Shooting Birds. With A Camera, Silly.

A fast lens is definitely an asset as it will allow you to shoot at a faster shutter speed and in dimmer light. It will also provide a brighter image in the viewfinder for quicker and easier focusing. Excellent lenses are available in the 300mm range with an aperture of f/4. These also work well with compatible 1.4X and 2X converters. If your budget allows, I recommend the faster f/2.8 lens. When used with the converters, this will give you an excellent combination with plenty of versatility for most photographic situations. If you are really getting serious about photographing birds, a great lens choice would be a 500mm f/4 or f/4.5.

Yeah, not the best shot.

Yeah, not the best shot.

To get the best performance from your camera and lenses, you must use a good tripod. The trick is to purchase one that is light enough to carry with ease, yet still provides a stable platform for your heaviest equipment. The tripod should reach at least to your eye level, and should allow the legs to splay out so you can shoot low to the ground. Don’t skimp on this important accessory – buy the best that you can afford! It will pay off with much sharper images.

Just as important as the tripod is the tripod head. I prefer the heavy-duty ball-head models, as they pan smoothly and adjust quickly with one knob for both horizontal and vertical movements. This can be important during a moment of action, where time spent fumbling with your tripod head can result in a missed photo opportunity. Be sure to buy a tripod head that offers a quick-release system, so you can quickly and easily remove the camera for hand-held shooting when desired.


I prefer to shoot transparencies, with a film speed in the ISO 50-100 range. These films produce the finest resolution and color available. If your goal is to have your work published, then this should also be your choice.

There are also some great print films, with a large variety to choose from. A 400-speed print film effectively gives you a faster lens without the big price tag. It’s important that you choose a film that suits your color palette, so do some testing in various situations before making your final decision On print or transparency film.

Know Those Birds

Spend some time in your local library doing research on the subject(s) you wish to photograph, or purchase an informative field guide. Visit some bird clubs in your area, as many of these are led by individuals who are walking encyclopedias on waterfowl and other wildlife.

It’s also important for you to spend plenty of time observing your subjects in the field. By getting familiar with your surroundings, you will know what birds to look for during various seasons, and the best time of day to photograph them. Keep a notebook of your field observations and refer to it from time to time.

Although you can photograph waterfowl throughout the year, I prefer the period from fall through spring. This is when waterfowl looks best – spring in particular is a peak time. During this season the birds are dressed in their “Sunday Best” and will pay little attention to you, as the males are busy trying to attract the company of an interested female. In late spring and early summer you have the opportunity to photograph young goslings and ducklings. This is a very photogenic time, and you’ll enjoy the antics of these little bundles of fluff.

City parks provide an ideal location to photograph ducks, geese, and perhaps even Mute and Trumpeter Swans. Many regional and state parks have lakes and ponds that provide year-round photo opportunities. Wildlife sanctuaries are also excellent places to locate and photograph waterfowl. The advantage of these areas is that they’re easily accessible, and more importantly, the wildlife is habituated to human presence. It is much easier to photograph a duck that won’t fly off at the mere sight of you!

Most waterfowl are best photographed from shortly before sunrise until midmorning, and then again from midafternoon until after sunset. These are the periods of time when the birds are most active, and lighting conditions are optimum. Calm days will provide you with the most advantageous conditions for waterfowl portraits. When the wind blows, birds tend to be more nervous and keep their distance. If the birds take flight, be aware that they will generally lift off into the wind. They also prefer to land against the wind. Knowing this will enable you to set up accordingly, thus maximizing your potential for dramatic images.

Getting Started

I like to arrive at my chosen location about an hour before sunrise. This allows the birds to settle down and get accustomed to my presence. Even habituated birds tend to be a bit skittish when they see a photographer arrive with a photographic arsenal. By moving as slowly and quietly as possible you will minimize this initial disturbance. Generally, within a few minutes, the birds will gradually begin to approach you again. The key is to be patient and keep still.

I bring along a small foam pad on which I sit or kneel. This pad not only’ provides a comfortable and dry seat, but also allows me to photograph from a more natural perspective, that of the birds themselves. My tripod is placed as low to the ground as possible, because it it allows a lower profile, which is less threatening to the birds and it affords maximum stability for long telephoto lenses, thus resulting in sharper images.

If you want to put impact into your waterfowl images you must pay special attention to lighting. Always be aware of how the light is striking your subject and whether it adds to or detracts from your photo. Don’t just see the duck in front of you, but notice the colors and textures under varying light conditions and angles. Make sure that you can capture a catchlight in the bird’s eye to give your subject a lively sparkle. Watch out for any deep shadows falling across your subject that may spoil an otherwise perfect photo.

