The more photographs I review, the more I am concerned about the photographers.
The mistakes committed by majority, I mean a major majority, of photographers are still rookie mistakes. They are the most basic elements of making a bird photograph work. I wonder why. Honestly, I have no idea. All that I can say is, I am seriously concerned.
So, I thought it’s better to nail home the nine of the most important action steps to getting best and tack-sharp bird photographs. If you consider taking these steps, you must get good results with any decent DSLR and a decent bird photography lens.
Listen. If you are serious about bird photography, you better follow these strictly and in the same order of significance. I’ll keep it short so that you read it completely and take the steps.
#1. Position Yourself for the Best Results
If you really want good bird photos, you better position yourself keeping the Sun to your back so that the bird is lit from the front.
#2. Look for the Right Scene
You should never run behind a bird.
Instead you should always run behind the light and the composition possibilities. You can consider this a new rule of photography.
Follow tip #1 first, then look for a scene where the bird is clearly isolated from the surrounding. You should work only when things are at your favour. Don’t fight the situation.
#3. Look for Shallow Depth of Field Opportunities
This is new.
While most often photographers fight to get shallow depth of field and blame their lens for not as good as a prime lens, I think you should improve you skills, instead. By blaming your lens or putting up some excuses saying, “if only I had that 600mm f/4 prime lens” stuff, you are not making any progress.
The hard truth is, perhaps, you’ll never get a 600mm f/4 prime lens for yourself. Sorry to break it to you. If you have to sell your car to get a lens, you better be that good to buy yourself such an expensive lens.
Just do this instead.
When you are considering step #1 & #2, you also make sure the bird is very well separated from the background. No exception again.
You have to look for the opportunities where you can get shallow depth of field, with any lens. The farther the background, the better it is. I don’t just jump at every opportunity just because I have 600mm f/4 prime lens. That hardly changes the game. Trust me.
#4. It Doesn’t Matter Where the Focus Point Is
Don’t fret too much over keeping the focus point on the bird’s eye. It just doesn’t matter.
What matters is this: Make sure the bird’s eye is in tack-sharp focus.
If the depth of field is more and the entire bird is in tack-sharp focus, tell me what are the possibilities that the bird’s eye will not be in focus?
- If the focus point is parallel to the eye, you’ll get the eye in
tack-sharpfocus. Provided, your shutter speed is great, ISO is not too much, and hand holdingtechniques are great.
- If the depth of field is large, and you can clearly see that the entire bird is in focus, then it doesn’t matter where you keep the focus point. For instance, if the bird is a mile away, it doesn’t matter at all.
#5. There’s A Reason Why Quality Comes At A Cost
A 600mm f/4 prime lens costs a bomb, while a 150-600mm f/6.3 lens costs several times less. Why? The quality.
The inexpensive lenses aren’t made with great glass and aren’t as crazy good as the prime lenses in terms of handling the light and the contrast which ultimately results in the rich color and contrast (leading to better sharpness) that you see in the resulting image.
Shooting wide open on a 100-400mm or a 200-500mm or a 150-600mm lens results in soft images.
It’s always wise to shoot at a 1/3rd to 1 stop less than the maximum aperture. Here’s what it means.
- Shoot at f/6.3-f/8 while using a Canon 100-400mm & Nikon 200-500mm lens.
- Shoot at f/7.1-f/8 while using a Tamron/Sigma 150-600mm lens.
Here’s how to test the sharpness of your lens, if you are interested.
Yes, it results in less light, higher ISO, and slightly deeper depth of field, but you get sharp results. If you follow the steps from #1 to #4, you can safely shoot with the above said values without any problem.
You see, all these time you are setting yourself up for success.
#6. Shutter Speed Is the Name of the Game
In Bird Photography, shutter speed is the name of the game.
You should always go with higher shutter speeds to make sure:
- You don’t introduce camera shake while hand holding these big and bulky lenses.
- You freeze the action with certainty.
If you are shooting with the front light, you should have no problems here.
#7. Prepare Yourself for Success
You don’t get better results without getting prepared.
You have to prepare for the best possible results. Assuming that you have all things set up as described from #1 through #6, now is the time to get the exposure set properly.
The moment you know you are going to photograph in a particular location, the first job is to take the test exposure. Adjust for the exposure first. Make sure you get as much details as possible.
If the bird is there already, you can do this without any issues. If it’s not there and you are expecting it to fly by or land, then you prepare yourself with adjusting the exposure to “accommodate” for the bird.
One of the biggest problems I have seen with bird photographs is bad exposure. I can’t tell you how significant it is in getting great looking images.
If your images aren’t looking great despite taking all the above steps, then you should consider reading the Kick-Ass Guide to Exposure eBook. By applying simple and straightforward field techniques in this eBook, you’ll see better results almost instantaneously.
#8. Check It in the Field
The DSLR has made it super easy for everyone to see if they got the result or not, instantaneously. But, how many are using that tool called the LCD monitor?
I see many photographers not able to make out if the focus is on the bird or on the background.
Most often, the focus is on the background. And, then I can see these photographers depending on the Magic Pill called the “Photoshop” to sharpen it all. It never works. Never.
If you take care of step #3, you should never have this problem.
And, then why not check for the sharpness by zooming in 100% right in the field when you can possibly take another photo? I don’t see many photographers doing it. Some just don’t do it no matter what.
#9. Take Position & Wait
If you want to figure out if someone, whom you have never met before, is a photographer who has to be taken seriously or not, just watch what he/she does.
If they are just sitting in one position waiting for something, while you see no bird or nothing great happening there, you are seeing a photographer with a vision. That photographer has taken a position which he/she believe is going to get them a great shot, and is now waiting for things to come together.
It’s a rare sight when it comes to bird photography. The bird photographers are as skittish and fickle as birds.
You can imagine if there was a bird story on similar lines to Toy Story, the birds will be cursing the bird photographers who are so skittish & fickle minded.
Anyway, you don’t really have any other option than to take the position and wait, if you are serious about getting good results. Waiting is the name of the game.
But, when you wait making sure that you have taken all the other steps from #1 to #8, then your chances of success are way too high, than the ones who will constantly be running around.
That’s it for today.
So, as I said in the very beginning of this article, if you can follow the 9 actionable steps, you are sure to get better and tack-sharp photos of birds.
Take This Point Home
If you know who Ansel Adams was and why he’s still remembered long after his death and will be remembered for decades, is because his works are timeless.
One of his profound quotes that you should remember and consider seriously is:
“Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.”
— Ansel Adams
This simple quote should make it easy on you. Remember, Ansel Adams was a professional photographer and spent his whole life photographing and spreading awareness about the National Parks of USA through his works.
If he is of an opinion that just twelve significant photographs in a year is a good crop, isn’t it better to go with just one great photograph in mind whenever we go to the field?
I always say this to my workshop students on the very first day:
“Just aim to get one great photograph in the next 3 to 5 days that you are proud of. The photograph that you’ll print and hang on the walls of your home. That’s more than enough.”
So, I am essentially telling them that they can just expect to get ONE great photograph for paying as much as $500 to $3000 for the workshop.
So, what’s the value of one great photograph? $500-$3000.
Okay now, let me tell you this too:
If You Are Serious About Improving Your Skills,
STOP Going To Bird Photography Workshops
If you go to photography workshops just to learn about the settings, which is what most photographers seem to go for, then let me tell you that you are just wasting your hard earned money.
If you would like to “download” the world’s best knowledge about the Settings, directly into your brain… only when you need it the most… and without ever having to remember or recall even a single setting whatsoever… then this is going to be the most important product you’ve ever come across.