Did you know that one of the key differentiating factors from an “okay” image to an “incredible” image is the know-how of bird’s behavior? Today’s article will reveal lots of information about how you can drastically improve your bird photography by learning about the bird’s behavior.
Before we jump in, let’s look at the major issues you face as a bird photographer:
- Your images are not exposed properly
- Your images are not sharp
- Your images lack composition
There could be more, but these three are the major issues. How do you make sure that you get the right exposure, make sure the bird is sharp enough, and make sure that the composition is simple and distraction free.
Let’s examine each of the three factors mentioned above, one-by-one.
1. Did You Check the Exposure?
Let’s assume that you are photographing a colorful duck; say a brahminy duck or a shoveler duck or a wood duck. You are waiting for the bird to take off. Now, the question is will you make sure your exposure is perfect before it flies or will you wait for the bird to take-off?
I bet your answer is “Of course, I will make sure the exposure is perfect beforehand.”
Recheck your answer. Now, rewind and think of all those situations when you did try to photograph a duck taking off. Think carefully. Did you really make sure that the exposure was right?
If I ask you why, you’ll most likely say, “Oh Prathap, it was all so quick that I couldn’t have checked the exposure.”
Now, we are coming to terms. This is the most common answer to any wrong photo. Yes, birds never listen to you.
2. Did You Check the Sharpness?
Let me ask you a very simple question here. When was the last time you checked for the sharpness?
Everytime. Did you say that?
Okay. Let me rephrase a bit. When was the last time you checked for the sharpness of your image at the back of your camera’s LCD monitor?
I think you are trying hard to guess right now. Isn’t it?
Then again, if I ask you why, you’ll most likely say, “Oh Prathap, it was all so quick that I couldn’t even breathe properly.”
3. What About the Composition?
I guess you’d say “Seriously? Oh, come on…you gotta be kidding me. When I am struggling to find the right settings, make an exposure, hold the camera as steadily as possible, leaning down in an awkward position, etc., etc. you are asking such a silly question.”
Okay,…this time…I will not ask you why.
And the Moral of the Story is…
There’s no time. It all happens too quickly in bird photography that you can only do one thing…to press the shutter as fiercely as possible so that your camera can omit as many frames as quickly as possible.
No wonder the frustration increases exponentially for a bird photographer.
How does Knowing Bird’s Behavior Improve Your Chances of Getting Incredible Images?
Let’s consider the same example of photographing a duck as it takes off.
For now, let’s imagine that you understand the duck’s behavior. You know that the duck will take off for any or all of the below reasons:
- When its mate flies off.
- When the flock of ducks flies off.
- When someone walks closer to this duck.
- When there’s a predator taking rounds up above.
- When there’s a dog walking towards it.
- When there’s an alert call from other nearby ducks.
- When someone is offering food from another side of the bank.
- When some kid nearby is throwing a stone at it.
- When the other photographer makes some awkward movements.
The list goes on and on and on. There’s nothing scientific here. There’s no superficial information that you can’t understand or guess. It’s just the common sense combined with some field knowledge. The more time you spend in the field watching the bird you photograph, the more knowledge do you gain about its behavior that’s immensely helpful compared to any other knowledge you get by reading hours about it. Of course, I am not completely discounting off-the-field reading here. Having some knowledge beforehand would make it easier to understand why birds do what they do. But, there’s no substitute for having field experience.
Now…if you knew all the factors described above, do you think you can get better results?
Did you say “Maybe?” That’s good enough for me. A “Maybe” is better than a “No”. A “Maybe” will inevitably turn into a “Yes” someday. And a “Yes” will turn into a resounding “Yes” one fine day.
The critical learning here is to believe that you can improve your results by understanding the bird’s behavior and it’ll yield long term benefits.
Now…Let’s Put This into Practice
Assume that you knew all these factors listed above. What would you do now?
Step #1: Take a Test Shot and Check the Exposure
As a first step, take a test shot and check the exposure. Make the necessary adjustments in the exposure. As long as your composition doesn’t change drastically (which we’ll discuss in Step #3), your exposure should remain within limits. This means, when the bird takes off, you know for sure that you are not screwing up the shot.
Let’s take it one-step further. Your test exposure should have good enough space to the right of the histogram or the highlights zone so that you are sure not to overexpose anything.
If the underwing pattern of the bird is much brighter than the outer wing pattern, which is usually the case, you must make sure to have enough room towards the highlights zone of the test exposure. This will ensure you don’t overexpose the brighter region when the bird flaps its wing while taking-off.
I understand. It usually looks complicated in the beginning. It takes several weeks or months to nail it down completely before it becomes super simple. But, you have to start somewhere.
