Picture this – it’s spring; you’re walking down a path at one of your favorite birding spots and you notice a bird you have never seen before. You reach for your camera hanging around your neck, bring the viewfinder up to your eye and start frantically firing off shots, hoping to get a sharp photo of this new bird species…
I’d be lying if I said we didn’t still do this; I mean it’s hard to ignore that kind of excitement as a bird photographer, but we have gotten better at looking for the right moments and thinking about the end result before pressing the shutter.
Rapidly firing off photos can make the editing process a bit of a nightmare, having to filter through endless amounts of photos that are only slightly different from each other looking for that one sharp shot. Or worse, sifting through endless amounts of photos where you have missed the bird entirely after chasing it around with your lens – we’ve all be there right?
As you become a more experienced bird photographer, you come to familiarize yourself with the very basic elements that should be present (or not present) in your photos.
5 Key Bird Photography Tips for an Amazing Shot
In this blog post, we will go through how to determine which photo you should spend time editing. With these tips, you will not only be able to choose your best photo for post-processing, but you will be able to streamline your editing process and produce better bird photos by knowing what to look for before snapping the shot.
Image Sharpness is Critical
Image sharpness is arguably the most important image quality factor because it lends itself to your entire image composition and the amount of detail present in your subject (i.e. bird). Every photographer strives for sharp, crisp images – if your image isn’t sharp, things like exposure and composition are of little importance.
There is an extensive list of factors that can contribute to your photo not being sharp, below we have highlighted a few that we struggled with when first starting out with bird photography.
This is the result of an unsteady camera while shooting freehand. A helpful tip if you are using a larger lens like a 400mm, is to hold the lens further down (closure to the focuser) to steady your lens while keeping your arms in close to your body. If your lens is equipped with image stabilization, this will help improve camera shake, allowing you to use slower shutter speeds while handholding the camera.
When using autofocus it is not uncommon for your camera to focus on the wrong subject, especially if you are shooting into a busy background with a fast-moving subject like a bird. This fast-moving subject can also be the cause of a blurred image if you are not shooting at the correct shutter speed.
The quality of your lens will impact image sharpness. Prime lenses are considered to be sharper than zoom lenses, which can come at a cost. Do your research when looking to purchase a lens to make an informed decision and avoid spending thousands of dollars to improve your image quality.
Watch out for noise affecting your images. High ISO levels can cause your image to appear grainy and take away from the overall sharpness. If you try and compensate for this in post-processing, your image could appear soft and not sharp. Try using the lowest ISO based on your shooting conditions.
We have mentioned this a few times on the blog but we started out with some very modest gear (check out our gear video here for the full story). Within the first year or two we realized that in order to take our photos to the next level, we needed to have a longer focal reach than your basic kit lens.
Due to budget, we ended up using refractor telescopes with manual focus as a daytime lens. This cost-effective hybrid worked for us for a few years, but we quickly realized that only having manual focus was enough to fill our memory cards with uncertain results. We never did know whether we achieved optimal focus until we returned home to process our images.
With more shooting experience and by switching to our current setup (check out our gear page) we have been able to clean up our images by incorporating the above factors. In post-processing, the first thing we do is look for the sharpest image out of the batch of a particular bird. If you don’t have a sharp image, then there isn’t much point in continuing with the rest of the editing process.
The Importance of Catchlight
If you are new to bird photography, you may not have heard this term before but it won’t take you long to look for it in every bird photo you take. Catchlight is the combination of the birds head position against a source of light (the sun) producing a reflection in the bird’s eye.
It’s a small thing, but it really adds that something special to your photo. If having the sunlight at your back to light up a bird wasn’t enough, this is another great reason.
Since our upgrade to the prime lenses, we try to utilize this in all the shots we take. If we find ourselves in a situation where a bird is sitting fairly still, neither one of us will press our shutter until the bird turns its head to the point where the sun catches its eye.
This tactic is situational, in that we will always try to get at least one ID shot of a bird we have never seen before, but if we are shooting a common bird species, we will press the shutter when the lighting is right to capitalize on those catchlight opportunities. Limiting your shooting to avoid less than ideal conditions will narrow your selection during the editing process.
Pose is Everything
Another element to look for when choosing your photo is to look at the pose of the bird. This is subjective to the photographer and can vary depending on the look and feel you want to achieve with your photo, but eye contact is key. When looking through our photos, if we have achieved image sharpness and catchlight, often times the pose will be the next deciding factor to narrow down our photo choice.
Look for photos that display the bird looking in the direction of your camera engaged in an interesting or behavioral pose (i.e. eating/catching a bug, in flight, singing etc.). These poses help to make your photos more interesting and will allow you to decide which ones you want to devote time and energy to in the editing process.
Of course, if you have a great pose that isn’t in focus, you will want to choose a sharp image over a better pose. The process of choosing a photo will involve interchanging the elements discussed in this post to find your optimal photo.
Avoid Background Distractions
It is not uncommon to have sharp focus with a great bird pose and catchlight only to be distracted by a busy background. The same could be said for branches or other objects that appear in the foreground, covering the bird which could take away from the photo.
This element is easier said than done, as you have no control over the background and it can be hard to see past your subject while you are shooting. Start by determining if the background features are beneficial or detrimental to your image, and look for ways to either include or exclude them from the frame.
Using depth of field to your advantage will help eliminate some of these directions or at least make them less noticeable. The key is to make sure the distance between the background and the bird, is greater than the distance from you to the bird to create a smooth background. In this situation, waiting until the bird moves closer to you may help yield a better result.
Obviously, this will not work in every situation and more often than not, the bird doesn’t stick around long enough to even consider the background. In this case, do your best to make the situation work for you and look for high contrast situations that will allow your bird to stand out against a busy background. For example, avoid shooting into a pale greyish sky and look for opportunities to shoot with green space behind a colorful bird.
When in doubt, take the shot. You never know what it will look like in post-processing or how you are able to crop the photo to make it work. But considering the background while you shoot can enhance the visual appeal of your overall image composition.
Capture the Bird’s Namesake
If all the above elements manage to fall into place, consider trying to capture the namesake of the bird you are shooting and capture the essence of how the bird got its name i.e. Red-bellied woodpecker, Chestnut-sided warbler, Black-throated blue warbler. This can help add that little something extra to your photo.
With these elements (and patience), you will be able to produce visually appealing images. Being your own biggest critic will help improve your photography skills and your images. Often times we look back at a favorite photo and discuss what we could have done better.
This image of a Common Yellowthroat was taken during our first few years of bird photography. It is not perfect, but it remains one of the images I am most proud of. Catching this energetic songster in such a pose was exhilarating and I love how the sunlight comes through the branches just enough to produce catchlight.
His yellow throat is prominent, displaying the namesake of the bird with a fairly smooth background. This photo was also taken using the hybrid method mentioned earlier in this post, and it was the second last photo on my memory card.
The Key is Patience
The greatest challenge with photography is that you can have perfect camera settings and all the necessary knowledge but there are so many factors beyond your control, including your subject. It can be challenging (and sometimes downright frustrating) when your excitement of shooting a bird is deflated when you come up short with a blurry shot.
Just remember to be patient and that the learning process is part of the fun. When you do end up with a photo that has all the right elements, you will know it was all worth it. It’s about the journey – not just the journey the bird takes you on but your own personal journey of becoming a more experienced bird photographer.
The above elements will help you improve your photos and cut down on the editing process so you have more time to be out there doing what you love – chasing birds.