In last few blogs we have seen What is Bird Photography? What equipment do we need for Birding? And How to set your camera for the Shoot? Now in this blog post, we are going to see What all things you need to keep in mind when you are on the field while clicking Bird Photographs. Having expensive equipment and knowledge about using manual mode is not enough to get good shots of the Birds. You also need to know techniques and tricks of Photographing Birds, approaching them, getting the right shot, knowing the birds and their behaviour etc. It happens with all the beginners that they don’t know which bird they are photographing, what is the subjects behaviour, habitat etc. and they perform some activities that disturbs the bird, or they try to approach the bird in wrong way and end up with scaring the bird away. It is therefore very important to know your subject well, how to approach to the bird, what things to take care of, how to get the perfect shot etc.
Knowing Your Subject
I have being asked by many people that how do I know the name of almost each and every bird? How do I identify birds so easily and quickly? Well that needs a lot of study, practise and good eye sight. When you are on the field, photographing Birds, you need to know which bird are you photographing, what is his behaviour, what is its habitat etc. then only you will be able to find the birds, approach them easily and get good shots. When I see people photographing the birds but having zero knowledge about them, they end up scaring the bird, this may also reduce the birds in that particular area due to more human interference into the bird’s habitat. So need to take care of their privacy, their habitat and their behaviour.
While it comes to ‘Knowing you Subject’ it doesn’t only mean that knowing name of the bird you are photographing but also knowing their behaviour, their habitat, their food etc. Now when we talk about knowing the species we should know the category of the bird, bird family and their characteristics. There are few categories of birds
- Waders – Most of these birds are having long legs, and those who wade in the shallow water for food. They generally have long bill.
- Duck like birds – These type of birds also have water as their habitat. They don’t have long bill like waders. These Birds can swim in water like Duck.
- Water Birds – These type of birds are also seen in water eg.) Lake, Sea, backwater etc. Their food is fishes.
- Perching Birds – These type of birds are small in size. Their legs are structured in a way to perch on trees.
- Upland Ground Birds – They are Medium in size. Most of them prefer live on trees. These type of bird’s food is mostly the insects, or other small living beings on the ground. These Birds walk on the land to find their food.
- Birds of Prey – These birds are usually big in size, except some birds. They hunt for prey such as rats, rabbits, other birds etc. They fly high in the sky and have a great speed
- Tree Clinging Birds – These birds can perch on trees upright. Birds like nuthatches can even perch upside down. Their main characteristic is that these birds like in cavities and holes in the trees.
- Night Birds – All types of Owls fall in these categories. They hunt their food at night and have a great eye sight.
- Flightless Birds – Those birds who can’t fly, fall in this category. Eg. ) Emu, Ostrich etc.
These are the categories you have to keep in mind first when you see a bird and categories the bird in one of these categories. When you see a bird, think whether what is the size of the bird? What is its habitat? (water, trees, grassland, etc.) and What are the characteristics of the Bird? Then based on these questions think in what category does your subject fall in. Practise this for few days for atleast a month so that you get used to it. Whenever you see a bird, start to find what category of bird it is. When you are good at knowing the category of the birds then start to dividing them into their respective families. What are the families of birds? So some birds share some common sub-characteristics, features and appearance. They all group up to form one family.
Let’s take an example of Dove family. They include rock pigeons, laughing doves, Eurasian Collared dove etc. All types of pigeons and doves are grouped under this family. If we look at these birds, all of them have round heads, shape and size of the birds are almost same (varies little bit), the shape of the beak is same, shape of eyes is same. So they all share common characteristics which groups them to form one family. But they have some minor differences like colour, call of those birds (voice/sound), small patches or strips on body etc. which make them stand out from other and give them unique identity and name.
All families are based on common characteristics of their members. They have some or the other common things that they share with their family members such as shape, size, bill shape, wings etc. You will have to study such various families like eagles, barbets, bee-eaters, storks, ducks etc. You will have to search on book,web, mobile application etc. and study these families and know the difference between them.
Once you know the family then whenever you see a bird, you can quickly open your book or mobile application and search in that particular family for the bird that you have photographed or is in front of you. After practising for years, you won’t need to open your book to recognise the bird. Also by knowing the behaviour and habitat of the birds, you can find a bird easily. Let’s take an example of an eagle or any bird of prey , they prefer open grasslands for hunting their prey such as rats, rabbits etc. They prefer resting/sitting on tall trees, buildings, structures so that they get a full view of the area around them and can find their prey easily. Knowing this behaviour of these birds, if I want to photograph one such Bird of prey, I can easily find one such open grass land area and a tall tree so that I can find it easily. Even if I visit such area accidently, I can expect these birds to be there and not waders, or perching birds. So studying behaviour of birds can help you to find them easily in their habitats.
