Bird Photography for Beginners
Part I – Introduction and Equipment
Bird photography is a thrilling hobby and a great extension of your interest in our feathered friends. Not only does bird photography allow us to enjoy our own images, it lets us to share them with friends, keep records of birds and often help even novices establish the presence of a rare bird in the area. This is especially true in an under-birded country like India where bird photographs are adding to our limited knowledge every day.
Bird photography can be a very skilled art and an expensive hobby. It can also be done these days within a limited budget if you have abundant enthusiasm, patience, and a willingness to give it a go!
All budding bird photographers do not necessarily have to invest time and money or develop skills that will allow their images to grace the pages of National Geographic magazine. There are many worthwhile milestones in between, and to have your bird image on an important website or in a prestigious gallery like the Oriental Bird Club Image gallery can be a goal in itself - and a very achievable one at that!
Let us start then with what it takes to make meaningful bird images. Images that can be shared with pride, or images that will serve a purpose, or better still images that others would want.
We begin with what makes a good bird image. First and foremost is that it has to be the image of a bird. Now that is easy to say but often difficult to achieve. In India we have many birds around us – we are not only rich in avian diversity but also in sheer numbers. So finding your subject should be easy enough – the hard steps come next. The average bird is small for most popular cameras – in fact very small when you think that these cameras are designed to photograph human beings, rather than birds. Add to this the fact that the birds are wild creatures - not trained or willing to stand still and say 'cheese' and you start to understand that bird photography requires specialized equipment. Also, most birds have a 'circle of confidence' and generally do not allow photographers to breach that circle. The circle differs from place to place and is usually just outside slingshot (catapult) distance.
To put all this into perspective, photographing birds is similar to shooting a portrait of a human face from 50 feet (15 meters) at a detail which shows the eyelashes perfectly. Try it with your camera equipment as a test case. In case you have a camera lens combination that can achieve good results in the test case, you are well on your way to being equipped right for bird photography and can jump right into the photography technique section without further ado. In case, however, your camera is clearly incapable of resolving any facial detail, you need to seriously look at getting some specific bird photography tools to enjoy the hobby and be on your way to become a bird photographer.
Tools of the trade
Camera & Lens
Camera & lens:
The key element is of course the recording equipment – a camera. Modern cameras essentially record in digital medium. For the purposes of this article we will concentrate ononly on digital cameras.
Digital cameras for amateur bird photography are usually of two kinds. The most suitable is the digital Single Lens Reflex camera (DSLR) which uses interchangeable lens to record images on a large sensor. The cheaper (not better) alternative is the modern Super-zoom compact camera (SZCC) which comes with a fixed zoom lens and uses a smaller sensor for recording. Birders who prefer digiscoping usually use a high-end compact camera which can focus down to a couple of cms.
Super-zoom compact cameras:
SZCC's are popular with those who are starting bird photography, or those who are looking at convenience, or those who cannot afford a DSLR kit. These cameras have improved a great deal with the rapid advancement of digital technology and in some conditions can take very useful images of birds. They are inexpensive, convenient, unobtrusive and provide long reach with image stabilization. Their main handicap is the small recording sensor used which cannot match the quality of the larger and more sophisticated DSLR sensors (it may be mentioned that sensor sizes as described in megapixels are not comparable between a SZCC and a DSLR). Such cameras work best at their lowest ISO, which is often 64 or 100. Anything higher, and the image suffers from serious noise problems. Noise is of two types - luminance noise' (graininess) and 'chrominance noise' (colour splodges) both of which degrade the quality of the image to unacceptable levels. Noise-reduction software, when applied, removes as much detail as noise. Additionally, the SZCC's are usually slow in acquiring focus, and lack many essential controls. In bright clear light with a stationary bird, a photographer with good technique, will make a very useful image with a SZCC. But such restrictive ability makes it a tool which is at best a launching pad for the bird photographer – it cannot be a device which allows the hobbyist to grow into a full-fledged bird photographer. For that you need a DSLR!
There are many SZCC's in the Indian market to choose from. My personal favourite is the Nikon Coolpix P610.
Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras:
DSLR's are the most appropriate photographic tool for the budding, as well as the mature, bird photographer. DSLR's record image data on a CCD (Charge-coupled Device) or CMOS (Complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor) sensor and transfer the digital information to a storage medium which is usually a CompactFlash (CF) or a Secure Digital (SD) Card. These stored images are then transferred to a viewer, usually a home computer, and edited and stored in the computer or external storage medium. Images are viewed on screen or as print.
DSLR's use interchangeable lenses, i.e., they don't come with a fixed lens attached to the camera body. These external lenses come in various configurations of aperture and focal length from wide-angle (good for scenery) to super-tele (good for birds) and can be zoom lenses which cover different focal lengths with the same lens or prime lenses which have a fixed focal length. Some lenses come with built-in image stabilization which neutralizes involuntary camera movements to give sharper images, and some cameras (Sony, Pentax etc) have built-in image stabilization in the camera itself! Additionally, not only do camera manufacturers make various lenses for their bodies, third party manufacturers (like Sigma, Tamron etc.) make lenses for leading camera makes which can be used on those specific cameras. Most leading camera brands have proprietary lens mounts and, for example, a Canon lens cannot be used seamlessly in a Nikon camera. As a general rule, a zoom lens is cheaper than fixed lens covering the same maximum focal length and images are also generally inferior in comparable quality. 3rd party lenses are usually cheaper than matched brand lenses and may not give the same results as a similar camera brand lens, though some offer great value for money.
DSLR's vary greatly in features and ability and this is reflected in their prices. Some can easily cost over Rs. 500,000 while others cost 10% of the price. For our purposes we will concentrate on budget DSLR's – those that cost less than Rs60,000 and are well suited for the job in hand.
A capable DSLR is just one of the many factors that contribute to good bird photography and is not the be all and end all of that hobby. If you are new to bird photography, buy a DSLR that allows you to wet your feet but is general purpose enough to be used for other purpooses should you choose not to pursue the hobby any further. It is best to start with a DSLR that is reasonably priced but allows you to control the camera and will let you decide how you want to shoot a particular image. This boils down to cameras which allow multiple modes such as Manual, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and other goodies like frames per second, various light metering modes, built-in flash support, continuous shooting etc. Fortunately, most popular camera brands like Nikon, Sony, Canon etc. offer all these features as standard for even the most inexpensive DSLR in their line and really differ in the amount of data that can be recorded in the sensor (megapixels), the number and rapidity with which they can shoot successive frames, ergonomics and ability to take punishment. Of these the megapixel is the 'king' for bird photography. Higher megapixels mean more information and this translates to a bigger image on the screen. But numbers here are not straightforward. A 4 megapixel camera does not give you an image half the size of a 8 megapixel camera. As a rough guide, the square root of the stated megapixel should be used to compare cameras. So, a 4 megapixel camera shoots an image which is half the size of a 16 megapixel camera when you compare them on your computer monitor. But why are megapixels important in the 1st place – because they determine the size at which you see your image (and subject) or print them. As we all know by now, birds are small and difficult to capture in detail. A larger megapixel camera magnifies the image and allows us to use even a small part of it effectively. Put it another way – a 16 megapixel camera with a 300mm lens attached will give you almost the same size of a sparrow to view/print, as a 4 megapixel camera would with a 600mm lens. Talking of magnification brings me to the next talking point on DSLR's as they relate to bird photography – their ability to seemingly enlarge images shot through a standard lens by a field of view crop factor when compared with film SLR's using the same lens. Much has been written about what actually happens here - but for a lay person, suffice it to know that by reducing the angle of view and recording on a smaller surface than 35mm film, these DX DSLR's (those that we are concerned with, as opposed full-frame DSLR's) leave out information from the area that a 35mm film would cover (to the extent that the sensor is smaller). While achieving this the camera and lens capture a larger image of the subject and that can be as much as 1.5x in Nikon, 1.6x in Canon and a whopping 2x in Minolta, Sony etc (a different technology is used here). So in effect all your 300mm lenses become 450mm in reach on a Nikon DSLR and a 300mm lens on Sony would take images the size of a 600mm lens on a film camera.
