Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Birds in Flight

In my previous articles, I talked about the challenges of photographing fast moving birds. You need to get close, shoot fast and you need to be very familiar with your camera settings. In this article I’ll give some tips on how to practice and improve your photography skills in your own back garden. All you need is a feeder and lots of nuts!

The trick is to position your camera close to a bird feeder. I shoot through an open window with the feeder 3 metres away. Set up the feeder close to the house, leave it for a few days, keeping it topped up, and let the birds get familiar with the new location. I regularly get 10 different species visiting mine, often on the same day, so there is plenty of variety and colour to choose from.

Attach a freshly cut twig to a spare tripod and place it 2 metres from the feeder, at the same height. The birds will use this as a staging post before moving on to the feeder. Set up the camera on a tripod, slightly higher than the feeder, angled slightly downwards.

Perching Birds
To get a sharp picture of perching birds you will need a shutter speed of 1/300th to 1/500th of a second. For this type of shoot I usually use Aperture Priority with a low setting of f/5.6 – f/6.3 and adjust the ISO to give me the required shutter speed. The ISO setting is dependent on the available light, but on a sunny day it should be around 500 – 800. Use as low an ISO setting as you can, to achieve the required shutter speed. Take a few test shots of the twig and check the histogram to make sure the exposure settings are correct and adjust, using the exposure compensation dial, if required. Check that the lawn in the background is out of focus and blemish free. Remember to focus on the bird’s eyes and take plenty of shots.

Blue Tit
Canon 5D, Canon EF 100-400mm, Aperture Priority, No Flash
f/6.3, 1/320th sec, ISO 500 , Focal Length 400mm

Canon 5D, Canon EF 100-400mm, Aperture Priority, No Flash
f/5.6, 1/500th sec, ISO 800 , Focal Length 400mm

Birds in Flight
After you have mastered the technique of taking pictures of perching birds you can attempt to capture them in flight. This is not as easy as it sounds. Their small size and fast flight makes focusing extremely difficult and bear in mind that the wings are beating at up to 20 times per second.

The plan is to capture the birds in flight, between the twig and the feeder. We have set up a predictable pathway, where we know they will fly to and from. They will stop off at the staging post then head to the feeder, when there is an available landing slot. The flight time will take about 1/5th of a second.

You will need a shutter speed of at least 1/4000th of a second to totally freeze the wing beats. The best way to achieve this is with high speed flash. I use a Canon 580EX Speedlite (off camera) and set it to the High Speed Sync function. Set the camera to Manual, shutter speed 1/4000th, aperture f/5.6, ISO 1000. Take a few test shots of the feeder and check the histogram to make sure the exposure settings are correct and adjust the flash output if required. Set the lens to manual focus - the birds will be flying faster than the camera autofocus (or you) can react. Set the focal point of the lens on the bird feeder and fire the shutter using a remote switch.

Now, we are all set! When you see a bird on the twig positioning itself to take off, hit the shutter button on the remote switch. Don’t even look through the viewfinder – keep your eye on the bird on the twig and shoot as soon as it makes a move. It all happens so fast that, in many of the images, the bird will be sitting on the bird feeder eating nuts. But, when you get into the rhythm of it, you will get some fantastic shots showing the intricate detail of those majestic wings.

The following sequence of pictures was taken when there was snow on the ground, hence the white/blue background of the lawn.

Goldfinch & Great Tit
Canon 5D, Sigma 170-500mm, Manual, Flash
f/5.6, 1/4000th sec, ISO 1000, Focal Length 307mm

Chaffinch & Goldfinches
Canon 5D, Sigma 170-500mm, Manual, Flash
f/5.6, 1/4000th sec, ISO 1000, Focal Length 307mm

Goldfinches Fighting
Canon 5D, Sigma 170-500mm, Manual, Flash
f/5.6, 1/4000th sec, ISO 1000, Focal Length 307mm

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Tips for Better Bird Photography: Article 2

Last month I looked at specialised photographic techniques required to capture images of fast moving birds. In this month’s article I will talk about some more useful techniques, exposure, composition, minimizing background distractions and post processing images.

You need to be fully in control of your camera settings

Understanding the controls on your camera is a key element of bird photography. By this I mean the ability to change the shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings rapidly. You need to be able to adjust these settings as the situation unfolds, without taking your eye of the subject. If you can master the technical side of the photographic process this will allow you to concentrate on the aesthetic quality of your images. When this skill becomes second nature you can concentrate your mind on framing the image, composition, background, exposure and ultimately produce a better picture.


