Wild Bird Photography—Nine Tips to Help You Get it Right!

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Wild birds are one of the most challenging wildlife subjects around. It challenges you to understand your subjects, their habitat, the landscape and every last detail of your equipment's capability. Here are a few tips to help you get it right!


I can't explain it, but there's almost nothing I'd rather do than haul my gear out to the wild and shoot birds. 

All kinds of birds—from Bald Eagles to Burrowing Owls, and everything in between. I just love nailing that perfect takeoff, flight or landing shot!

I'm a firm believer that the equipment doesn't make the photographer. It's a lot more about your training, talent, dedication and patience. Sure, the big Canon 600mm F/4 L IS is a nice lens to have, but if you don't have the $8,000+ to spend on one piece of glass, there are other options. And with a few well-practiced techniques, you too can create some stunning wild bird images!

1. Be there: Being out there with your gear in your hands is far more important than any piece of equipment in your bag. I'm always a little surprised by my photography students and others who want to grab that perfect flight shot of a Bald Eagle, but are not willing to spend the time and effort to get where the Bald Eagles are!

2. Be patient: When it comes to wildlife, the important word is "wild". Birds do what they want to do, when they want to do it. It's critical to be there, and it's just as important to be patient. There are times when you just have to wait for that perfect shot. I have stared at a nest of baby Great Horned Owls for 7 hours, waiting for that perfect pose.

3. Be persistent: Earlier this year, I planted myself in front of an Osprey nest several times over a few days. I could hear the babies calling away, and there were no adults in the nest. That meant that Mom and Dad were very likely out fishing for food. (The Osprey diet consists almost 100% of live fish). So I kept coming back and waiting for the landing shot I knew was coming. And when I did see the landing, they came from the wrong direction—the shot was spoiled by a branch right across their faces!

Drat!

But then again, that kind of patience eventually pays off.

4. Buy the best glass you can afford. I love my Canon 600mm f4 L IS, but it was a real stretch for me to buy it. It's one that not many (sane) people will make. But there are some really good alternatives. Here are just two:

Canon 100-400mm: I also own this lens, and for birds that are within about 100 feet, the shorter focal length and fast autofocus, combined with the dual-mode image stabilization, make this lens a solid performer for birds in flight. This is an excellent choice for your primary bird photography lens.

Sigma 50-500mm F/4.5-6.3 DG OS HSM APO: I used the non-OS (optical stbilization) version of this lens for a few years, and found that it was a surprisingly good lens—sharper than expected, light enough to hand-hold, and long enough to reach out to small birds. The only drawback is that this lens is a little dark—it's F/6.3 at 500mm, but with the high ISO abilities of today's cameras, this is less of an issue. The OS that the new version has will greatly increase the versatility of this lens.

5. Use a good tripod system: I use a Benro C-258EX carbon-fiber tripod and an Induro GHB2 Gimbal mount. But no matter what you use, just like your lenses, buy the best you can afford. Great images that aren't sharp aren't great images. They're heartbreakers.

6. Know your gear like the back of your hand: If you don't know how to instantly dial in +1.33 EV when your subject is suddenly backlit, you'll miss a lot of good shots. Be sure you've mastered your camera's selectable focus points, metering modes and frame rates, as well as the basics like ISO, exposure modes, shutter speed and aperture settings.

7. Be lucky: I think there's a lot of luck involved in wildlife photography, but I can say from experience, the harder you work, the luckier you get. And if you work long enough and hard enough you will be rewarded.

This award-winning image—the product of all those practices mentioned above—is available as a hand-signed and numbered limited-edition print. Contact me for if you would like to hear more about it.

8. Know where to be: Use the resources that are out there. There are local bird mailing lists, like Birding on the Net, that are incredibly helpful. Don't ignore your local Audubon either. Not only do they have a lot of expertise, but they also maintain wildlife sanctuaries all over the country. And some of those sanctuaries are among the best wild bird photography sites in the world.

And if you really want to put all of the pieces together, join me for my annual Florida Bird Photo Tour. Just drop me a note if you want details.

Patience, persistence, equipment, knowledge and luck are all important elements in getting the best wild bird photographs you can. 

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Thanks, this article has great information and I have found all your points very helpful in my own learning experience. For newbies like myself I would add a 9th point: Practice, Practice, Practice. My best learning has been through lots of shooting and analysing my mistakes.

Thank you, sir.  This was helpful.  For people on a budget, I wonder about the super zoom cameras today.  If you can get within 30-40 ft of a warbler, will they do or not?

If there is sufficient lighting superzoom cameras can be a good alternative, but on the technical side of things a few things should be taken into consideration:  1) The ability to get a lens to cover so much range is partly accomplished by coupling it to a camera with a smaller sized sensor.  The smaller the sensor the greater the camera's potential magnification which is great.  2) Whats not great about smaller sensors is they have less surface area to collect detail (think less feather detail and smaller enlargements).  3) The smaller sensor size also affects the autofocus performance of the camera.  Again a smaller surface area leaves less room for autofocus sensors and larger AF sensor patterns compared to those used in a DSLR.  Also the type of sensors used in them are commonly not as fast or accurate in poorer light.  But with that said there are alot of great superzooms that may be able to cut the mustard.
 

I can't help but believe that your statement of "I'm a firm believer that the equipment doesn't make the photographer." is seriously wrong.  I've been shooting wildlife for about 2 years now and having a 600mm lens, would give me the edge I need!!  But unfortuantly, I don't have the cash as of yet.. It really grinds my gears to hear guys say that it's not about the equipment in photography, meanwhile, they're sporting a Nikon 500mm F/4 with a 2x converter.. if it wasn't about the equipment, why not just pocket 6500.00 dollars and stay with what YOU recommend??  A 400mm or a sigma 500mm.. because truth is, IT IS ABOUT EQUIPMENT!!!  Feel fortuante that you have what you do.. because you woudln't have the shots you do without it!