I have a trip scheduled this weekend where there is a lake with thousands of winter birds. I will be using Canon EOS 550D and Canon 100-400mm USM IS lens. I will also have a wide angle lens to shoot landscapes with birds in it. I have no prior experience in birding, so I want to know what are the things that differ from shooting day-to-day pictures to shooting birds? How should I go about finding a bird and approach it properly? How do I increase the chance of getting better photos? Suggestions are welcome.
First thing first, when you can, always keep your eye trained on the subject through the lens. Birds are quick, alert, and attentive, and when they do something interesting thats worth capturing, you rarely have time to bring the camera to your eye, frame, focus, and get a shot. So its critical that you are watching the bird through the lens as much as possible, and have the shutter button half-pressed (to activate IS), so you are ready to go the moment something really interesting happens.
You can try to sneak around and attempt to get close without a bird noticing you, but that rarely works. Pretty much every bird WILL notice you, and they will have noticed you long before you think they have. The best approach to getting close is to simply be obvious, and don't sneak. Predators sneak. Photographers look. Train the birds around you that your not a predator, just some clumsy mammal tromping around on unfamiliar ground that gives them an occasional look.
No one likes it when you stare...including (or perhaps, particularly) birds. Don't zero in on a bird and keep it in your sight for too long...at least at first. Predators stare. Photographers look. Train the birds around you that your just a clumsy mammal that has a vague curiosity about it, and they'll get back to their normal routeen. You'll have a chance to get closer that way, and they shouldn't be as jittery when you do if they think you aren't preparing to eat them.
If you try to sneak up on a bird, any noise will alert them to your presence. The snap of a twig or the clack of a mirror and shlink of a shutter will at the very least alert them, and likely make them fly off. Take shots, early and often, and let the birds hear the sound of your camera. Take shots when your far away and can't really get anything good, just so you are making the kinds of noises that are "normal" for a clumsy, mammalian photographer.
Don't go strait for the shot (or the bird) strait away. Be a little random and indirect, take a meandering path on your way to getting closer and closer to your subject. Predators track. Photographers meander. Be a noisy, clumsy, meandering but courteous mammal that exudes a presence of mild annoyance, and you should evoke less fear...and more curiosity, than a sneaky approach.
All of that basically boils down to "Be Normal!" The fundamental essence of the rules above boils down to "Don't look, sound, or seem like a predator."
Fine tuning your approach
When it comes to birds, there are a few different types, and they all require some subtle changes to how you approach them and how you photograph them. Common types of birds include the small migratory song birds, like finches, jays, black birds, doves/pigeons, etc.; there are wading and water birds like egrets, ibises, ducks, geese, and the like; and there are birds of prey and scavengers. Photographing each will take some slightly different techniques on the basic guidelines outlined above.
Small migratory birds are often the toughest. They are a primary source of food for many birds of prey, as well as for many carnivorous mammals. They also tend to be rather feisty, are constantly on the move, and are often prone to attack (friendly or malicious) from their own kind for one reason or another. That makes them particularly alert and jittery, and as such they may take a little longer to acclimatize (although it also depends on the bird and the environment.) You might need to be a little slower and less extreme in your "beeing normal"-ness. Don't make too much noise, but be careful not to appear like a predator. Just make sure they don't see you as a threat, and you should gain at least a little curiosity from them. Many song birds are brightly colored, and framing them against a background of contrasting color can often yield great results. Younger birds tend to be more curious than seasoned adults due to their lack of experience. You might get some of your best shots from a yearling. It should be fairly easy to get shots of young in a nest, as small birds don't pose much of a threat (although they will often try.) Be courteous and don't disturb a nest when you find one, unless there seems to be something wrong already (like a nest that may have been scavenged by a predator...in which its up to you to help or not.)
