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Self-confessed 'bird nerd'

A few helpful tips when it comes to bird photography.

Ok, I’ll admit something which a number of you have either suspected or known for a long time. I am indeed a bird nerd. Going from having a mindset of; “It’s a bird, it has feathers and flies” - to a more passionate understanding and the excitement of seeing a new species for the first time was certainly a shift a me of, say, ten years ago could never have envisioned.

Great heron on the banks of the Kazinga Channel, Uganda

I’ve actually lost count of the number of species I’ve seen throughout my travels but during my relatively short time spent at Finch Hattons in Tsavo National Park earlier in 2019, my species list of birds had easily increased by around fifty, which is pretty good going!

Studying, watching and photographing birds will this give you a greater appreciation of the lives and monumental efforts these feathered friends go through each year but it will open your eyes to the fantastic diversity the ‘bird world’ has to show you. And of course it will provide you with great opportunities to photograph them for yourself…

1) Know the species. By this I mean know the behavioural traits of your subject. For instance, you’re unlikely to get an image of an owl in flight during the middle of the day so you can have a more relaxed approach when it comes to getting your settings correct as your subject is probably not going to move very much. But in comparison, photographing a kingfisher is a lot more tricky as you’ll need to watch its behaviour and learn to anticipate when it will begin its hunting flights and diving in to the waters to catch its next meal.

2) If you find a bird perched on a branch and are after the sought after take off image, there’s a number of factors to take in to consideration.

Wind direction. A bird, especially heavier species, are more likely to take off in to the wind rather than against it in order to gain more lift. This is a useful tip when photographing larger species.

Losing a little weight. This next part may sound a little gross but there’s method to the madness. Birds will quite often defalcate just before take off… why, might you ask? To lose a little extra weight to make take off and flying a bit less effort and not to waste valuable energy.

Body language - yep, even birds give tell tale signs of their intentions and there’s a number of things you can look out for which will help you prepare to capture that instant when the bird takes off. For. example; if a bird is resting on one foot, when it transitions to standing on two, it will probably take off very shortly. Also, another indicator is a quick drop of the head or body just before it leaps in to the sky. If you’re photographing a flocking bird, when one takes off, you’re pretty well assured that the rest will join it shortly afterwards, giving you a quick opportunity to make sure your settings are right and select the individual/s you are wanting to capture.

3) Get your settings right in anticipation to get the image you’re after. By that I mean to get yourself and your camera set and ready for your shot. For example, to get a nice, clean image of a bird taking off and to capture the wings fully extended crisply, you’ll need a fairly high shutter speed of at least 1/2000 of a second with your autofocus set you continuous rather than a single shot. This will enable your camera to track and focus on the bird as it leaves its perch and takes to the skies. If you don’t get these right, and I’ve failed at this many times, you’ll end up with a soft image which you’ll be kicking yourself over the opportunity of a missed opportunity.

4) Framing your shot. This is where the rule of thirds comes in to play, composing your image and placing the subject in an area of the frame which gives you a pleasing result. One little piece of advice which I’ll gladly give you, if you’re framing the shot in anticipation of the bird taking off, try not to go too tightly focused on the subject. Allow yourself a bit of space around the frame which will afford you that all important split second to squeeze off the shots as the bird takes off. If you go too tight, you might clip off part of the subject, or indeed miss it altogether.

5) Angles. And by this I mean try to angle yourself so that you’re not completely parallel with your subject. These slight angles can transform an image from an ‘ok’ one to something quite spectacular. If you can position yourself so that the body angle is facing towards you it gives the image a much more three-dimensional and powerful look. And if you can manage to capture an image with the bird looking at you, all the better as it will help your audience engage with the subject and make it more ascetically pleasing.

I guess all, or the majority of these tips will also come in handy for other aspects of wildlife photography and the more you practise remembering some of these tips the more they will come automatic in your photography process. You don’t need to go far to practise all of this, your own back garden or even a local park will give you tonnes of subjects to play with in preparation for when you decide to travel and go in search of more magnificent wildlife.

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