Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bird Photography Made Easy

Why is that when viewing an excellent painting you never hear someone say, “The artist who made this must have had one sweet set of brushes”? You also never run into people who go out and purchase the most expensive brush set available, made from the belly hairs of unborn civet cats, who fully expect to paint a masterpiece simply because they own the best tools for the job.

About 9 times out of 10 when a great photograph is seen I hear comments such as “The guy who took this must have had one Hell of a zoom” or “It’s amazing what you can do with a $5000 camera.” There are also a slew of individuals who believe that if they throw down the kind of money that buys a black market kidney, fantastic photos will distill upon them like morning dew upon the lily.

The secret to capturing a great image lies with the photographer and not the equipment. The right tools, however, do make the job easier as well as provide for more consistent success. Now the question, what do you “need” to get started in wild bird photography?

It turns out that the main challenge in photographing birds is not saving up for the Dirk Diggler of telephoto lenses or the latest and greatest camera body. The trouble is simply getting cozy enough. Distance is the most significant technical obstacle that must be overcome. I have owned, borrowed, or sold my body to the night for some very large lenses over the years and what never ceases to surprise me is exactly how close they DON’T get you to birds.

You need to close the distance to about 25 yards to get good quality photos with most lenses. How can this be done? One method is the blitzkrieg, which I observed taking place this past weekend. Upon seeing a resting raptor, an aspiring National Geographic type jumped in his Honda Accord and raced in using a controlled 4-wheel drift in the hopes of getting off a one-handed shot of the bird’s rectum as it fled the scene.

The blitzkrieg offers the excitement of drifting, but fails to deliver results. The easiest solution to the problem is frankly to scout out places birds WANT to be, and then go there and wait. Roosts, resting perches, areas of open water where prey animals are likely to be, or routes to/from such places are your best bets.

Take an initial trip with a good pair of binoculars and locate spots the birds are using. Later, go to those places and be as unobtrusive as possible.

Remember that skittish animals like raptors are often less frightened of vehicles than argyle-clad primates of indeterminate species. If possible, remain in your vehicle. If not, conceal yourself as best as you can. Birds can see color and have excellent eyesight, so pay attention to detail.

Equipment: The Bad News
Birds enjoy appearing as tiny black flecks fleeing wildly into the distance in photos. Camera companies like Nikon and Canon happily provide giant zoom lenses costing from $5000 to $10,000 and beyond in order to aid wildlife photographers in overcoming this proclivity.

To get quality results, you should use lenses with a minimum focal length of 300mm, with 400mm being better, and 500+mm preferred. For still images, the aperture size of the lens is less important. If you want to capture birds in flight, however, a shutter speed of 1/1250 is all but required. Usually this is the territory of the SLR, or single-lens reflex camera. High shutter speeds, especially in less than ideal lighting conditions, typically necessitate aperture sizes of f/4.8 or larger. Sounds expensive, right?

Equipment: The Good News
Digital SLR bodies rapidly depreciate as new models become available. Models such as the excellent Nikon D70 and D70s, for example, can be found slightly used these days for about $300. That is less than the price of many point-and-shoots.

If you have the SLR, what lens should you pick? My favorite is the 300mm f/2.8, coupled with a 1.7x teleconverter because it delivers a 510mm f/4.8 and can still be reasonably hand held. Lightweight and affordable options are the Canon 100-400mm IS and the Nikon 80-400mm VR, which both have a maximum aperture of f/5.6 @ 400mm. These are good choices when there is plenty of light.

Then come the "boomsticks." Canon and Nikon both offer 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4, and 600mm f/4 options, all of which are roughly the size of the Hubble Space Telescope. These lenses all cost upwards of $7000, so what’s the good news? You don’t have to own them. Local places like Pictureline ( or online resources such as allow you to rent high-end lenses. Professional caliber gear like the 300mm f/2.8 are available anywhere from $38 to $60 per day.

In other words, there are plenty of ways to access the best tools if you want them. Master getting close and you can get by with what you’ve got.

In the field, it really helps to be familiar with your camera equipment and the settings needed to get good results. Visit the Tracy Aviary ( or any number of municipal parks like the Layton Commons Park where birds and waterfowl congregate and are semi-tame. You can get excellent results at these locations and improve your chances at success in the wild.

To Bird, or not to Bird?
Wild bird photography consists of hours of boredom interspersed with moments fleeting opportunity. It is important to go into the process with realistic expectations. Normally you are fortunate if you spend a half day in the field and come away with 1 or 2 nice images. If you enjoy challenges and have the self-deprecating nature needed to tolerate repeated failures punctuated by a small number of wins then get out and click the shutter. Thanks for reading!


  1. Brett,

    Thank you for all your help. This post was very informative and I agree that birding is not for the faint of heart. PATIENCE. I enjoy the solitude and the time alone, pondering and hoping for the opportunity to photograph beautiful birds.

    Your advice and thoughts are solid. I love the blog and look forward to reading and viewing your wonderful photography.

    I hope we get the chance to get out and shoot soon.



  2. Well written and informative. Thanks for putting out some good advise.