Florida is one of the better bird watching spots I’ve had the pleasure of photographing. Many of the animals are remarkably comfortable being viewed even at close distances. This makes for a unique wildlife photography opportunity. With a warm climate and abundance of water, the gulf coast is home to a massive variety of breeds. Some of my favorites are Great Blue Herons, Tri-Colored Herons, Egrets, Storks, Cranes, Cormorants, Moore Hens, and Pelicans. I was able to see all of these and more in a single weekend near Clearwater.
My lens of choice for wildlife is typically the Canon 400mm f5.6L. It’s remarkably sharp and actually fairly compact for a super telephoto. Most manufacturers have similar models for wildlife enthusiasts. This was paired with the Canon 6D, hand held. You may be surprised to read that a tripod wasn’t involved. Yet, as you’ll see below, the shutter speeds are remarkably fast, largely eliminating the potential for camera shake.
While in no way a complete list, here are the top 5 things I consider when photographing birds. Try these on your next outdoor adventure and you’ll notice an immediate improvement in your birding images.
Even if a bird is sitting still, it’s best to select a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second. This is done in preparation for a flurry of action. Should the creature catch a fish, or open its wings and fly, you can freeze the movement. Slower exposures would only result in blur. Of course a shutter this fast only lets a small amount of light in the camera, so a higher ISO is often necessary.
2) I’m Looking Through You
When photographing birds, I often recall the famous Beatles lyric, “I’m looking through you…” This is a reminder that the area behind the subject is nearly as important as the main attraction. I’m not only studying the bird, but am evaluating the overall scene for potential distractions. Fences, thick brush, unsightly poles and boardwalks can all ruin an otherwise great moment. To further accentuate the look of a “clean” background, I use the lens at its widest aperture, in this case f5.6. Sometimes, improvements are found by simply adjusting your angle. Move left and right, or try getting up high or lying down. A better background will make a massive impact.
3) Eye Contact
If the eyes of your bird are soft, the entire image suffers. As such, I find it imperative to put the active focus point on, or near the eyes. Should the subject be largely still, there is enough time to select from the various focus points in the viewfinder. For those high speed situations however, it’s often best to simply center the subject. While composition is certainly an important consideration, wildlife rarely offers much time to perfect the frame in the field. My main goal is the capture a sharp photo so I can fine tune the image with a crop later on.
4) Just a Little Patience
If you want to be a better bird photographer, work on developing your patience. Every creature has their own unique patterns and behavior. As you observe these movements, try to predict what will happen next. This may involve staying still for 30-60 minutes with one bird to catch something interesting. Remain very quiet and avoid any fast movements or startling sounds.
5) Time of Day
At high noon, exposures can be tricky due to the harsh contrasty light. This is particularly challenging for creatures with white feathers. A better alternative for nature photographers is to head out early in the morning. Not only is the light beautiful, but the animals are searching for food. Since they’re not paying attention to you, it’s easier to capture them in their natural element.