Ophrys Photography

Wildlife photography by John Devries, Kent UK. Inspirational images from nature.
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Tips and tutorials -
Photographing wild birds
part 1


Due to their fantastic shapes, colours and behaviour, birds make wonderful subjects for photography. Many birders are now putting down their binoculars and telescopes and picking up a camera instead but are frequently disappointed with their results. There are some very good bird photographers out there, but there are a lot more bad ones than good! Why should this be ? Are birds harder to photograph than other subjects ?

Well, although birds pose some unique problems - particularly birds in flight, a static bird is essentially just a living subject like anything else and all the usual rules of photography apply. However, getting a correctly exposed, sharp image becomes a lot more challenging than normal as most birds are very active and move continually, so require higher shutterspeeds to freeze their motion than you might expect - even when sitting on a perch. The bird's own colour can affect the camera's metering - a black crow which is large in the frame will require different exposure compensation to a white swan for example.

Birds often perch in awkward places where they are either shaded or partially obscured by twigs. Autofocus may not be able to achieve focus under these situations. When sky or water is the background these can badly fool the camera's exposure meter into under-exposure.

The following is a list of the most frequent errors that I have noticed that people make when photographing birds :

1) Subject too distant.
2) Subject not in focus
3) Blur due to subject movement
4) Blur due to camera movement
5) Incorrect exposure
6) Little consideration given to lighting or composition

Over the following tutorials we will look at these issues one by one and see how we can overcome them.

1) Subject too distant

Birds only survive by having their wits about them. A bird's world is full of predators ranging from domestic cats, sparrowhawks and hunters with guns. The main challenge is to get inside their circle of fear by use of good fieldcraft or a hide (blind).

It really pays to understand the behaviour of your subject - some, such as certain members of the tit family, goldcrests, even waxwings will often ignore a photographer and carry on feeding regardless. At the other extreme, a golden eagle is so wary that you must enter and leave a dedicated hide under cover of darkness if you are ever going to get a chance to photograph them.

A hide can be as simple as a bag made out of camouflage material that you can throw over yourself and the camera to break up your shape, alternatively there are portable hides that you can buy or fabricate yourself. There are some companies on my links page that can supply reasonably inexpensive hides. In some circumstances a vehicle can make an excellent portable hide, particularly if you put a piece of scrim up against the window opening to hide your face and hands.

I commonly see people handholding a 100-400mm zoom lens, taking pictures of distant birds, presumably with the intention of cropping them very hard on the computer later. There is nothing wrong with hand-holding provided that there is sufficient light to enable a high enough shutterspeed to be employed (as we will see later) but unfortunately they usually do not have enough pixels on their target (the bird) to get any decent resolution after cropping.

To illustrate this, the image below of a gull in flight is typical of many that I have seen coming out of people's cameras. If the aim of the picture is to show a bird in its habitat, it won't need to be cropped so that's fine, but in this image where the gull itself is the subject then it is really too small in the frame to do anything with.

The image below (a juvenile kittiwake) was taken with an 8.2 Megapixel Canon 1DmkII camera. The bird is a decent size in the frame and a big improvement on the gull above, but how many megapixels are actually on the bird ?

Well - jumping ahead to the next image, as part of this exercise I have cropped the bird right down to literally fill the frame. Perhaps surprisingly, the RAW converter informs me that the image is now just 1.4 megapixels in size. Bearing in mind that half of the image is still grey background, the bird itself must be about 0.7 megapixels ! If I were to go cropping away merrily to make the bird look bigger in the frame I can't realistically expect the image quality to hold up for long !

This illustrates why cameras with a lot of pixels crammed onto a small image sensor (high pixel density) are often favoured for bird photography. Such pixel density is typically found on crop-sensor cameras. It is not the crop factor that provides more reach over full frame cameras as many people mistakenly believe, but the higher pixel density. At the time of writing, the new Canon EOS 7D has the highest pixel density of any current digital SLR. (18Mp on a 1.6x crop). Closely packed pixels are useful for bird photography but can provide poor digital noise performance and image quality .Fortunately the manufacturers are very aware of this and are employing cutting-edge technology to overcome these difficulties.

Getting closer

To get around the fact that your subject is too distant, you must either get closer by using a hide or by using good fieldcraft, by using a longer lens/ adding a teleconverter, or by using a camera with a higher pixel density for extra "cropablity" later. Also the better the lens, the more it will resolve so using prime lenses with low dispersion glass elements will enable you to crop harder in post-processing than with a poorer lens. They also take converters well too.

