Want to know what it takes to make a great bird photograph?
Today you’ll uncover the mystery. An honest and a humble bird photographer from Utah, Ron Dudley, would thrill you with his straight from the heart answers.
You would get inspired by the energy and passion he has at the age when most of the people would sit back and relax.
Ron Dudley is by no means an ordinary bird photographer. Read this interview and get to know some core principals of bird photography. Uncover some of the best bird photography tips you can get.
Let’s jump right in…
Note: All images are copyright of Ron Dudley.
Prathap: Welcome to Nature Photography Simplified, Ron Dudley. I am very excited to talk to you about your stunning bird photography.
Can you introduce yourself to our readers please?
Ron Dudley: I’m a retired Biology/Zoology/Wildlife teacher living in Utah, USA. When I retired I missed my connection with animals and nature and I’ve always had a love for birds so about 8 years ago I turned to bird photography to help fill the void. I’ve been consumed by it ever since.
Prathap: I understand that you are against setups, electronic calling, or bait. Would you let us know the importance of following ethics in bird photography?
Ron Dudley: All three practices have potential negative consequences for birds and it would be counterproductive (and ethically and morally wrong) for me to do harm to my subjects. I consider myself to be a “nature” photographer so I want my subjects to be performing naturally, not artificially. Of the three (setups, calling and baiting), I find baiting to be the most offensive, particularly when it’s done to raptors.
Prathap: You nail down the exposure whether it is a white bird, black bird, or a mixture of it. What’s your suggestion on getting the right exposure? Any specific tips would be helpful.
Ron Dudley: Good light is often the key to getting proper exposure on difficult to expose species. If you’re photographing a bird with both light and dark plumage and the darks are well-exposed the lights will often be blown, and vice versa. Soft light (morning, evening or diffused) helps significantly to mitigate that problem. It’s particularly important with dark or black birds to have the sun behind you and relatively low in the sky.
All that said proper exposure still isn’t easy. It takes practice and attention to detail in the field. In my opinion poor exposure is the single biggest issue facing novice and intermediate bird photographers and all too often they try to save poorly exposed images during post processing. We all do minor tweaks of exposure during processing but if the tweaks are significant the image often suffers and it shows. The Shadows/Highlights tool in Photoshop has ruined far more images than it has saved.
In my opinion poor exposure is the single biggest issue facing novice and intermediate bird photographers.
Prathap: One of the major issues in bird photography is to get the sharp focus. Your photographs have tack-sharp focus. Would you please tell us the secret?
Ron Dudley: There really is no secret – many of the keys to sharp detailed images are well known. They include using a high quality lens, getting close to your subject and having good long-lens technique.
The keys to sharp detailed images are high quality lens, getting close to your subject and having good long-lens technique.
I do use one technique that most bird photographers do not – unusually high shutter speeds. I’m known for them. Birds are very fast subjects – even when perched their jerky, twitchy movements can make it a challenge to get sharp images. Add to that the fact that I tend to specialize in photographing interesting behaviors, take-offs and birds in flight which usually require faster shutter speeds.
If I don’t have a minimum shutter speed of 1/1600 sec (especially for small birds) I can count on getting a relatively high percentage of soft shots. I’m often in the range of 1/3200 sec for active, small birds. I’d much rather have a wee bit of noise in the image than a soft bird.
One more thing: I prefer to get the entire bird sharp but when that isn’t possible (and it often isn’t) it’s imperative to get the eye sharp. Focus on the eye whenever possible!
Prathap: Surprisingly, you can keep that focus for burst shots. Every image is having tack-sharp focus. How do you do that?
Ron Dudley: First of all, not all of my images are sharp. Like all bird photographers I get my share of soft shots but they end up in the delete bin. When I’m shooting in burst mode (which is often) I typically have the center 5 focusing points active on my Canon 7D Mark II and I believe that helps to keep the bird in focus when it’s active. Using a camera/lens combination that focuses quickly and accurately and follows a moving bird well is the key.
Prathap: You have awesome photographs of birds in action. Some are truly exceptional.
How do you anticipate the action? Do you study their behavior in the field or on the internet? Any tips would be helpful.