Book Recommended – 1) Book of Indian Birds by Salim Ali
2) Birds of Indian Subcontinent
Recommended Mobile Application – 1) Indian Birds (By Nature Web)
As you all know, light is most important factor of photography. Unlike portrait photography, fashion photography or product or food photography, you cannot control your lighting while photographing birds. You have to make the best use of natural light and natural conditions to get you shot.
Photographing birds after Sunrise and before sunset is what I personally recommend. Because though before sunrise though your subject is visible to you, there is very less amount of light. In this case when you keep your shutter speed faster you result image is under exposed, even if you increase the ISO you will end up getting grains in the image and image won’t be that sharp. One such example of this case is shown below. This photograph of Common Kingfisher was taken before sunrise. The subject was as close as 10 feet from me but still I couldn’t get a sharp iamge due to less amount of light. Even if you see over all lighting of the image, it is not that good and the photograph doesn’t look eye catching.
So best time for photographing birds is between sunrise and sunset. Sunrise and Sunset are called golden hours and I prefer shooting in these light conditions. When you are in open areas, such as lake, beach, open grasslands etc. you don’t face much problem as there is plenty of light available. But when you are photographing in forest where the light is uneven, then it is bit difficult to shoot. In that case you will have to wait for the bird to come to a spot where there is even light either even sunlight on whole body or even shadow on whole body of the Bird. In the image below you can see uneven lighting has decreased the sharpness of the image where there is shadow.
On some day it may happen that it is a cloudy weather. In that case you will have to compromise somewhere in your camera settings and get best of what you have. Cloudy weather can also prove a positive when shoot birds like Egrets, Herons etc. which get over exposed in direct sunlight due to their light colour. It’s all about how you make the best use of the light available. It is advisable to face your back towards the sun and shoot the subject so that you get good lighting and sharp shots, but even facing towards the sun can give you good silhouette images of the birds.
While photographing Birds, not only the action or moment plays an important role but also the background. Background is something that defines your frame briefly. Its shows some story, habitat, where the picture has been taken etc. Let’s suppose we have 3 photographs of the same tiger. One photo has been clicked in forest (natural habitat) ,2nd photo has been clicked at zoo and the 3rd photo is clicked at Circus.
We have photographs of the same tiger. But the background in each of the photo tells us the story behind the frame, where has the photo taken and defines the behaviour of the subject in that particular environment. In this case you may see the Tiger calm in the forest, aggressive in a zoo, while afraid expressions in the circus.
So background plays a very important role in your picture. Whether it is habitat shot, close-up shot or any other, pick-up the perfect background that tells some story or defines your frame more effectively and easily. The backgrounds can also be of different types. Let’s suppose we photograph a bird with Sky in the background. A bright blue sky may add up a good focus on your subject. It will emphasis your subject more effectively. Sometimes blue sky with some clouds behind can add up some dramatic emotions in the frame. Cloudy backgrounds can be irritating sometimes due to exposure problems but also adds some different kind of scenario to the picture.
A background with sky can describe what were the weather conditions during the shoot, what time of the day is the photo taken, what is the behaviour of that particular bird in that particular behaviour (this point can be explained with a simple example, a peacock always opens his feather when it is raining and not on sunny days, this shows particular behaviour of the peacock in the particular weather conditions). If we take some natural habitat as the background, for example, forest or trees or water bodies etc. that shows the habitat of the bird in which the bird is generally found.
Let’s take an example of the photograph of Asian Open Billed Stork shown above. This photo was taken few months back at ‘Bhigwan Bird Sanctuary’. It is an early morning shot taken during the golden hours. This is a habitat photograph showing a flock of Open Billed Stork, wading in shallow water for food. The background shows the place in which habitat the photo was taken, time of the day, foggy background and sky indicates the weather.
Some backgrounds can also contain some human touch i.e. something that shows evidence of human activities in that particular area. These type of images can prove eye opening for conservation of birds by reducing human activities in that particular area.
The above image of Long Billed Pitpit has few things to say. When we see the lighting and the shadow in the image, the viewer can easily understand that the sun is already overhead and the time might be around 11 /11:30 am. The background shows a Blue fishing net (indicating Human activity in the area), even lighting and the shells on the ground, all these things proves that the image was taken near somewhere near a water body.
In the above image, the time of the day is just before Sunrise. The lighting is very low and dull. I took this image purposely at that time of the day just to add some dramatic effect. The frame attracted me because of the contrast created by the Green grass and Pair of Ruddy Shellduck. The green grass and the reddish orange colour of the shelduck make contrast and the subject is emphasized in the frame. If there were just painted storks in the image then the frame wouldn’t have been this interesting, but due to the contrast in the current frame, the photographs seems interesting and eye catching.
This is how background proves to be important while photographing birds. When you spot your subject, instead of just clicking random photos of your subject, analyse the background and then compose your frame accordingly to get best out of it.
