It is of little wonder why so many people take the time to photograph birds, the natural variation present in this group of organisms together with the fact that they can be found on your doorstep make them a very accessible subject to photograph. However it can be quite daunting when you first decide you want to start photography or want to step up your hobby with the aim of getting a DSLR. There is a plethora of cameras, lenses and accessories to choose from and with such a high associated cost you want to make sure you get the most bang for your buck. This can mean an endless trawl through the vast library of tips, tutorials and reviews found on the internet, with no certainty of coming out the end with a clear answer. This guide is intended to steer you in the right direction of what is and isn’t needed with respect to bird photography and how to get it all setup in the pursuit of great photographs
I shall start off with lenses as they are the most crucial element to obtaining good sharp photos more so than any other single component of a DSLR system. So what are the main things you should consider when looking to purchase a lens?
- Focal length
- Maximum aperture
- Image stabilization (includes OS, VR, IS etc.)
- Zoom or Prime
All of these factors play a crucial role in determining which lens is best suited to you, and there individual importance will vary from person to person. One thing i will say is your rarely going to be able to tick all boxes, go for the lens which ticks the most important boxes for you.
Focal length - This is the number associated with any given lens and is given in millimeters.The larger the number the greater the magnification and as a general rule nothing under 300mm is suggested for bird photography. While you may be fine photographing tame birds with a 100mm lens, most birds aren’t tame and will fly away long before you get close enough to them. This poses a few problems, first is the weight of the lens assuming your not using a mirror lens. As lenses get bigger there is more glass inside them as well as more housing, seems common sense right?. Only you know your personal strength but don’t go over estimating it, carrying around a big 500mm lens can be back breaking for some and so you need to factor this into your choice. Also larger lenses cost more money due to the increased amount of work/materials that go into them (amongst other things). Finally larger lenses are much harder to hand hold, im sure there are some people who say they can hand hold a 600mm f/4 lens rock steady in a hurricane, i wouldn’t count on it though. This is where image stabilization can be very handy and a tripod keeps the lens even more steady, but this shall be bought up later on.
Maximum aperture – This is the lowest f value associated with the lens, in the above case it is f/4.5 at 100mm and follows a gradient up to its maximum focal length of f/5.6 at 400mm. In reality you do not want to be looking at a lens that has a maximum aperture above f/5.6-6.3. Anything above this and you are really starting to limit the shutter speeds achievable in all but the brightest light. For example everything else being equal at f/2.8 if you get a shutter speed of 1/1000th, in the same circumstances but at f/5.6 you’ll get a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second. This can lead to all sorts of problems such as motion blur, and associated under exposed photos as you have to increase the shutter speed to avoid motion blur. Other problems (these are going to star throughout this article) are weight and cost. For exactly the same reasons as above, as the minimum aperture increases the diameter of the elements must increase to allow the extra light in, increasing the amount of glass in the lens aswell as the price.
Image stabilization – This acts to reduce the effect of lens movement on the final photo. Some of the older lenses have 1 or 2 stop image stabilization, however the newer lenses have 3 to 4 stop image stabilization. In effect if you used a lens without image stabilization and obtained a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second, with an image stabilized lens of 2 stops you would get an effective shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second and with 4 stop image stabilization you would get an effective shutter speed of 1/4000th of a second allowing you to use alot slower shutter speeds and still obtain sharp photos. One of the biggest factors determining image sharpness is obtaining a high enough shutter speed to freeze movement, if image stabilization only helps this then why wouldn’t you get it?. The answer as always is money, image stabilization comes at a premium and having the added benefit of it drastically reduces the bank balance. Below is a couple of comparisons based on the lenses having and not having image stabilization.
Sigma 70-300mm f4-5.6 DG £129.00 : Sigma 70-300mm f4-5.6 DG OS £298.99
Zoom or Prime – This is a very controversial subject, some people claiming that primes focus faster and cost less whilst people who use zoom lenses claim it is nonsense. Zooms are certainly more versatile, allowing you to change the focal length rather than your position relative to the subject which you would have to do with a prime. However quite often you are going to find yourself a long way away from the subject and it that situation you are going to be using the lens at its maximum focal length, in which case a prime would probably be more handy due to lower weight. My final word on this subject is that each manufacturer whether it be Canon, Nikon, Sigma etc all produce some great prime lenses and some great zoom lenses, do your research before making a decision and you should be just fine.