In most instances, front lighting or sidelighting early or late in the day will provide the best rendition of fine feather details, colors and textures that all waterfowl possess. When the bird is lit from this angle, you will capture the catchlights in the eyes, as well as the full spectrum of hues in the iridescent head coloring of species such as Mallards, Buffleheads and Goldeneyes – the male’s head coloring changes from nearly black to a brilliant green with just a slight turn of the head, so watch for the most colorful pose.

Swans can appear quit? dramatic when backlit, especially when they splash in the water against a dark background. Other opportunities to utilize backlighting occur at sunrise and sunset, or anytime there are spectacular colors in the sky. In these cases you can silhouette birds in flight by exposing for the rich color in the background. Similarly, birds can be positioned against a background of richly colored water for striking silhouettes.

On Location

Once you’re settled in at your location you must be prepared for anything that may occur. Have all your. equipment conveniently located for easy access. It’s a shame to see a great photo opportunity unfold, only to discover that you need a different lens to get the best shot. I like to keep my longest lens mounted on my tripod, while keeping a 300mm and 80-200mm zoom lens handy. I also carry a 1.4X teleconverter, a 25mm extension tube, extra batteries and an ample supply of film.

To begin with, it’s a good idea to take a meter reading of the existing light, even if nothing is going on at the moment. I like to spot-meter an average-toned object that is in similar light to my prospective subjects. By presetting your exposure, you’ll be sure of being ready to fire in a split-second – and believe me, sometimes that is all you’ll have! Check your exposure periodically, as the light level can change quite rapidly during the first few minutes of sunrise and the last remnants of dusk.

To photograph birds in motion, practice your panning technique. Have the controls loosened on your tripod head so that your camera moves smoothly as you follow the bird through the viewfinder. Try to keep the subject in the same position in the frame, and be sure to follow through as you press the shutter release. Unless you are after a special slow-speed effect, use the fastest shutter speed possible for the situation. This will increase your percentage of sharp images.

If you have only one or two frames left on a roll of film, quickly reload a new roll so you won’t miss out on any of the action. There’s nothing worse than running out of film as a great scene unfolds before you!

One of the most challenging aspects of photographing waterfowl in action is the ability to catch them in flight. I like to use a shoulder stock for some of my flight photography as this affords good mobility, along with making it easy to pan lenses up to 500mm. For longer focal lengths, I stick with a heavy tripod and sturdy ball head.

To freeze the motion of birds in flight, a shutter speed of 1/500 and faster is necessary. It’s also important that your focus is right on target. The new predictive autofocus technology can greatly increase your success. With these systems, it’s important to remember to lock onto your subject at the earliest possible moment and continue to hold the sensor on the bird as long as possible while you photograph. If your lens has a focus limiter, switch it to a setting that will include only the distances you might expect your subject to appear in. This will speed up the focus and minimize unnecessary searching through the lens.

Those without autofocusing equipment can still attain outstanding images. One method is to preset your focus at a specific distance and wait until the subject appears in the area of sharpness. With birds that are flying directly toward you, you must press the shutter button a split second before the image looks sharp in the viewfinder. If the image looks sharp when you fire the camera, your focus will actually be behind the subject due to the inherent time lag in your reaction time.

Another option is to constantly follow focus on your target wherever it goes. This is relatively easy when the bird is fairly distant but as it comes closer, it requires good coordination to keep up with the rapid movement of the subject.

I would be remiss if I didn’t include a short discussion on composition. I like to think of it as the glue that bonds wonderful light and an interesting subject together. I like to keep things fairly simple and look for clean, colorful backgrounds that complement my subject. In situations where the environment will enhance the shot, I try to incorporate it into the image. Remember, you don’t always need a full-frame portrait for a pleasing result. If you can combine these elements along with good technique, you can capture a dramatic image.

When you are photographing active subjects, try to give them room to move in the frame. For a duck in flight, leave some space in front to imply that the bird is going somewhere. Most flight images look rather static when the subject is centered in the viewfinder. I recommend that you study composition by looking at quality photos in various magazines and books. Then, using the basic building blocks of proper composition, go out and practice, practice, practice! Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but do make an effort to learn from them.

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One Response to “Shooting Birds. With A Camera, Silly.”

  1. Trish says:

    My brother is a frustrated photographer. He once tried to photograph the birds in motion while we were at the park. I laughed so hard when I saw the pictures. Not one impressed me. I think he should check on this article.

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