Basic Photo Techniques for Birding

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

Before I talk about some of the specific camera settings in a later post, I thought I’d give share some basic concepts.  People have accused be of stating the obvious, so if any of this seems too simplistic, I apologize.  But some of you may be new to the world of bird photography, as I was a few years ago, so this may valuable for you.  For those new to DSLR or contemplating moving from point-and-shoot to DSLR, let me encourage you–it isn’t as hard to learn as you think or have heard.  Remember, you can’t make a mistake.  You’re not paying for film, so relax.  Also, all these cameras have a bail-out automatic mode if you just need that extra reassurance on occasion.  So here are some basic tips:

1) Get as close as possible.  The detail in the bird will be so much better, and your cropping and post-processing will be much more rewarding if there are more pixels in the subject of interest.  I often take an initial shot of a bird, just in case it flies, and then take another set of shots every ten feet or so as I slowly get closer.  The closer shots will be the keepers.  Some locations may have a blind which is often useful.

2) Get low.  A shorebird or other ground bird picture is much more pleasing when you take it from a low angle.  I don’t no why–it just is.  This may mean getting you knees sandy on the beach.  I’ve seen some photos of the really hard core birders lying in the mud for a shot.  We all have our limits.

3) Take a lot of shots, a real lot.  I often have 500 to 700 pictures after a half day of birding.  Those moving and flying birds require patient and multiple attempts.  You will quickly discard many shots in your after-birding session at the computer, and others will be deleted later.  Out of the 700 I may have only a dozen great shots that go into my library and are shared with others.  I not sure what they did in the pre-digital era.  Bird photographers must have been wealthy.  Get used to a simple post-processing program (like I-Photo for Apple) that lets you quickly review, crop, delete, and make minor exposure adjustments. It also allows you to create folders of categories shots to be reviewed later.

4) “Chimp” frequently.  I don’t know where the term came from but “chimping” is looking at your shots on the camera screen in the field to check the gross exposure settings. The cameras all have a display mode that quickly shows if your exposure curve is reasonable (doesn’t abut either end of the graph), but don’t get hung up on the exposure details yet. I don’t know how many times I’ve had the great bird in the perfect light and setting, and then found out the pictures all had the wrong or old settings from a previous bird or location.  Chimp frequently but quickly, or you’ll miss the next unexpected flyover.

5) Avoid overexposure; I mean in the picture, not your skin.  Error on the side of underexposure since its possible to correct that with post-processing.  Overexposed pixels are lost for ever.

6) Focus on the bird’s eye. The camera has multiple focus points available, but set it up so that you’re using the center focus only and aim that point on the birds eye whenever possible.  The most pleasing bird photos are the ones that have a glint in the bird’s eye and the eye is sharply focused.  When you’re chimping, zoom into the birds eye and check this.  If its blurry your shutter speed is likely too slow.

Enough for now; more details to follow later.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Peregrine Falcon; I got down in the sand for this shot

Peregrine Falcon; I got down in the sand for this shot

Blue Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak

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