Spring is well in motion, and later this month it will officially be summer. It’s one of the best times of year to be a photographer. The days are growing longer, the sun is shining brighter, the flowers are in bloom, and for those interested in wildlife, the birds are chirping, breeding, flying around and generally at their most active stage of the year.
There is no better time than now in 2017 to photograph birds, but it can also be quite a challenge. Below, our friends over at Camera Jabber share some of their best advice for capturing close-up portraits of birds. They’ll explain some simple techniques for setting up your camera, as well as some must-have kit that can give you every advantage when trying to capture our feathered friends.
How to frame head-and-shoulders shots of birds
When you shoot a close-up shot of a bird, it’s best to concentrate on nothing but the bird’s face. Cut out anything unnecessary in the frame and focus on the head, neck and top of the wings.
A head-and-shoulders portrait of a bird typically works best in portrait format, but this isn’t always true. Some species, such as owls, might look best in landscape format. It’s worth experimenting with both to see which looks right.
It’s also worth thinking about whether the bird looks best in profile or staring directly at your camera. Does one angle reveal more plumage or more striking markings?
Setting your focus points for bird portraits
As with humans, pin-sharp focus is critical to the success of a bird portrait, so make sure you are focusing on the bird’s eyes. It’s likely that this point – the eyes – will be off-centre in your frame, so you’ll want to choose your AF point wisely.
You’ll want to choose an autofocusing point that helps you maintain your composition without having to move the camera to focus. Then, dial in a mid-range aperture of about f/8. This will help to increase depth of field and ensure that you capture the bird’s whole head in focus while blurring the background just enough to tone it down and make the bird stand out.
Shoot in Aperture Priority mode
Your camera’s Aperture Priority exposure mode allows you to set that f/8 aperture we talked about above as your desired aperture, and then it will determine the shutter speed required to achieve that.
Sometimes if the light isn’t strong enough you’ll get a warning – often a flashing display – that a shutter speed at that aperture value isn’t possible. One way around this is to simply increase your ISO setting to a higher value. This does introduce noise to your images, but modern cameras are very good at keeping this at bay, even at sensitivities as high as ISO 6400.
Think about your background
When approaching a bird, try to position yourself so that you can line up the bird with a background that will contrast with the bird to help them stand out.
Background colours play a big part in how well an image will work. The key to a good background is that it shouldn’t compete with the bird for your viewer’s attention.
Continuous Shooting mode
Most cameras offer a Continuous shooting, or burst, mode, which allows you to take a series of frames in sequence. Whether your camera shoots 3fps (frames per second) or 8fps, this faster drive mode can really help increase your hit rate. A rapid-fire succession of images can increase your chances of capturing a fleeting moment of perfection.
Pre-focus on perches
If you’ve set up a perch in your garden to photograph birds as they eat, use this to your advantage. Anytime you know where a bird will land, whether a perch or a branch or some reeds, pre-focus your camera on this spot and then simply wait for them to land and press the shutter.
A good way to do this is to pre-focus with your AF and then lock to manual focus on your lens.
Use spot metering
Many times when photographing birds you’ll find that your subject is small and bright against a large dark background, or the opposite if up high: dark against a bright sky.
This can be tricky for your camera to get a meter reading from. Using your default centreweighted metering, for instance, your camera will read all of that dark background and produce an exposure that washes out your subject.
Your spot metering mode allows you to take a meter reading from a small, select area of your frame to ensure that your subject is exposed correctly. Typically the ‘spot’ is assigned to your camera’s active AF point.
Use a telephoto lens
A fast 300mm telephoto, such as the more affordable f/4 or pro-level f/2.8 lenses, gives you a huge advantage to not only get close to your subject but blur out your background to make the bird stand out.
Using these lenses at their widest aperture will also give you a faster shutter speed, which means you can likely avoid having to increase your ISO setting.
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