Bird Photography for Beginners
Part I – Basics of Bird Photography
Coppersmith Barbet on a rubber tree
Part - I
We have discussed that the key to good images lies in capturing beauty and character of the subject in as much detail as possible, and in a pleasing manner which is aesthetically appealing. Action photography is another dimension, as are environmental shots in which the bird is a part of its natural habitat.
There are various methods by which we accomplish this objective. We use sharp lenses, shallow depth of field, adequate shutter speed, correct exposure and proper composition and framing. I focus on the DOs and DON'Ts of appealing bird photography here.
The image of the Coppersmith Barbet above highlights various aspects which must be kept in mind when you are photographing birds, especially if they are a 'portrait shots' in which the bird is isolated from any distracting background detail.
Let us look at each aspect individually:
Your camera should have a choice of exposure modes which may include Aperture-priority (A or Av). For our purposes you can forget the rest like Manual (P) or Programme (P) or Shutter-priority (S). The reason is simple. Bird photography requires control over exposure and shutter speed and everything happens very fast. So you are looking for a compromise between control and assistance. That makes both P and M fairly useless in the field in most cases. I use P only if I am using flash in low-light conditions, and M if conditions are very tricky, and the bird is a willing and unmoving subject. Many feel that Shutter-Priority is an useful approach. But that is hardly the case because S mode could lead to exposure and depth-of-field errors. Once you fix the shutter speed you have no control on the your exposure and in low light the camera will underexpose if the required aperture is below the lowest that your camera can provide. In bright light you may pick up unwanted background details because the camera will stop down the lens. My recommendation is to stick to Aperture Priority in all cases. It allows your camera to get the highest shutter speed possible at the widest possible aperture, controls DOF and even allows you to chose the sweet spot of your lens. While most of the best 'pro' lenses give great results wide open, consumer zooms often give the sharpest results in mid-range apertures (f/8 or f/11). If conditions permit, you can make use of the most efficient performance zone of the lens. Getting the highest possible shutter speed out of your lens is also very important when you are using long lenses where you often have wafer thin depth of field and any lens movement is magnified. Aperture-priority mode allows you to fix a suitable aperture and have the camera set the shutter speed accordingly.
But even shooting aperture priority is no guarantee that everything will come out perfectly. Sometimes, there is just not enough light to get the results you want, even when you have the support of a flash. Look at the image below. It has two shots spaced by a few seconds. One in which I asked the camera to decide (Programmed exposure) and the other was my own attempt at judging conditions. Both failed leading to over and under-exposed images as the one-sided histograms show. Incidentally both images were shot in jpeg format giving me very little opportunity to do anything constructive with these shots. Another reason to always shoot RAW. Who knew in 2004! :)
Oriental Pied Hornbill
▼ Shutter speed
Once you decide to use the camera in Aperture priority, the camera will decide on the shutter speed based on the light available. While you have little control on that aspect you should know what is adequate for blur-free photography. With hand-held lenses without vibration reduction assistance and with good camera technique, you can use the old theory of the inverse of focal length. A 300mm camera then needs at least 1/300 second to give you shake free shots. [In my experience you can ignore the fact that lens may be behaving like a 450mm focal length lens because of the crop-factor common in DX cameras]. But much depends on your hand-held technique. Vibration reduction devices and use of stability devices like tripod, monopod, beanbag or other support can improve this ratio a great deal, but remember that birds move almost all the time, and wind is always a factor with small perched birds. The starting point to a good image is usually 1/125 second even with the steadiest camera, and 1/250 second is usually very safe for eliminating effects of small movements.
There are ways and means of using lower shutter speeds to get interesting results as you can see in the image below, and shooting many frames at a burst can often give you one good shot even when you are shooting below standard shutter speeds.
Stork-billed Kingfisher (L) and White-throated Kingfisher (R)
Now we have reached a point where our optics and available light decide what shutter speeds are possible. Much of bird photography is done in conditions where light is poor. One reason is that birds are very active at first light and before going to perch in the evenings. So a situation where the light at the widest opening of the lens gives us below acceptable shutter speeds is normal and natural. In the past, the only alternatives to combat this was fast film and artificial light. The situation has changed with the advent of digital cameras. You can now control the sensitivity of the recording device yourself by setting a higher ISO sensitivity which makes it possible to use faster shutter speeds.
