Bird photography tips

Ziggy99

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May be use to someone who wants to have a go. I've distilled these from practice and study.

Tips for getting good bird images

With these you can make the most out of the gear you have.
A good bird shot is like any photo: it has light, composition and 'moment'.

Light
Try shooting during the hour after dawn and the hour before dusk. It makes for a softer more directional light. Have the sun coming over your shoulders.
Viewers usually look first at the bird's eye so make this or the face your point of focus. A catchlight in the eye always looks good.
Once you're good at this, try shooting against the light or at right angles. Against can produce dramatic silhouettes, right angles can give you a rim highlight.
A light cloud cover can produce useful diffused light, allowing you to shoot in the middle of the day when bright sun would wash out your colours and produce harsh shadowing.

Composition
Think about a bird's position in the frame: have the bird looking, walking or flying into the frame. If you have it flying, walking or looking out of the frame, that's where the viewer's eye goes. You can often achieve this in cropping so shoot with enough room to allow that.
Don't shoot crop your portrait shots too closely; give the eye room to move in the frame.
There are rules of thumb you can try: the rule of thirds; a frame to get a diagonal line or a spiral.
Taking your shot at the bird's level makes for a more engaging image. If it's on the ground, kneel down or lie down if you can. Take a tarp with you or lay the camera down and use the flippy screen if it has one. This is the single best change you can make to your bird images.

'Moment'
A shot is more engaging with the bird active - eg. flying, calling, grooming, feeding, mating.
With a perched bird, wait to see what it does. If it turns to look at you, snap. Eye contact gets bonus points. A perched bird will launch at some point so look out for it stretching out or swivelling its neck, taking a dump or turning into the wind. A bird launching is dramatic.
A shot is more engaging with the bird flying towards the viewer. Once it's past square-on you can give your shutter finger a rest. We've all got hard drives full of three quarter or rump views of birds and they're boring images.

Shutter speeds
We are crunched by the 'exposure triangle' in bird shooting. With our long lenses we shoot faster than in other genres; we have to take what light is available and our long lenses typically don't have wide apertures. That often means high ISOs.
You need to freeze the bird and avoid camera blur so use shutter priority or manual. Once the shutter is set with most consumer lenses you'll be using the widest aperture or one stop down, typically f5.6 or f6.3. Set ISO to auto and see if you can live with the noise this might produce. Sensors vary in how they cope. My APS-C is good only to ISO 2200 while the full frame is good up to 6400.
Minimum shutter speed suggestions:
Perched bird: 1/1000s is my default with a long lens but I'll lower it if the light isn't bright and take my chances. If you have a DSLR, take short bursts with continuous AF even with a stationary bird so you can pick the sharpest on the computer.
Slow flying birds such as herons and egrets: 1/1500s
Small flying birds like a Bee-eater: 1/2000 for some wing blur; faster to freeze it
Flying Swallows and Martins: 1/3000
I prioritise birds in flight so my default speed is 1/3000s (or 1/4000s with the very long lens). That means I'm usually shooting at f5.6 to f11. With BiFs (birds in flight) this gives some depth of field wriggle room to counter focus that's slightly off and with big birds means more of the wings will be in focus.

Portraits
Keep the aperture wide open or one stop down to blur the background as far as possible to reduce distractions.
If the aperture is still giving you too much depth of field, with a bird on the ground shooting at its height will push the background out increasing blurring. Standing for the shoot will catch closer background and increase the chance of distractions.

Birds in flight
With our new long lens we find it hard to get the bird in the viewfinder, and fair enough: the angle of view may only be about three or four degrees.
These things might help: look through the viewfinder, not into it; ie. imagine you are still tracking the bird and you're just holding the camera between you and it. Keep your head, torso, arms and camera all of a piece; swivel through your hips.
If you have a zoom lens, start your learning with it wide and when it's working, zoom in a bit. Or if you can, for each shot start wide and zoom in as you pan.
Practice, and more practice. Go to a spot where there are common birds and take thousands of common bird shots.

Cropping in post-processing
This is normal with BiFs in order to improve the composition, and with experience you'll find out how much you can do without the image turning to mush. The more light and pixels you have on the bird the more you can crop. Keeping the ISO low gives you more detail with crops and greater dynamic range.

