Getting bird photographs you’ll want to frame or share requires dedication, patience — and it doesn’t hurt to have a top-notch camera.
Camera gear expenses can add up fast. Anyone looking to get into bird photography will notice that top-of-the-line camera bodies and lenses easily climb into the thousands of dollars. If you’re new to bird photography, or photography in general, instead of breaking the bank on the best equipment, it’s better to go for the cheaper gear and learn how to use it before upgrading to the most expensive gear.
Canon and Nikon make a number of DSLR camera bodies in the beginner range with good megapixel counts and frames per second for less than $1,000. When looking to purchase a camera body, I’ve always purchased my own used and refurbished. Websites to find good used camera bodies include KEH.com, bhphotovideo.com and the camera brand factory stores. Each site has a rating system, and gear purchased from the higher ranges will essentially be brand new.
The most important piece of gear for bird photography is the lens. To get a nice close-up picture, you’ll need a long lens. A focal length of 300 mm and up should be able to cover the distance between you and most birds. If you are willing to spend a little more on any piece of camera equipment, it should be the lens. Between the camera body and lens, the lens will last longer and continue to be useful as you upgrade camera bodies. For extra savings, Sigma and Tamron lenses tend to be cheaper than the big two brands of Canon and Nikon.
Other useful gear for bird photography includes tripods, a fast memory card and teleconverters for some extra focal length.
Tips and tricks
Birds can be hard to get a photo of. A deer can run off in one direction that you can clearly see. Birds, however, have a little thing called wings. As soon as you get too close, they could be off in any direction, leaving you scanning the sky for where they went.
Whenever I spot a bird, the first thing I’ll tend to do is get a safety shot. It’s usually some distance away, but it’s a first photo of that bird in the bag before trying to get a better picture. After taking that first shot, approach the bird slowly and quietly. I usually keep my camera up and trained on the bird as I approach. What I’m ideally looking for is some action — the spreading of wings, for example.
To get that action of a bird taking off, observe their behavior closely. Watch for the hunching of shoulders, the bird leaning forward or the spreading of wings: anything that could indicate they are about to fly off. Sometimes a bird will take off early; other times they might stick in one spot staring right down at you.
When moving around to get the best angle on a bird, look for clean backgrounds. This means no branches sticking out of the bird at odd angles, no jumble of brightly colored cars or buildings and nothing that will draw attention away from the main subject in your frame.
Always look to incorporate light into your photographs when possible. Many birds are most active in the early morning and late evening hours. This is also the time when the light is the best. Find a bird that has perched itself in a highlight of sun and expose for that highlight to darken everything else in frame, silhouette a bird against orange skies from the setting sun, or if you’re feeling lucky, go to as high an aperture and shutter speed as possible and try to frame the bird in the sun.
Bird photography is, more than anything, a waiting game. If you’ve ever watched a heron in the water you’ll know they can stand motionless for hours. But if you’re patient enough, you might get that moment when they dart forward and come up with a fish in beak.
That fish-in-beak moment is what you’re looking for. A photo of a bird sitting in a tree is fine. But to truly elevate your photos, look for personality. It could be a bird pruning its feathers, building a nest or even taking a large yawn. Capturing moments of the bird’s behavior will make your photos unique and stand out all the more.
Frank, a Lewiston Tribune staff photograher, enjoys the challenge of capturing the perfect bird photo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.