1. Practice Practice Practice
The most important tip for any new skill set is PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. So for bird photography, you have to look for locations with plenty of birds. This seems a rather obvious statement. However, many beginner bird photographers try to start with a major expedition (ie a trip to Costa Rica) and never make the effort to find practice locations in their own backyard first.
And I mean literally in your backyard. One of your very first steps should be to put up feeders around your home. It doesn’t matter if you think you will only attract the mundane regional birds. Even Robins will give you a chance to practice distance, focus, lighting and capturing motion.
**The key to all wildlife photography is to become an observer. So start observing whatever is close to home.**
All photographers love field trips. So look for some practice locations beyond your backyard feeders. Depending on your region, you might have a forest, shoreline, or migratory spot nearby. Start with a visit to the National Audubon Society webpage. This is a link to their Find an Audubon Chapter Near You page.
Most zoos will have birds and many have aviaries full of regional and exotic birds. I know that experienced photographers can be disdainful of shooting in a zoo setting, but ignore this. We all need to start somewhere.
Other great opportunities are bird sanctuaries, preserves and even wildlife rescue centers. Again, your nearest Audubon Chapter should have plenty of information on these types of locations.
Learn More: Arizona Birdwatching Destinations
All photography tips should include a discussion of composition. Composition and light are the two essential components of photography. Any style of photography, from landscapes to portraiture requires a firm grasp of these components.
In tip #1 we started with practice. This practice should include all styles of photography. Get into the habit of carrying your camera wherever you go. Start looking at the world around you as a photographer. Notice the different colors and shades of light. Seek out the obscure, ironic and paradoxical scenes.
One of the biggest mistakes beginner photographers make is taking great shot of their subject but leaving a messy background. It takes sharp observation skills to notice what is beyond your subject, especially a bird. Even a beautiful setting behind a bird should never upstage or wash out your subject.
Final thoughts on composition: strive to fill the frame with your bird, avoid non-natural surroundings and capture his eyes.
There is nothing more intimidating than a bird photography expedition. Bird photographers pouring out of the van look like an Amazon delivery truck, with tripods, binoculars, cameras and lenses. Hang tough my friends, while you might eventually accumulate all those toys, they will only bog you down and deplete your wallet for now. Furthermore, I highly recommend renting some of the pricier toys until you know what you are doing and what you really “need”.
In our current digital world, many forms of photography can be accomplished with the camera on your phone. I would venture to say that bird photography is not one of them. Birds are small, fast and skittish. You are rarely able to capture a good shot with a phone.
At minimum, beginner bird photographers need a camera with 20 megapixel, manual settings, and a zoom of 200mm or more. Many bridge cameras (something between a point-n-shoot and a full DSLR) have these qualifications without breaking the bank.
You will also need some form of tripod and a shutter release. Because birds are small and often far away, you need your camera to be as still as possible for a sharp shot. This is the reason for the tripod and shutter release. You can use the camera timer instead of a release if desperate.
A more advanced discussion would involve zoom lenses, camera sensor size, frames per second, mirrorless vs DSLR, and etc. Don’t fret…you will get there in good time.
I am going to let you in on a photography secret…Most Photographers today do some post-processing on every image. There are a few “purists” who scorn modifying your images, but they are rare. Today’s digital equipment allows photographers to capture in RAW format. This is a discussion for another post. Suffice it to say, that RAW files give you loads more data to work with, but they always need some out of camera tweaking.
Back in the film days, serious photographers learned to control their results in a darkroom. I see post-processing with programs like Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, Affinity Photo and Capture One, comparable to dark room work.
A comprehensive discussion of post-processing would fill a dozen blogs. For purposes today, here are a few quick tips.
- Lighting: Adjust highlights, shadows and overall lighting. We all strive to capture perfect lighting with our cameras. But truth is some adjustments are often necessary.
- Critiquing and Organizing: Images often look great in the tiny LCD screen on the back of your camera. It is important to evaluate the quality and sharpness of your images on a computer monitor. Bird photography is about details. Post-processing software will help you critique and organize your images.
- Remove Distractions: As birds fly, hop or swim around, they cross paths with telephone poles, passing cars, fences and any manner of distracting objects. Post-processing software is magical for removing these.
5. Resources for Beginner Bird Photographers
Photography: The internet is packed with photography resources. So many in fact, that it is overwhelming. I recommend Digital Photography School for basic photographic skills and knowledge. Phlearn, produced by Aaron Nace is a great resource for clear, concise post-processing lessons.
Birding: I have mentioned the Audubon Society before. This group promotes knowledge and conservation worldwide. The regional societies provide bird identification resources, important birding locations and groups of like-minded friends.
Birdwatchers love checklists. As a bird photographer, my images serve as my checklist. However, Ebird is a very useful and popular online app able to help you manage lists, photos and audio recordings. It offers real-time maps of species distribution and alerts that let you know when species have been seen. This current and useful information is immensely beneficial to the birding community.
Hard copy books are invaluable in the birding world. It is important to tag your image correctly. If you are going to brag up your bird capture on social media, you don’t want to share the wrong bird name. Trust me, the cyberworld will call you out on your mistaken identification and that is quite embarrassing.
I absolutely love bird photography. It takes me to beautiful and unique habitats around the world. The photographic challenges keep me learning everyday. I encourage you to join the community of beginner bird photographers and this wonderful genre of wildlife photography.