a long focal length), you’re going to need to use a fast shutter speed to avoid the risk of camera shake, even if your lens or camera body has image stabilisation/vibration reduction. Many bird activity takes place early in the morning, when light levels are low, making it harder to use fast shutter speeds. The only solution is increase the sensor's sensitivity by putting the ISO up. The result will be a grainier image, though less so if the camera's high ISO noise reduction facility is switched on (though it should always be on!) It may also be partially resolvable in post-photography processing.
It's not just the amount of light that’s critical, but also the type of light. Obviously, sunlight will give you more light, and it may show up a bird's colours nicely. In many situations, sunlight is almost a must, particularly in winter when the rather dull plumage taken on by many species camouflages them effectively against their background.
Conversely, sunlight on a white bird can cause real problems – its background is nicely exposed, but the bird itself is over-exposed and burned-out. To overcome this, you could try using the camera's spot meter, metering only on the bird, but it may be simpler to just under-expose the image. The result will be a well-exposed bird but a rather dark background, which may or may not appeal.
Composition: static versus action shots
So you’ve got yourself close enough, lined up and focused your lens, and ensured you have enough light and a fast enough shutter speed. Now, you need to come up with a great composition.
As a general rule of thumb for any successful image, the bird's head and face must be visible, well exposed, and focused as a starting point. We don't want images that show only the bird's backside. Nor do we want more than a few images where the bird is preening itself, and even then, only if the head is visible. And we certainly don't want images of birds taking a snooze, head tucked comfortably and invisibly under a wing.
Beyond that, the compositions will depend on both what the subject bird(s) is/are offering up and your goals. Clearly, images shot for species identification purposes will be quite different from those taken for atmosphere and/or action.
The former type of image is likely to consist of stationary birds, perching on a branch or standing motionless on a shore, photographed side-on and well-lit, with the head and plumage visible. The images will be static, but they should clearly illustrate the bird's appearance, particularly picking out those features typical of the species. Such shots, or ones similar to this, probably make up the most common kind of bird photography, if only because they’re the easiest to execute and the most common poses offered up by birds.
Action shots, or birds in flight photography, require even greater patience and speed of reaction than 'normal' static bird photography. This brings an increased failure rate but an even greater need to keep practising. One of the most important steps is to understand bird behaviour and learn what a bird of any particular species is likely to do next and how. Study and practice will help increase the chances of success but won't guarantee it.
The kinds of action shots you might aim for include general wing flapping (even if flight is not intended), cleaning (provided the head remains visible), feeding (whether ground pecking or fish-catching, for example), courtship rituals, and parental care. All of these sound quite straightforward but can be infuriatingly easy to miss if you're not ready. Even if some behaviours continue for some time, it’s easy for the camera to miss occasional critical moments, such as the moment an egret plucks a fish out of the water or the most photogenic moment of a courtship dance.
Perhaps the most challenging of behaviours to capture is a bird in flight. The relatively slow looping and circling of a gull or buzzard high overhead can be easy enough to follow and capture, but they’re the exception rather than the rule. Photographing a bird that either flies in a highly erratic, unpredictable way or which flies in a straight line but like a bullet is quite another skill altogether. Simply achieving a sufficiently fast shutter speed to freeze the bird's movement, including beating wings, in whatever light is available is difficult enough, but then there’s the problem of persuading the lens to lock onto this ‘missile’.
Recent advances in camera technology that allow the lens' focus to track a fast-moving bird have helped enormously. However, there remains the photographer's skill in being able to pan a big lens at exactly the right speed to keep a fast-moving bird in the lens' field of view. To manage successfully here, there’s no substitute for understanding each different subject species' behaviour and style of flight – and, of course, lots of practice in the field.
Putting Technology and Technique Together
To summarise, having the right equipment that’s up to the technical challenges of bird photography is an important first step toward success. But in the end, the greatest contribution comes down to the photographer's own skill in using that technology, knowing how to approach their subject birds, and understanding those birds' likely behaviour.
While always keeping within the golden rule of all wildlife photography – never disturb or distress your subjects – just get out there, get stuck in and enjoy capturing some wonderful wildlife imagery!
This blog was written by Nigel Hicks, a hugely experienced Devon-based professional photographer. Nigel works with the USA's prestigious National Geographic Image Collection, among many other bodies, and is a Fellow of the British Institute of Professional Photography.
Nigel runs regular photography workshops in southwest England. To find out more about these, go to https://www.nigelhicks.com/photography-workshops-courses/.
To find out more about Nigel's work in general, feel free to take a tour of his website at www.nigelhicks.com.
If you're a photographer, you need to protect your camera and accessories against theft, loss, and damage with our specialist camera insurance.
Our bespoke cover can be tailored to fit your exact requirements, so you only pay for what you need.