How To Photograph New Zealand's Birds - Part 1

An edited version of this article on how to photograph birds first appeared in the April 2003 edition of New Zealand Wilderness Magazine.

Why photograph birds
Equipment
Finding Some Birds
Getting close enough
Making sharp images
Light - the lifeblood of our images
Composition

Why photograph birds

I have been sitting alone for hours on a shellbank at Miranda bird reserve. Every time the sun emerges from behind a cloud it beats down on me like a giant blow torch, ruins any chance of a good photograph, and hurts my eyes as it glares back off the bright white of the shellbank.

I am hunched over a big, black 500mm lens, its colour a stark contrast to the bank's white shells. The lens sits on a huge, heavy tripod, which bears more of a resemblance to the Eiffel Tower than to any sensible photographic accessory. The whole set up weighs a hefty 10kgs, and then there's all the gear I have stuffed into a bulging photographic vest.

I am starting to wonder why I have hauled all this gear out here, when suddenly the New Zealand Dotterel I have patiently been trying to approach starts moving towards me, crosses my path, and stands on a ridge of shells close to my right. The sun then moves behind a cloud as this beautiful bird posses against a background of pure light blue sky. My heart is beating like a shaman's drum as I find the bird in my viewfinder, compose, focus and release the shutter. The motor wind rips off at five frames per second and I am confident that I have a great photograph.

My time spent with the New Zealand Dotterel is a good example of why I photograph birds. It can be frustrating and challenging, but very satisfying when it all comes right.

Birds are amazing creatures, they are always doing something interesting and most of all they are often breathtakingly beautiful. It is this beauty, instead of just a record shot, that I try to capture in my photography.

The other reason I am passionate about bird photography is that I feel it can play a part in conservation. How much of a part is difficult to say, and I think the potential is sometimes exaggerated, but if just one person sees a picture of a bird I have taken and is prompted to take an active part in conservation, then who knows what could happen.

Whilst we all will have our own reasons for taking photographs of birds, the rest of this article will look at the how, and the how of bird photography begins with equipment.

Equipment

Equipment is probably the least important part of photography, it's the photographer not the camera that makes the image, but I am starting with equipment, because it can often become something of an obsession with photographers, especially beginners. This equipment obsession can stand in the way of getting out in the field and taking photographs.

The main thing to remember when choosing equipment to photograph birds is that birds are small and move around a lot. This means we need equipment that is fast to work with, and can magnify the image of the bird. In practice, 99% of the time, this means a 35mm single lens reflex (SLR) camera and a telephoto lens. Most 35mm SLRs, that can take interchangeable lenses, can be used for bird photography, and a whole article could be written on this alone.

Features to look for in a camera for bird photography are a motor-wind, aperture priority automatic exposure mode, manual exposure mode, and dial in exposure compensation.

Lenses - how big is big?

Now you have chosen your camera it is time to put a lens on it. In bird photography, most of the time, you are going to need a lens of at least 200mm or 300mm focal length. For a set distance from your subject the longer the focal length of the lens the bigger the final image of the subject on the film. With lenses between 200 and 300mm focal length you will be restricted mainly to tame, or captive birds, and birds, like the North Island Robin, that can allow a very close approach.

Getting close, however, isn't always easy and for the bird photographer, when it comes to lenses, bigger is better. The ideal starting point for serious bird photography is a 400mm lens. Combined with the use of a hide, or good technique for getting close to birds, a 400mm lens can produce great results. Additionally a 400mm auto-focus lens is ideal for photographing flying birds.

Eventually if you get really serious about bird photography you will end up with a 500 or 600mm lens. These lenses are big, heavy, fragile and credit card scorchingly expensive. Combined with a teleconverter (a device for increasing the effective focal length of a lens), however, they make an unbeatable combination for photographing birds.

Lenses - affordable options

Long lenses are expensive, but there are some relatively affordable options. Good deals can be got second-hand, manual focus lens are cheaper than autofocus ones, and third party lens manufacturers, Sigma and Tokina, make big lenses, that whilst not of the quality of the major manufactures, such as Canon and Nikon, they are more than adequate.

Whatever lens you chose if it is 400mm and over you will usually need to use a solid tripod and tripod head to achieve sharp images. Much more could be said about equipment, but for more detail I would suggest reading Arthur Morris's book The Art of Bird Photography and visiting the nature discussion section of, so now you have a pile of equipment - what next?

Finding Some Birds

Well now it's time to find some birds. It is this aspect of bird photography that is often its biggest challenge. To be a good bird photographer you need a sound knowledge of birds, their behaviour and where to find them. To help with this I would recommend joining Forest and Bird, or the Ornithological Society of New Zealand, buying a decent field guide, and in particular getting a copy of Stuart Chamber's book Birds of New Zealand Locality Guide . Stuart's book is an excellent guide on where to find most of New Zealand's birds.

Getting close enough

Now you've found some good bird locations it is time to pack up the gear and head out. On arriving the beginning bird photographer will quickly discover one thing - birds are small and you need to get closer than you thought. Even with a 500mm lens and a teleconverter you will often need to get within 20 feet of a bird if you aren' t going to be saying is that dot a bird. So how do you go about getting close to birds?

