Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus) male after lift off
Davis County, Utah
Nikon D200, f6.3, 1/2000, ISO 400, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 280 mm, natural light, not baited
Recently a question was asked by a new member on a nature photography critique forum where I am a member that struck my funny bone and I just had to reply. The person basically wanted to know what the secret is to photographing birds and after thinking about it for a few moments I replied to their question, not just once but three times and honestly I could have posted much more to answer their question.
I’m taking the liberty of editing my own words again instead of quoting directly from the thread. Some of my replies are serious, some are funny and tongue in cheek. Some are both. I’ll let you be the judge of when I am serious or not.
The most important is this:
There is NO magic or undisclosed secret to help with bird photography, it takes skill, it takes patience, it takes enormous time in the field, it takes practice, hard work and determination.
Fort De Soto County Park, Pinellas County Florida
Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/1500, ISO 200, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 175mm, natural light
Learn about exposure, white birds should look white and not muddy or gray in appearance. Black birds should look dark but not so dark as to not show any feather detail.
Know what the color a bird actually is for post processing later. An American Kestrel; for instance, shouldn’t look like it lives at a nuclear power plant by glowing far too brightly or if it is WAY too colorful to be natural & realistic. A Snowy Egret should not look like it fell into a vat of pale grey paint.
If the techs aren’t good and the exposure is bad nothing you do in PhotoShop is going to make a poor image great.
Seriously, would you rather spend two hours trying to fix an image that is poor in quality and even after that amount of time invested still isn’t going to be great or spend that two hours in the field trying to create that great image right out of the camera?? That is an easy answer for me. Get it right in the camera to save time on post processing later.
Review each of your images prior to deleting and ask yourself “What could I have done to make this image better?” Learn to develop a love/hate relationship with culling. I love it when I nail shots all day long, I hate it when I have messed up more images than I care to count.
Develop a callus on your behind because when you mess up you’ll spend a lot of time kicking your own butt.
Low angle Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) adult
Fort De Soto County Park, Pinellas County, Florida
Nikon D200, handheld, f5.6, 1/1600, ISO 320, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light
Bird photography is NOT glamorous. Trust me on that.
All of the photos you see where a bird photographer is smiling into the camera wearing clean, dry clothes were taken before they started photographing that day.
If you want to get that “low angle” bird photographers so often talk about be prepared to get dirty, learn how to belly crawl through mud, sand, grass, bird poop and things you don’t even want to think about. And when there is an algae bloom in the shallow water get some nose plugs or a portable oxygen tank.
Think of sand crawling as a free or low cost dermabrasion. Get your tetanus shots updated.
After laying in the sand whether it is wet or dry you will end up looking like a sugar-covered donut. You will have sand on your face, in your ears and in places sand is not supposed to be.
When it is hot while shooting you will sweat, NO amount of antiperspirant is strong enough. Your brow will sweat and it will run down into your eyes blinding you temporarily. Carry a kerchief, wipe your eyes as needed.
Carry an extra set of clothes and shoes for days you really get down & dirty shooting or you may have to make the drive home smelling like seagull poop. At the very least carry a heavy towel to toss over your car seat or it may end up smelling like an old tuna can.
If you are shooting up at birds for long periods of time invest in a heating pad because your shoulders will scream at you. Or buy a partnership into a local massage parlor.
When photographing birds flying directly over your head be sure to keep your mouth closed as you never know when they might decide to flush out their systems.
Look before you sit, fire ants are not fun. Neither is sitting in goose poop. Shrimp do tickle when they walk around on your legs as you sit in the water photographing birds.
Get long johns, great gloves, heat packs and the warmest coats you can get if you are going to photograph in cold weather or you might freeze something off. Remember to wear sun protective clothing in the summer or you might toast your buns.. or something else.
You may end up at the end of a shoot appearing to others like you have rolled around in the mud. If you got great shots that day, would it really matter?
There seems to be a “uniform” pro photographers wear, ignore that. Wear what you are comfortable in. Impress them with your photos not your clothes.
Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni) juvenile
Red Rock Lakes Nationa Wildlife Refuge, Montana
Nikon D200, f7.1, 1/640, ISO 250, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited
Be prepared to be frustrated. Be prepared to get many more blurry shots than you get that are sharp.
Be prepared to sit for hours waiting for “the” shot. Be prepared to have missed it because you reached for your cup of coffee at the precise moment the bird did something fantastic.