Gear
You can spend a lot of money on gear but there are three free things essential to a good photo - good light, getting to avian level and the number of pixels on the subject. Learning how to get close and down (usually) to birds pays dividends. Just going out to a place they're likely to be and sitting still will mean they will come within view - this is the bird shooter's version of fishing. It could be a license to do nothing and that's a nice part of chasing birds too.

If you want a camera and lens setup that will reliably work to shoots birds including those in flight, these are the threshold features in my view:
Very good auto-focus (fast PDAF or hybrid)
8 frames per second and a 50 frame or more buffer
A telephoto lens with at least the field of view produced by a 600mm lens in full frame terms (so 400mm with an APS-C sensor or 300mm with M43s). For BiF, 750mm to 850mm is good.
If you don't know what to expect at your shooting locations, a zoom lens works best. If you do and you want the best image quality you're up for a telephoto prime.
Mirrorless cameras offer the BiF shooter some distinct advantages: high burst rates without blackout; WYSIWYG viewfinders; smaller and lighter bodies. Some will buffer a rolling burst and only save recent frames with a full shutter button press (eg. Panasonic PreBurst, Olympus Pro Capture).

There is something of a basic choice ....
You want to be shooting handheld while out walking and exploit opportunities as they arise. Here a lighter, more compact camera and lens are needed. A micro four-thirds, an APS-C sensor or a mirrorless full frame body will suit. Some bridge cameras with supertelephoto lenses can be used too - the trade-off here is that smaller sensors capture less light and detail.
Or you want the best image quality and tend to take bird portraits. You plan trips to hotspots and know what to expect. Here a full-frame sensor body with a long fast prime lens works. Usually that will be mounted on a tripod.
 

Richard Crowe

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Great post Ziggy...
A help with the narrow field of view of a very long focal length lens (especially a long prime) could be a sportsfinder. They are not particularly easy to find these days but, can often be snagged on eBay.

sportsfinder.JPG
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This one is from a Navy Topcon kit and was used by aircrews shooting with the visors down on their flight helmets. You don't have to place your eye against the sportsfinder to get a reasonably accurate placement of the subject... IMO, it is sometimes somewhat difficult to spot your subject against a sky especially when shooting with a long prime lens. The sportsfinder will make it easier to acquire the subject...

There are many varieties at many different prices on eBay...
https://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?_fr...ortsfinder.TRS0&_nkw=sports+finder&_sacat=625

This one seems pretty interesting and at less than twenty bucks seems like a decent price...
https://www.ebay.com/itm/Hama-Plast...3sAAOSwvvleR2Al:sc:USPSFirstClass!92026!US!-1
In fact, this looked so interesting that I purchased it!
 
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Ziggy99

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Thanks Richard. Yes, some folk find them helpful.
There's also an Olympus Dot Sight: https://www.getolympus.com/us/en/ee-1-dot-sight.html
I gave it some thought a while back and decided I didn't want another thing to get knocked - but I'm mobile. Tripod or standing users wouldn't have that problem. And you have to transfer your view to the VF of course which with panning grabshots must still take a little skill.
Steve Perry provides some tips for doing it unaided: https://backcountrygallery.com/finding-your-subject-with-a-long-lens/
 

Richard Crowe

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I have used the Dot Sight concept with shotguns in the past and have thought about using it on a camera but, never put that into play. It was pretty good to use on a shotgun but, in reality Steve Perry's camera technique of using both eyes and pointing rather than aiming can be adapted to the shotgun as it can be using a camera.

Strange but, for a guy like me, who has problems chewing gum and walking at the same time, I have never had problems shifting from the sports finder to the EVF... I just use the sports finder for a rough approximation of the position of the subject in relation to the background as I bring in the camera upto my eye. I don't really use the sportsfinder for viewing. However, I just may do more viewing with the new/used sportsfinder which is coming within a week.

I have seen that Steve Perry video in the past and it has some very important points. Such as to start with your lens focused near to infinity so that the BIF will be recognizable when you begin viewing through the EVF...

