The four P’s of bird photography

The four most important aspects of birding and bird photography are: Patience, Perseverance, Practice and Passion. Marette Bennett from Refined Edges Wildlife Photography and Training talks about her own photographic journey into the world of birds, and shares the lessons learnt about timing, equipment and technique.

Why the four P’s, and why passion in particular? Very seldom is it possible to do something at a great level without passion. I’ve spent six hours walking with heavy gear to finally see and photograph my first Pel’s Fishing Owl – after about 10 years of avidly seeking this elusive bird for my bird list.

In many cases an interest in birding leads people to photography, for the simple reason that it makes it easier to later identify birds seen in the field. What follows is the drive to get a photo of every bird on your birding list, and from there to take the perfect photo of each bird. That was exactly how my photographic journey began too.

A great bird photograph is the coming together of several factors: quality and direction of the light, composition, background, the right settings, proper exposure, the environment, and knowledge of your subject.

When & where?

As with many hobbies, there is an off-season, and the same goes for birding. Spring and summer are definitely optimal, when the annual arrival of migratory species creates huge excitement among birders and photographers alike. Summer is the time to be on the lookout for those incoming Woodland Kingfishers, European Rollers and White Storks. In winter, the flowering of Aloe species brings the sunbirds out to play.

The best time to photograph birds is early morning, before the light is harsh and vertical. That’s when birds are active too, and, as the saying goes, “the early bird catches the worm”.

Knowing the preferred habitat of a certain species is a great help in locating specific birds, as is having knowledge of bird behavior. Knowing what food a certain bird prefers and following birdcalls will also lead you to incredible sightings and potential photographs.

When observing birds patiently you start to learn and understand their behavior. This is helpful in setting up for the shot you want, and anticipating great action shots. Needless to say, you must be ready all the time and keep your mind focused.

The ethics around birding and bird photography are simple: respect their space and keep your distance. Be extra cautious around nesting birds, don’t disturb their natural behavior and learn to recognise when a bird is stressed by your presence. Leave the dogs at home, reduce voices and noise, don’t flush birds to get them to fly, don’t play audio playbacks near nesting sites or where you know there is a resident couple, and avoid using a flash.

What gear do I need?

You don’t need top-end professional gear to capture striking bird photos. Shooting with a full-frame camera you capture a huge amount of light per pixel, and you have the ability to crop in post-processing. A crop-frame sensor brings you closer to your subject but your ability to crop in post-processing is somewhat limited. Preferably you want a camera that can shoot 10 or more frames per second in continuous bursts.

For bird photography you generally want to use the longest lens you have, because of the size of your subjects. To get in close (without being physically close) you need at least a 300mm lens. If your lens is shorter than that, you can still capture birds in their surrounding environment, telling the whole story.

You want a lens that reacts fast and accurately to autofocus, though you can make micro focus adjustments on your camera for a specific lens. A lens with a high maximum aperture is ideal, not only because it lets through lots of light, but to enhance the subject and eliminate the background.

Teleconvertors can double the reach of your lens, but you lose image quality as the light has to pass though more glass. On some cameras you lose the ability to autofocus, and this makes capturing birds in flight very difficult. You also lose a percentage of the autofocus points and reduce your maximum aperture, diminishing the light that hits the sensor. I never use teleconvertors. If I can’t get in close, I opt to capture the whole scene/environment and tell a different story.

If you just want a decent photo of the bird you see, and don’t want to get too technical, one can use a “super-zoom” DSLR or mirrorless camera. These are a step-up from “point-and-shoot” cameras and are able to zoom to an incredible 3 000 to 4 000mm. The camera and lens are fixed and have some amazing auto options that everyone can understand. They are reasonably priced and light enough to take on a long hike.