Wading and water birds are a bit different than smaller migratory birds. They tend to be very shy, however they are not as quick to disappear in a single hop and a short flight. When they do fly, they usually fly more slowly, and can make excellent in-flight shots, especially when framed against a nicely contrasting blurry background (longer focal lengths and an f/5.6 or wider aperture really help here...f/4 or better is ideal.) You will need to learn some panning to capture water fowl in flight, and often to catch them gliding along a lake or pond surface. Many long-legged wading birds, from small ones like sandpipers and snipes, to larger ones like egrets and ibises, tend to slowly wade along the shores of their feeding ground...always away from you. Its hit or miss whether they will ever really "get used" to you, however if you give them enough time, they will usually stay close enough for you to get some decent shots. A lot of these birds blend VERY well into their backgrounds, so you may find yourself spending more time finding the right composition of contrast than you do actually photographing the birds themselves. Their patterns tend to match closely with near backgrounds, so finding angles which puts a lot of distance between them and the bulk of the backdrop will assist in isolating the bird from their surroundings (maximum aperture is always recommended.)
Birds of prey tend to be a bit more confident than other birds. Perhaps its the talons, perhaps its the razor sharp beak. Either way, they are not as quick to jump up and fly off at the first sign of disturbance. Birds of prey do seem to expect a certain formality of etiquette, however...particularly when they are feeding. "Be normal", but be as courteous as you can, and try to stay hidden if you want to capture a raptor feeding. Being indirect can also be a valuable tool in closing the gap between you and your subject as well. Looking like a dumb, lowly human seems to satisfy their superiority. ;) A bird of prey can, in the blink of an eye, take off after some unseen prey. It is critical that you have your eye to the viewfinder, finder half-down on the shutter button, be in focus, and ready to take the shot when you zero in on a bird of prey. Autofocus capabilities can be paramount here as well. Quality AF, with as many cross-type focus points, subject tracking, servo-action, etc. will all be extremely helpful when tracking and capturing any bird of prey snatching a meal. Solid panning and tracking skills are also paramount here, as some of the best bird of pray shots are right before and at the moment of capture.
I personally do not have any experience photographing exotic birds in their natural habitats. By exotic birds, I mean many of the large (and frequently African) ground or wading birds like storks, the huge flightless birds like ostriches and emus, birds of paradise, southern sea birds like the albatross or northern migratory birds like geese, or penguins. I can't really offer much insight when it comes to photographing them. Based on what I have seen in documentaries, penguins seem to be largely oblivious and fairly curious of humans, and photographing them in any environment should be pretty strait forward. Albatross are often huge, and generally seem focused on eating, staying warm, and eating, and occasionally a little love and a little flight school...so be normal tactics should work well with them. I can't give a whole lot of advice on any other type of bird, as I simply don't have any knowledge about them outside of zoos and documentaries. Birds of Paradise, which are the primary residents of the rainforest of New Guinea, are probably a lot like any other song bird, and I would expect the same tactics to work with them.
A lot of these suggestions are no different from general (and especially portrait) photography, but it's always worth repeating them:
- Don't forget to "fill the frame:" with the 400mm reach it's tempting to take pictures of birds that are far away, but to get detail you still need to get close.
- Focus on (and expose for) the eyes! If the wings are a little out of focus that is okay, but make sure you nail the focus on the eyes.
- Bright pixels are sharp pixels: a bird in the sun will look a lot better than a bird in the shade of a sun-lit tree.
- Exposure is key! My favorite "trick" is to let my camera meter (I usually shoot in Av mode) but use +1 Ev. Sometimes even more (chimp liberally when you are unsure of your exposure!) to expose (the eye) correctly, but my starting point is +1:
- You really need a fast shutter speed: 1/1000 or faster for birds in flight! 1/400 will look fine on the LCD but you'll be dismayed when you get home and look at it on your screen.
- You can get away with a lot slower (1/250 or so) for a sitting bird (if you want to lower ISO to get a higher-quality portrait of it, say) but you'll miss the moment when it ruffles its feathers or takes off (50% crop and, notably, 0 Ev):
- Learn, ahead of time, how far you can push your ISO. On my 30D, I can get pictures I'm not too upset about at 400 ISO. 400 ISO + f/8 + 1/1000s + +1 Ev means you need mid-day sunlight (at least, that's true in the north in winter). You are going to be pretty limited on aperture and shutter speed and at the mercy of the light, and pushing ISO is better than not getting the shot, but it's good to know what kind of quality you'll get so you can choose to sacrifice shutter speed if necessary.
