1. Know Your Bird’s Baseline Behavior
A portrait of a bird on a perch staring straight into the camera has its interesting points. However, it’s also probably an image of a startled bird on high alert. A bird spending its energy paying attention to you, or worse, trying to move away from you, isn’t going to provide you with an opportunity for a diversity of portraits. There are only so many images of a duck swimming away while looking over its shoulder that you can get before it’s time to try something new.
Imagine gold light shining through the feathers of a shorebird as it preens, or the catch of an unusual prey item by a diving duck, or a male performing for a female during the fever of nesting season. These are all images worth waiting for!
The key to compelling bird photography is behavior shots, and behavior shots come with stealth, patience, and understanding what that bird’s baseline behavior looks like.
Baseline behavior is just a way of saying “normal activity” – what a bird does when it is going about its life. Feeding, singing (not alarm calling, but singing), courtship displays, and preening are all signs that a bird is feeling calm, secure, and at baseline. This is when the opportunities open up for some very neat images.
Study up on the behaviors of the species you’re photographing. How sensitive to disturbance are they, and how long does it usually take for them to calm down from being startled? What kind of behaviors are you hoping to photograph, and at what time of day does this species usually engage in those behaviors? All these things and more are worth researching before you head out into the field.
When a bird is relaxed, you’re in the best situation to get interesting behavior shots. The research you did beforehand will help get you in the right position, and know how much time to expect to put into both waiting and shooting to capture something truly spectacular.
2. Learn your bird’s flight patterns
Capturing action shots will absolutely take your images to the next level, so birds in flight is a great goal to have on any shooting day. But, photographing birds in flight – especially small birds – is probably the hardest skill to learn for wildlife photography.
An ability to fly is (mostly) universal among birds, but various bird species have unique ways of utilizing this talent. By learning each bird’s type of flight pattern and tell-tale behavior before take-off, you’ll be way ahead of the game for mastering the skill and capturing those much desired shots like a bird coming straight toward you, a beautiful slow pan, or the action of take-off.
For example, many species, such as Steller’s jays and hairy woodpeckers have an undulating flight pattern with a direct path, which makes tracking them more predictable. Meanwhile, black-capped chickadees make quick dashes between trees, then flit among branches, sometimes hovering to glean insects from leaves. Still other songbird species use a “hawking” behavior in which they wait on a perch for passing insects, fly out to snag the prey at a short distance, then return to the same perch. There is a wide diversity of flight patterns and behaviors, so take a bit of time the evening before a shoot to read up on the behaviors of birds you expect to see. The research will definitely pay off!
Knowing in-flight behavior is important for tracking, but so too is pre-flight behavior. There are two behaviors that are great give-aways for when a bird is about to take wing. The first is the forward crouch, where a bird crouches low on a perch and leans forward a second or two before taking off. The second is “lightening the load”. A bird will often defecate before taking off. If you see this while watching a bird through your lens, get yourself ready for flight shots!
One more flight behavior to know is how a flock moves. Different species flock in different ways which can often be predictable. A flock of startled snow geese that take off from a corn field will often loop back around to their original feeding area. A flock of starlings will engage in incredible displays of aerial agility when a predator like a merlin or peregrine is around. Huge flocks of sandhill cranes will usually depart in smaller groups during morning fly-outs, providing ample opportunity for in-flight images. Think about why and how different species flock so you know when and where you should position yourself for great images.
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3. Keep your focus on the eyes
As a visual and social species, eye contact is incredibly important to us. Through millions of years of evolution, we are tuned in to looking immediately at another being’s eyes. This instinct is true for looking at images, too. Thus, eyes are the most important part of an animal to keep in focus.
This can be tough to do while photographing birds for several reasons. If you’re using autofocus, your camera wants to lock onto whatever is closest to you, which as the bird turns its head or moves around, could end up being its bill, wing, breast feathers, and so on. Then there’s the fact that they’re moving around so much!
To overcome these challenges, try using single-point autofocus, or even point-within-a-point autofocus in your camera’s settings. This lets you really zero on on where your camera is focusing, and by narrowing down the camera’s options, you’re more likely to nail that sharp crisp focus on the eye.
Even though it can be tough to do, ensuring the eye is in focus will make all the difference in a shot that draws viewers in versus a shot that just doesn’t quite feel right.
4. Pan out to capture a bird’s environment
It is easy to get so pulled into making portraits that we forget to photograph an animal in its environment. This kind of shot creates a beautiful, compelling, story-telling image, and shouldn’t be neglected.
Capturing a bird in its environment so that it remains the subject of the image and doesn’t get lost among other details requires framing the bird within the scene. Use the compositional strategies of rule of thirds and the golden spiral to help you figure out how to compose the scene and where to place the bird within it.
These are helpful but not hard-and-fast rules. Use the topography of the environment to decide where and how to place the bird. You’re likely dealing with a lot of branches, plants, additional birds within a flock and various and other objects that will make framing more of an artistic practice than a scientific one.
As you look around and consider how to frame your bird, take in the whole scene of the surrounding habitat. Include patterns, textures, colors and other elements of the environment that make the image interesting without becoming busy.
Also consider how depth of field can be used to craft your image. Use a deep depth of field to capture details about the whole scene, or a shallow depth of field to make the bird stand out from the surrounding area.
5. Go Vertical for Perched Birds
Finally, you can add variety to your portfolio by simply changing your camera’s orientation. This works great on perched birds, since they tend to be taller than wide when perched.
When deciding where to place the bird in the frame, it’s best to notice where the bird is looking. Again, we’re a visual species and naturally take cues on where to look based on where someone else is looking. So, if a bird is looking down, we naturally also want to look down to see what the bird is looking at. With a bird looking down, the image will feel most natural and comfortable to a viewer if the bird is in the top half of the frame, giving both the bird and us room to look “down” into the frame.
Conversely, if a bird is looking around or up, place it in the bottom half of the frame. This allows us to imagine the bird has the ability to fly up and out of the scene.
Again, this is a rule of thumb and the situation and specifics of your shot will help you dictate the best way in which to place the bird. Just remember to flip that camera once in awhile and get some vertical shots for variety.