We all know a great, eye-catching photo when we see one. The image just pops and resonates with the viewer. There are a few things to be aware of that will help you appreciate how to take outstanding bird photos yourself. There are two aspects to this, what I think of as technicalities and content.
With the wonderful world of digital photography we now enjoy, the technicalities are much less an issue than they were in the days of print film. Modern digital cameras, with huge ISO ranges and intelligent auto-assist functions, have made life much simpler for photographers. Combined with super-sharp, vibration-compensated, fast auto-focussing lenses, we have never had it so good for wildlife photography.
Therefore, I will limit my comments on the technicalities of producing correctly exposed, sharp images. The only comment I will make is about choosing the appropriate ISO, f-stop and shutter speed together with back-button focus.
I still see a lot of advice on the web that insists photographers use the lowest possible ISO and widest aperture, even if that means coping with very slow shutter speeds. While that is a true generalisation, if you want to start taking better bird photos, you should ignore that advice. Low ISO, wide aperture and slow shutter speeds demand a high level of the photographer’s attention, experience and skill.
Your attention needs to be completely on your subject (The Content of the photo) with no distractions around your camera settings. So, here are my recommendations on the technicalities of better bird photos,
set your ISO to 800 (minimum, and higher if in forest or other low light conditions)
select aperture priority & set on f-8 (expect speeds of 1/500 to 1/4000 depending on the light)
put the camera in motion focus mode
select high-speed multi-shutter release
Set your camera to rear button focus. That has many benefits to the photographer which I will not elaborate on here. Just Google that if you want more information. Most professional photographers use rear button focus, for good reason, and so should you.
With your camera set-up as above, you can then forget the technical aspects of your shooting and concentrate on what really makes for outstanding bird photos – The Content.
With your camera delivering sharp, well-exposed images, your full attention needs to be on capturing those fleeting opportunities where the key aspects of the content align. You could write encyclopedias on these topics, but again, I will keep it short and suggest you research more information, if you need to.
The main considerations about content for me are setting, posture, lighting, background and bokeh.
Strive for the bird in an attractive, natural setting. That could be a gnarly branch with a twisty character or some lichen-covered rocks. Look out for any interfering foreground objects, such as twigs or grass. Such foreground objects need to be minimal, preferably nil. Fences do offer many photo opportunities with birds and, while I do take occasional photos of birds on fences, I always seek to have no man-made objects anywhere in the photo, foreground or background.
The bird’s posture has to be noble and exemplifying its character. Most important, the eyes have to be in sharp focus and have a lively twinkle of light in them. The bird’s posture is enhanced by taking the image with the right angle. That is, looking straight at, or slightly up, at the bird. For ground birds that means the photographer has to get right down on the ground. In my opinion, birds of flight, that normally perch on branches, are best photographed perched or in flight. No bird is presented at its best when photographed on the ground with a downward angle of view.
Early morning and late afternoon light is best, with its low angle, reduced contrast and washed colourings. Full frontal lighting is good, but angled side lighting is best, particularly with the bird facing into the light. Backlit photos can be spectacular, and you should experiment with them, but are more of a speciality.
Is ideally completely absent, at best minimal. A busy background will only distract the viewer. This is an area where I expend by far the greatest efforts in my bird photography – getting the background right. Ethics are important here in regard to altering terrain and vegetation. In my own yard, I have no hesitation in doing some careful pruning. Outside my own property, I limit myself to carefully locating nice dead branches in strategic positions.
You do not have to live on a farm or acreage to take control of your backgrounds. In suburban backyard settings, you can place a nice branch next to a water bath, prune away background branches and then strategically place a sheet of ply, or corflute behind. Political and real estate corflute signs are ideal, and outdated advertising signs can often be had for the asking. You can paint the background sheet a natural earthy colour, or sky blue, whatever really and it will provide a wonderful plain background that simulates the bokeh you get from super-telephoto lenses.
By creating the locations and settings you want, you can use the smaller telephoto lenses to great effect by bringing your subjects in close to the camera. Super-telephoto lenses captivate would-be bird photographers, however, let me say that they come at a cost. Apart from having to pay more than you would for a new motor vehicle, these big beauties are heavy and unwieldy, difficult to hand-hold for most folks. The fun of lugging an expensive, 8 kilo behemoth mounted on a large tripod, around a wetland wears off fast, I can assure you.
The most eye-catching wildlife photos have wonderful bokeh. That is the gentle blurring of the background. Super-telephoto lenses, with their design and optics, produce fantastic bokeh. However, by paying attention to location and background, you can get great bokeh from the smaller telephoto lenses as well.
Once you start producing lots of technically correct images, you must learn to cull your photos. For newcomers to bird photography, it is exhilarating to start producing all these wonderful, sharp, correctly exposed photos of birds. That is the first step, but if you really aspire to being a top class bird photographer, you have to learn to throw most of them out. I know that is going to be hard to do at first. But you must learn to be brutally critical with your photos. If the bird’s posture and setting aren’t just right, it does not matter how well focussed or exposed the photo was. It is all about the image content we discussed above. Most times, I come in from a bird photo session with hundreds of images and end up binning every single one. Your journey to becoming a top class bird photographer requires you to be your harshest critic.
Below is a selection of photos from this website that demonstrate the principals I have been discussing.
Silver Gull Photographer: Mick McKean Website: www.mmpi.biz/Galleries/Birds/Portfolio-Birds
Splendid Fairywren Photographer: Neil Edwards