Start small. Just make sure you take the test exposure…always. Test exposure will let you make any necessary adjustments. The more you tune your exposure, the more difference do you see in the resulting image. Once you see the astounding difference in the resulting images, you’d never want to go back. You can later add little bit more advanced strategies step-by-step.
I have covered the exposure topic for all types of bird photographs in the Settings chapter of “Bird Photography Simplified – A Virtual Masterclass,” eBook. Don’t forget to go back and reread the Settings chapter if you have missed it.
Step #2: Check the Sharpness
Once you are sure of the exposure, your second step is to check for the sharpness. You have to zoom all the way on your camera’s LCD monitor to be sure that the image is sharp enough.
Don’t be scared to zoom all the way in. Yes, I say this for a reason. I have seen many photographers having a phobia. They say they’ll check it back at home. They are hoping that everything will be alright…somehow! Oh…come on…why do you want to leave something so simple to the luck?
You require luck to help you on the most critical part…and that is, the bird should take off when you are well prepared. Remember…Luck favors the prepared.
There’s no point in taking a blurry image of a duck taking off. Agree? Then, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t make sure that the bird is in tack-sharp focus while it’s still deciding whether to fly off or not.
By making sure that the bird is already in sharp focus, you can keep the focus intact by using the continuous autofocus mode (AF-C for Nikon and AI-Servo for Canon). When the bird eventually takes off, you know that the autofocus will be tracking it.
I have dedicated a whole chapter explaining critical field techniques to ensure that you get the sharpest possible images in the Sharp Focusing Techniques chapter my eBook “Bird Photography Simplified – A Virtual Masterclass.” If you are not using the tripod, then make sure you follow the hand-holding techniques, described in the same chapter, to get the sharp bird images.
The Birds In Flight chapter explains the most critical concept in getting the tack-sharp images of birds in flight.
Step #3: What About Composition?
Of all things, the composition takes the backseat in bird photography. I can understand.
Let’s consider that you have taken the test exposure (as described in step #1), you have checked the sharpness (as described in step #2), and you are waiting for the action to unfold, i.e., the bird to take off.
Tell me how do you compose? Think about it for a second.
Let’s consider the facts about how a duck will take off and decide upon the possible compositions.
- The duck has to take off upwards as it should be on the water or the ground. This means the duck should be placed at the bottom of the frame. Agree? If you are using the Rule of Thirds, then you’d keep it on the lower horizon.
- Based on where the duck is facing, you’d know which side it’ll fly. Most often it flies in the same direction as it is facing. The duck can take off from any of the four prominent directions:
- Towards the left of the image frame. Then the duck has to be placed on the right-hand side of the image frame, i.e., the right-bottom-third intersection point of the Rule of Thirds grid.
- Towards the right of the image frame. Then the duck has to be placed on the left-hand side of the image frame, i.e., the left-bottom-third intersection point of the Rule of Thirds grid.
- Away from you. Don’t worry about this. A bird facing away has the least impact on a viewer unless that’s intended.
- Towards you. The duck can be placed anywhere on the bottom-third line.
Now, with this much information, you are better off with getting a photograph that’s well exposed, sharp, and well composed.
I have dedicated a whole chapter that’s 42 pages just to cover the composition in bird photography. Yes, that’s incredibly high number of pages for a topic that’s almost ignored in the bird photography world, for obvious reasons. But, if you can follow at least a few simple composition techniques, you’ll see a drastic difference in your photos.
I hope that you are convinced about how you can improve your chances of making incredible bird photographs by understanding bird’s behavior. Now…you have to take action.
What’s missing in this whole discussion? I have left out of the greatest factor that’ll turn your bird photograph to an incredible one…which one is that?
Let me know in your comments.
Celebrate this World Photography Day with this Outrageous Offer
In celebration of this World Photography Day, I am offering an outrageous discount of 83% on two of my most popular eBooks Bird Photography Simplified – A Virtual Masterclass & A Step-by-Step Guide to Post-Processing Bird Photographs.
I am glad to say that most of my readers have jumped at my offer. If you have bought it, first of all, let me thank you and congratulate you. You have at your disposal two of the most practical guides to improve your bird photography. You have to put serious effort in reading, understanding, and practicing the techniques outlined in both the eBooks. It’s my sincere request to you to practice the techniques in the field.
I have heard many of my bird photography workshop students claiming that they’d love to read my eBooks post my workshop because they understand the importance of it. I know it’s not possible for everyone to attend my workshops, neither it is possible for me to teach 12,000+ students. But, Bird Photography Simplified – A Virtual Masterclass eBook is your best bet.
Talk to you soon…