The first mistake a novice or an amateur commit is to believe that creating amazing bird photographs is magic. Only a few gifted bird photographers can create such photos.
Or, worse even, to think that only those who have expensive gear could create amazing bird photographs.
But, believe me, these are myths. I know it’s hard to believe until you understand—thoroughly—what makes a great bird photograph.
Just follow these six sure-fire steps, and you’ll see a dramatic improvement in your bird photographs. If you are skeptical, at least try to follow these guidelines next time you are in the field, and you are sure to see a great improvement.
These steps are in logical order, so I recommend you to read them in sequence.
Step 1: Make Sure You Have the Best Exposure
It all starts (and ends) with good exposure. Exposing a subject faithfully is the crucial step to make bird photographs that are appreciated all around.
All that you have to do is make an exposure which represents all the details on the bird as it is. Just represent the bird as you see it in reality. That’s it.
Follow this simple 5-step formula to achieving perfect exposure for any subject:
- Make an exposure with the current meter reading.
- Check the histogram for the exposure.
- Check blinkies (highlight alert) to see if there are any overexposed areas (washed out whites) in your image.
- Use exposure compensation technique if there are any blinkies. Or, if you feel that the image is either underexposed (Histogram skewed towards left) or overexposed (Histogram skewed towards the right).
- Repeat steps 1 through 4 until you achieve a perfect exposure.
Follow the next step, if you want to get good exposure to start with.
Step 2: Keep the Sun Behind Your Back
As simple as it sounds, all that you need to do is to keep the Sun behind your back. As a novice or an amateur, this is the best favor you can do to yourself.
Try this simple method when you are in the field:
Once you identify a location to shoot, look up to see the Sun’s position. Make sure you turn around until the Sun is behind you. Once the Sun is behind you, the bird is front lit which results in the bird being lit evenly with (almost) no shadows on the bird.
When there are not many shadows, you’ll have a smaller dynamic range (ratio between the brightest to the darkest pixel in an image). The smaller the dynamic range in a given scene, the easier it is for you to get a reasonably good exposure.
Now do one more favor for yourself. Shoot when the Sun is low on the horizon. This means two things:
- You get soft light. Soft light has a lesser dynamic range making it easy to expose.
- Sun is directional making it easy to put yourself in a position so that it’s to your back.
This brings us to the next step—the sharpness of your image.
Step 3: Check the Sharpness of Your Image
Once you achieve the perfect exposure with the right light, you’d want to check for the sharpness of your image.
As a novice/amateur photographer, you might be thinking about sharpness all the times. In fact, most often, as a beginner, all that you care is the sharpness. I understand.
But, my question to you is: how are you checking if your photograph is sharp enough?
I see scores of bird photographers leaving it to chance. That’s bad. That’s the worst thing you can do. You should check it in the field, always.
Include this super simple exercise in your routine to make sure you get sharper results all the times:
- Ensure that you have the best posture if you are hand-holding—no wobbling or shaking. Or, use a sturdy tripod.
- Make sure you have a shutter speed of at least 1/500th to 1/1000th of a second. As you become more confident with your hand-holding/tripod techniques, you can work with slower shutter speeds.
- Check, check, and check the sharpness on your LCD monitor by zooming all the way in (enlarging it as much as you can).
The last step is so crucial, yet I don’t see many bird photographers following this. If you are one of them, I urge you to start checking for the sharpness right in the field. Because of a simple reason that you can keep taking a photograph until you get the sharp one.
Despite following all the above steps, are you finding your results aren’t sharp enough? I have good news for you. Here’s how you check the lens sharpness.
When you are sure that you have a sharper result, the next thing to worry is the Depth.
Step 4: Create Depth in Your Image
Creating the depth (adding the third dimension to the 2-dimensional image) in your bird photographs is fairly easy as you deal with shallow depth-of-field (DoF) most of the times.
The shallow DoF makes the bird stand out in your image (as it is predominantly sharper than the background) giving a three-dimensional look and feel. The out-of-focus background helps to create a sense of depth as it gives a feeling that the sharper bird is standing out (or moving forward) in an image.
Follow these 4 super-easy steps to creating shallow DoF in your images:
- Shoot at the longest focal length of your lens (ex: shoot @ 400mm in a 100-400mm lens).
- Shoot at the maximum aperture (ex: f/2.8, f/4, etc.).
- Get as close to the bird as possible.
- Make sure the distance between the bird and the background is huge.
It’s not any background you need an interesting background to make an interesting photograph.
Step 5: Create Interesting Backgrounds
Creating interesting backgrounds should be your ultimate aim in making great bird photographs. As I always say: Background makes the picture.
It’s the background that sets your bird. It’s the negative space that sets the positive space.
If you follow a few incredibly simple steps to create interesting backgrounds, you’ll set yourself apart from the hoard of photographers out there:
- Shoot at the telephoto end of the lens and at the maximum aperture of your lens to create a bokeh (or out-of-focus background).
- Consider moving a few steps to your left/right/front/back so that you get some color in the background. The colors present in nature like green, reds, oranges, pinks, etc. make it for a compelling background.
- Avoid shooting into the white/cloudy skies.
- Avoid any obvious lines (sharp or unsharp) in the background. The lines (like the horizon, tree trunk, branches, light poles, etc.) take the viewer’s attention away from the bird.
- Avoid any branches in the background (or foreground) that runs across the bird. It’ll distort the shape of the bird.
Above all, if you keep the background free of any distracting elements, you’ll see immediate improvement in your bird photographs.
If you combine all the above five steps with the next step, you are bound to delight your fans and followers.
Step 6: Create Simple and Effective Compositions
I think the majority of bird photographers fail to make good compositions. Either they include too much in a frame or include too less.
I recommend extremely simple compositions. To begin with, it’s best to just make a composition with the bird and its perch using The Rule of Thirds composition technique.
Follow this simple principle while you compose in the field:
- Once you decide to photograph a bird, forget about the bird itself, and concentrate on what’s around that bird.
- Pay attention to the foreground and background. Is there any distraction in the foreground or background? If there is, can you change your position to get rid of that? If not, move on.
- Make sure to include the bird fully and the perch just enough to set the context.
- Take care of the head angle of the bird (it should be looking towards the viewer or sideways. Never away).
- Make sure there’s a catchlight in the bird’s eye.
- Make sure the background is interesting enough and complimenting so as to enhance the image and give punch to the bird.
Wrapping It Up
If you follow these six super simple steps, you are sure to get good bird photographs. If you are already aware of several important things that I mentioned, like the exposure compensation method, hand-holding techniques, working with different modes, Depth of Field, etc. you’ll see a drastic improvement in your bird photographs.
In case if you don’t know these basics and are struggling with jumping around from one concept to the other, check out my most popular eBooks on Nature Photography.
Talk to you soon.
P.S. The 6 sure-fire steps to creating amazing bird photographs—Exposure, Light, Sharpness, Depth, Background, and Composition—is your first step to making better bird photographs whether you are a novice or an amateur.