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How to Photograph Birds

Birds are one type of wildlife you can almost always find close to home. That can make it easier to practice photographing these challenging but rewarding subjects. Here are some tips to get you started.

Dennis Graver, aka Geezerhiker, shares these tips for photographing birds from his new e-book “Photohiking,” which offers photography tips specifically for hikers.

flicker Dennis Graver.jpg
Flickers are often spotted in urban areas. Because they are large and somewhat flashy, they can be easy to spot. Photo by Dennis Graver.

Taking pictures of birds can be easy if they stay still, but they often have flown away by the time you are ready to press the shutter release. And birds are especially challenging to photograph when they are flying. Photographing birds is a rewarding challenge when access to the mountains is limited. Here are some tips to help you improve your methods when photographing birds.

Equipment: If you have one, a telephoto lens will greatly help your bird photography. Bridge cameras with superzoom also work well for this purpose. When you can zoom to 600mm or more, you can capture some amazing images.

Continuous shooting: Try the continuous shooting mode, which takes multiple images ranging from about 10 to 24 frames per second. Taking photos in this mode allows you to select the image with the bird in the best position. Note that the camera has to receive, process, and store pictures, so you need to pause and take breaks while the camera catches up. Continuous mode allows a choice of two settings: low and high. Low shoots fewer frames per second and is adequate for bird photography; it also processes the photos faster than the high mode.

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Steller's jays are bright and boisterous birds. And you're likely to see them in neighborhoods, including at feeders. Photo by Terra Compton. 

Shutter speed: To freeze motion, a very fast shutter speed is required: 1/1600 or 1/2000 of a second works well. To obtain these speeds, there are trade-offs. If you increase shutter speed, you must increase the aperture opening and the ISO to obtain the proper exposure. Typical settings for birds in flight are Shutter mode, f/4, 1/1600 sec., ISO Auto, Focal length telephoto. With the camera set to shutter mode and the aperture set to f/4, Auto mode will vary the ISO (light sensitivity) of the photo to obtain the proper exposure.  The brighter the light, the lower the ISO, and the better the resolution of your pictures will be.

Birds in flight: Getting a good photo of a bird in flight is challenging. You have to find the bird with the viewfinder, pan the camera to keep the subject in the frame, zoom as needed, focus and press the shutter. It takes practice and patience.  Selecting the best focusing mode is perhaps the most difficult. Try auto focus and subject-tracking focus. Whatever you use, the focus mode needs to work in conjunction with the metering mode. Try various combinations until you find one that works. Some cameras have a sports mode to capture action. This mode may be an easy way to quickly obtain good bird photos just by changing modes. If your camera has a sports mode, give it a try.

Keep moving: When you are panning your camera to follow a bird in flight, keep following the birds until after you release the shutter. Keep panning while the camera takes continuous photos until you release the shutter.

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Barn owls are one of the owls that are comfortable living near people. During the day they'll be sleeping, but you might be able to see them moving around at dusk or dawn. Photo by Dennis Graver. 

Timing: Birds and other animals are more active early in the morning and late in the afternoon. What birds you see while change with the season as birds migrate.  As with most hiking pictures, timing is important. The goal is to be in the right place at the right time with the right equipment.

Remembering the details: You are probably wondering, “How am I going to remember all of this?”  Consider carrying a small notebook with basic settings for each type of photograph. Write with pencil. Whenever you capture a great image, compare the settings for that situation to those in your notebook and adjust as needed. Remember to preset your camera settings to the type of photos that you hope to take. This can even be done at home, especially for bird in flight photos.