As in all photography, getting the exposure right is essential for a good picture. The main area of the picture that you want the exposure to be correct in, is the bird itself and often the eye of the bird. There are 3 types of light metering built into most SLRs: Evaluative (averages the correct exposure across the whole image); Centre Weighted (averages the correct exposure required across an area in the centre of the image); Spot Metering (takes one point and exposes correctly for this). Bear in mind that this is your cameras estimate of the correct exposure which may or may not be correct for the image you are trying to achieve. In bird photography you are concentrating on one central subject and the aim is to get the exposure right for this point of the image, so Spot Metering is the best option. Some areas of the image may be over or underexposed but in many cases these will be peripheral and will be cropped out during the post processing. You need to check the image on your camera display, when you get a chance, to ensure that no part of the bird is over or underexposed. This is best done by using the histogram alongside the image. If you need a minor adjustment use the exposure compensation dial and correct it – you need to know where this dial is so you can change it without taking your eye of the subject. It’s always good practice to manually bracket the exposure, if you get chance, by taking shots at a variety of exposure settings.

Available light in Ireland tends to vary from minute to minute. This complicates things a lot as you try to balance the freezing of the subject and still achieve the correct exposure.

Common Sandpiper, Canon 20D, Sigma 170-500mm, Manual f/6.3, 1/160th sec, ISO 100, Focal Length 500mm


Your position relative to the subject is very important for achieving a good image. Most shots of birds from above or below end up in the bin, although there can be exceptions. If you are setting up to photograph a particular bird it’s usually best to find a position where you can shoot at the same height as the subject. You need to be able to get a clear shot of the whole bird with no foreground distractions. Simplify the scene and isolate either one bird or a pair.

Compose the image to allow space for the bird to look, or fly, into. Bear the rule of thirds in mind and apply if appropriate. However, if you are looking for a specific species shot this may have less relevance than in other types of photography. Portrait shots that show the intricate beauty and features that make that species unique are, in my opinion, often as good as any action shot.

Razorbill, Canon 20D, Sigma 170-500mm, Manual f/6.3, 1/320th sec, ISO 100, Focal Length 232mm

In summary, general terms and conditions apply for bird photography: the image has to be sharp, exposed correctly and composed sympathetically. Like all photography rules are made to be broken but understanding the rules first is a prerequisite for consistently good results.

Redshank, Canon 5D, Sigma 170-500mm, Aperture Priority f/6.3, 1/6400th sec, ISO 400, Focal Length 500mm

Minimizing background distractions

Minimizing background distractions is another major challenge for good bird photography. Plan your shoot in advance with this in mind. Run a few test shots and set up in a location where you know there are no, or minimal levels, of background interference. If there are issues move to a new position. The picture of the coal tit below was taken with this in mind. I placed a freshly cut twig close to a bird feeder, knowing that the birds would use this as a staging post before moving onto the feeder. My camera was on a tripod approximately 3 metres from the twig and 10 metres from the grass lawn behind it. Initial test shots of the twig showed that the grass would be out of focus and blemish free in the background.

Coal Tit, Canon 5D, Canon EF 100-400mm, Aperture Priority f/7.1, 1/640th sec, ISO 500, Focal Length 400mm

Of course, in the field it’s not this simple but the same principles apply.

P ost Processing

Post processing in all nature photography is very different to most other forms of photography. Very limited post processing is permitted. The FIAP (Federation Internationale De L’Art Photographique, 1st January 2015) rules for nature photography are as follows:no techniques that add, relocate, replace, or remove pictorial elements except by cropping are permitted. Techniques that enhance the presentation of the photograph without changing the nature story or the pictorial content, or without altering the content of the original scene, are permitted including HDR, focus stacking and dodging/burning. Techniques that remove elements added by the camera, such as dust spots, digital noise, and film scratches, are allowed. Stitched elements are not permitted. In principle this means that your image needs to be near perfect as shot. My workflow in Photoshop is almost always the same for each image.

1. Crop

Cropping is one of the most important aspects of the post processing workflow. Usually, as the subjects are so small, the final image will be half or one third of the original. Cropping controls your composition and framing of the final image.

2. Minor adjustments to shadows and highlights

Minimal lightening of shadows, darkening of highlights and minor adjustments to mid-tone contrast.

3. Clone stamp

Removal of minor blemishes.

4. Levels

Minor adjustments using the Levels tool.

5. Resize Image

Because of the cropping of the initial image, the size needs to be readjusted to 360 pixels / inch, approximately 12 inch x 8 inch using bicubic smoother (best for enlargements).

6.Unsharp Mask

Minor adjustments to sharpness using unsharp mask, if required, generally no more than 40%, radius 1.0, threshold 0.

7. Reduce Noise

Noise reduction is another important step in the post processing of bird images. As a high ISO is used more often than not, some noise reduction is usually required - set at strength 5, preserve detail 28%.

In next month’s article I will be giving tips on photographing birds in your garden, a great place to practice and improve your bird photography skills.

Chaffinch & Goldfinches, Canon 5D, Sigma 170-500mm, Manual f/5.6, 1/4000th sec, ISO 100, Focal Length 307mm, flash

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Tips for Better Bird Photography: Article 1

Since I started photography 12 years ago, capturing images of wildlife has always been my passion. My main focus has been on animals, all animals, from bugs to birds. Strangely enough though, photographing humans has never really interested me. One of the first things you learn when you try to photograph animals is that they don’t like having their pictures taken and they tend to run away very fast. When you are looking down the barrel of a lens everything is racing around at a phenomenal speed. This is what makes wildlife photography so challenging and, like all areas of photography, you need to put in a lot of time and effort to produce good pictures.

