Photographer's Corner

An NSBS Guide to Bird Photography

by Richard Stern, Port Williams, NS, April 2013

We live in a Golden Age of bird photography, with a dizzying array of cameras and equipment, the ability to shoot many pictures and delete the ones we don't like, without incurring any cost, a huge quantity of learning resources on line, and the ability to easily share images through social networking sites and on the web. So here is a quick and basic guide to how to get started, or for those already started, how to get better.

There are many reasons to photograph birds - for your own pleasure, to show others, to document rarities, to print, frame and sell, etc. The problem is that many birds seen in NS don't come to close and don't stay still, so in most cases the typical pocket point-and-shoot camera won't be up to the task of capturing good images. There are exceptions, particularly when birds are part of a more general scenic image, or to photograph large and slow-moving birds that happen to be close by, but for most bird photography you want to get the subject large enough to be the major part of the overall image. That means using some kind of telephoto lens.

There are basically 2 classes of camera that have telephoto lenses. The first is the bridge camera, or "superzoom", which is a type of point-and-shoot, but usually too large to fit in a pocket, and which comes as an all-in one camera with a non-removable lens that can be zoomed from wide angle to telephoto. Current examples are the Panasonic FZ-200, Canon SX50HS, Sony Cybershot SX300 and others. The quoted zoom factor (e.g. 20x, 24x etc.) does not matter. Far more important for bird photography is the maximum zoom length expressed as the "35mm equivalent", and in some ways - the longer the better. You will need a 35mm. equivalent of at least 500mm. to bring most birds in close. The current ones available all have at least that. The problem is that large magnifications don't just magnify the bird, but they also magnify camera shake, the bird's movements, haze, and other issues. To minimize these issues, all these cameras now have some form of image stabilization built in - which helps with shaky hands, but doesn't help with a moving target. For that, you need a high shutter speed - at least the reciprocal of the length of the lens - e.g. for a 500mm. lens you will need to use a shutter speed of 1/500 second, and in turn to achieve that, you need good light. Most of these cameras will cost in the $400-$800 range.

The second type of camera is the digital single-lens reflex (dSLR). In this type, the camera body and the lenses come separately, so it's possible to buy one camera body, and a lens for portraits, a lens for landscapes and a lens for birds. The 2 major manufacturers are Canon and Nikon, with some other players being "also rans". Both manufacturers have a wide variety of camera bodies, ranging from several hundred to many thousands of dollars for the body alone, and even more for high quality lenses. Unfortunately Canon lenses won't fit on Nikon bodies and vice versa, so you have to decide which "system" to buy into. There are some excellent third party telephoto lenses that can be fitted to these camera bodies, such as the Sigma 50-500mm. zoom. For bird photography, fast auto-focus, a rapid burst mode and a large buffer are important.

The advantages of a dSLR system compared to a Bridge camera are that in less than perfect light, or for fast moving subjects, or if you need to crop the subject heavily in post-processing, or for most in-flight shots, you will get a higher quality, sharper and more pleasing image. They also have real eye-level viewfinders, which most Bridge cameras don't. The disadvantages are the cost, and the portability. A high quality dSLR with a 500 or 600mm. lens will be heavy and bulky to carry around, and may well need a tripod and expensive tripod head to hold it properly. However, nearly all the best quality bird photos that you see in magazines, book, nature-orientated websites etc., are taken with this type of setup.  There is also a "new kid on the block" - the Mirror-less dSLR, of which the Micro 4/3 and Sony NEX systems seem to be the most popular so far, which has all the same features as the dSLR but the bodies and lenses are much smaller and lighter. Examples are the Olympus OM-D EM5 and the Panasonic GH3. They are, however, not as good at focusing on fast moving birds in flight as the full dSLR, because of the engineering of their auto-focus systems.

For birders who own a spotting scope, it's possible to shoot through the eyepiece using an ordinary point-and-shoot camera - called Digiscoping. It's very hard to get a high quality image, but there are a few people who post very good ones on line and further information can be found by searching the web. There are adapters available online to join the camera to the scope if needed.

If you're going to buy, or upgrade, a camera or lens, one of the best resources for looking at the specifications of different models and makes is www.dpreview.com. Another excellent site is www.bhphotovideo.com, and browse the prices, and the user reviews, for individual products. However, you should try and actually handle any camera and lens you want before emptying your pocket, so that you can feel comfortable with the size, weight and feel of the camera. Also, camera bodies are mini-computers, and become obsolete and replaced by the latest model with more bells and whistles after a few months, but high quality dSLR lenses retain their quality and value for years.

