- Backgrounds matter in photographs of birds – they matter a lot: More than almost any other type of photography, backgrounds are crucial for bird photographers. For flight shots, autofocus is much easier against a clean blue sky or calm water than against foliage or rocks. For perched shots, smooth, contrasting-color, backgrounds help make your subject pop. Remember that blue sky and water also make for easiest exposures. And for those shots where you want to give your audience a sense of a bird’s habitat, make sure the bird is naturally situated with enough distinguishing characteristics to identify the background, but not obscure the bird.
- For easier flight shots, keep the wind at your back. Birds fly much more slowly into the wind, and also tend to land and take off the same way – often with their wings beautifully flared. Ideal conditions for flight photography occur when a breeze is blowing from the direction of the sun, so you can have both the sun and the wind at your back. By contrast, birds tend to move very quickly with the wind, and don’t give you the same majestic poses. Too much wind also isn’t helpful, as it often keeps birds hidden in the bushes.
- To capture birds in flight, start with a very loose framing. Don’t try and haul out your longest lens, or zoom in to the limit of your lens right away. Framing too-tight makes it much harder to find your subject in the frame. Start out as wide as you need. Then, as you become more familiar with how the birds are moving, and get more comfortable tracking them, you can start to zoom in to get a nicer crop. To track a flying bird, try to find it in the frame when it is still some distance off, so you have time to lock focus on it, and then track it as it comes closer.
- Watch for a catchlight in the bird’s eye. As with any portrait, bird photos are more interesting when the bird is looking towards you. Additional drama is added when the viewer can see a glint of sunlight (called a catchlight) in the eye of the bird. If it is an overcast day, and the bird’s eyes aren’t picking up any sunlight, you can often use a flash (typically set to -1 or -2 exposure compensation) to provide a catchlight. Note that if you have bright sun and use a flash, you’re at some risk of having two catchlights in the eye of your subject, which can look artifical.
- If you’re going for a truly unique, potentially-award-winning “money shot” don’t get lured away by other distracting options. If you want to capture that perfect behavior, you may need to be patient, and focus on getting exactly that shot. It may mean pre-focusing on a perch or pond and waiting for what you’re hoping for. For example, to capture this image of Harris Hawks fighting, I spent most of a morning pre-focused on a limb over a carcass, knowing that the larch female who was in charge of a hunt group of Hawks would defend it against interlopers. Several times other Hawks came in to try to feed, and she drove them off. Finally, the timing worked out and I captured the peak of the action. If I’d gotten distracted by focusing on some of the other birds we have visi our blind that morning, I never would have gotten the image featured in this article, that ultimately won the Grand Prize in the National Wildlife Federation photo competition.
South Texas Bird Photo Workshop
If you’d like to put these tips into practice, and get some great bird photos in the process, please join us for our Rio Grande Valley, South Texas Bird Photo Workshop in April.
Learn more about this amazing trip.
About David Cardinal
David is a veteran travel and nature photographer who specializes in Africa and Southeast Asia as well as North American mammals and birds. Learn more about David on his website, Cardinal Photo, which is both full of tips, reviews and forums where photographers compare notes and photos. Or follow David on Facebook, Twitter, or join him on one of his Photo Tours and Safaris.