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

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