Get a bumper sticker that says “Caution, Frequent Stops – Bird Photographer on Board” or be prepared to get rear-ended. Realize that non bird photographers don’t know why we drive erratically at times, they just think we are insane.
Buy cases of insect repellent. In some locations you may need pepper spray and not just for 4 legged animals.
Carry something to snack on or your stomach grumbling will scare off the birds. I’m serious!
Don’t leave your spare batteries or memory cards in the car, you will be sorry.
Be prepared for non-bird photographers to look at you like you have horns growing out of your head. They don’t understand the language of bird photographers. You may as well be an alien.
If you talk to a non-bird photographer for five minutes about the ID of a bird their eyes will glaze over. If you talk to a non-bird photographer for 10 minutes about the technical difficulties of settings, light, composition and the like their pulse will slow, call 911 because they are certifiably bored to death.
Juvenile Burrowing Owl
Davis County, Utah
Nikon D200, f6.3, 1/320, ISO 320, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited
Learn ethics, know when you are getting too close by being aware of the bird’s behavior, you can tell when you get too close because they get alarmed.
Follow local, state and federal guidelines & rules about how close to approach and what land you need to stay off of.
Don’t mess with nesting birds.
Pack out what you carry in.
Be considerate of other bird photographers when you approach them while they are on birds. I’ve spent long periods of time getting close to my subjects just to have some rude person walk up quickly to “grab a shot” who flush the birds I have so patiently approached. Most bird photographers are great people and don’t mind if you approach in a slow way and don’t flush the birds. Ask them about approaching them in a quiet voice, if you yell I hope you have good traction on your shoes.
Don’t jump in front of another photographer to get your shot. Or be prepared… for anything. Just saying…
Willet (Tringa semipalmata) foraging in early morning light
Pinellas County, Florida
Nikon D200, handheld, f5.6, 1/1250, ISO 400, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light
I shoot a lot without a tripod, handhold my 70-300mm VR, my 80-400mm VR, most of the time I am resting my 200-400mm VR on my noodle or shooting handheld in bursts. Perhaps less than 5% of my images are taken using a tripod. I know plenty of bird photographers who shoot handheld and get sharp images. Tripods can be handy though if you don’t have IS or VR or if you expect to be on the birds a long time.
Be aware that you may have to sell your first born to be able to pay for your “dream” lens. Just kidding… well maybe not.
If you hear someone say “I’d kill for that lens”… run like the wind. Seriously.
When your spouse asks why there is a second mortgage on the house pretend you have lost your hearing completely and hide the expensive lens.
Get used to getting up at o’dark hundred, you want to be there for early morning light.
You will dream about birds, it won’t be as bad as the movie “The Birds”, but it might get scary night after night. If you wake up after one of those dreams with a tickle in your throat do check for feathers.
Weather forecasters lie. If they predict “partly sunny” you’ll get thick heavy clouds with little light. If they predict a mostly cloudy morning chances are the sun will be shining. I wish I could get paid to be wrong so often!
Remember that your digital camera has a buffer and it will fill up exactly when the bird strikes an amazing pose. Been there and done that.
Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) with spider
Davis County, Utah
Nikon D200, f7.1, 1/1000, ISO 400, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light
I’m self taught so I can’t speak about taking workshops but they do seem to help some people. Learn your camera & gear intimately, know when you are pushing it to its limits. Know the level of your own skills.
You need to be able to change your settings very quickly as birds aren’t high paid fashion models, birds are wild and move whenever, however and where ever they want.
For me a large part of the joy I get photographing birds is being out in nature with them and immersing myself in the bird’s world rather than sitting in a lounge chair in a back yard sipping a cold one with my tripod in front of me.
Be aware that light can be your enemy or your friend when it comes to bird photography. Learn to work with it rather than fight it.
You can probably learn from books, workshops or instructional CD’s but they are no substitute for “Practice, practice, practice”.
If you don’t have patience bird photography might not be for you.
A sense of humor helps. Without it you may go batty and bats do not have feathers despite their ability to fly.
Be prepared to become addicted to birds. You will have withdrawals if you don’t shoot often enough, your shutter button finger will develop a nervous twitch and your left eye lid will close when ever a bird flies by.
There is no Bird Photographers Anonymous. I don’t need support for my addiction thank you very much!
Hi, I am Mia and I am a bird photography addict!
So, do ya still wanna be a bird photographer?