Light is the single most important thing that photographers need to understand and how much of it to let in your camera is essential for good photography and getting a great image. But given this, I would say light is closely followed by getting the sharpness, focus and clarity in the image as the next most important thing to get right. In my pursuit of trying to capture birds its been the single most frustrating thing to look at in the edit suite at the end of a shoot. The bird you have spent minutes, hours even several days following in the case of a local Kingfisher, to try to get that perfect shot can be spoiled by the image not being perfectly sharp. Understanding the basic settings of your camera can be key to getting successful action or still bird shots.
To begin with, knowing a birds behavior and having a feel for the environment you are in are hugely important for getting that perfect shot of your subject in focus and lit so that the image is properly exposed. All birds behave differently. Some will flee at the sight of you others may look at you curiously and potentially see you as a food source. Others will just go about their business high above you. So your proximity to the bird during its behavior can be the biggest benefit to the type of shot you want. Too close and the bird may scare but also the bird may suddenly spread its wings in readiness for flight and a closely cropped image because you’re too close may cut off some of the wing. You may need to back off a little in your proximity so the image has room to breathe. Only in post production edits will you find that in the 10 shots you managed to get of the Swan taking off, the one that is sharply in focus is the one with half a wing missing. So understand the behavior and take time to observe it and judge through experience where its best to locate yourself to give you a framed shot that will work for the location you are in.
I have spent many thousands of hours doing photography and the list of things I have photographed is large. With landscapes for example, the subject conveniently stays in the same place for long periods in order for me to get the shot I want. I can take my time getting the right lens fitted, focus on a spot that I want to highlight, go to live view on my camera screen, select manual focus and zoom in so that the image is pin sharp on my display. All this while the camera is resting on a steady tripod and using a timer or trigger to release the shutter that removes all movement.
As I first began photographing birds, I quickly realised most of that technique was being thrown out of the window! When I get to the location I’m shooting in I may not have an idea where the bird is going to be initially, will it be near or far so what lens should I attach. Is the bird going to flee when it sees me so if I do manage to get a shot, are my settings correct on the camera so that the light that reaches the sensor is ample and the shutter has opened and closed fast enough that my hand movement wont be picked up by the camera.
Most birds in flight or their sudden movement will need around 1/1000th sec shutter speed to freeze their movements sufficiently. This needs to be pretty quick to avoid any possible camera shake or blur in the image. Remember I’m not going to be using a tripod as I don’t know where the bird may be. Waiting in a hide maybe one exception to this as there is a small window of direction where you know the birds will visible and using a tripod can be an option here. Some camera set ups allow a mono pod to be attached which can also greatly help reduce movement in all situations.
At around a 1000th second there’s not much light being let into the camera so in order to overcome this I need to make the aperture wide enough to let some more in. The f number on a camera will allow me to dictate the width at which the lens opens to let the light through for our fraction of a second. There’s always a trade off between movement, light and exposure. This is the second thing to remember when in location. Your settings.
Once you have seen the bird then you’ll want to move in closer so ensure the camera is on, an exposure setting is chosen and you are in a position to take the shot. The last thing you want to be doing is adjusting settings as you approach the subject as your movement may frighten the bird. If the bird looks frightened remain still until the bird thinks the threat has gone.
Move towards the bird and begin to take shots and the bird will get used to the sound of the shutter. But remember to always check if your position is the right place for you to be. Use auto focus at first and as you take a few frames, quickly look at the display on the camera to see if there is too much or too little light being let in through the lens. This is where your knowledge of your equipment comes in. The more shots you take in as many environments as possible and learning the behavior of animals as I mentioned earlier is key to being able to adjust settings live in the field to get the shot you want.
The last thing you want to be doing is reaching for the instruction manual as to how to speed up the shutter speed. The moment will be lost. Adjust the settings based on what the screen is showing you. Viewing through the viewfinder will provide you with information based on what the camera can see.
To tackle the issue of sharpness and focus or lack of it in some cases, these are my recommendations. Start with auto focus and have the dots on your viewfinder light up where the subject is as you half press the shutter. This can in a lot of cases be the best option for focusing, but in my experience the camera doesn’t know where or what the object is that you are looking to capture.
This shot of a Grey Heron in the reeds for example looks amazing, (see a larger version here) but the only thing that auto focus may see are the reeds in front of the Heron making the bird blurry in the background and that isn’t going to look good. This is where manual focus (MF) comes in. Click the switch on the lens to MF and turn the front of the lens until you can see the bird clearly in the viewfinder this will make the reeds in front then become out of focus. Start to shoot the image.
There is no problem in taking 5, 10 even 20 images of the same shot, micro adjusting the lens as you shoot each one. I really dislike the term spray and pray. This is where some photographers have to take 50 shots and pray 1 will come out right and some form of photographic derision extends from this in some quarters. Yes that might be true but 45 may also come out right and have the bird in different actions. Using the burst mode on your camera can help in the following ways. First, when you press the shutter button with your finger, it generates camera shake. When you use burst mode, however, you only press the shutter button at the beginning of your image sequence. This means that later photographs are taken with very little camera shake because the shutter button is not actually pressed just before the image is captured.
Second, when you shoot in burst mode, the mirror doesn’t cause extra vibrations. You see, many cameras (DSLRs) have mirrors in front of the sensor. When the shutter button is pressed, the mirror flips up, briefly exposing the sensor to light to capture the image.
When the mirror flips up, this causes small vibrations throughout the camera, another form of camera shake. Yet when you activate burst mode, the mirror only flips up only at the beginning of the burst. The later shots aren’t affected by the vibrations caused by the mirror and as a consequence, they are sharper.
It can only be a win win in my eyes.
So lets take a moment then to consider the focal length of the lens that you are using. You are going to need around 200 - 800mm to be in with a chance of getting a good shot in the wild and even on a bird feeder. You may get away with something lower if you are lucky enough to be at an aviary for example or bird sanctuary that have animals close by. But an extra investment maybe needed to get a longer lens if you want to try to get into the shot without the bird seeing you.
OK to continue, try swapping from Auto Focus (AF) to manual (MF) as you shoot and see if this can help get the shot. But remember to not make sudden movements and to slow down your approach to the situation. Each shot situation will need a quick assessment of the conditions and the reaction the camera is having through the view finder. Again being familiar with your cameras settings and knowing where exposure compensation buttons are for example is essential in this situation
If you are using a DSLR type of camera try choosing the mode that allows the shutter speed adjustment. This then allows the edit wheel to click between your thousandths of a second stops and this may influence the light and shot you are after. Once in the edit suite you will then know which one has worked for you.
At the end of the day you could always hang a bird feeder in your garden, sit with a window open and a cup of tea and shoot whatever comes along but there can be no substitute for getting out there and trying it in the field. Getting a shot of a duck on a quiet lake is very different from shooting diving gannets from a boat so gaining as much experience as you can in as many situations as you can manage is essential to good bird photography. If nothing else it always going to be a life enriching experience that can only be gained by being in nature.
Check out some other birds and animal shots of mine here.