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How to Photograph Birds
2006 KenRockwell.com

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Dove

Getting close is critical! A dove at 15 feet with 18-135mm lens.

Introduction

The most critical technical issue is to get close. If you're patient, you're in luck. If you think bird photography is as easy as snapping away with a long lens, you're asking for trouble. My avid bird photographer friends spend hours every dawn and dusk crawling around in the mud sneaking up on birds, and even with 500mm lenses and teleconverters they're having to crop everything.

No matter how close you get, it's rarely close enough. I'll get into gear below, but your efforts are better spent learning how to get close and pay attention to light.

Instead of buying a 600mm lens, first consider a pair of waders or a blind which will give better results for one percent of the price!

Many people give up photographing wild birds because of the crummy results they usually get. It takes expensive equipment, a lot of patience and a lot of photos to get anything more than little specks.

I had to crop the image above, and that's a tame suburban dove. That doesn't really qualify as "wild." Tame birds are easy.

What Makes a Great Bird Photo?

Like every photo, it needs to be interesting and be much more than just a record.

Lighting

Light is critical. I prefer side or back lighting and morning or afternoon light.

Geese, Bosque del Apache, New Mexixo

Geese, Dawn, Bosque del Apache, NM, January, 2000.

This shot is all about lighting. If the light came from behind me in the middle of the day, who would care?

Gesture

Static portraits of anything are boring.

Show birds doing something interesting.

Show them singing, flying, playing with their friends, or anything that makes them birds.

A girlfriend of a famous bird photographer once thought she needed the big glass her famous boyfriend had. All she had was a 300mm zoom. She paid attention to what the birds were doing. She paid better attention to the light. She got close with patience, not with big scary glass. Her shots were much better than her famous boyfriends, and my friends agreed when they saw her shots. Her shots were alive. The big guys' shots were dull and boring.

General

Get close.

Be patient.

Wait for the best light.

Show us birds having fun, not just sitting around.

Always shoot, but only show your best shots.

Birds in Flight

Focus

AF cameras make this easy. Use Nikon's Continuous AF (AF-C) mode or Canon's AI Servo mode. These modes let the cameras track moving subjects. Set your camera to use all the focus sensors. In Nikon this is the Dynamic AF Area Mode, whose icon is a box in the middle with little dots all around it. These modes let the camera use different AF sensors as the bird flies around in your frame.

It's trivial for any AF camera to track a moving bird against a blank sky. It's tougher if it's flying in front of a background, and even tougher if the bird is flying in between trees.

See details at Focus Suggestions on my Shooting Sports page.

Exposure

I use my usual program mode and Matrix or Evaluative metering.

If the bird is flying against the sky I may use Manual exposure mode, since any camera has a hard time seeing the bird instead of the bigger sky behind it. also as you pan the sky's brightness varies while the bird's lighting is probably staying the same.

Film or Digital?

Easy: Film needs longer and faster lenses than digital SLRs. It costs less to buy a new digital SLR and a reasonable lens than it does to spend $7,200 on a 500mm f/4 lens for a film camera.

Lenses: How Much Money Do You Have?

Here are my suggestions.

Free to $100: Normal Lenses

If you have tame birds, then any basic lens is fine. Nikon's and Canon's cheapest 18-55mm lenses get close enough to get shots like this:

parrot

Parrot (105mm macro lens and on-camera flash)

$100 to $300 : Basic Telephoto Zooms

Nikon's 70-300mm G lens is a bargain for it's price, as is the Canon 75-300mm EF. They are too slow (f/5.6) to work with teleconverters.

If you're on a budget, either of these and an inexpensive digital SLR are the best value dollar for dollar.

$300 to $1,100: Conventional 80 - 200mm Telephoto Zooms

These 80-200mm f/2.8 lenses are great for people photos, and work OK with teleconverters.

I'd skip them for birds, since they aren't as long as the cheaper zooms and aren't as long as the next class, either.

$1,100 - $1,600: Practical Long Lenses

I suggest these for most people. They are big and long enough to get great results if you're patient. They include stabilization to eliminate the need for a tripod, and are much less expensive than the next class of lenses.

For Nikon we have the 80 - 400mm VR and for Canon we have the 100-400mm IS. Each runs about $1,600. I own the Nikon and love it.

I'd stick with either of these two zooms, however Canon makes a fixed 400mm f/5.6 with very high quality. It has no VR and no ability to zoom out. It runs about $1,100. I'd much rather have the 100-400mm because it adds stabilization.

$5,000 - $9,000: Big, Heavy Lenses

Got cash? Enjoy lugging heavy gear? These are what serious bird photographers and lunatics use.

Serious, but frugal, bird photographers use 300mm f/2.8 lenses and TC-20e 2x teleconverters, giving them a 600mm f/5.6 VR. This runs them only about $5,000, including the teleconverter.

The most popular serious bird lens is the 500mm f/4. These are preferred over the 400mm f/2.8 and 600mm f/4 lenses. This is because the 500mm f/4 does about what the others do, but weighs much less.

I'd get the Nikon 500mm here, here, here or here and I'd get the the Canon 500mm here, here or here.

The Canon offers IS; the Nikon doesn't. These run between $5,000 and $9,000. These 500mm f/4 lenses give better results than a doubled 300mm f/2.8.