However, there really is no substitute for getting close enough. The reasons for this are that long distances mean shooting through a lot of air which can contain dust particles and heat haze can cause distortion. Also, the lens resolution and contrast becomes more critical with distance and good long-lens technique becomes absolutely paramount. At high magnification there is far more opportunity for camera vibration or mirror-slap to take their toll on image quality too.

Photographing birds in your garden

A good place to start bird photography where you can get close enough is in your own garden. Even the common species can make excellent subjects and as you can choose your moment, you can monopolise on any interesting weather like haw frost or snow to add interest to your images.

Bird photography may appear opportunistic, but it rarely is. The best pictures are usually pre-meditated to a degree so that the bird is in the right place on the right perch against a nice background in good light. When you are working in your own garden you have a lot of control over these things and can continually make fine adjustments to get everything just-so.

Start by setting up a feeding station and feed the birds regularly every day. You will need to keep it up though as the birds will become dependant on you in winter. Rather than taking pictures on the feeders, put a nice looking perch such as a lichen-covered branch next to a feeder and the birds will hopefully land on it. For the shot of a goldfinch below I sprinkled a few niger seeds into a teasel head that I had found and stuck it into the ground. It had become covered in hawfrost overnight so made a lovely image. This is so typical of wildlife photography - you need a combination of skill and a bit of good luck !

Which do you prefer - the woodpecker on the feeder or the one on the log that I had pre-drilled with holes and placed peanuts inside ? No contest !

You need to put out different kinds of food - peanuts or beef suet from the butchers shop for greater-spotted woodpeckers and tits, niger seeds for goldfinches and mixed wild bird seed for greenfinches, sparrows etc. Don't forget ground feeders - apples attract green woodpeckers, thrushes fieldfares and blackbirds in winter.

Place the perch in a position with a good uncluttered background. You can also make a background by sticking a cutting from a bush or tree into the ground - oak with copper-coloured leaves on it or an evergreen such as scots pine can be good. Hide a feeder inside the bush or adjacent to it and birds will probably use the upper branches to perch on as they land. Taking most of your feeders down at photo time will force the birds to queue up on your baited perches while you snap away.

I don't recommend shooting through house glass windows as they are not of optical quality and will degrade the quality of your image. It is much better to use a small hide in the garden, or a garden shed can make an excellent hide if you adapt it a bit to enable a lens to poke through a removable panel. Here is a dedicated two-man bird photography hide that I have constructed from a 6'x4' shed. I intend to use this to run bird photography tuition this winter.

Hide outside - Notice the lens is poking through a canvas bag - this prevents the birds from seeing the photographer and keeps the hide warmer. The position nearest the door is not in use so it is blanked off with a removable board and a dummy lens fitted to get the birds used to something round and shiny being there (an old CD in a plant pot). The canopy keeps the openings dry and casts a shadow over the small viewing window -to stop birds seeing the hide's occupants.

Inside the hide. To eliminate the need for tripods a rigid shelf made of 9" window board is fitted and a 3/8" bolt is screwed through to accept a ball head. The second position has a manfrotto clamp fitted instead. Note the central viewing window which is double glazed to prevent it misting up.The floor is fitted with a thick rubber stable mat which is both quiet and warm underfoot.

When erecting a hide, consider the position of the sun so that you get maximum light on your perches. To get good "straight" images of birds you want front light so the sun needs to be behind you. My garden hide faces North. To get arty images such as a bee-eaters passing a gift of a dragonfly to its mate in Hungary, a special backlit hide (which faces almost into the light) was used.

Set the hide to subject distance depending on the focal length of the lens that you intend to use. If your lens is less than 300mm you will need to be pretty close, so you will need to get the birds accustomed to the hide gradually by moving the hide closer bit by bit over a few days (or the feeders closer to the hide if that is more practical). The only downside to being very close is that the birds will hear the camera shutter and any movement you make which will tend to frighten them off. A 300mm lens on a crop camera is really a sensible minimum focal length with 400mm and 500mm being progressively better still.

Be sure to set the camera up on a sturdy tripod or you can use a bean bag full of peas, beans or lentils to rest on. These give more support than polystyrene beads.

So far we have addressed getting closer to our subject. In the next tutorial we will look at what equipment we need to photograph birds and in subsequent tutorials we will continue working our way through the list of errors and how to overcome them.