By Daniel Dupont

05 août 2020

 

Bird photography is one of the most demanding photographic genres. You will have to learn to control your equipment, the light, your environment, while your subjects (the birds!) do not listen to your instructions about where they should land to get the best lighting.

Here are some tips to improve your results and perfect your techniques.


Osprey by Daniel DupontDaniel Dupont - Osprey
Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + Canon Extender EF 1.4x III
1/2 000  |  f/5.6  |  ISO 320

Exposure

Exposure is controlled by three settings: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO value. It sounds simple, but it is important to balance these three elements to get the right exposure.


Aperture

The aperture controls the incidence of light, as well as the depth of field (the area of sharpness of the image). The larger the aperture (f/4), the shallower the depth of field. The closer the aperture is closed (f/22), the more depth of field you will get.

Personally, I shoot most of my photos at f/5.6. This gives me enough detail on the bird and the backgrounds are more discreet.


Male Gadwall by Daniel DupontDaniel Dupont - Male Gadwall
Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM + Canon Extender EF 1.4x III
1/1600  |  f/5.6  |  ISO 250

Shutter Speed

The shutter speed allows you to freeze the subject. I rarely use a shutter speed lower than 1/500 sec. to avoid blurred movement of myself or the subject. For birds in flight, I prefer a minimum speed of 1/1600 sec to be sure that the bird is completely motionless.


Red Grouse by Daniel DupontDaniel Dupont - Red Grouse
Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + Canon Extender EF 1.4 III
1/2500  |  f/5.6  |  ISO 320


ISO Value

The ISO value helps to balance the other two parameters. With newer cameras, it is possible to select a high ISO value and not have too much noise in the pictures. 

PRO TIP: No matter what camera you use, I recommend that you select the lowest ISO value in order to get a good combination of exposure. It is not necessary to have an ISO value of 2000 and a speed of 1/8000. You could have an ISO value of 500 and a speed of 1/2000, which will be sufficient even for a bird in flight.


Exposure Modes

Another choice that may seem difficult is the choice of exposure mode. It's important to know that your camera's light meter will adjust the reading to obtain medium gray which reflects 18% of the light. For example, if you photograph a white bird against a dark background, it will appear grayish if you don't apply exposure adjustment compensation.

If you are a beginner, you can choose the Program mode (P). You can set the ISO value and the camera will adjust the exposure. A good number of photos will be well exposed.

If you have some experience, you might choose between semi-automatic, shutter-priority or aperture-priority modes. In the semi-automatic mode, you set the shutter speed and ISO value, and then the camera will set the aperture. For the second one, you will set the aperture and ISO value, then the camera will adjust the shutter speed. More pictures will be properly exposed than with program mode, especially if you apply the right exposure corrections.

I've been using manual exposure mode for many years. It may seem more complex, but it gives a better rendering of the light. It is essential to verify the exposure by looking at the histogram (a small graph on the back screen of your camera).


Cattle Egrets by Daniel DupontDaniel Dupont - Cattle Egrets
Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + Canon Extender EF 1.4x III
1/2000  |  f/5.6  |  ISO 250

Focusing

It is necessary to carefully select the focus mode according to the shooting situation. For a still subject, use the single shot mode. For a moving subject, set it to Ai Servo or Continuous mode, depending on the brand of your camera.

PRO TIP: 
To capture a bird in flight, I recommend the manual exposure mode so that the light and color rendering is optimal. 

If your lens allows it, select a focal range on your lens. Avoid the full position as this may slow down the focusing. Give preference to 10 meters to infinity or similar. 

Be sure to aim for a minimum shutter speed of 1/1600 sec and an aperture of f/8 for a greater depth of field. Select the ISO value to balance the exposure.


Atlantic  Puffin by Daniel DupontDaniel Dupont - Atlantic Puffin
Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + Canon Extender EF 1.4x III
1/1250  |  f/8  |  ISO 250

The close-ups

To vary your framing and to make your presentations more dynamic, I recommend that you try to make close-ups when the situation allows it.


Male Hooded Merganser by Daniel DupontDaniel Dupont - Male Hooded Merganser
Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM + Canon Extender EF 1.4x III
1/1250  |  f/5.6  |  ISO 400


Photographing the action

 

What distinguishes good bird photography is the action and behaviour it depicts. Read up on them to learn about their behaviour, feeding, breeding, and singing. These will be the most satisfying photographs you take.

Happy shooting!


Read other blog entries by Daniel Dupont