A 'Birds of India' feature

Bird Photography for beginners - II
by Sumit Sen                                                             

Part - I: Introduction
Part - II: Equipment
Part - III: Basics of Bird Photography
Part - IV: Composition
Part - V: Specialty Techiniques/Tools
Part - VI: Flight Photography

Part - I                                                                            


Bird photography is a thrilling hobby and has its own share of challenges and rewards. Not only does bird photography allow us to enjoy our own images, it also brings with it the added reward of knowledge about our feathered friends. Information that can help increase our understanding of birds plus act as a support to the citizen science initiatives in your area. There have been sterling contributions to ornithological science based on a bird images taken by amateur bird photographers. Yours could be the next!

Bird photography can be a very skilled art, and an expensive hobby. It can also be done these days with a limited budget, 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 can be a goal in itself - and a very achievable one at that!

Indian Pond Heron with a fish catch

This close up of a Indian Pond Heron is fairly detailed. Many would agree that it is an acceptable bird image which captures not only the key features of the bird, but also records action and behaviour - both key to quality wildlife imagery these days. But the key focus for many bird photographers is primarily on accuracy and detail. Bird photography works best if we can reproduce original colours and show the fine feather details that makes the bird an attractive subject in the first place. If we can combine crisp details, showing true colours, in an action image that highlights a behavioural aspect, we would think that we have reached a point of arrival. This presentation is aimed at providing information that may make that journey easier for some.

But the image above is only 1/10th the story or the frame. The close up is a crop from an image that captures the whole bird in the act of catching a fish. It is also a part of a five-frame series which documents the unnatural act of a Pond Heron diving to catch fish. Pond Herons are known to hunt for small waterside insects, amphibians and the occasional fish by standing still at the waters edge and using stealth to lunge and catch prey. Only a handful of birds of this species have evolved a technique to hunt fish like a kingfisher. So by documenting little known behaviour this image becomes an important record and thus special.


How was this image made?

The response to that question possibly holds many key points concerning bird photography.

In a nutshell, it was made with knowledge. Knowledge that this bird could be found at this waterbody, that there were at least two pond herons that regularly fished there, that they fished at a particular time of day and at particular spots, that they... In the end, it is all about knowing your subject. Bird or wildlife photography differs from other photographic pursuits because of the challenge posed by unpredictable behaviour. You can't ask a wild animal to do what you want. It will not stay still because you want it to, and it will not move in the direction that you can predict, like a race car. The uncertainty of behaviour is the biggest challenge in making quality bird images with a degree of predictability. It is only when you have good knowledge about your subject that you can make bird images at will almost.

How difficult is it to understand birds then?

Not difficult at all! It is just a matter of observation and patience. Most birds are creatures of habit. They will do the same thing over and over for days. Some you can even time for arrival and departure. All it takes is to note the behaviour, the perch which they prefer, the time that they come to the patch and what they do. That makes setting up to capture images a much more rewarding prospect, rather than moving around aimlessly looking for birds. There is a next step though. Birds, unlike humans, have evolved over millions of years into different species which all behave differently. A woodpecker will climb trees looking for grubs and an egret will walk along the waters edge looking for a fish. Neither can be seen in the others habitat. Acquiring and reading a bird field guide of your area will help your bird photography immensely. It will tell you where and when to look for a particular bird and more importantly what you are looking at. Birding websites are an alternative and joining a local bird club a bonus!

What do you need to know about bird behaviour?
 Birds are naturally scared of humans. It takes them time to realize that you may mean no harm. A bird that takes flight immediately it sees you can one day tolerate your presence very close up. It has to get used to you, and many birds actually recognize individuals.

This kingfisher grew tame over time and started to ignore me. Shot from within 8 feet.

 Birds don't like movement towards them. They will come very close to a sitting person, or a person standing still. You can use that knowledge to set yourself up at a place a bird is likely to visit based on your observations. You can also avoid approaching a bird straight. Use a zig-zag route and walk casually. Birds are very sensitive and pick up any sign of excitement. Many birds will ignore a person walking past , but will take flight if a photographer approaches them. Be relaxed and don't keep staring at the bird. Fix your arrival point and check to see if your target is still around once you reached the spot. The natural fear of the bird is also the reason that the best bird photography is achieved when you are alone. Group bird photography is often a wasted effort for quality image making.

 All birds have a circle of confidence. It differs from bird to bird and from locality to locality. Most will not allow you to knowingly breach that circle. Often that means a missed photographic opportunity because your equipment may not allow you to take a worthwhile image from that distance. There are ways around this too. One is to make yourself hard to notice. Staying frozen at a place and allowing the bird to approach is a well used technique. Bird seem to ignore you or completely miss you. Moving closer step by step when the bird is busy is another well used ploy, as is using natural objects as hides. The trick is to not move or move like a hunter (in case the bird does not move). Many use cars or buildings as a hide and most professional photographers will use a portable camouflage hide. All these are part and parcel of breaking into the circle of confidence. There are many birds which are used to humans who have a very small circle of fear. They are great initial subjects for those who are new bird photographers. Pigeons, doves, crows, jays, ducks, geese, swans, some birds of prey, hummingbirds etc are great examples, as are birds that come to feeders.

 Very few birds are completely sedentary. Birds wander accidentally and deliberately, and can turn up almost anywhere. Some move deliberately in search of favoured food, for instance when particular trees are fruiting or flowering or when wetland habitats dry up. But more often birds make regular seasonal movements in response to anticipated daylight hour changes. This is called migration. Migration in your area can result in poor photographic opportunities when the birds move out of the area and the opposite is true when the reverse happens. Knowing the migration calendar helps plan your bird photography.

 Knowing the habitat will help you understand the birds you see in them. Try and visit as many different habitats that you can. One of the best places to start looking for subjects is your own garden or a nearby park. Forests, farmland, scrub, lakes, reed-beds, rivers, coasts etc all have their own characteristic birds. The edges of fields, streams, rivers and roads are all excellent places to see birds. Certain types of habitats, like wetlands yield a greater variety of birds like waders and ducks. This sounds obvious, but many new bird photographers spend a lot of time and energy on poor locations. Some people have the advantage of looking out of their windows into the back yard to observe Nature's best. The rest of us need to get moving.

 The best time to photograph birds is early in the morning and then again in the mid and late afternoons. Birds tend to rest during the day. In places like lakes, you can observe birds through the day. While it is possible to watch birds any time and any place it is helpful to know when and where to look. You are more likely to see specific birds at certain times of the day. For example songbirds are easier to see two to three hours after dawn or just before sunset. This is when they are most active. Many small birds will be silent or even hidden during the rest of the day. When the sun is up, it is the best time to see eagles, hawks and other raptors. Birds like owls are more likely to be seen after dusk. Many shorebirds and waders rest at high tide and feed when the water recedes.

Next steps
Now that we have a fair idea of what to look for and where, let us start then with what it takes to take 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. So you need to find your subject first. Birds are everywhere, but often hard to find. A little knowledge and a little effort should bridge that gap. Having found your subject, you can take the next step – the step that will secure your image!

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. To put 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, you are well on your way to being equipped right for bird photography and can jump right into the (forthcoming) photography technique section. 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. That is covered in the next part.

A Mountain Hawk Eagle shot on film with a 400mm lens

Same bird digiscoped from the same place with a P&S camera attached to a Spotting Scope (effective 2000mm +)


The next part deals with equipments needed.


Also see: Bird Photography for Beginners - I




A presentation by Sumit Sen; September 2012
Image copyright with the photographers. All rights reserved.

 Last updated 17 Sep 2012