To get the sharpest possible images of these tiny subjects, it’s very important to stabilise properly. I hand-hold, because I like moving around, and my technique is to shoot with a wide stance, elbows tucked into my sides for stability, with an open hand holding the lens. This works in combination with a fast shutter speed to eliminate camera shake. In a bird hide you have the support of the viewing window, and a bean bag will do just great. At dams and rivers, shooting water birds from the bank, it’s easy to set up a tripod that’s sturdy enough to support a long lens. When shooting in a space where you know a certain bird frequents a certain flower or feeder, a tripod or monopod is useful. When shooting from your vehicle, it doubles up as a hide, and the door sill provides ample stabilisation when the engine is turned off. All you need is to place a bean bag or pool noodle on the window. A variety of pricey stabilisation systems are available that clamp to the door and window, giving stability and the ability to swivel.

What settings must I use?

A great bird photograph must be razor-sharp! If the eye of the bird is not in focus, you’ve missed the shot. A combination of factors leads to quality images, the most important being the correct exposure. Birds have a tremendous amount of detail to capture, from the texture on each feather to every colour under the rainbow. The secret is to get your shot right in-camera and then enhance it with post-processing.

Today’s digital cameras have tremendous autofocus and tracking abilities. It is best to shoot with continuous autofocus mode (AF-C for Nikon/Al-servo for Canon). Once the focus is set, it will remain accurate via tracking even when the subject or camera moves. You have to choose your focus point/points correctly to focus on the eye with single/pinpoint focus or on the head with small dynamic focus points.

We covered exposure modes extensively in Issue 10, and my suggestion is to choose the exposure mode that works for you in order to create the image you envision. I prefer Manual or Shutter Priority mode for photographing birds. I choose my shutter speed according to whether I want to freeze or blur the motion. A fast shutter speed will freeze wings in flight. A handy tip is, the smaller the bird, the faster your shutter speed needs to be. With sunbirds, I don’t shoot under 1/2000s and will pump it up to 1/4000s. Larger birds like vultures work with slower shutter speeds, but I still don’t go under 1/1000s. I set aperture (depth of field) according to the amount of blur I want to achieve. A wide-open (small numbers) aperture will eliminate the background or enhance a beautiful detailed eye. But if I want the whole bird in focus, I will open up the depth of field by a stop or two.

In terms of light, I always use the lowest ISO setting I can get away with. That might be an ISO of 10 000 in pre-dawn light or an ISO of 100 at midday with very harsh light to get the cleanest shot with the least amount of noise. Alternatively, I set the ISO on Auto to get the right exposure quickly, as birds move very unpredictably.

Be careful not to overexpose your bird images. Overexposed or blown-out areas lose clarity or detail and cannot be recovered successfully in post-processing. Detail (data per pixel) is what bird photography is all about, so I prefer to slightly under-expose my bird images, especially when it comes to birds with luminous feathers. If necessary, I adjust the exposure in post-processing.

The perfect picture

You need to know all the technical stuff to get a sharp and clear image, but you want to create something that is appealing. The first thing I do is set my camera to its highest continuous shooting rate. This is the only way to capture action – the wings up or down, a subtle tilt of the head, beak open when calling, catching a bug, etc. A great photograph captures a mood and feeling that conveys a story. This goes for both close-ups or wide-angle shots.

You want the bird’s eye lit up, which is achieved by having the sun at your back. An image is lost if the eye is in shadow. The background is essential too. You don’t want to distract from your bird subject with a busy background or twigs sticking out from behind the head. Having the direction of the light and the background always on your mind, being patient and anticipating anything, will give you striking results.

Keep a bird library

I choose the best shots in a series and delete the rest. Bird images can quickly count into the tens of thousands. My photographic bird library is set up pretty much like a bird identification guide. I compare the different shots from different trips of the same species and only keep the best ones. If the latest trip didn’t deliver a better or similar quality image of the same species, I don’t add it to my library. I add notes of date, time and place.

I often get the question: JPEG or RAW? I actually shoot both. Modern camera software processes JPEGs perfectly. These are easy to share and require less editing. RAW files are huge, and need to be processed (developed) to be viewed. RAW files have great post-processing recovery success, but my aim is to get the shot right in the first place. Your choice of format will depend on how much editing you want to do and how much space you want to dedicate to storing images.

Bird photography can be extremely satisfying and rewarding, but it does take all of the four “P’s” to achieve success: Patience, Perseverance, Practice and Passion.

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