Price – Not really much i can say on this as only you really know how much your willing to spend. One thing i will say is set aside the most amount of money for the lens:
Good lens + Average camera = Good photos
Average lens + Good camera = Average photos
Above are the main factors to take into account when purchasing a lens, however there are plenty more differences between lenses. Glass coatings, auto-focus motor type, glass quality being just some of them. This is meant as a rough guide to help you out, make sure to talk to people who own the lens your intrested in and ask them how they feel about it, and if it is possible rent the lens before you purchase it.
Cameras are easier to choose, but also alot more difficult. Let me ellaborate, technology in a camera changes quickly in comparison to the technology in lenses, so although most cameras have the same functions, the effectiveness varies. Below are a few key considerations to help you choose a body suitable for bird photography.
- ISO Performance
- Frames per second
- Autofocus ability
- Custom functions
ISO Performance – It is a known fact that some cameras perform better under higher ISO’s than others. This is a massive advantage as it allows you to increase your shutter speed or f-stop without running the risk of grainy photos. Now days there are lots of sites you can visit to check ISO performance between different cameras. However these are performed under very controlled conditions, and do not really simulate real life. Get out there and check out with people who have used the camera before how they felt it dealt with high ISO (for me thats anything above ISO 800), check reviews and other articles. Normally if the camera is pretty poor at dealing with high ISO it will be blatantly obvious as soon as you start doing research on it.
Frames per second – This is another easy one, for bird photography the higher the better. However most DSLR’s can shoot at least 5 fps nowdays and this is perfectly adequate so you probably aren’t going to have to factor this into your decision, although 8+ fps is always nice.
Autofocus ability – Again to help with your decision you are going to need to read reviews and get advice from people who have had first hand experience with the DSLR you have in mind. All DSLR’s offer autofocus, however fast intelligent autofocus is a neccesity and this varies with models. Unfortunaetly i do not have time to go into each models individual auto-focus system and discuss it, but do your research and you will begin to see a pattern as to what camera people are using.
Megapixels – The advantage of having more pixels on the sensor is that more pixels are recording data for any given area of the photo, I.e. if you were taking a photo of a pigeon in flight, then there are more pixels recording data for the pigeon in a 18mp camera in comparison to a 12mp camera (See below). The advantage of this is that later on in post processing you can crop in further without loosing as much detail, this is a huge help as i mentioned earlier on, normally you arn’t going to be able to fill the frame straight from the lens and cropping is a normal practice. The downside is that more megaixels especially on crop sensor camera are associated with higher noise. Some DSLR’s deal with the noise very well, and some do not, this is where doing your research can pay off.
Custom functions – There are a huge amount of custom functions available to different DSLR’s, some of them are extremelly useful, and others not so much. An example of one such settings is one i use on my Canon 7D, there is a custom function to alter how quickly the autofocus moves off target when for instance a bird is flying through a cluttered background. Slowing down the autofocus shift function means the camera maintains focus at that range longer before ‘hunting’ making it easier to keep a bird in flight in focus. One custom function i have never used and probably never will is ISO expansion which gives you ISO values up to 12800, at this ISO its not even worth while pressing the shutter button. So as you can see some custom functions may swing your decision, some should just be ignored.
There are a few excellent DSLR’s out there that are the right price to make them affordable to most, as well as these there are other models which are great, but naturally most people preferentiate the excellent models. I use Canon but for me the two most memorable models with regards to bird photography are the Canon 40D and the Canon 7D, the Canon 40D being a little dated now. The same will apply to Nikon users and it should become apparent when searching what they are. If so many people are using the same model for the same purpose then guranteed the camera is up to the job. In conclusion do your reasearch, see what people are using, read the cameras manual to see what is included and try and tick as many boxes as possible, there is always going to be a comprimise.
So now you have sorted out the key components of your DSLR setup, what else are you going to need to help you achieve great bird photographs?
- Cleaning kit
- Memory card
- Hide / Netting
- Filters (or not)
Tripod – Do not under estimate how useful a tripod can be, although the burden of carrying one around can be abit of a pain they easily make up for themselves. Provided you get a quality tripod with a quality head they provide a rock steady platform to mount your camera on and all but eliminate camera shake. This means that you can use lower shutter speeds and not run the risk of getting blurry photos. However get a cheap tripod and you might as well not be using one.Tripods that come with a non-detaching head should generally be avoided as they are almost certainly low quality and will not help with camera shake much / at all. The downside to a tripod is that it is extra weight to carry about and they can also make getting into position awquard at times. Names to look out for are manfrotto, gitzo, fiesol and any other manufacturers who have a good reputation. Carbon fibre legs reduce weight and also reduce vibration, but they cost alot more than aluminum tripods. Heads to consider for bird photography are ball heads and gimbal heads. Gimbal heads are great for long lenses, making it effortless to move them from one position to another however for shorter lens (below 400mm) they do not function as well. In this situation a good ball head that does not move when secured and has a nice fluid movement is going to be best.
