Making a start in bird photography

22/10/2010 - 20:31

Garden bird photography

Your garden is a great place to enter the world of bird photography. If you don’t have bird feeders go out and buy one or two and get some good quality bird seed. Sunflower hearts are a great high protein food source.......and there’s no messy husks or the problem of having all sorts of unwanted plants growing in your favourite flower beds! Ideally, position the feeders so that you can take photographs with the sun behind you and where you have an uncluttered background. Ideally the background should be as far away as possible from the perch and try to avoid having plants with shiny leaves in the field of view because they can leave distracting bright spots in the image. When you have positioned the feeders you really need to get yourself a nice natural perch which you should place very close to the feeder. A small old moss covered log or a dead lichen covered branch is ideal. Once in place, if you watch (perhaps from the comfort of your kitchen or dining room) you will see that any birds coming to feed will usually queue up on the perch and then move on to the feeder. This is your best opportunity of getting a good photo, when the birds are on the perch. Photo’s of birds on feeders may have their place but I believe that a photo of a bird on a ‘nice’ perch is much more satisfying and gives a more natural look.

Within a short period the birds will come to realise that there is a good source of food in your garden, especially in the winter when natural food is in short supply. Keep your feeders topped up regularly, keep them clean and also provide a source of drinking water for the birds.

If you are not sure of how to use your camera in any mode other than full auto then now is the time to learn! The main thing you need to learn is how to over-ride the exposure settings that the camera determines. To start, put the camera in Aperture Priority mode (Av) and set the aperture to somewhere around f5.6 to f8. Now go into the garden and shoot away!

Getting sharp images
The last thing that you want when you review your photographs is that they are all blurred. There are a number of things which can cause this and it is possible to identify what has gone wrong. Here is a quick guide to correcting the mistakes.
1 Focus point

Don’t let the camera take control of what to focus on. Your SLR will have options to allow you to select one specific focus point rather than using all points which is usually the default setting. Choose the centre point and focus on the birds eye. This may leave the bird central in the frame but you can nearly always crop the image later to get a better composition. If the bird is big in the frame, you can change the focus point to give a better ‘in frame’ composition but birds won’t usually stay around long enough for you to do this!
2 Camera shake

Blurred images can result from movement of the bird and from camera shake. If everything in the image (bird, perch, background etc) has movement blur, like in the example, then this is due to camera shake. Now, you can’t stop the bird from moving but you can stop the camera. It may seem easier to just hand hold the camera rather than messing around with a tripod but by not using one you are introducing the possibility of camera shake. Despite what some people think, bird photography is difficult enough as it is so increase the number of sharp images by using your tripod or a bean bag. If your lens or camera has image stabilisation then use that too. It won’t help at all if the bird moves but can help with vibration when using long lenses on a tripod or other support.
3 Bird movement

If the perch and background show no movement blur but the bird does then its because the bird has moved during the exposure. So, there are a couple of things you can possibly do. Either, open the aperture of the lens to allow more light into the camera and therefore decrease the time that the shutter is open or increase the ISO rating. However, both of these options may have an adverse effect on your images. Most lenses (unless you have a very high quality one) are sharper when stopped down by a stop or so e.g. if your lens ‘wide open’ is f5.6 it may be at its sharpest at around f8. Increasing ISO will invariably add noise to the image. I like to shoot at ISO 200 and increasing this is a last resort for me.
4 Depth of field (DOF)

Depth of field is the term given to how much of the image, from front to back, is in sharp focus. The DOF is governed by the aperture of the lens. I nearly always set the camera to Av (aperture priority) mode. In this mode, I set the aperture to give me the DOF that I require to keep all (or nearly all) of the bird in sharp focus. The camera then works out the shutter speed to give the correct exposure. Getting the DOF right helps to get the background out of focus, thus separating the subject (the bird) from its surroundings. The further away the background is from the subject the ‘easier’ it is for this to happen. Generally speaking, set the aperture wide i.e. to a low f stop, but be aware if you are shooting with a long lens and from close range. You may not have enough DOF to keep the whole of the bird in focus and will need to close down a stop or so. Its no good having a sharp eye if the rest of the bird is out of focus!


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