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The following tip has been submitted by Phillip Kirkham, a reader of DPS and avid wildlife photographer – see his own website (the source of all bird photos in this post). You can also read more about him at the end of his article.
How to photograph birds
Unfortunately, July and August are probably the worst months of the year for this task because most species look their worst just now, and also vegetation and food supply is at its best, so it is difficult enough just to see the birds, never mind pointing a lens at them. However, a few helpful tips now should prepare you for the Autumn months when many species are busily eating and hiding food ready for the long winter months ahead.
Perhaps if I take you through the various steps which I make when embarking on a typical bird photographic outing:-
1. Venue, where to visit and when. If my trip is to be a known reserve, then some local knowledge before I set out is invaluable. What species will I encounter? Are there hides available and which way do they face in relation to the sun? How near to the subject I am likely to be? What is the weather forecast for the area I am going?
2. Following on from point 1, if there is no hide available then will I be allowed to erect a temporary one, or can I get near enough to my subject in my car. The vehicle makes a surprisingly useful hide, with many species being quite unafraid of them. So long as you make no fast movements, and I always have the camera pointing out of the window before I approach my subject. Beanbags are particularly useful for this, and here’s a little tip, fill them with sunflower seeds, you can always use a few to attract your subject even closer!
3. Equipment. I always take more than I need, but if you have made a long journey for that special species there is nothing worse than to find you’ve run out of battery or memory and haven’t got back up. It is also important to note that for bird photography, you inevitably need to be very near AND have plenty of magnification. A blue tit at 20 metres looks very small, even with an 800mm lens! Don’t forget the tripod.
4. Once at the destination, cameras on tripod, pointing in direction of birds remember about composing the shot. I always like to set out with an image in my mind, and return with it in my camera. Don’t get so excited at first glimpse of the species that you forget to check those dials. Higher ISO makes it easier to choose higher film speed. I nearly always choose Av priority, so I know what F stop I am on (for instance F5.6) and that should give me a fast enough film speed to avoid blur from the bird’s movement. I will then compose the bird in the viewfinder AND PAY ATTENTION TO BACKGROUND DETAIL. After capturing 20 images or so, I will then start to alter settings and orientation; this can often make the difference between an ordinary “keeper” and an outstanding winner.
5. Body Language. I realise that this is part of paragraph 4 above, but it is so important that I have given it a paragraph of its own. Intimate wildlife knowledge can be learnt to a lesser extent from others, but to a far greater extent by just watching and listening wildlife. It can be the body language of the subject that results in the one in a lifetime photograph. A naturally relaxed bird will have its feathers quite loose, but just before flight they will all tense, if you see this and start clicking the shutter at the right time it can result in a wonderful “take off” image. When I was in S Africa, I noticed a bull elephant start twitching his tail and becoming very agitated, I then quickly changed to a more open lens and just in time to capture him charging at another bull and engaging in quite a tussle.
6. The eye has it. In 99% of wildlife images it is vital to get the eye in focus, wings can be blurred, parts can be missed, but remember, keep the eye in focus – nice and sharp.
7. Processing. I take virtually all my images in RAW format. This allows much more flexibility when processing. In particular, white balance, ie temperature variation, of your shot can be adjusted to get your colours dead right, and this is so important with wildlife photography. Once you have cropped and carried out the various adjustments such as colour, levels, curves, saturation and the rest to your image, the final task should be USM. I usually apply : Amount 90%, Radius 0.3, Threshold 1. I repeat this four or five times until a small white halo starts to appear around the subject, then back off once in the Photoshop history.
8. Library. It is all too easy to take literally thousands of images using digital, so remember to have some type of system for storing and cataloguing your images, so that you can quickly return to them as desired.
Finally, please remember that we are only visitors to this world, so when out enjoying wildlife take only photographs and leave nothing but time.
About Phillip Kirkham – I am 56 and live with my wife in a cottage by the sea on the Isle of Bute, Scotland. I moved here to become a full time freelance photographer, concentrating on wildlife. I have spent the last 4 years seriously capturing wildlife images, starting mainly with birds, but now photographing anything that moves, from tiny orange soldier beetles to bull elephants fighting. I only use digital cameras, my weaponry consisting of Canon 1DS2, 1D2, 20D, and assorted lenses from 20mm through macro 180mm, up to 800mm. Tripods consist of Gitzo with Wimberley head for telephoto work and Manfrotto Neotec with multi angled head for landscapes and macro I use Photoshop CS2 for all my processing and have 4 Epson printers, up to A2 size. I have my own web site and am a moderator on the superb website of the United Kingdom Nature Photographers, a place where wildlife photographers share invaluable tips and knowledge.
I also run photography workshops in the grounds of Mount Stuart, here on Bute.
See Phillip’s photos at Nature Photography by Phillip Kirkham.