Birds are one of the most challenging photographic subjects. They are generally small and restless creatures, making them extremely difficult to approach. Add to this inhospitable environments and unpredictable weather and it almost begs the question why so many people donate so much time to pursuing this hobby.
The answer could be the satisfaction gained from obtaining a clean, sharp photograph of that relentlessly pursued species. It might mean finally getting the perfect shot of a more common species. Or it may just be the sense of peace experienced by actually being out there enjoying nature and your favourite pastime.
The path to obtaining consistently good bird images can be very expensive. Professional quality prime lenses are costly, along with high end DSLR cameras. Add accessories such as tripods, monopods and post processing software to this list, and the cost soon becomes prohibitive.
Fortunately, for the keen amateur, this does not have to be the case. Quite good bird photos can be taken using fairly basic DSLR equipment and lenses in the 300mm zoom range. The secret to better images is to get as close as possible to the subject.
Approaching birds is not easy. They are generally very wary creatures. A good technique is to find a spot with a lot of bird activity and sit down. Be patient and the birds will eventually return to their natural behaviour. Avoid any loud noises or sudden movements and wear drab coloured clothing. Have the camera up near your face ready to go, so you are not required to quickly raise it when a bird comes into range. Make sure your camera settings are good to go and are suitable for the conditions. This will eliminate the need to make camera adjustments just before taking a picture.
At times, this approach is not practical, and it may be necessary to move around. Try not to approach the bird head on, but move at an angle toward it. If possible, approach crouched down or even on your knees or stomach and move slowly. Once again, avoid any sudden movements.
Some species will respond to squeaks and whistles. If standing near a clump of thick vegetation and you can hear birds amongst the bushes, crouch down and make a series of squeaking or kissing sounds. This will sometimes entice the birds out for a look and they will often perch on exposed branches on top of the bushes, allowing for a nice photo opportunity if you are quick enough.
Bird hides are great for getting close. Patience and quiet are the keys to success in hides. Make sure you are aware of the local species habits so you can minimise your time in the hide, being present only when the birds are most active. It can be frustrating, especially if the birds are there but are not quite venturing close enough or they are sitting partially obscured behind a branch or rock.
If you do manage to get close enough for a shot it is helpful to be confident with your camera gear and its setup. Being able to quickly change the shutter speed, aperture or ISO value can mean the difference between a good image and a blurry one. Become familiar with your lens too. It may have an extended zoom range, but most lenses have a sweet spot, usually two or three stops from its maximum aperture. For example, I have a 300 mm lens with a minimum aperture of f4.5. It takes noticeably sharper images at a setting of f6.3 or f7.1, so I have to increase the ISO at times to maintain a high shutter speed.
When thinking settings, use the fastest shutter speed you can manage under the conditions. This will result in sharper images, as the fast shutter speed will help freeze the birds’ movement. Use aperture priority mode on your camera, which allows you to change the aperture setting with the touch of a button or the scroll of a dial. The camera will then select the shutter speed to coincide with the aperture reading you selected to optimise exposure.
Depth of field needs to be considered. Bird images often have more impact if the bird is isolated from the background and that background is blurred by using a shallow depth of field. Depending on conditions a setting of f4.5 will have your subject in focus with the background nicely blurred. If the subject is a long way from the background then an aperture setting of f8 might still do the trick. If you are close to the bird, a wide aperture setting (eg f4.5) may only result in part of the bird being in focus. In this case, increasing the aperture reading to say f8 or higher, will bring the whole bird into focus. This could, however, bring the background into focus.
In poor light, it may be necessary to increase the ISO to maintain a high shutter speed. This often results in grainy or noisy pictures, similar in appearance to film images. Fortunately, modern DSLR cameras cope fairly well with ISO settings as high as 1600 in some cases, so don't be afraid to experiment. Post processing of digital images offers noise reduction techniques that can reduce this noise to a certain extent.
Most cameras will allow a setting of 100 or even lower. This setting can be used for other forms of photography, but for birds, 400 would be the minimum, unless you are shooting in very bright conditions
Thankfully some DSLR cameras have a shake reduction system in the camera body. Other manufacturers incorporate a similar system in the lens itself. Either way this is useful in assisting with camera shake, so, if shooting in good light, sharp images should be the result even if the camera is handheld. At times a tripod or monopod will have to be used to provide extra support. A monopod is probably a more practical item for bird photography due to the amount of moving around generally required.
Don't be afraid to visit the zoo or wildlife park to hone your skills. The birds are close and more cooperative and it will allow you to become familiar with your camera and lens.
Bird photography is an addictive pastime and it can be as expensive or as low key as you wish to make it. The essentials, for quality results, are a DSLR and zoom lens of at least 300mm. Use the fastest shutter speed possible and shoot in aperture priority mode. Don't be afraid to bump up the ISO if necessary, with 400 being the minimum for bird photos.
Most importantly of all, get as close as you can.