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Photographing Birds

Learn how to photograph birds to make bird watching more fun.  There is a rush of excitement when you capture the bird in a photo just the way you wanted.  Even though there are countless photos of that bird, it is a great feeling when you took it yourself.  Bird photography is easy to get hooked on.

Yes there will be plenty of bad photos but the good ones make it worth it.  Here are a few photography tips.

Patience in Bird Photography

TanagerPhotographing birds requires patience.  Most birds are afraid of people, and all species have their own comfort zone.  With a little time you can learn the comfort zone of the birds you are photographing.  If you get to close and scare them off many birds will come back if you just sit still for a while.  Once they perceive that you are not a threat you may be able to get closer.  Sometimes they will be curious and come close to study you, creating interesting opportunities, as when this tanager came in to look at me.

Type or Style

Your reason for photographing birds may determine your style, and the kind of equipment you use.  If you are just recording the kinds of birds you see you don't need to get as close, and you can use less expensive equipment then you need for high quality prints.

ChickadeeMy approach to bird photography is usually to just walk through a wooded area and photograph the birds I see.  I like taking hand held shots.  I know that I could get better quality images if I used a tripod but the experience with a handheld camera is much more enjoyable.  I am able to respond faster to a bird that perches next to me, and move with the bird when it moves.  The chickadee in this photo landed on an apple above me and was only there for a few seconds.  While I would have liked to have time to make adjustments, if my camera had been on a tripod I wouldn't have even gotten the shot.  It's true you can get more crystal clear images with a tripod, but you lose some flexibility.  Most birds are highly active and they are not going to pose for you.  Birds like chickadees are usually fluttering all over the place.

Photographing Birds in Flight

OspreyPhotographing birds in flight can be fun.  Many digital cameras have a tracking function.  With these you focus on the bird, and then as you track it the lens will keep focus.  There are basically two ways to photograph flying birds.  The first is to focus on a point in the bird's flight path, and snap the shot as it goes by.  The second is to track the bird with your camera.  A fast shutter speed of at least 1/500 of a second is recommended.  By using a slower shutter speed you can capture wing motion.  In the osprey photo I tracked him as he circled above me.  Every time he would come around he would look at me.

Use Your Yard

An easy inexpensive way to get started in bird photography is to set bird feeders and a birdbath in your yard.  Choose an open area where the birds will get direct sunlight, showing off their magnificent colors.  For the best bird photography you will want the sun in back of you.

Try using props

Black-capped ChickadeeOccasionally I will place a stick where I think a bird might land on it, giving me a desired photo.  Birds will often land on a stick or post near a suet or seed feeder before going to the feeder.  For these chickadee shots I placed sticks near a feeder.  The background was just an out of focus fence but you can use anything you want for a background, and then wait for a bird to perch.



mountain chickadeeBirds coming to your feeders will often get used to you and you can just sit nearby and wait for a good shot.





When I started photography the only choice was film.  You would take your pictures, and until you had the film developed you weren't really sure what you had.  I fought the transition to digital, but what won me over was the instant gratification of seeing my pictures on my computer right away.

Photographers today have a dizzying array of cameras, and equipment to choose from.  Since you will probably be shooting in a variety of situations I highly recommend you get a camera that has interchangeable lenses.

Most of the photos on this site were taken with a Canon EOS 40D and a 70 to 300 IS zoom lens.  I like the camera size and the controls are easy to use.  The 300 allows me to get close ups of small song birds without getting so close they are spooked.  I often take a 500 mm with me but the 300 is usually on my camera.  The longer the lens the farther you can be from the bird, but there are other considerations.  Long telephoto lenses are expensive.

You also need to consider the aperture.  A smaller aperture lets in less light than a larger one.  The aperture will be shown on the lens barrel in f-stop numbers such as f 8 or f 16.  If you let less light in because of the aperture you need to use a slower speed to compensate so you can get the correct exposure.  The shutter speed is the amount of time the shutter is open.  The faster the shutter speed is the more motion you can freeze.  Anything below 1/60 of a second on a normal lens will probably blur your image because of camera shake.  The longer the lens the higher the speed you will need to use in order to reduce the effects of camera shake.  A larger aperture gives you a larger depth of field.  For instance an aperture of f-16 may put everything from the birdís beak to its tail in focus, while with a small aperture of f-2.8 only the birdís beak, and eye may be in focus.  Basically when you move up an f stop or speed you double the amount of light hitting your light sensor, and when you move down one stop or speed you cut the amount of light in half.

Good cameras will also have an ISO setting.  ISO determines how sensitive the image sensor is to light and it is the third ingredient for proper exposure.  If you set a higher ISO setting you can you can use higher speeds but the image quality suffers because at the higher ISO you will have more noise.

Zoom lenses with image stabilization are quite a bit more expensive, however if you can afford the extra money they are worth it.  IS will reduce camera shake usually by a couple of f stops.  For instance if you are shooting at 1/250th of a second, the IS lens will let you shoot the same shot at 1/60th of a second.

Most professionals use a tripod so they can reduce camera shake allowing them to use slower shutter speeds or smaller apertures. 

You will get higher quality pictures with a 12 megabyte camera than a 5 megabyte camera because 12 megabytes means you have higher resolution or more pixels.  Here is an explanation of pixels.  

Here are some recommended cameras.

Read about binoculars for bird watching 
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