7 Tips for Photographing Birds

Do you want to know how to get the most out of your camera and create great images? 

Our birding photojournalist Peter Chadwick believes the allure in photographing birds lies in their diversity, interesting habits and vibrant, varied colouration. He says it’s often difficult to get close enough to wild birds to take quality pictures, but if you know some basics, it becomes much easier. Obviously you need to be in the right place at the right time, so get up with the birds and research your subjects before heading out into the field.

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1. Ethics

Birds are extremely sensitive to disturbance and the number one rule is to approach photographing them with care, particularly during the breeding season and at their nest sites. They also become easily stressed when bird-call playback machines are used.

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2. Camera Settings

I set my camera to aperture priority, which allows me to set a shallow depth of field. This helps make my subject stand out against the background, which creates a better image. The camera will then choose the shutter speed, but you need to keep an eye on this. If you are shooting in low light, you might need to set a high ISO to obtain the speed you want. I also set the camera to continuous servo-mode, using single-point focus matrix metering. Once I have been able to capture some initial images of my subject, I then adjust camera settings manually, as the scene requires.

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3. Vibration Reduction

Most modern digital camera lenses now come with vibration-reduction (VR) that greatly enhances the hand-holding capability of cameras. It also lets you take great photographs from moving platforms. This function does take some getting used to and I have generally found that it should not be turned on when using a tripod, or when shooting at more than 1/500. It is also extremely important to engage VR mode prior to taking the image, so that it can settle.

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4. Keep it simple

Try to reduce compositional elements to the basics. Before pressing the shutter, always study the entire viewfinder, especially the edges, to make sure there is nothing unnecessary inside the frame. Telephoto lenses help eliminate background clutter and, by also using a shallow depth of field, a blurred and uncluttered background can be achieved. Another technique is to zoom into your subject.

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5. Visual Drawcards

Cape Sugarbird, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Western Cape, South Africa,

Obviously, the strongest drawcard is the bird itself but, within the photograph, the following also makes an impact: large objects rather than small; diagonal lines instead of horizontal; bright objects rather than dull; sharp focus; images with emotional significance.

6. Flight

You can either freeze the action or show the fluidity of flight. Birds in flight are difficult to capture and it is important to keep the focal point on the head and, where possible, photograph against a clear background. Allow for space around the bird and try to anticipate where it will fly. Motion can be arrested with shutter speeds above 1/250, while images with motion can be achieved by panning and by using shutter speeds of 1/15 or 1/30.

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A Cape Gannet stares straight at the camera and through another gannet, Malgas Island, West Coast National Park, South Africa

7. Experiment

Probably the most important tip is to go out, experiment, play, and always expect the unexpected to happen inside
your viewfinder.

Browse our collection of Peter Chadwick’s birding adventures around the South African countryside here.

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