Approaching your subject is one of the difficult task. Once you practise a lot then it is not that hard. I have seen photographers running behind their subject and frightening away the bird. This is a totally wrong method. Birds always prefer to stay a bit away from Humans. Approaching them closely is the difficult task. You cannot go too close to them but still you can try to approach a safe distance from the subject so that the bird doesn’t fly away and you get a good shot. When we say approaching the subject, we have two methods i.e. physically going close to the subject and optically approaching the subject by zoom lens.
Zoom lenses work pretty good from a long distance. But more zooming results in less sharp images due to dust particles between your lens and subject, hand shake and few other things. Thus a combination of zooming and physically approaching the subject gives you good results. When we talk about physically approaching the birds there are few points to be kept in mind. You cannot directly approach the bird by walking towards it. 1st thing which is important is your dressing. Camouflaging cloths are recommended so that you remain unnoticed by the bird. If you don’t have camouflaging cloth then wear dark cloths and nature inspired colours such as grey, black, dark brown, dark green etc.
When you wear bright colour cloths, the bird can notice you easily and make them aware of you coming close to them. Don’t use any type of perfumes on your body because the fragrance of the perfumes can be smelt by the birds from a long distance.
While you approach the bird, you should know what activity is the bird doing. Let’s suppose a Painted Stork has found a fish and is concentrating to catch it. In such case the stork won’t pay much attention to you approaching it. But if it is just wading in the water then you will have to be careful.
In the image above, the Painted Stork in the frame was busy eating his meal, that’s why he didn’t notice me come close to him. Getting close means not standing close by the bird but keeping a safe distance of around 15 to 20 feet from the bird. You have to first analyse what activity is the bird doing. Now when you are approaching the bird don’t stand and just walk towards it. Bend down and if possible sit down in squat position and walk on your toes.
When you are walking close to the bird, don’t look directly and continuously toward the bird, looking continuously towards the bird might indicate to him as danger. Make sure you don’t make any noise by talking to other people around you. Also pay attention to the dried leaves on the floor, stepping on them creates noise. The more noise you make, more the bird will get alert. Slowly start to move your legs and walk towards the bird. At every small distance you go, click the photograph of your subject, so that you don’t miss any action as well as you get know how more close you have to go towards the subject. Also if your camera is on auto focusing mode then turn off the focusing sound(Refer to your camera’s user manual to turn off the focusing sound).
The more you practise the more you will get to know that how close you can go towards that particular bird. If we observe, perching birds or any small sized birds don’t sit a one place steadily are always moving from one place to another and are more alert when it comes to approaching them whereas photographing waders has a positive point that we can get close to them as compared to perching birds. Once you practise this you will get to know the difference between perching birds and waders.
Getting it Perfect
Holding the Camera – It’s obvious that you will be using a zoom lens and zooming in to the subject. This might result in some blur photos due to small shaking of your hand. When you are using telephoto lenses, they are heavy as 2kg ,3kg or even more. Holding such heavy lenses may result in cramps in the hand after few hours of shoot, or shooting with such big lenses might be difficult for some people.
Whichever lens you are using, there are few techniques of creating a sharp images. 1st of all keep VR/stabilizer of your lens on (Ofcourse if your lens has the feature), keep both your elbows touched to your body (As shown in the image below). For those who don’t have a VR/Stabilizer feature in their lens, use a higher shutter speed so that small shakes doesn’t affect your image. If possible use a tripod to stabilize your camera and the heavy lens. If your telephoto lens has a handle/tripod mount, slide it upwards(as shown in the image below) so that you hand gets enough space to rotate the zooming and focusing rings.
Keep the Eye level – When photographing birds, always keep your camera in the eye level of the bird. This Make the photo more interesting and eye catching. Example is shown below
- In the above photos you can spot the difference easily. The first image is taken from above the eye level of the bird while the second pimag is taken from the eye level of the bird. Keeping the eye level help to get a better view of your subject and enhances the image.
Different types of Shots – When you are photographing birds, always try for various types of shots that will help to study the bird more neatly. For example, you can capture a bird when he is sitting in one place, in flight , in action etc.
The two images above shows two different actions of ‘Osprey’.
- Focusing – Many people ask me about focusing problems they face. If you subject is moving constantly or your subject is in flight then use autofocusing mode. If the subject is stable, then you can use manual focus without any doubt. Auto Focusing helps in faster focusing on your subject when they are moving. Some people face problems even if they use auto focus, in that case set the auto focusing mode to ‘Continuous Servo’ so that your camera detects the subject and keeps the focus on that particular subject.
So concluding this chapter, these are some of the on-field techniques that you need to learn. Practise them repeatedly and have a good habit of these techniques so that you don’t face any problems. Make sure that you follow them perfectly and get some good shots out of them. Do let me know, how was this article? Was it helpful for you? etc. in the comment section below. Also write down your queries or doubts if you have any.