Easy Bird Photography

Bird Photography Might Be Much Easier Than You Imagined

Don’t think you need the most expensive camera or lens for bird photography.

bird photography - house finchI am a fan of easy, even when it comes to something that seems difficult like bird photography. Most of the birds I photograph are common, not exotic, and I don’t have to travel to the depths of the Amazon River Basin where no civilized man has gone before to get the pictures. Rather, I simply take them from the comfort of my own home.. right outside the kitchen window.

One of my favorite nature photographers is Moose Peterson. Moose is a professional, but he likes to do what I do.. take pictures of birds right outside his window. You can check out his video showing how he does it – Winter Feeder Fun. Go ahead.. watch it 🙂 Pay attention to the equipment. I took the time to check out the equipment he is using in the video. He was nice enough to provide links. The total for his setup is $8387. Nice, huh?

Now, I do have a pretty nice camera. It’s a Canon EOS Rebel T4i (I paid about $800 for it). And the lens I use to shoot many of my bird photos is a Sigma 18-250mm (I paid about $400 for it). This is not the same quality of lens that my friend Moose would use, but it has served me rather well.

Of course, I have to admit, I would love to get a new “bird lens,” but it really is not necessary to take some great photos of birds.

Good News – Expensive Equipment – Not Really Necessary

The truth is, you don’t really even need a digital SLR camera to get good bird photos either (those are the cameras that allow you to change lenses). I have taken many great bird photos with my trusty little Panasonic Lumix ZS camera (this one cost me about $225). Better equipment does make the job more enjoyable, and you might get a little better image quality, but you can do fine with a nice point and shoot camera if you have the right setup.

The secret is to offer the birds a reason to pose for you. I bribe them with food. I use food they like, not just the cheapest food I can find. I tried that, and they didn’t come. But for just a bit more money, I was able to get them to visit on a regular basis.

Then I had the brilliant idea to build a bird feeder that looks like a tree. The reason for this is to have my bird photography look like it was done in the wild when it was actually done right outside my kitchen window.

Here is my own version of Moose’s “Winter Feeder Fun.”

In the video, you can see the bird feeder I mentioned that looks like a tree. I do have to add bird food every time I want to take pictures because it does not last very long in the little holes of the stump. The hanging feeder lasts a lot longer, several days, and it keeps my little friends happy in between photo sessions.

Here are a few of the nice photos I have taken in my “natural setting” bird photography sanctuary.

tufted titmouse bird photodowny woodpecker in bird photographyBlue JayYou can see more examples of easy bird photography in the Bird Gallery.

How To Get Good Bird Photos

My advice for getting some excellent photos of birds boils down to a few key points:

  1. First of all, get the birds coming to you on a regular basis.
  2. Pay attention to the light – some times are much better than others.
  3. Have the patience of Job.
  4. Find the best position to eliminate distractions.
  5. Practice with different camera settings.

1. Invite the birds. I mentioned this above, but it really is the key to my backyard success. I use a mix of seed that includes sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, nuts, and a few other treats. I also use a variety of suet cakes in colder weather. The results are amazing – chickadees, nuthatches, titmouse, downy woodpeckers, red-belly woodpeckers, sparrows, Carolina wrens, American goldfinches, yellow-rumped warblers, kinglets, blue jays, and a few others.

2. Watch for good light. You may have heard about the “golden hours” of photography? For me, early morning is by far the best time to get the best light. And the birds are very active earlier, too. My house blocks the direct sun for a couple of hours after sunrise, so I have plenty of time to get my photos. The quality of light makes a huge difference in the quality of the pictures. Don’t try to fight the harsh light of mid-day. It will not yield good results unless you have a nice tree shading your photo area.

3. Have patience – serious patience. I have dozens of great bird photos… taken over a period of years. Do not get discouraged if you don’t get National Geographic quality in the first few minutes. Even those pros at National Geographic spend months, working long hours every day, to get the few excellent pictures you see in the magazine.

4. Find a good position. Moving a few inches can make a huge difference. What you want is to eliminate distractions in your photo frame. A neighbor’s car or house does not make a believable nature shot. Just evaluate your situation and move your camera so that you have a good clean shot. OR, add something to the scene. For instance, there may be a way to add a tree branch that birds can perch on while waiting to get to the feeder. I was able to use a clamp to secure a branch to the railing of my deck. It worked perfectly to get the birds to a position that did not have the feeder in the shot.

Choosing Shutter Priority
On a Canon, shutter speed priority is “Tv” (time value). Other cameras may show it as “S”.

5. Practice with your camera settings. On my Canon T4i, I use Av (aperture priority), but you can use Tv (shutter priority), or even P (program mode). Auto is not a great choice – too many decisions are made by the camera, so it is a hit-or-miss situation. Make sure in any case that you turn off the flash. You may also want to turn up the ISO to a higher setting if the light is not very bright. What you want is to end up with a shutter speed of at least 100/sec so you don’t get too many blurry pictures. If you are not using a DSLR, you can still take control of your settings. Check the user’s manual or look at some YouTube videos.

One last recommendation. Be patient (yes, patience… again) and take LOTS of photos. The bird photography above is the result of both patience and tons of deleted pictures. Sometimes you will get a good one right away, but chances are that you will have to take lots to get a few keepers. Do not be afraid to hit the delete button on your computer to save space, but I would not recommend using the delete button on your camera before getting your pictures on the big screen of your computer. Some of them might be better than what you think when you view them on your camera’s LCD screen.

Questions? Just raise your hand.. or leave a question or comment below.