How to shoot birds: a guide to small bird photography


Would you like to successfully photograph small birds? You’ve come to the right place!

Recent interactions on Twitter and Instagram have prompted me to share the equipment and methods I use for small bird photography. I hope it might help other aspiring nature photographers.

Equipment.

In your kit bag you’ll need a suitable lens, the longest zoom range you can get hold of, along with spare batteries, memory cards and a rain cover (or at least something to wipe your lens with!). My kit is a Canon 5D Mark IV with EF100-400mm lens and EF1.4 x III extender. Crop sensor cameras actually work very well for this type of photography, as they’ll give you further zoom.

I prefer to use a monopod than a tripod for stability and I use a Manfrotto 5 section carbon fibre monopod. (MPMXPROC5)

You are far more portable with a monopod than a tripod. I often shoot hand-held, but zoom lenses can be a pretty hefty weight to hold stable when your subject is just 8cm long!

Location

Anywhere birds may visit is your potential stage. If you’re lucky enough to have a garden, put out some feeders and allow a little time for the little birds to find them. Good bird food suppliers are RSPB and Haiths. Local parks and nature reserves are obvious locations. Learn where there are hides and use these when you can.

If you do go to a park or reserve, take some bird food. Black sunflower seeds will make you very popular!

Preparation

Once you’re at your chosen location, try to find good branches or perches as ‘frames’ within which to photograph your birds. There may be a branch with spring blossom, or autumnal colours depending on the season. That’s where you will want your bird to perch. Find a background which allows for good bokeh once you focus on your bird. Think about the whole picture. Cropping later can help with framing, but try to get as much correct in the capture as you can.

Patience is key. I have more of this than many people I encounter who “snap and go” and often miss magic. Watch and be still. The more you do this, the more the birds will ignore you and continue with their regular behaviour. Look at the movement of the birds, where they land before feeding and how the light falls on them. Shift your position as needed. Move quietly. Ideally you will have the sun catch the eye of the bird, giving a little catchlight which works just as effectively in the animal kingdom as with people!

Method

When a bird lands in the spot you have chosen, focus and shoot. My settings are Manual mode on AI Servo AF (called AF-C on Nikon cameras), aperture as wide as possible (with a 1.4 extender on my lens this is f/8) and I adjust the shutter speed with ISO on auto, checking regularly to ensure this does not get too high for quality photos. On many cameras you can set a maximum ISO, beyond 12800 you’ll probably have too much noise to give good print quality, but this depends on your camera. Shutter speed is what I constantly adjust – if a bird is completely still you can dial this down as low as 200, but usually it needs to be at least 800 to freeze small bird movement and if they are flying I’ll be at anywhere between 1200 – 8000!

I use single point auto-focus on the head of the bird. Occasionally the single point spot, but only if a bird is hiding in foliage and I need to be fairly precise to pick it out. Sometimes I will use the 4 or 9 AF point expansion, but only if I have a clear view – I don’t want the camera to mistakenly pick up a branch instead of the bird. Most of the time single point AF is perfect.

I use back button focusing but this is a matter of personal preference – when I am teaching someone who is new to all of this I would not suggest it immediately.

If possible, I fire off numerous frames when a bird is in focus. Their behaviour is so erratic and their movements so sudden that you will find yourself capturing magical scenes that you’ll miss with single frame shooting. Yes, you will delete plenty later but that’s the joy of digital cameras! The birds will grow accustomed to the shutter noise as well. I do have quiet shutter enabled on my camera, but I look forward to the day when mirrorless cameras will eliminate this noise for me.

Different birds have different rates of movement and behaviour and you’ll notice this rapidly when watching as a bird photographer. Robins are often posers and sit still for longer than flitty blue tits. Long-tailed tits travel in packs, as do sparrows. Learning common birdsong can help you anticipate the presence of specific birds. If a bird is about to fly off it will often dip its tail and um, do a poo!

Finally, I am patient some more. I return to successful sites in order to improve my shots. I have one of the preset dials on my camera permanently set up for this type of photograph. These principles are equally useful for small pet photography, and even for children!

I don’t ‘doctor’ my photographs too much in post-production – but this is a long enough post without broaching the world of Adobe! I shoot in RAW and use Lightroom CC for lens corrections etc. I have a special ‘robin’ pre-set brush I have developed myself which works for most of my pictures.

And that’s it! I hope this has helped anyone starting out in bird photography.

Here is my small bird gallery.


Note: This post was previously published on my old website but I'm putting it up here for anyone who might be interested.

The links are not affiliate links, they're for information only.


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