Having dealt with what goes into bird photography with a DSLR, we are ready to match a lens with our camera. We now know that a DX DSLR will produce a larger image than the focal length of the attached lens. We also know that a larger image is also a function of sensor size. So, a 300mm maximum focal length lens with a Canon camera should give us the reach of a 480mm lens. Additionally, if we have enough megapixels (say, 12mp) we will get an even larger image – something which mimics a film camera with a 500mm lens. And 500m effective reach is a great starting point for bird photography – you will not get frame filling images with it, but your cropped image will certainly be worth sharing and may even be printable in books and magazines. And you will get many 'keeper' 'environmental shots', in which you see the bird in its natural habitat – a presentation which is in increasing demand these days.
There are more factors that affect lens quality than those that affect cameras. We are not in a position here to evaluate lenses but since our choices are limited to one segment, there is little significant in terms of differences in features to deal with other than the availability of image stabilization or lack of it. Image stabilization (IS) or Vibration Reduction (VR) is important for Canon and Nikon lenses as their cameras do not offer any stabilization themselves. Image stabilized lenses allow use of shutter speeds two or three stops slower than with non-IS/VR lenses, e.g. to use 1/125th sec instead of 1/500th sec with similar results. This allows you to shoot in low light and that can make a huge difference in practice. These lenses, though more expensive, are not an indulgence for a new bird-photographer but a necessity. I strongly recommend them.
If you are using a digital camera of any sort you would certainly need a computer to load, edit, process, save, print and share images. Any home computer or laptop would do but one that is fast and has loads of space is ideal. If you are choosing a computer, pay particular attention to the choice of the monitor. As a thumb rule, a standard CRT monitor reproduces colour more accurately than a standard LCD monitor. The biggest CRT monitor you can afford is the best for viewing and editing images. A connection to the internet and a few unused USB ports are also necessary in the minimum configuration.
Storage: While on the subject of computers, it is best to highlight storage issues and importance of safe and proper storage. Digital images are taken in 20 megapixel DSLR's can be large, especially if shot in native RAW (NEF). File sizes can be as large as 30mb for each shot and it is usual for bird photographers to shoot 100-200 frames in one day resulting in space requirements of about 3-4GB for a day's work! Multiply that for 10 days in a month or 100 days in a year and you will use up 400GB if you kept all your images, and that too all in one place. But digital images are the negatives – there is no physical medium and they have to be stored to be able to retrieve them. That leads to planning for storage space and back-ups. It is strongly recommend that all original unedited images you want to keep should be backed up in an external medium – a DVD or external hard disk. Computer hard disks are the least safe place to keep images permanently – if they crash you may not be able to recover memories or a priceless image – think about it and plan for safe digital image storage even before you buy that camera.
The truth about digital photography today is that taking the shot is only part of the final image. Opinions vary, but it is safe to say that at least 25% of a finished image can be attributed to software and how it is used. Often such editing is a part and parcel of the way the camera is set up (setting controls for sharpening, saturation, hue etc. to neutral or zero and similar) and sometimes it is the processing style of the photographer that dictates the importance of software in conversion and editing. Conversely, the camera can be set-up to do some of the editing in-camera - but without control and intervention. But how you frame, crop and process the image is key to presenting good bird photographs and it is a learning curve which you have to climb simultaneously with the practice that makes perfect bird images.
Image processing software can be expensive and extremely sophisticated like Adobe Creative Suite 6 or similar. And then there are those that come with the camera or are available for free. Some are used for conversion from one format to another while others may be used exclusively for specialized tasks like removing/reducing unwanted noise from an image. In the spirit of the approach to this article we will only deal here with free software. The most important of these is the software that comes with your camera. This will usually allow you open and to convert your RAW images to commonly viewable and editable jpeg or tiff formats. It will usually allow you to correct the 'White Balance', correct exposure mistakes and sharpen the image – provided of course you shot in RAW (or NEF) in the 1st place. The packaged software also acts as an image organizer and can show you details connected with the image (EXIF data) like time, lens, aperture, ISO, shutter-speed etc. It can also set up your camera connection with your computer to enable you to download images from the card. The camera manufacturer's software, then, is a must load and the starting point in digital image processing. Next comes software that will allow you to organize your converted (from RAW) images, do small corrections and allow you to downsize them for sharing on the internet. The easiest one to handle is Google's 'Picasa' – a free download. Others of a similar nature include FastStones' 'imageviewer 3.6'. This one not only allows you to view RAW images directly, it can convert, crop, resize and enhance images. A bonus is the ability to write text like your copyright on the image. At the next level comes the open source 'Gimp' - a truly amazing free software. Last on the list of useful software's is 'Noiseware Community Edition' - a noise reduction tool for digital cameras. Noiseware has a freeware version which is very useful for cleaning noisy images and has the added ability to significantly reduce the file size.
