Shoot Like the Pros
If you love our magazine, chances are good that you love exquisite wildlife photography. Wonder how they get those shots, and if you can capture one yourself?
It’s time for the great fall bird migration that sweeps through Texas, so there’s no better time to hone your skills. With iPhones or cameras in hand, head out to a state park bird blind or other place where birds gather. Contributor Larry Ditto offers these tips.
- Bird photographers need great patience. Birds don’t perform on demand, but they will perform. Develop patience by working in a photography blind with a group. Each photographer must quietly wait for the subjects to arrive. You can’t walk out after 10 minutes.
- Study the work of successful photographers. Try to evaluate the entire image (lighting, action, focus, interaction of subjects, etc.). What about this photograph evokes emotion?
- Study birds, their habits and their body language. The best bird photographers are excellent naturalists and ornithologists. Many great bird photos were captured because the person behind the camera anticipated the bird’s next action. Learn when they are likely to flush, fight, peck, stretch, etc.
- Practice focusing on moving birds. Keep the camera and lens ready for action and set with an appropriate shutter speed and f-stop that are likely to work best at that time of day and that location. Learn how to quickly focus and compose your shot. When photographing wildlife, anything can happen, so photographers have the best chance for success if they’re always ready to shoot.
- Invest in good equipment, including a camera that shoots several frames per second and a large telephoto lens capable of good magnification.
- Keep the depth of focus (depth of field) shallow. That sets the bird apart from the background and draws the viewer’s eye to the subject. Big telephoto lenses help because they have a limited depth of field at most f-stops; otherwise, look for opportunities where the background is distant from the subject. Look for clean, smooth backgrounds that appear as an area of uncluttered color behind the bird. Avoid photographing subjects amid distracting busy limbs and stems.
- Create your own natural-looking setup and attract birds to it with suitable feed and water. Use slender green limbs with fresh green leaves, berries and/or flowers.
- Photograph in the warm, soft light of early morning and late evening, when birds are active. Midday light is harsh; the bird’s colors and feather detail will be hidden by the midday glare.
- Keep your shadow pointing toward the bird (but not visible in the shot), so the light comes over your shoulder. This helps create a well-lighted scene devoid of contrasting shadows.
- Birds are always blinking and turning their heads just as I take the shot, but a short burst of shots will ensure that the second or third frame is the one with the eye open and the head turned in a good direction.
- If possible, shoot at a high shutter speed (1/ 2500th of a second is my favorite) to stop a bird’s incredibly fast wing motion, head turns and in-flight movement. Hold the camera’s ISO at a relatively low number (400-800) to avoid undesirable noise (grain) in photos.
- Don’t just shoot a “bird on a stick.” Wait for a turn of the head or lifting of a foot. Go for the action; viewers will love your lifelike shots. When birds are on the wing (my favorite type of shooting), I prefer photos with the wings pointing up or down. They can be artistic and offer the best display of the bird’s feathers and color.