So You Want to be a Bird Photographer...me, too!

Is your goal commercial art or to record shots of birds memorable to you? Depending on your requirements, there is equipment to satisfy your needs.

Here, we are going to delve into some of the basics of bird photography such as: equipment, techniques, and common problems, to help you make better images. No discussion of bird photography would be complete without also stating the obvious – everyone has different aspirations. This is not written for professional nature photographers, rather, for the birder who wants to capture photos of the wonders that we find so captivating. After all, there is not much more that we birders get thrilled by than the incredibly diverse and beautiful avian world. And that is even more alluring when we see a spectacular photograph of a gaudily-colored Scarlet Tanager, Rufous Hummingbird, or Indigo Bunting. So how do you photograph birds if you've never tried it?

Today, photography means digital photography, a great gift. In the old days the only people who could regularly produce worthwhile bird photos were professionals, with exorbitant amounts of money invested in camera equipment, and whose film and lab work was paid for by selling such images. Now, with digital equipment, you can shoot photos to your heart’s content. The only limiting factor is now the amount of memory space your camera has. Another technological windfall for bird photographers was the invention of autofocus (AF). With AF at least we all had some chance of getting that Blue-gray Gnatcatcher into focus before it continued its never-ending, insect-hunting dance through the high branches. And we're already into...

Equipment

What should I get, or what is even out there? And what can I do with my existing digital camera if I don't want to spend money on new equipment? Digital cameras are available in a few different basic types. First, easiest to use and least expensive, is a cellphone camera or Point-and-Shoot camera (PAS). Next, there are what some call superzooms, basically a point-and-shoot camera with a more capable telephoto lens (built-in). Last, there are DSLR cameras where you can change lenses and use other system related accessories.

 DSLR vs superzoom. It’s a slippery slope...

DSLR vs superzoom. It’s a slippery slope...

 

Cell Phone Cameras / Point-and Shoot cameras (PAS)

Not really good for bird photography, unless you only want to digiscope images of birds. Digiscoping is the mechanical coupling of a camera (of any type) to a spotting scope's eyepiece and using the scope's optics to magnify the image the camera captures. I've seen some decent images taken this way. I feel, though, that these images are useful for documentation only, not for 16x20s in your living room. Well, unless the image was of the last living Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Inexpensive plastic adapters, available from several manufacturers snap right onto your cellphone/PAS and the other side fits nicely against the eyepiece of many popular scopes, keeping stray light out. They're cheap, handy gadgets to take digiscoped images with your smartphone for about $40. These things work best at the minimum zoom setting of your scope (usually 20x-25x).

Superzooms

This type of camera is a big brother to the Point-and-Shoot, nicknamed “superzoom” for  its built-in lens with increased range. Some of these cameras have lenses with more than 20x in zoom range. Keep in mind that 20x does not mean 20 times magnification of what we see. It is 20 times the minimum focal length of this camera.

If you will be using your camera strictly for bird photography, you'll want the maximum telephoto lens capability you can find, as well as a high mega-pixel rating and capability to shoot in different exposure modes. These cameras can be quite good for bird photography in many circumstances.

No superzoom compares to the DSLR that I now use. But for those looking for an inexpensive way to get into bird photography, these cameras have their place. In short, get the highest actual magnification lens you can, and the highest mega-pixel rating you can afford if shopping for this type of camera.

DSLRs

The choice of all professional bird photographers, as well as most serious hobbyists I know of. Perhaps the most important benefit is your ability to switch to different lenses. Within seconds, you can go from shooting a sunrise with a 20mm lens (very wide angle) to capturing a distant Blackburnian Warbler with a 500mm lens. It also gives you the ability to use various zoom lenses so you could have a 17-85mm lens, and a 100-400mm zoom in your bag, and with two lenses cover the range of perhaps ten or more fixed length lenses. Keep in mind, lenses are specific to manufacturer's cameras – meaning all makers of DSLR cameras use a different type of mounting system on their lenses. So you cannot use a Nikon lens on a Pentax camera, etc. There are multitudes of aftermarket lens manufacturers (Sigma, Tamron, et al.) that make lenses to fit all the different makes of camera bodies (DSLR without a lens), but as a rule, you get what you pay for. You might be tempted to buy a “Brand X” 500mm lens for your Olympus DSLR because it is priced at $129, or whatever. Good quality lenses are expensive, but are able to deliver much sharper results when used properly. Another important benefit of DSLRs is much increased sensor size, usually 24 x 36 mm. Mega-pixel ratings range into the middle 30's in high-end pro bodies. The DSLR you choose depends on your level of commitment, and maybe more importantly, your checkbook balance. DSLR bodies (without lens) range from a couple hundred bucks, to many thousands of dollars. Generally, DSLRs, fall into two categories: hobbyist and professional. Some would argue this over features and price, but most birders don't want to spend thousands on a body and many more thousands on lenses specially geared for pros or people like me who have just lost their sanity. They'll have features like really high shooting rates (10 frames per second or more), faster & more sensitive autofocusing, and on and on. The hobbyist has a range of less expensive camera bodies to choose from, and there are lots of good ones out there.