Bag – The size of the bag depends on the size of the lens, personally i have always gone for a rucksack type bag as they make transporting heavy kit alot easier. There are some shoulder bags that are capable of carrying big lenses (400mm+) but all the weight rests on one side of your body then. Companys such as lowepro, crumpler and tamrac all make quality camera bags that you know are up to the job of protecting your equipment as well as making it easy to transport it.
Cleaning kit – This includes rocket blower, microfibre cloth and lens pen. It is used to clean dust/loose dirt off the front elements of the lens as well as other bits such as screens. The rocket blower can be used to blow dust off of the camera mirror aswell as anywhere else you want to use it. You can buy sensor cleaning kits but the risk outweighs the reward for me and if the sensor was to become contaminated i would send it away for cleaning.
Memory card – Get the highest memory and fastest writing speed you can afford. The faster the writing speed the lower the buffer time and the more continuous photos can be taken in any one time. A memory card with higher memory means you don’t need to change the card as often, which can be very handy when your taking alot of photos.
Hide / Netting – If you are someone who likes to find a likely place and sit and wait then a hide or even camoflage netting is going to be a great help. It breaks up your outline and covers up anything that may attract the birds attention allowing you to get closer to the subject. However if your more of a walk about person who likes to see what they can find on their travels then a hide is going to be of little use, netting however is easy to setup and can be taken along just incase.
Filters – Filters for me have no place in bird photography, they reduce the quality of photos and a lens hood serves the same protective purpose as a U.V. filer. Save money and don’t bother, put it towards something more usefull.
So now you have got all of your equipment, you’ve added all the bits together what next?. Now comes the hard bit, getting the camera set up to get the very most you can get from it. Anybody can buy an expensive camera system, it takes practice to be able to use if effectively. Below are the settings i use for different scenarios and general rules which are worth following.
One quick point i shall make is that i use AV (Nikon - A) mode all the time, this allows you to set the ISO and F value and let the camera chooses the best shutter speed for that situation. There are alot of variables determining what shutter speed it uses and what factors it takes into account to choose the shutter speed which i shall not go into. However there are a few basics to getting the exposure right which i shall discuss below.
Birds in flight:
Aperture value is normally set to f5.6 as this is the minimum apeture of my lens, providing the fastest shutter speed, however on a bright day i may increase this to get all of the wing in focus.
ISO is a very important one, especially when using AV mode. I follow the technique of exposing to the right, whereby you over expose without blowing the highlights and bring it back down in post processing. This reduces visible noise in the photo and allows you to use higher ISO values. So if faced with the situation of using ISO 200 and under exposing the photo and having to bring it back up in post processing (Increasing noise) or using ISO 400 and over exposing, i will always go for ISO 400 and reduce the exposure in post processing. This ultimately gives lower noise even if ISO 200 should give less noise. Therefore a normal ISO value i would leave on my camera is ISO 400.
Exposure compensation needs to be dialled in, if the bird is dark against a bright background you need to compensate for this. This may mean over exposing the background, but the bird will be exposed correctly. This depends on the colour of the bird, if it is a white bird then less exposure compensation is needed (+1/3rd) however if the bird is black against a bright sky you may need to dial in alot of exposure compensation (+2).
I use evaluative metering all the time (Nikon – Matrix metering).
I only shoot in raw for ease of post processing later on.
Auto focus mode is set to AI Servo (Nikon – Continuous focus) for continuous focus whilst the bird is moving.
Drive mode is set to high speed continuous
This is very much the same as above, except you can get away with using a slower shutter speed as the bird is stationary. In AV mode this means you can decrease the ISO or increase the f-stop, which ever you feel you need most.
Bird on the Ground:
For birds on the ground again i use pretty much the same settings above.
There is no need to dial in as much exposure compensation, if any at all as the background is roughly the same exposure as the bird. Of course there are excpetions to the rule, such as black birds on snow.
More important than any of this is to get out there and practice. No one is born a good photographer, it comes with time.