Ron Dudley: Knowing bird behaviors is extremely important in anticipating action. I’m fascinated by behaviors and study them any way I can. Typically I do so in the field but another primary resource for me is Cornell’s Birds of North America Online. It’s a pay site but well worth the annual fee. I’ve had a subscription for almost 6 years now and I will never let it expire. The site is invaluable for behaviors and almost anything else you can imagine about birds in North America.
Knowing bird behaviors is extremely important in anticipating action.
Prathap: You have amazing photographs of birds in flight. It’s a favorite topic of our readers. Would you talk about it a little? May be you could throw some light on settings, focusing, light, etc.?
Ron Dudley: Photographing birds in flight takes practice, practice, practice! Small birds are almost impossible unless you catch them at take-off but larger birds are a worthy and reasonable quarry.
Once again, light is very important. If the sun is relatively low in the sky and behind you the bird should have few annoying shadows and it will typically have a nice catch light in the eye. Sufficient shutter speed is needed especially for those fast-moving wings even when you’re panning the bird. A fast burst rate helps a lot since wing position can make or break an image. Wings up or wings down are generally much more pleasing to the eye than horizontal wings so a fast burst rate gives you a much better chance at catching a preferred wing position.
Wings up or wings down are generally much more pleasing to the eye than horizontal wings.
But one of the biggest problems with birds in flight is keeping them in frame if you’re close enough for good detail. Once again it takes lots of practice and even then you’re going to clip/cut off many wings and other body parts – that just comes with the territory. To minimize that problem always be mindful of your distance from the bird when you push that shutter button. Too far away and you have little detail, too close and you clip body parts. It’s all part of the game…
Prathap: Photographing a single bird is normally easy for an experienced bird photographer. But it’s not always easy to photograph when more than one bird is involved.
What are the key considerations when photographing birds in pair or flocks? How do you make sure that you get tack-sharp focus?
Ron Dudley: Good question. Long lenses have very little depth of field and often, depending on the situation, this is an insurmountable problem. Changing aperture for more depth of field can help but it really doesn’t make a lot of difference in many situations and doing so costs you shutter speed.
Normally I’m shooting at 1120 effective mm (500 mm lens x 1.4 tele converter x 1.6 camera crop factor) so my DOF is extremely shallow. Removing the tele converter helps but my best option is using the other camera I nearly always have with me with attached 100-400 lens. That gives me much more DOF though I don’t get nearly as much reach with it.
Prathap: You seem to do minimal post-processing. In fact, you seem to just do saturation and cropping. That’s unbelievable looking at the quality of photographs you produce.
What field techniques do you recommend to produce such amazing quality photographs? How do you get such clarity in your photographs? What about contrast and saturation? Also, any post-processing tip would be helpful.
Ron Dudley: Actually I almost never add saturation (or any other color adjustments) to my images. About the only time I do is in low light situations where I’ll sometimes tweak saturation and contrast minimally.
My usual work flow is as follows:
- Crop and minor exposure adjustments in Adobe Camera RAW (ACR)
- Convert to jpeg
- And then in Photoshop I resize the image when necessary
- Selectively sharpen the bird after very careful masking
- Add my copyright logo and I’m done.
I seldom do any cloning other than removing dust spots or other very minor imperfections and occasionally adding canvas for composition. In the rare cases where I do any significant cloning I always disclose.
My field techniques for achieving quality images would include:
- Good long lens technique.
- Relatively fast shutter speeds for birds.
- Getting close to my subjects.
- Good light and quality photo gear.
- And lots of practice…
Prathap: What is the best way for our readers to keep in touch with you? Do you conduct any photography workshops?
Ron Dudley: I can be reached through the “Contact Me” form on my blog – http://www.featheredphotography.com/blog/
To be perfectly honest I try to avoid doing workshops. They’re lots of work, they can be stressful and I’m lazy and enjoying my retirement. Just recently a very persistent (and very nice) lady from another state eventually talked me into doing an individual workshop for her. It went very well and it felt good to be teaching again but it kept me away from my own photography and the birds I love.
My questions would never end. But with due respect to Ron’s time, I would have to end it here. I thank Ron on behalf of my blog readers for sharing his hard-earned knowledge on bird photography.
Let’s wish Ron Dudley a great success. Don’t forget to visit his amazing bird gallery.
These are some of the best bird photography tips. Don’t forget to apply them. Because as Ron rightly said it’s all about practice, practice, and practice.
I hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I did. Do share your thoughts and let Ron know how much we value his advice.