DSLR lenses

When talking bird photography lenses, they fall into these useful types: telephoto and super telephoto. For the same reason we use binoculars to get better views of small birds in the treetops, we use telephoto lenses to get better bird photos.

For the sake of comparison, a 50mm lens roughly matches the way our naked eye perceives the world. So, a 400mm lens, compared to a 50mm lens, produces an image that looks as if it was viewed through 8x binoculars. A 500mm lens has 10x of magnification, and so on.

Many people will be quite happy shooting with a mid-range zoom lens such as a 70-300mm. This lens gives very short-to mid telephoto capability.

 Is it really long enough?

Is it really long enough?

There are also some reasonably priced fixed telephoto lenses like 300 or 400mm, but what you save in cost on these less expensive lenses, you likely sacrifice in sharpness and/or increasing maximum aperture. Auto-focusing on lower end lenses is much slower, and in some cases, less accurate.

Nifty gadgets that can increase the magnification of any lens are called teleconverters, or extenders. They usually come in 1.4x, 2x, or 3x versions. Using a 2x converter with a 300mm lens, turns the rig into a 600mm unit. But, there are also caveats. Teleconverters increase the aperture of the prime lens by the same factor, turning your f/5.6 lens to f/11. And worse, since the autofocusing systems in most DSLRs only work at maximum apertures of f/5.6, many lens/converter combinations cannot autofocus. You can manually focus the lens but you have just lost one of the best things about modern cameras.

Another limitation to converters is the more powerful the converter, the more image sharpness is degraded. It is almost unnoticeable when I use the 1.4x, but is much more apparent with the 2x. That said, if you have a fast lens (maximum aperture like f4 or f2.8) then a 1.4x converter is an inexpensive way to add reach to an existing lens and retain all its functions. As with prime lenses, you get what you pay for with teleconverters. I would recommend that you try to use a converter made by your camera manufacturer. They usually run $200-500, depending on camera brand and power.

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Editing

After our digital images are downloaded to our computers, we can make our images a little bit, or sometimes a lot better. Some particularly useful things we home editors can accomplish with our photos are: cropping (eliminating unwanted parts of a photo around the subject, leaving a better, less distracting image), exposure control (darkening or lightening a photo), or changing parameters of color and other enhancement options. I'm not talking about editing a bird into an image that wasn't there, or making a Common Yellowthroat into an Orange-crowned Warbler, but rather being able to tweak our photos to make them more pleasing to us, and make us feel like “Hey! That's a decent photo I took...” Let me assure you, virtually every professional bird photographer edits or “post-processes” his work. It is the nature of the beast that is this obsessive “bird photography” thing. We strive for the perfect shot of that male Hooded Merganser doing his crazy breeding display, but very rarely get it. Editing helps us feel a bit better about it.

Glossary

  • Aspiration: Anything from remembering a place, proving I saw a certain bird to high brow art.
  • Exposure: Each photo records the light you point your lens towards. The camera sensor must get the right amount of light to  record a pleasing image.
  • Aperture: Each lens has blades that open and close to let in more or less light. For historical reasons, these amounts of light are often referred to as F/1, f/1.4, f/2.8, f/4.0, f/5.6, f/8, and so on. Note that each full step is 1.4 times larger than the previous.The lower the number the larger the opening, the more light reaches the camera.
  • Shutter Speed: The other way to control how much lightreaches your camera sensor is to close the shutter (~door) after a longer or shorter period of time. Typically this is a small fraction of a second.
  • ISO: The third way to control your exposure is to make your camera sensor more or less sensitive to light.
  • Sensor size: In the film days, most people used film that was ~35 mm horizontally for each frame. Digital cameras can have the equivalent: a sensor of different sizes.
  • Smaller sensor means more apparent DoF, ‘reach’, ISO noise, and lower price
  • Pixel: From picture element. It is a single dot of any color. An image is made up of millions of dots.
  • Prime lens: Not a zoom lens. Tends to be sharper than a zoom equivalent.
  • Focal Length: Expressed in millimeters. 50mm is about what we see with our eyes. Longer focal length causes out of focus areas to become more blurred.
  • Wide angle lens: shorter than 50mm.
  • Telephoto lens: In the 50-400mm range
  • Super telephoto lens: 400mm and longer
  • Depth of Field (DoF): How much of the image is in focus. Counter-intuitively, you want parts of your image to be out-of-focus. This allows the main object of your image to stand out from the rest. Also related to ‘bokeh’ which is the shape of the out of focus parts of your image.
  • Ratios: Size in frame, color combinations, position in frame, eye contact. All are examples of things that make a photo beautiful to most humans.