Birds are very fast moving animals, particularly when flying. To freeze wings that are beating at 10 to 20 times per second is no easy task and requires a high level of precision.

You need to get really, really close

Photographing birds is a bit like hunting – don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes, except most birds don’t have white eyes, they come in a variety of stunning colours (red, gold, blue, green or grey/black). In most bird pictures the eye is going to be the focal point and it has to be in focus.
Puffin, Canon 20D, Sigma 170-500mm, Manual Control f/11, 1/160th sec, ISO 100, Focal Length 500mm

To get really close you need to think like a predator and you need a lot of power in your lens. If you have loads of money and can spend €10,000 on a top of the range zoom lens then that’s half the battle, kind of. All you need then is to find the birds. That kind of money wouldn’t pay for one of my kids in college for one year so I, like most of you, have to improvise and work with what I can afford. I started with a Sigma 170 – 500mm 1:5-6.3 zoom lens but I have recently graduated onto a Canon EF 100 – 400mm 1:4.5-5.6 with image stabilizer. I also occasionally use a x1.4 or x2.0 teleconverter to get even more magnification. You can work with less power and still get great images but the trade off is that you will need to get even closer to the birds.

In some locations birds are more approachable, such as islands, along shores and beaches or in your garden. Birds have excellent vision so you should wear camouflaged or neutral clothing and basically sit and wait. Good shots rarely happen by chance so you will have to put in the time and effort to be in the right place at the right time. Be patient and let the birds behave normally. You need to move slowly, think of a cat stalking a bird! Using hides or bird feeders are other ways of getting closer to your subject. Many birds are more active just after dawn and seem to be less nervous at this time, so getting up early can be productive.

Obviously, to get really close to birds you need to understand their behaviour. It’s best to focus on one species or location at a time rather than just randomly walking around.
Brent Geese, Canon 5D, Sigma 170-500mm, Aperture Priority f/7.1, 1/3200th sec, ISO 640, Focal Length 500mm

It’s important to note that it is an offence under the Wildlife Act to disturb protected birds in or around their nest sites. Most of our birds are protected so the rule of thumb is just don’t go there. Work at a safe distance and leave nesting birds alone.

You need to shoot really, really fast

Birds move fast. In flight small species like blue tits travel at 17mph and a diving peregrine falcon can reach speeds of 190mph. Even when perching or on the ground most birds are continually twitching their heads or flicking their tails. Freezing any of these movements requires fast shutter speeds of over 1/1000th of a second.
Blue Tit, Canon 5D, Canon EF 100-400mm, Aperture Priority f/5.6, 1/1250th sec, ISO 1000, Focal Length 400mm

To reach these fast shutter speeds you need to use low f stops (aperture wide open) and high ISO settings. The exact settings are dependent on the amount of light available which can be in limited supply in woods or early in the morning. The key is to set the camera to whatever is required to produce a sharp image. Because everything is usually happening so fast the best setting in most situations is Aperture Priority. Set the aperture to f/5.6, f/6.3 or f/7.1 (dependant on the proximity and size of the subject and available light). Start shooting with a high ISO of say 1000 and reduce this, or increase it, as appropriate, when you get a chance to check your images on your camera display. As the ISO increases the level of pixilation will increase so keep it as low as you can but don’t forget, the main aim is to produce a sharp image.
Wren, Canon 5D, Canon EF 100-400mm, Aperture Priority f/6.3, 1/1600th sec, ISO 1000, Focal Length 400mm

Take plenty of shots and if possible use the continuous shooting function. This is very difficult with small birds, as it’s hard to keep them in focus, but with larger subjects just fire away.

In most situations it’s the eye of the bird that you want to focus on. To be sure of this you need to set your camera to Centre Point AF.


In many situations, because of the high shutter speeds, it’s possible to shoot without a tripod. However, you need to brace the camera as best you can against your body with one hand securely held under the heavy zoom lens. Having a correct stance is very important. This is obviously important in all types of photography but the weight of the kit you are lugging around makes it even more critical. Keep your feet shoulder width apart. Lying on the ground or using a tree or wall for support will also help with stability.

A really effective technique to learn for bird photography is panning. This is where you track your subject in flight, keeping it in sharp focus as you fire off shots, by smoothly rotating the upper half of your body. With your knees slightly bent keep your upper body ridged and rotate through your waste, leaning slightly forward. This isn’t quite as easy as it sounds and is much easier with a goose than a tiny wren but the results can be stunning.
A panning shot of Oystercatchers & Sanderling, Canon 5D, Canon EF 100-400mm, Aperture Priority f/11, 1/640th sec, ISO 500, Focal Length 800mm

In particular situations you will be able to use a tripod or monopod. When I’m photographing birds in the garden, for example, I usually use a tripod. In some situations it may be possible to use flash which will allow you to shoot at very high shutter speeds of up to 1/8000th of a second.