Bird Photography – Introduction

Presentation to Canberra Photographic Society by Brian Jones, 9 February 2016


BP7_Gorgeted Sunangel

Gorgeted Sunange.


1. What Makes a Good Photograph? – Birds are much like any other subject in that regard.

A good photo comes from:

  • Knowledge and passion about your subject
    • Interesting subject matter
    • Right time and place
  • Composition
    • A pleasing design
    • Isolate subject from background
      • Direct the viewer’s eye to the key point of interest
      • Distracting backgrounds ruin photos – avoid anything that doesn’t add value
    • Quality of light
    • Creativity and novelty
      • Artistry
      • Capture and post-production
    • Layers of interest
      • To hold the viewer’s interest
      • , implied story, drama, subtlety

Remember the basics

  • and don’t get too obsessed by the rarity of the bird or the technical difficulties.


BP9_Toco Toucan



2. Categories of Animal and Bird Photographs

I find it useful to think of bird (and animal) photos in several categories

(i) Record shots

I take lots of these, purely for the purpose of identifying the bird or recording where we have seen it.

  • They typically have little if any technical or artistic merit.

(ii) Portraits

Similar considerations to portraits of people – want more than just a passport photo

  • Lighting, background, expression, the moment
  • Characteristic actions or context

(iii) Bird Behaviour

More interesting than just a bird standing around looking pretty. Add layers of interest, such as

  • flying, displaying, feeding
  • Interactions between birds
    • fighting, courting, mating, with chicks, etc

(iv) Birds in Their Environment

Interesting because they provide context and suggest a narrative

  • And better still if there is both behaviour and environment
    • More layers of interest





3. Difficult technical challenges

  • Small subjects, constantly moving – difficult to focus
  • Poor light
    • low light – means unfortunate choices:
      • high ISO – lots of digital noise;
      • large aperture – means shallow depth of field;
      • slow shutter speed – causes blur
    • harsh light
      • blown highlights and/or blocked shadows
      • correct exposure is absolutely critical (especially with white and black birds)
        • use manual exposure – take a test shot and adjust settings
          • and repeat every time the light changes
        • use highlight warning indicator and look at histogram
      • avoid shooting into the sun, if at all possible
      • fill flash can sometimes help, (say -1 2/3 stops); but on-camera flash flattens the image
    • Shallow Depth of Field
      • DOF is very small (often 1-3 cms) so focus has to be extremely accurate!!
        • Poor focus is perhaps the major cause of failed bird photos
        • focus on the critical area (usually an eye)
      • Clutter (unwanted objects in foreground or background)
        • hard to focus (use spot focus)
        • messy compositions (try an alternative vantage point?)


Two Arctic Terns perform an aerial ballet duet as part of a courtship ritual.


4. Birds-in-flight – special challenges

  • Need good equipment
    • Sharp lenses
      • Expensive, but essential for consistently top quality photos
    • Fast and accurate auto-focus (in lens and camera)
      • Extremely difficult with a point and shoot camera
  • Need good technique
    • Get to know your camera and lens
    • Appropriate settings on camera and lens
      • Manual aperture and shutter speed may be best
      • Servo auto-focus to lock onto a moving subject
        • May have to use area focus (eg., 9 points rather than spot focus)
      • Save Bird settings as a Custom Function (if camera allows)
        • Maybe different settings for: different backgrounds; smooth or erratic motion
      • Practise, practise, practise!!!
  • Take lots of shots
    • Good equipment and technique can improve your ‘batting average’
      • Aim for lots of technically correct images
      • Then select most interesting or aesthetically appealing
    • But, not ‘Spray and Pray’
      • High speed continuous shooting is good for rapidly changing situations,
        • but is no substitute for good technique


BP22 Victoria's Riflebird

Victoria’s Riflebird.


5. Concluding Comments

  • Remember the basics of a good photo
  • Have appropriate equipment
  • Master the technique
    • Aim to increase your batting average
    • Remember, poor focus is a killer; and depth of field can be as little as 1 cm
    • High ISO may be the best compromise in low light
      • Can deal with high noise in post-production; can’t fix motion blur
    • Look for more interesting subjects and behaviour
      • Challenge yourself to add more layers of interest
    • Be wary of emotional attachment to photos
      • Toss your duds and near misses (except as mementos)
    • Use a light touch in post-production
      • Don’t over-cook


6. Wildlife Photographer of the Year – Winners and Finalists 2010 – 2014

  • Slideshow with some awesome images.


7.  Questions



Brian Jones .

(See Brian’s website for more images)


BP42_ Kings at St Andrews

King penguins at St Andrews Bay, South Georgia.

8.  References .

Feathers and Photos: Australian bird photography forum: birding, critique, fauna, guides, hints, learn, locations, nature, techniques, tips, wildlife, workshops. . Wildlife and Bird Photography E-zine and Image Critique Forum .

Alan Murphy Lots of excellent images and runs workshops in the US .

Nature Photographers online magazine: critique gallery, discussion forum, articles on bird photography .

Birds as Art: blog, resources, bird photography competition, photos by Arthur Morris

The blog includes the finalists and winners of the 1st and 2nd International Bird Photography Competition .

Photosafaris: run photo tours that are excellent. See, for instance, their hummingbird tours in 2015 and the superb photos at . .

Autofocus settings for a Canon 5DIII: this is a guidebook on AF settings for a 5DIII. It illustrates the sorts of issues that arise. AF settings are camera-specific, so you will need to find corresponding information for your camera. .

Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Now in its 51st year, is the most prestigious wildlife photography competition. This link takes you to the winners and category finalists for the 5 years to 2014, for some seriously good images. They used to have categories for Animal Portraits, Bird Behaviour, and Animals in their Environment, although from 2014 there is just a single category for birds.


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