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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.