If I were starting from scratch I'd go Canon, since their 500mm f/4 costs $2,000 less and includes IS.

These aren't zooms. Bird photographers usually have to crop from these long lenses anyway.

Nikon makes a $5,500 200-400mm f/4 VR zoom. It works with the TC-14E teleconverter to make it a 300 - 600mm f/5.6.

OTHER WAYS

Scope Adaptors and Digiscoping

This solution is for birders who think nothing of spending a few grand on a telescope, and probably already own one or more. It's not the best way to spend your money if all you want are photos. (I'm weird, and use my Nikon Lens Scope Converter to turn my big lenses into telescopes, but that's a different issue.)

If you're a birder you probably already own a $1,500 spotting scope by Swarovski, Nikon or Zeiss. If you do, you have a basis for getting good shots with an adaptor. All said and done, one of these packages along with a small camera and big tripod may run you $2,000 to $3,600. Consider this if you have or want the scope for direct viewing in addition to photography.

Adaptors come in two kinds: a mechanical one that puts your DSLR in place of the eyepiece, or an adapter which holds a compact digital camera up to an eyepiece.

If you have an excellent scope you can get great results. These scopes won't autofocus, so forget in-flight shots.

As a kid I was lucky enough to have a dad who knew I'd love to have a telescope. My 60mm Tasco taught me a lot. I had a T-mount adaptor which let me use it as a 700mm f/11 lens with my film SLRs. It worked poorly for photography because it was a $75 scope and too slow to get short enough shutter speeds with film.

The quality of scope photos depends on the scope. You're probably not going to get great results with a $150 Bushnell Discoverer, but then again, my favorite scope is a 20 x 50mm Russian-made collapsing telescope I got for $20, new, at a flea market in Berlin in 1992.

Big, solid tripods or support systems are critical to successful digiscoping. The high magnification amplifies every vibration to assure blurry photos unless you are very careful.

Some helpful links about digiscoping are:

Laurence Poh

Laura Erickson

Mike McDowell

Old Used Lenses

Used manual focus super-teles are bargains today. 300mm and 400mm f/2.8s and 600mm f/4s and f/5.6s seem to go for about $1,500 - $2,500, and you easily can double them with teleconverters.

I never did well when I had manual focus lenses since birds (or the branches on which they perch) never sat still enough for me to focus well.

Teleconverters

Teleconverters work great if you already have a $7,000 lens. Friends use them all the time with their 500mm f/4 lenses. Sometimes they'll use two teleconverters!

Teleconverters need lenses of at least f/2.8 to f/4. Teleconverters don't work well with f/5.6 zooms.

See my teleconverters page for details. Sorry.

Mirror Lenses

Mirror lenses are inexpensive, but have a lot working against them.

1.) Weird, donut shaped out-of-focus highlights. This comes from their weird, donut-shaped front openings.

2.) So light and compact that I've never been able to get a blur-free shot with one. Camera vibration isn't damped out by their weight because they weigh so little.

3.) Slow speed. F/8 often requires longer exposures incompatible with mirror lenses' high magnification.

For Film SLRs

You need the speed to get reasonable shutter speeds with slow, vivid color slide film, and you need to long focal length to get more than a speck of an image on film.

You thus have three additional expensive problems with film:

1.) You need longer lenses because you lose the magnification factor of most digital SLRs. A 400mm lens on a DSLR gives the same view as 600mm lens does on film.

2.) You want ISO 50 or ISO 100 slide film for the best colors, so you need faster lenses. A digital SLR at ISO 400 has less grain than ISO 100 film. To get the same exposure as an inexpensive f/5.6 lens on a digital camera at ISO 400 requires an exotic f/2.8 lens in ISO 100 film.

To reproduce the brightness and magnification of the image made with a $100 300mm f/5.6 zoom at ISO 400 on a DSLR requires an $8,000 400mm f/2.8 lens on ISO 100 35mm film. In reality, I shoot ISO 50 film and DSLRs still look great at ISO 800, widening the gap. In practice the $8,000 lens would be sharper than the $100 lens, but not sharper than a $1,500 80 - 400mm zoom.

3.) How many shots do you need to make to make one good one? I shot twenty rolls of film to get that one shot of the geese. That's $350! I make that many shots on digital while waiting for my wife to try on clothes at Macy*s.

Most zooms at f/5.6 are too slow and too short to give the results you want on film, unless you are very good at getting very close.

The Nikon 80-400mm VR and Canon 100-400mm IS is your best choices for under $2,000 for film. The Nikon 300mm f/4 is an equally good choice, since you will need and use the f/4 speed. Shoot these lenses wide open.

You are really going to want a 500mm f/4 with film. I use a 400mm f/2.8 since I can get as close as 10 feet without having to use any special accessories, and teleconverters make it into a 500mm f/4 or 600mm f/5.6. 600mm lenses rarely focus closer than 20 feet.

SUMMARY

Get close! Even with a $9,000 lens all you'll get are specks until you become adept and sneaking up on the little guys by crawling around in the mud.

Thanks

Many thanks to Ernie Mastroianni, Photo Editor of Birder’s World magazine, for updating me on lenses and techniques popular with birders and bird photographers in 2006.

PLUG

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Thanks for reading!

Ken

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