Using a camera/lens system that allows very fast and accurate AF is one of the primary facets in shooting BIF and also surfers. IMO, there is quite a similarity in both types of photography: BIF and surfing. In both cases you are shooting a distant subject moving quite fast against a background that is relatively featureless. Neither the sky nor the ocean allows you to pick up your subject based on the background. Also, in both types of photography the face/head and eyes are very important.

20170728_Surfing Oceanside_6816.jpg
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This was shot using a Canon 7D Mark-2 camera and a 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS ii lens at 400mm (640mm equivalent). It was shot in the early AM while the sun was somewhat overcast resulting in even lighting without harsh shadows. I picked up the surfer, using the sports finder, as I brought the camera/lens up to my eye. I was on a pier so I could use he ocean as the total BG of my image...

I now use an A6400 or A6600 with 70-350mm f/4.5-6.3 G OSS lens. The smaller package is easier and faster to physically handle but, I have not yet shot any surfing with the combination. I just did not use the 100-400mm Canon often enough to make the two grand investment in the lens worthwhile. I can rent a 200-600mm or 100-400mm lens from a local camera store if I absolutely need the extra reach...

One thing that I will mention is that I find it virtually impossible to view any moving subject outdoors (especially in bright conditions) using the LCD as my viewer. However, I can get a pretty darn good approximation of the framing using the sportsfinder with the camera away from my face...
 
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Thad E Ginathom

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Asking from general interest for now, but hey, one day I might be out there with the birds!
start with your lens focused near to infinity ...

Using a camera/lens system that allows very fast and accurate AF ...
How do you make those two compatible in practice? If you point your camera into the sky, where does it (fail to?) focus? Infinity, or close-up?

Or (thinks... I'm missing something obvious here) you point the camera at a far-off object that it can focus on, so, for the next shot it is ready near infinity?
 

Richard Crowe

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Asking from general interest for now, but hey, one day I might be out there with the birds!

How do you make those two compatible in practice? If you point your camera into the sky, where does it (fail to?) focus? Infinity, or close-up?

Or (thinks... I'm missing something obvious here) you point the camera at a far-off object that it can focus on, so, for the next shot it is ready near infinity?

Two different points:

First is in the choice of gear - acquiring a camera/lens setup that focuses fast and accurately. Occasionally shooting with a large aperture may increase the speed and accuracy of some camera/lens combinations... There also are differences in the speed of AF of different lenses. The 70-200mm f/4 G OSS lens will focus faster than the less expensive 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 lens and the newer 70-350mm f/4.5-6.3 G OSS lens will focus faster than the 55-210mm. The 70-350mm "seems like" it focuses just about as fast as the 70-200mm but, I haven't made any side by side tests. Later Sony bodies seem to have an edge over the older bodies in focus speed but, I cannot vouch to that in certainty because the oldest body I have used is the A6500 and it had cracking fast auto focus.
.
Second is to set up your lens by focusing on a distant object so that the lens doesn't have so far to change focus when acquiring a bird. A corollary to this is when you have a focus limiter on your lens, choose the limiter which excludes the closest focus, As an example, my 70-200mm f/4 G OSS lens has a focus limiter which can be set up in two positions: FULL and 00-3m. The full setting will allow focus throughout the "full" focus range of the lens which is: one meter to infinity. The 00-3m setting will restrict the focus of the lens to 3 meters and beyond. Using the 00-3m setting will prevent the lens from trying to focus closer than 3 meters and will speed up the focus on subjects beyond 3 Meters. However, to tell you the ruth, in real life shooting, I haven't noticed any great difference between the the FULL and 0-3m mode.
It seems to me that it would be more logical to name the second mode as 3m-inf rather than 0-3m...
 
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Ziggy99

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It varies with the camera and firmware too.
Eg with my telephotos pointed at a blue sky with a bird somewhere in it, the A9 AF in firmware 5 would automatically reach to infinity and then pull back a bit. That was gone thankfully in 6.
Sometimes it'll focus on background if there is one and then requesting another focus effort may move the lock to the bird - that's an AI thing too. It's much more likely to do it if the bird is moving.
There's performance differences among AF modes as well. Zone on the A9 could be everyone's default backed up by small or expand flexible spot to exclude other possible locks. Tracking is not a mode I use but can see it would be useful to pan shoot a couple of BIFs.
 