Locations that allow you to get close

First up it is important to remember that not all locations are the same. It helps a lot if you can find a place where birds are used to a people, for example on beaches where people regularly walk. Whenever you can find places where birds will let you get as close as possible the best locations for bird watching are not always the best for bird photography.

How to get close - low and slow

Even at a good bird photography location you are going to need to use all your skills to get as close as possible, and the two keys to getting close are keep low and go slow. Keeping low can be achieved most easily by sitting down and shuffling along on your bottom. This technique isn't very stylish, but it is much less punishing on you knees than crawling, or moving forward on your haunches.

Keeping low is usually much less intimidating to birds than just walking straight up to them. However, sometimes walking in can work well, as long as you don't go direct to the bird, but instead walk up at a series of angles, gradually getting closer.

The second key to getting closer is to go slowly, never making any rapid movements. In particular, never lift your tripod and lens quickly from off of your shoulder, this is one of the best ways there is to spook any bird.

How to get close - patience is a virtue

The slow approach can mean it takes 30 minutes plus to get close to a bird and then, just when you are finally moving into position, the bird can fly off. Overall the best technique I have found for getting close to birds is to use the low and slow approach to get reasonably close - and then sit tight. If you sit in one place eventually the birds will get used to you and start to come to you.

Bird first, photo second

Whatever technique you use, the most important factor to remember when approaching birds is that you should never place getting the photograph you want ahead of the welfare of your subject. If in any doubt, stop and slowly and carefully retreat.

Making sharp images

Now you have found your bird and got close enough, how do you go about making a great photograph? As well as being properly exposed the image must be sharp, and in bird photography this means shooting at the maximum shutter speed possible. The faster the shutter speed the less chance there is for blur due to the bird moving, or camera shake. Also essential to avoiding camera shake is mounting your lens and camera on a good tripod and then using sound technique.

Long lens technique

The best technique I have found to ensure sharp bird images is to rest your hand on the top of your lenses, above the point where it is mounted on the tripod, and applying a slight downward pressure. At the same time take a good grip on the camera body, push your face up tight to the view finder and gently stroke the shutter release down. Finally when focusing, make sure the bird's eye is absolutely sharp. Making sharp images of a small, moving subjects using a long lens is a challenge, but with practice and good technique it can be done.

Light - the lifeblood of our images

Getting a well exposed and sharp picture of a bird is vital, but it is only the beginning. To make a really beautiful image you need to consider lighting, composition and background.

Light is the lifeblood of all photography, and lifts an image out of the ordinary. As in most other areas of photography the best light is found during the one and a half hours after sunrise and the one and a half hours before sun set. Full sunlight during the middle of the day does not lend itself to good photographs. If the day is overcast, however, without too thick a cloud cover, then good images can be made all day long.

Whatever the lighting conditions, unlike many other subjects, for bird photography direct front lighting is often the best. A very useful tip, given by master bird photographer Arthur Morris, is to point your shadow at the bird you are photographing, and where possible keep the bird parallel to the front of your lens. This helps ensure beautifully lit and sharp photographs.

Catchlights - the spark of life

Once you have a beautifully lit bird in your viewfinder the final element of lighting is to try and achieve a catch-light in the bird's eye this brings the bird to life. Carefully watch the bird in your viewfinder, and then only press the shutter button when the bird turns its head to just the right angle and that spark of life appears in the bird's eye.

Composition

Now that you have a sharp, well-exposed image, in good light, with that all-important catch-light, the final part of a memorable bird photograph is composition. Composition comes down to two key factors - where you place the bird in the frame, and the background.

Background to your image

Unless the background is important to showing the bird in a particular environment, e.g. feeding on a particular bush, then I feel the best background for bird photography is often one of pure, diffuse colour. A background of pure colour removes any distraction from the subject. Learning to carefully look at your background, whilst changing your perspective, to obtain a clear and uncluttered look, can dramatically improve your bird photography.

Where to place the bird

Composing the final image is in many ways an intuitive process, but a few pointers can help. Firstly, avoid plonking the bird right in the middle of the frame. Placing the bird slap in the middle of the frame is the number one made by many photographers, especially those using autofocus lenses, and it gives the image an unnatural symmetry.

Don't plonk the bird in the middle

If the bird is small in the frame, to avoid placing it centrally, divide the frame into thirds horizontally and vertically. Place the bird at one of the four points of intersection created by these imaginary lines.

If the bird is larger in the frame and horizontal then allow for more room in front of the beak than behind the bird, and place the bird half to a third of the way up the frame. For vertical compositions place the bird on the centre line with equal space at top and bottom. Finally, whenever possible, get down to the bird's level and shoot eye to eye, this makes a big difference to the image's impact.

Get out there

Bird photography is a large subject, and I hope to have given you the basics of how to make beautiful photographs of New Zealand's birds, but remember rules are there to be broken, so get out there and do your own thing. Who knows, maybe I will find you sat next to me on a Miranda shellbank some time in the future.

Bird photography is a large subject and to learn more I would highly recommend that you read The Art of Bird Photography, by Arthur Morris. It is by far the best book I have found on the subject. The two websites www.photo.net and www.naturephotographers.net are also excellent sources of information.

Finally, feel free to contact me with any questions you may have on photographing New Zealand birds. I am also available for one on one tuition or for group workshops.

How to photograph New Zealand birds Part 2


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