- As always, practice, practice, practice! Crows are good for practicing your focus as they fly around, and ducks are good for practicing exposure. Both are good for learning your ISO limits and practicing carrying around that lens. Don't forget to post-process your test photos like normal, since that's where you'll learn the most about their quality. If you can, wander around a park at lunch for a couple days this week.
- Get the birds in profile or quarter-facing you, and preferably at their level. This is difficult if they're on the ground or in the water, because you need to get your camera down to ground level.
- If you're driving around a lot: birds are used to cars, but not to people getting out of cars. If a bird is close to the road, take some pictures from the car (with the engine turned off) instead of (or at least before) getting out.
- Make sure you bring a tripod: that 100-400 is actually a pretty heavy lens. It doesn't feel that way when you heft it in your room at home, but after carrying it around for 15-30 minutes you'll start to feel it, and even more so tomorrow after a full day of shooting. The more time you can spend with that lens on a tripod, the more time you'll be able to carry it around.
- At 1/1000 s, you don't have to worry too much about camera shake (as long as you have halfway-decent form). But you still want to keep the IS on: it will stabilize the bird in the viewfinder, which helps immensely as you're tracking it, or framing it, or just trying to keep that heavy lens stable.
- Bring extra batteries (even more if it's cold outside).
- Bring a whole bunch of memory cards, unless you're somewhere where you're sure you can buy more. You can easily take 2-4 GB of pictures in a day (much more if you're shooting RAW the whole time).
- Bring some food and dress warm (don't forget gloves, warm socks, and a warm hat); you may be out in the field for a while and if you're too hungry to think straight or hold the camera stable, or too cold to care about waiting for the next picture, you won't take any pictures.
- I like the thread at community.the-digital-picture.com/showthread.php?t=2119 though it took me a full month to get through it and it suffers terribly from link rot. There are lots of great bird pictures, many with the settings used, and plenty of good advice for taking pictures as well as for post-processing them. Also, I haven't found anything to beat that thread for motivation to get out there and take pictures! :)
- The general advice, of course, is to stop down one stop for sharpness and stay above your diffraction limit. That pretty much limits you to f/8, I think. I usually try to shoot at f/8 (unless I really need that extra stop to f/5.6 to get the exposure right), though I haven't done any tests to understand the IQ difference.
- Don't forget that you have a 4x zoom, not a 400mm prime: if you pull the camera up to your eye and don't see the bird in your viewfinder, zoom out, find the bird, and zoom back in. It's a lot easier than hunting around with that tiny field of view.
- It's really, really easy to keep tracking a bird as it flies away, since you can still see it clearly through the viewfinder at 400mm. Unless it's rare or doing something really interesting (or you think you missed your earlier shots), you don't need to track it until it finally disappears from view. Otherwise you get home and have some really tiny pictures of a bird that's very far away. Same bird, same sequence, no change in settings, and I could still see him clearly through the viewfinder when I took the second picture: (blurry because this was before I learned to trade off ISO for shutter speed).
- Bring a checklist, tape it to the bottom of the camera if you need to, but in the morning or whenever you head out after a break, don't forget to check all your settings: nothing's worse than realizing as you leave a spot that you had left your camera in manual, or at 800 ISO from last night, or with the wrong in-camera JPEG processing settings.
- It takes some practice to get used to, but moving the AF button to the thumb control (using a Custom Function) can help a lot. It lets you stay focussed (using AI Servo) and keeps the IS running without cramping your shooting finger trying to half-press the shutter the whole time.
- AI Servo works wonders for birds in flight, despite being irritating for just about every other use. I'd recommend learning to manual focus, but you have to move the focus ring pretty far on the 100-400 and birds (especially of the frame-filling variety) are going to be much closer than infinity with that lens, so it's tough to know which way to turn the focus; not to mention the zoom lock ring that I keep turning by accident when I try to turn the focus ring.
The pictures I used are all 100% crop at 400mm with no post-processing (other than cropping or resizing) unless otherwise noted.
The best tips I've seen on bird photography are from Moose Peterson. I think his best advice is to watch the birds and learn their habits. A shore bird may peck in the mud or sand a few times, then stop and look around. That moment when they look around you may get the best shot where they are erect and still. And when they resume pecking, you may be able to inch a bit closer. By learning how they behave, you may be able to anticipate where they may go next.