Nothing is more important in specialized photography than knowing the subject - and this is even more relevant for bird photography. Imagine taking an image of 'India Gate' and being unable to identify it to a viewer. Bird knowledge and ability to identify them is key to being a successful bird photographer and a relatively small investment in Grimmett and Inskipps' Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent plus checking the galleries at websites like Oriental Bird Image Database will get you well on the way to becoming an educated bird photographer.
A key add-on is of course a memory card which will record your images and allow you to transfer them to your computer. Memory cards come in different types, sizes and speed. Buy the card type that works in your camera and make sure that you have at least 10GB of card space available with you if you shoot RAW. Faster cards are better but are not key for beginners. Buy a reasonably fast card – something like 80X or Extreme II from a reputed manufacturer. Sandisk, makes good cards and I have use them. Don't buy cheap little-known brand cards – they may damage camera or card-reader contacts. I prefer to carry a few 32GB cards instead of putting all images in one basket with a 64GB or higher card. A good Card Reader is also very useful for transferring images directly to your computer from the card.
All other add-ons can aid bird photography, but are not essential:
Spare battery: Modern digital cameras usually use rechargeable batteries and buying a spare which is kept ready for use in the field is a good idea. Also, charging is not possible in many remote places and one or more spares are a necessary back-up.
Camera Flash: Most digital cameras that we have discussed come equipped with a low-range pop-up flash which adds illumination to the subject. This is not adequate for bird photography and an external hot-shoe mount flash can be employed to allow use of the camera in low light situations or when fill-flash is employed to balance available light and improve an image. Flashguns come in various types and sizes and a good choice is to buy a dedicated flash with as high a Guide Number (GN) as you can afford. Bird photography requires a minimum GN of 100 at ISO100 to make any meaningful contribution in the field. Beginners may do well to start their hobby without a flash and add one at a later stage, if necessary, based on a better understanding of the pros and cons of flash usage.
Teleconverters/Extenders: Teleconverters or extenders are lenses which can be added between the camera and the shooting lens to increase the focal length of the combination. A 1.4x converter when attached to a 300mm lens will give an effective focal length of 300mm x 1.4 = 420mm and a 2x will double the effective reach of an attached lens. While it is tempting to think that a significant investment (branded converters are expensive) will add photographic versatility without the expense of an extra lens, there are no free meals to be had. Except when used in very expensive and sophisticated lenses, teleconverters degrade an image and make it more difficult to acquire a good one. Beginners should stay far away from teleconverters till they upgrade to more specialized equipment and understand how and when to use such tools.
Tripods/monopods: Tripods (three legs) and monopods (single leg) are mechanical supports that add stability to a camera and eliminate inevitable camera shake while taking hand-held images. As shake contributes
to unsharp and blurry images, tripods can make the difference between a 'keeper' and a junk image. This is especially true for those who use telephoto lenses as shake is magnified with increase in focal length. Indeed most skilled bird photographers swear about the indispensability of a tripod when it comes to using a long lens.Tripods are not a must if you use light lenses with good image stabilization. If you do invest in one, buy a tripod that is heavy and stable – it may be a lifetime investment and going upscale here at the start is a wise thing. Cheap tripods are fairly useless in any case and do more harm than good. One alternative (not a substitute) is to use a monopod – these are easier to carry and much less expensive. But monopods are difficult to handle and takes a lot of experience to give effective results.
Camera bag: This is a necessity almost and serves to store and protect your purchase. Buy one that accommodates your camera with lens attached and has space for spare batteries, cards, flash and any additional lenses that you may have.
1. Any suggestions/ recommendations are based on the author's limited personal experience and may not be accurate or authentic. The suggestions/recommendations do not cover all available choices and the reader is advised to do his/her own research before making purchase decisions.
2. The author is not affiliated with any equipment manufacturer or reseller.
© Sumit K Sen 2017