For the Birds (part 1)

Morkel Erasmus All Authors, Morkel 24 Comments

What can you do to improve your own avian photography?

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Due to repeated requests from folks in the Wild Eye social media community, it has befallen me to be the one responsible for writing a series of blog posts to try and provide you with practical advice on capturing captivating photos of our feathered friends.

Before I dive into some tips and principles to get your head around, here is a list of 5 benefits to practicing bird photography (for those of you who think it’s boring and birds suck):

  1. It’s a great practice ground for action photography.
  2. It helps you get to know your photographic gear intimately – learning how to make changes to key settings “on the fly” (pun intended).
  3. It helps you get to know the local birdlife in your area.
  4. It teaches you patience and perseverance.
  5. It helps you get out of the house and be outdoors, as opposed to reading about photography stuff on your computer.
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Now that I’ve got your attention – we can carry on.

I’m the first to admit that I’m not the world’s greatest birder/twitcher, but I do enjoy the challenge of bird photography and I do like photographing the odd new species that I haven’t seen before. But bird photography has been instrumental in my own development as a nature photographer, and I still try and get some time in doing that when I’m at home and not off in the bush.

Obviously, when on safari, I do look out for interesting bird photos to create and I don’t just focus my efforts on the bigger animals in the field.

First off – let’s go through the equipment you will need in order to do some decent avian photography. Some of these may seem obvious, but I do have to cater for all levels of photographic experience and understanding in these posts, so bear with me!

  1. DSLR camera with a fast continuous shooting rate. We’re talking pro-sumer level at least (think Canon 7D, Nikon D300s, Sony A77). Why? Because birds are quick and if you want that “winning frame” you’re going to have to practice some “spray-it-and-pray-it” shooting when the action goes down.
  2. Telephoto zoom/prime lens with a wide maximum aperture and swift, accurate autofocus speed. Lenses with a max aperture of 2.8, 4 or even 5.6 should do the trick. Zoom lenses are generally cheaper than prime lenses but also come with a sacrifice in image quality.
  3. Lens support in the form of a beanbag, panning plate or tripod/gimbal head combination (depending on where you’re shooting of course – from a hide, from the banks of a body of water, or from your vehicle). If you are able-bodied, hand-holding your camera and lens combo is also versatile and makes it easy to adjust quickly, but you need a steady hand and a strong arm.
  4. A bird book for identifying the species you get to photograph.
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Don’t be fooled to think that you need all the latest and most expensive gear to be able to start capturing interesting photos of birds.

Of course, the latest cameras and lenses are expensive for a reason (good tech, sharpness, quality), but you can the job done with almost any combination that fits the criteria above if you know your gear and know how to get the best out of it.

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In the follow-up posts to this introductory post, I will look at the following things (among others, and in no particular order):

  • How to choose aperture and shutter speed for various bird-scenarios (and which mode to shoot in).
  • How to get the exposure right for various bird-scenarios.
  • How to reliably predict bird behaviour (like taking off from a branch).
  • Finer nuances in shot selection (like head-angle, wing position).
  • Some other stuff I can’t think of now
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If this list piques your interest, then stick around and watch this space as I flesh these concepts out over the following weeks.

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Enjoy the ride!

PS: If you are keen to join me in the field this year to learn more about photographing birds and mammals and landscapes in some of the coolest spots in Africa, click HERE for more info

Morkel Erasmus

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Comments 24

  1. Suhail Khan

    Hi, I enjoy your pics, most are absolutely stunning. I find it easy to photograph birds when I fix the the shutter speed at 2000 plus and the rest is manageable.

    Regards,

    Suhail

    1. Morkel Erasmus

      Thanks Suhail. I will cover which shutter speeds to use in which situations at a later stage. You certainly can’t go wrong with 1/2000 for most birds, but there are some birds for which you need an even faster setting! Conversely, there might be some cases where you would rather go slower for a different effect.

  2. Gavin Rishworth

    Hi Morkel. Thank you for making this series available to us. I am a very entry-level DSLR photographer, but have had a lifelong interest in birds and birding. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of your posts and gleaning off a few tips from them. Thanks again for sharing your knowledge and experiences. Cheers.

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