DSLR Beginner guides | photographing birds

For me, one of the most rewarding but also frustrating subjects to photograph is birds. On one hand they provide an amazing array of colours and poses and on the other, you can spend a day out in the field and come home with a pile of poor photographs.

The right gear
Obviously, the right photographic equipment is essential to capture good bird images. A telephoto lens is a must in my opinion in order to capture sufficient detail whilst been a reasonable distance away from the subject. I would suggest a lens of at least 300mm, preferably more. There are a huge number of lenses available, zoom lenses offer the user flexibility allowing wider angle shots to telephoto images all in one lens, whilst fixed focal length lenses generally offer sharper results. The choice has to be yours, so weigh up what kind of lens would suit you best.

Some lenses offer image stabilization or vibration reduction, both amount to the same, if hand holding a telephoto lens, any movement you make will be greatly magnified and can lead to blurred images especially if the light is dull. Image stabilization reduces this negative effect by electronically stabilizing the lens. This function can be expensive but is very usefull.

The right conditions
As with most telephoto subjects, photographing birds requires good light. Good light conditions means you can acheive faster shutter speeds, therefore helping to freeze any motion the subject should make. Birds, especially small birds move very quickly, and a shutter speed of at least 500th of a second is needed, much more if you intend to photograph birds in flight.

Telephoto lenses generally have a small depth of field, which means only the subject you focus on will be sharp and the foreground and background between you focus point will be blurred. This for me is a positive effect, meaning that your subject stands out from the background. Keeping your lens at its widest aperture will emphasize this effect and in turn allow the most light in to your camera to help with a faster shutter speed.

Using a high ISO setting on your camera will result in a faster shutter speed as it makes your camera more sensitive to light, the higher the ISO number, the faster the shutter speed, but remeber that the higher the ISO, the more your image quality will degrade, this effect is called 'noise'.

Getting close to birds is difficult, I would always reccommend putting feeders in your garden to practice before you venture out in to the field. Sit in your garden and wait for the birds to visit you. You could try attaching a twig near to your feeder, that way the bird may perch naturally before visiting the feeder, and you can get your shot. When you feel ready to venture further a field, often the best course of action is to bate an area and wait. You may require some kind of portable hide to capture the more shy speices. A good tip is to use peanut butter smeared on a branch, as it will be more invisible in your pictures than seed or nuts and the image will look more natural. Patience is required, but can often pay off with a great shot.

The right settings
I'm no expert, but I find I get most success when I use the aperture priority mode of my camera, I select the widest aperture to allow the most light, and the camera decides on a suitable shutter speed. I tend to use spot focus and spot metering, that way I set the focus point on the bird so the camera takes its metering and the lens focusses directly on the bird. Sometimes, especially if the bird is in a lot of foliage, the lens will struggle to autofocus, so I turn the lens to manual in order to focus on the bird and not a leaf in the foreground.

Photographing birds in flight
Now this is where it gets really tricky, locating your subject using a telephoto lens can be difficult even if the subject is motionless, but a bird in flight can be a daunting task. For this type of shot I set my camera to AI servo mode, this setting means that the focus will track a moving object and try to predict its path. If I see a bird in flight, generally I try to manually focus the lens roughly to the birds location and then pan with the bird in flight, I then let the AI servo mode take over. I also have my camera set to burst mode, the Canon EOS 400D will shoot at 3 frames per second (depending on shutter speed) this gives you more chance of getting a worth while image. Don't be dissapointed if the majority of sots are not sharp, like anything else it's a case of trial and error, but you do get a real buzz, sifting through your images when you find a decent, sharp picture.

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