There are a number of ways of buying photo equipment, but my recommendation is to physically purchase it at a local store where people can explain things to you, allow you to try it in person and in-store, and willdeal with it professionally if (when!) it goes wrong or needs repair. The current top choice locally would be Henry's - with branches in Bayer's Lake and Dartmouth Crossing.

There are whole books and web sites, workshops and more devoted to the art of bird photography and how to get, or create, a high quality image. But there are a few basic principles that can summarize the main points:

  1. Learn and know your subjects. Find out where the birds are, and how to use good fieldcraft to get close to the bird without disturbing it too much, particularly if there is a nest involved. Move slowly, use subdued clothing colors, keep quiet, know the habits of the bird you are trying to "capture".  Try to get as close as possible to the bird. A close shot is generally higher quality than a distant shot that has been cropped and blown up afterwards.
  2. Learn your gear. It's no use having a super rare and colorful bird posing in front of you if you don't know how to compensate your exposure for backlighting, change the shutter speed if the bird starts moving, zoom the lens if you need to, change the battery, etc.
  3. Use the light. The word photograph means light-drawing - try and avoid harsh shadows (try and photograph on overcast days, or early in the morning), try and illuminate the bird by having the sun behind you, not the bird. Know how to expose correctly for, e.g. the white of a gull or the black of a crow, and not lose detail in the feathers.
  4. Know how to focus properly. The point of focus should ideally be on the bird's eye, and if the bird is moving, know how to change the focus point on your camera quickly.
  5. Try and have eye contact or a good head angle - bird images look much better if the bird is looking slightly towards you rather than slightly away. They also look better if you are at the same level as the bird - not too far above or below it.
  6. Try and get a "clean" image, without branches or other objects passing in front of the bird.
  7. Try and include some habitat, to give context to the bird. A bird on a plain branch against a plain blue sky looks boring.


Of course, all of this comes with a LOT of practice and perseverance, and no-one would say that it is easy. Too often the bird you want to photograph is moving about in the branches of a tree, and the only time it comes into view is when it's silhouetted against the sun, your camera gives a low battery warning beep, to get level with the bird you need to jump over a cliff, and if it's a rare bird, no one will believe you saw it unless you photograph it, so you're panicky and shaking with excitement and can't hold the camera still! Well, keep trying anyway. For documenting rarities, anything is better than nothing. It is also important to have a backup system, so that if the SD card becomes corrupted or the hard drive on the computer fails, all is not lost.

There are a lot of other topics I could cover, but won't do so here - including video, how to archive pictures, and many others. But one topic is very important for digital photographers. Once the image has been taken, and it's on the SD card in the camera, it generally needs some type of post-processing in a computer program to make the most of it and the show it to others.  The highest quality pictures are taken in Raw mode  (the digital equivalent of a negative or slide in the "old" system) and then sharpened, color-adjusted, cropped, re-sized for the web, or for printing, etc. in software such as Lightroom or Photoshop CS or Elements etc. This does not constitute cheating - it's universally regarded as an essential part of the process in creating high quality digital images. But it does add another layer to the the overall learning process.

Here are some on-line resources you might want to check out, for examples of  images, tutorial, camera reviews etc. N.B., like everything else on-line, these sites are likely to change over time.

DPreview for equipment reviews, and the Forums are an excellent resource for user questions and comments.

Fred Miranda for gear talk, and the Nature and Wildlife forum has excellent bird pictures and comments

Naturescapes, excellent overall resource

Secrets of Digital Bird Photography. An amazing free on-line book that covers every aspect of digital bird photography, often quite technical.

Henry's. Excellent local equipment supplier, with knowledgeable sales staff and a good inventory of equipment that you can actually handle in person.

Mike Atkinson Bird Photography. Everything I have mentioned in this article, but written better and in more detail.

And a few other sites that you can join (for free) - Bird Forum - A British based, but international in scope, site that has numerous sub-forums on all aspects of birding, including bird photography, and a chance to upload pictures. 

Bird Photographers - post there if you dare, but you'll learn a lot! Much technical talk in some of the forums, and some superb bird images.

Flickr has many user groups devoted to bird photography and aspects of using gear.

A Yahoo group, Birdpix.

Google+ has a large number of photography based groups..................

Looking forward to seeing your photos!



 

 

 

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    DigiscopingDigiscoping.

     

     

    DigiscopingGetting to eye level with the bird.

     

     

    DigiscopingDigital SLR and long lens on gimbal tripod head.

     

     

    DigiscopingDigital SLR and long lens on shoulder strap.

     

     

    DigiscopingHand-holding Digital SLR and long lens.

     

     

    DigiscopingMicro 4-3 (Mirrorless Digital SLR and Standard Digital SLR with long lens.

     

     

    DigiscopingVideo tripod head.