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  • Cindy Ellis

Bird Photography

As with all wildlife photography, patience and time are key for successful bird photography.

  • Know the habits and habitat. Visit the Audubon Society and find out what the birds like to eat, where they live and play and what time of day they venture out. Some birds are hunters and some birds are gatherers. Some birds hang out on the water, some in trees, etc. Sometimes you can build the habitat in your backyard. A bird feeder or berry bush can make all the difference.

  • ·Where do you focus? This is key. Ideally focus on the bird’s eye. Not as easy as it sounds though. When using continuous or tracking autofocus make sure you lock on the bird with the focus box and continuously track the bird without letting up on the focus button. Once you let up on the focus button you must refocus on the bird again. Sometimes single shot focus is used. Single shot focus locks focus at a certain distance. You may choose to focus on the bird feeder and wait until the bird lands on the exact spot to take the photo. Manual focus can be used in this situation as well as in the infinity focus situation. Simply put there is a certain distance (different distances based on your lens focal length) where everything beyond that distance(infinity) is in focus. If you know the bird will be at a great distance away perhaps manual focus at infinity may be a good option.

  • ·Focus area. Focus area is where the camera looks to focus. The focus area can be the entire frame which is great for a bird in empty sky. The problem with the focus area being the entire frame is that the camera may choose to focus on something else and not the bird. Focus area can be a single point which is ideal for a bird perching in a tree or on bird feeder. Focus area can also be in different zones. Using zone autofocus can be helpful if you know the subject will be entering the frame from a specific area. Perhaps like ducks swimming on the pond. Newer cameras have eye focus allowing the camera to find the eye of the bird and bird watching modes.

  • Shutter Speed. A bird in flight is fast. To avoid blurry photos of the moving bird, maintain a high shutter speed. The ideal shutter speed to allow for sharp details is 1/1000 or higher. Maintaining high shutter speeds are easiest when there is a lot of light. As the light decreases you will need to increase the light coming in through the lenses and/or increase the ISO. The high shutter speed in the image below allow for the pronounced ripples in the water as well as a sharp duck and ducklings.

  • ·Aperture. Changing the aperture effects the amount of light coming through the lens. Apertures like f1.8 and f2.8 allow more light to come through the lens and allow you to shoot as a higher shutter speed but can lead to a shallow depth of field (see photo below for example of shallow depth of field) Apertures of f16 and f11 require more light but allow for more in focus in front and behind the point of focus like the photo of the ducklings above.

  • · Light Meter. Choosing different light meters allow for the best exposure. The matrix or all-purpose meter looks equally at all the lighting in the frame. So often times when a bird in flying in the open bright sky, the bird may be dark. By choosing the spot meter, the camera will meter only off the center or single point of focus allow for a better exposed bird. The sky may not be as brilliant but the bird will be exposed properly.

  • ·Shooting on Manual with Auto ISO. The best choice may be shooting on manual with auto ISO. Choose a shutter speed of 1/1000, select an aperture based on how much you want in focus in front and behind your subject, select the proper light meter and the proper focus mode.

  • Watch for shadow and reflections. Shadows and reflections can make or break your photos. Overcast days produce no shadows, accurate color and create perfect even lighting. While not as dramatic, overcast and cloudy days are the easiest type of light to handle.

  • Gear. Telephoto zooms are great for bird photography since they allow you to bring the subject in closer. Tamron’s 150-600mm is a popular lens among bird watchers. Lenses that collect more light or have smaller aperture numbers make it easier to shoot in lower light conditions but are heavier to carry. A circular polarizer filter can help control bright light, reflections, and pop the clouds in the sky. Newer hybrid cameras like the Nikon P950 have build in lens that bring you 83x closer to the bird and even have special bird watching modes. Telephoto gear can be heavy and hard to hold. Consider investing in monopod (one leg tripod) to save your back.

The photo challenge for the week of October 4th is bird photography. If you wish to share some photos with us, email

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