▼ ISO sensitivity
Today’s DSLRs allow you to dial in an ISO sensitivity from base sensitivity (usually100 or 200) to 36,000 or more even! However, there are no free meals. Higher ISO results in higher noise and often affect vibrancy and colour. From what I understand, a cameras peak performance is at base ISO. Everything after that is a deviation from peak. I have almost never come across a photographer who will shoot ISO 3200 (say) when ISO 200 will do the job. There must be a good reason. Not being an expert I shall not go dwell deep into this subject. Suffice it to say that I always choose to shoot as low an ISO as possible and almost never go beyond ISO 400. My camera is of an older model and what it does at ISO 400 is comparable to what more modern cameras do at ISO 800. My recommendation is to shoot at the lowest ISO which give you an acceptable shutter speed-aperture combination.
▼ Metering mode and exposure compensation
Cameras offer various metering modes, of which Centre-weighted Average, Spot and Matrix (Evaluative) are most common. My camera is set for Centre-weighted because the subject, i.e., the bird is of primary importance to me and I want to expose it right. Spot-metering is an option, especially if the bird and the surroundings have different levels of luminance. Often true for birds in snow or flying birds. But I find Spot-metering to be unpredictable and not useful when things are happening very fast. At such times I meter off a medium grey object in the same light as a bird. Green leaves or grass is very close to medium grey.
Matrix metering typically evaluates the light on the whole frame and is less effective than Centre-weighted which gives more weightage to the subject.
The other important point about fiddling around with metering modes, ISO etc, is the risk of forgetting to return the camera back to your settings of choice. I have a friend who regularly calls me to say that he blew his last trip because his camera was still set at ISO 1600 from the afternoon before, and he was shooting in bright sunlight through the day (common problem because you dial up ISO when light falls in the evenings).
Bracketing: Another technique you can use is exposure bracketing, in which you just take extra pictures either side of the meter's recommended exposure to make sure you get at least one well-exposed image. This is not very useful in bird photography because the perfect capture could have the wrong exposure. Much better to get the exposure right in the first place, and if you have to compensate, do it manually with exposure compensation.
Exposure compensation: Sometimes the light is mixed, in fact it often is. A bird in the sky is surrounded by brightness. Even the most sophisticated meter is fooled in these situations and will give you a perfectly exposed sky and a perfectly dark bird. The opposite applies to a white bird in dark foliage. You get well exposed leaves and a blob of white. The way around this is to dial in exposure compensation as an aid to your cameras light meter. With time and experience you should be able to judge the required amount of compensation. Till such time, you could use the general guidelines below:
Light subject and background: Exposure compensation of +1 to +2 works well. Swans in snow are good subjects to try this out.
Dark subject and background: Exposure compensation of -1 to -2.
Dark subject and light background: Exposure compensation of +1 to +1.5 depending on how much of the bird fills the frame. Flight photos are good examples.
Light subject and dark background: This is a tricky situation and you are usually best off by doing nothing. In case the light subject is dominant, follow guidelines for 'Light subject', and reverse of the background is dominant.
When in doubt meter off a mid-toned object near you in the same light. You may get very acceptable results.
One major aspect of composition is 'subject placement'. I will leave that in another part. Here we will illustrate some common DOs and DON'Ts which have to be mastered before we get into subject placements:
Capture the right moment: Random photography without taking into account the aesthetics can be very uninteresting. It takes very little to get an image right or wrong. Look at the image below. It is shot 33 seconds apart. The one on the left was the first shot when I saw the bird. It is a documentation shot, just to record that the bird was present at that location. Because the bird did not leave immediately, I waited for it to give me a better perspective and in the meantime changed the camera settings as you can read in the included EXIF. Also note the drop in ISO and increase in exposure compensation. Both images are processed together so you can see the differences clearly. The one on the right is the much better image, in my opinion, both in terms of appeal and overall quality of noise and exposure. Little changes make a big difference in bird photography!
Crested Serpent Eagle
Shoot from the right angle: The image below is of the same bird shot a minute or two apart. Not only does the image on the right suffer from extreme clutter, it is shot from the top and the bird is looking away from the camera - all big no, no's! The image on the left is shot at 'eye level' where your lens is at the same level as the eyes of the bird - a much desired way of capturing bird images because it shows the bird in perfect perspective and adds intimacy.
Shoot at the level of the bird: Eye-level photography is taken to extremes by bird photographers when it comes to birds that spend time on the ground. See the image below. It requires you to spend time flat on your belly. Good if you have a comfortable one, painful if you are skinny! :)
Avoid man-made objects: Human objects generally detract from a bird image except in a few cases making them look like amateurish attempts. Unless the bird is extremely urban in habitat-use, it is best to shoot them at natural perches or locations.
More tips in a subsequent post.
Author: Sumit K Sen
© Sumit K Sen 2017