Richard Crowe

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My Canon 7D Mark-2 camera with the most recent firmware and the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II lens is an excellent combination for aircraft photography. However, as in BIF photography, the position of the photographer is a very important consideration. I was lucky in that I was invited to shoot the practice flights of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and could photograph these wonderful aircraft from a relatively close distance; far closer than I could have been positioned at any air show...

https://rpcrowe.smugmug.com/Airplanes/Blue-Angels/n-4kgqg9/i-tgkRcFP

Due to health problems and COVID-19. I have not used my Sony mirrorless cameras shooting aircraft...
 
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Ziggy99

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Here's a 'how I got the shot' with some warts thrown in. I'll do more if anyone is interested.

White-faced Heron IF (2).jpg
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I'm shooting manual, choosing SS and aperture and letting ISO float. The A9 is fine up to 6400 with the PhotoLab Prime denoise function.

CAF Zone is used here. The A9 software is pretty good at landing on the head; there's clearly some AI at work. I do a series of short bursts, a habit left from DSLR days and with the A9 it helps because the bunch of dancing green boxes over the bird does quite a lot to obscure it. And asking for a fresh AF lock can often be of benefit.

I was trying a different SS control on this morning, with just one default speed of 1/1600 for perched birds thinking there would be time to shift to in-flight speed when needed. I was wrong. Normally for BIFs a default 1/3000 - 1/4000 is best and while this image is a little soft it's not bad. It worked on half or less the default speed. Why?

The bird obliged by circling around and I was able to do a smooth pan by rotating through the hips (which is good practice and the rig is too heavy for arms alone anyway). And big water birds take a somewhat stately pace.

For aperture on BIF, obviously we're getting crunched by the exposure triangle so the widest is best but we have to bear in mind wing as well as head focus. f8 is a good starting point. This was less as I was working on perched duck portraits.

The head-on light has produced an eye catchlight and some rim lighting. This can't be guaranteed but it's more likely when you shoot at the golden hours and it's more likely when you keep your finger down on the shutter. There's a split second between getting these and missing them and digital recording is free.
Burst shots will often capture things you don't see or expect and the only bonus about putting in time at the computer later is enjoying these surprises.

Then there's knowing the location. Repeat visits improve your chances. At this spot I know when the sun is going to break over the gums beside the pond, what birds to expect there and something about their behaviour. It's a common walking spot and most of the avian visitors are accustomed to humans. They don't come racing up for a feed as locals have been educated not to do that.
 

Ziggy99

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Steve Perry on BIFfing.
I'm a fan. He has an ebook on wildlife photography that's a good read. I gather his wife started using a Sony and he's got into it as well.

 

Ziggy99

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Exposure comments

We're taking what light we can get - often with deep shadows and high contrast - and it's a surprise how many birds are black and white so keeping detail in both is a challenge.
Sometimes we're shooting against the light when that special bird insists on staying on the sunny side. I give it +1.5 EV against a blue sky and more against a bright grey one.
We're shooting fast with BiFs and with a zoom will often be at f6.3 to f8 - so woosh goes ISO. How good is the NR in your editor?
I don't have a bunch of recipes to deal with all of this. I will say this: get to know your camera and what it's capable of, shoot in RAW and learn to love your editing program.
A nice thing about the Sony FF sensors is the range they can deal with. It's noticeably better than my APS-C D500. And the A9 is less prone to blowing out than the A7R III.
Here's one where it worked - and let me say there's hundreds for each of these where work would have been needed in post if there was something of moment to justify it. Here we have detail and 'pop'. I would have liked a catchlight in its eye.

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Shy Albatross
 

Richard Crowe

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Although I began to use Manual; exposure and auto ISO towards the ed of my Canon shooting career with the 7D Mark-2. I now use this method extensively with either my Sony crop sensor cameras or full frame A7iii. I try to keep the ISO at or under 3200 for crop sensor cameras or 6400 for my full frame A7iii. However, I will exceed these ISO limits if needed to capture the shot. I would rather have a sharp image with a bit of noise than a noiseless image that is fuzzy because of too slow of a shutter speed or too wide an aperture.
 

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