Summer Start

by VonSchnauzer

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I'm pretty new, and was just playing with the D7000 kit taking pictures of birds in the area. I asked for my photo critiqued in Chat, led to some good general purpose information I think is applicable to all of these kinds of shots, not just my specific scenario.

I'm interested both in how one approaches the subject to make the shot, as well as general composition gotchas common for this kind of photography.

Here was the specific image in question (for ideas of things someone might do wrong): Example Bird Photograph

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4 Answers 4

up vote 19 down vote accepted

First off, birds are jittery little creatures, and much of the time need to become accustomed to you before they will let you get in close and capture one of those amazing, highly detailed, frame-filling shots. "Hanging around" for a while will give birds time to get used to you, realize your not a predator, and be less likely to fly off the moment you start to approach.

Second, it should be noted that even with a very long lens, such as a 500mm telephoto, you will still need to get fairly close to any bird, from your average smaller songbird to your larger birds of prey, to get a frame-filling shot. This means that many of your shots will need to be cropped to zero in on the main subject (the bird). Cameras with higher resolution are more useful here, as they allow more detail to be kept in smaller crops. Cropped sensor cameras (APS-C type sensors) will also help, as they tend to "extend the reach" of most lenses by their crop factor (for example, a 300mm lens on an APS-C sensor is "effectively" 480mm.) Lenses with image stabilization are also a huge help with bird photography, as using a tripod to capture birds (perching or in flight) is difficult at best, and impossible in any practical sense.

When you are actually ready to capture some photos, there are a few things to keep in mind. Perching birds, which are a lot easier to begin with than birds in flight, will usually fly right away if you approach them directly. Try not to zero in on a bird and walk straight for it...approach slower, and less directly, taking a zig-zag or winding path. Try not to be entirely silent, make some noise (but not a lot), and actuate your camera shutter a few times to get the bird used to the sound. Predators tend to approach silently, directly, and stealthily, and such an approach is a sure way to send a bird flying. Its also probably best not to look directly at the birds, at least not for long...let your gaze wander. You might also try bringing the camera to your eye by framing something else first, and pan over to the bird.

For your first few dozen bird shots, I would just try to capture the birds, and work on getting focus and camera shake under control. That is probably the first fundamental technique one should master when learning bird photography. Full-time manual focus can be very helpful here, as you can generally lock on focus with AF, and fine-tune focus manually before actually taking the shot (splitting your AF activation to another button besides the shutter button is also helpful here, as you can focus and take the shot with two different controls, and not always end up re-focusing every time you half-press the shutter button.) Once you have mastered focus and camera shake, you can start working on things like composition, depth of field (a blurry background is an excellent way to isolate a bird on a photograph), etc. You should also try looking for more interesting poses...a bird preening itself, nibbling at some seed, squawking at or fighting with rivals, capturing food, nurturing young, etc.

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Setting up a blind (a hiding spot) and a defined perch you want them to go to often yields the best results.

  • Setup a feeder for the kind of bird you want (even in the wild). Shallow, running water also encourages them.
  • Setup a single perch close to the feeder, birds will often land here first. This is where you take your shot. You'll want have a good perch and nice background here.
  • Setup a blind (a hiding spot) near the perch.
  • Setup a tripod and remote and prefocus on the perch.
  • Wait.
  • Wait.
  • Take your picture when the bird lands on the perch.
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2  
I'd add that if possible, it's a good idea to set up the blind and leave it for a couple of days before you start shooting, so the birds can get used to it. –  ElendilTheTall Jun 28 '11 at 6:59
    
In general, the more your blind and in reality, yourself, can become part of their expected environment, the better. –  rfusca Jun 28 '11 at 14:36

I think using blinds is a more advanced technique; you need to spend time learning how to track birds and what their behavior is so you can plan out what shots you are trying to get. Don't just point and shoot, think about what you're trying to say with an image; it could be showing the bird to others, but you'll find images are more effective when they're showing the bird doing something that's part of it's life and behavior.

From a technique standpoint, sharp focus is usually necessary, especially on the eyes (although sometimes using blur to effect is useful). Catch lights in the eyes bring life to the image. You'll find light to be a challenge, birds tend to be in bright glare or shade, and so learning to control for that and process around it will be a big technical challenge.

But when starting out (man, I say this a lot) -- practice, practice practice. take lots of shots, take them home and start studying them to see what you think works, and if not, why not. Study other photographers to see what they're shooting, and try to think through how and why they took that shot. That's not always easy (I finally had to ask George Lepp how he did a number of the images of his I liked, and I never would have figured it out without his help -- which is another piece of advice: find photographers you like and ask questions, but be understanding if they're busy; most of them are really willing to respond within the time they have available, especially to someone who's trying to learn it and is asking questions that show that they've studied the images before asking).

Be willing to throw out lots of images and keep only the best. Then after a year or so, go back and re-edit your collection, and throw out a bunch more that you used to think were good. You'll be amazed at how fast you progress if you take lots of images, edit yourself ruthlessly, learn from your mistakes, and study other photographers and try to figure out how they did things, so you can adopt those techniques into your own work.

Oh, the big lens thing is both a real issue, and not. Don't be afraid to start out photographing larger birds that are more used to humans. You can learn a lot with a moderate lens and a flock of feral canada geese that lets you get the basics down without spending a lot of money on gear. It'll help you understand how to add gear to progress to your interests rather thanm buy stuff thinking it'll help.

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+1 for "more effective when they're showing the bird doing something that's part of it's life and behavior" –  rfusca Jun 28 '11 at 6:11
    
@chuqui looks like the link is pointing now to a 404 page –  akram May 7 '12 at 14:42
    
I edited to remove the 404 link. That piece needed a rewrite, and I took it down for now while editing up the blog over the weekend. I think the answer here stands without it fine. –  chuqui May 7 '12 at 22:40

Very good advice given so far. I'll add that practicing and mastering the technique of panning will let you capture birds in flight (BiF). You can practice on moving cars or similar subjects.

I am not familiar with the Nikon D7000, but some cameras (Canon's 7D in particular) have advance auto-focus tracking modes and zones, which let you lock on and follow a flying bird. You probably have some sort of AI-focus/AI-servo on your camera so try using it.

Note that you probably need to disable your image stabilization when panning.

Update: for practicing, a very good place to be is your local beach. Assuming you live in an area with lots of seagulls, they usually get close and their flight is not terribly fast, so it will let you master the technique.

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+1 -- think you meant "advice" rather than "advise". Advise is a verb :) –  Billy ONeal Jun 28 '11 at 16:36
    
@Billy ONeal - thanks, typo corrected. –  ysap Jun 28 '11 at 16:38

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