There are great wildlife photo opportunities right outside of your door. It’s true; you only need to go as far as your own backyard to find these tiny creatures. Done correctly, song birds can be the subject of many stunning photographs. While our feathered friends may be the most readily accessible, they are in no way an easy target.
In fact, birds are some of the most challenging things to photograph. There are however, a number of tricks you can use to counter their skittish and unpredictable nature. In this tutorial I’ll reveal how to go beyond mere record shots, to images that really sing.
“I got a bird that whistles, I got a bird that sings…” – Bob Dylan
We all want to fill the frame with these colorful subjects, but the birds of course have a different agenda. They only want to stay out of harms way and avoid becoming cat food. To gain their trust, a little bird seed goes a long way. This is especially effective in winter when natural food supplies such as bugs and berries are scarce. I’ll place seed on natural perches like tree limbs and large branches. This is a much more scenic option than a bird perched on a plastic bird feeder.
Find a place to stay largely out of sight while still retaining a view of the seeded area. The birds will know you’re still there, but if you remain largely still they won’t view you as a threat. A tripod will help in this situation as you can stabilize the camera, wait and watch. This part takes extreme patience so get comfortable. You may even want to use a green camping chair that blends into the scenery.
You’ve done all the necessary preparation to attract the birds, but what about your camera settings? I have specific guidelines to help make your shots clear and sharp. First, set your camera to continuous high, or the fastest burst mode allowable. This will allow you to shoot many consecutive frames by simply holding down the shutter. Then, select the center autofocus point and the AI Servo mode which helps to track moving subjects. Like most high speed situations, a fast shutter of 1/500 to 1/1000 is recommended to freeze the action. The out-of-focus background is created with an extremely wide aperture such as f2.8 or f4. Finally, the ISO speed varies based on how much light you have to work with. I start very low at 100 or 200 and will raise it as needed.
As for lenses, you can never have enough reach with bird photography. 200mm is a good place to start, but you’ll still find that the images will benefit from aggressive cropping. For those really avid birders, something in the 300-400mm range is even better. Not only will the subject appear larger in the frame, but you work from greater distances, increasing your scope of opportunity.