My love of the outdoors comes from my adolescent years growing up on a farm in rural Arkansas. When you combine that with my love of photography you get a lot of time spent outdoors with a camera.
I enjoy watching and photographing wildlife when I am enjoying the outdoors. I carry my camera with me everywhere I go. And it seems the most abundant form of wildlife I encounter in the outdoors are birds.
Birds are everywhere. You see them whether you are hiking in the woods or fishing the many lakes and streams I frequent. Birds are colorful and come in all shapes and sizes. They can be a challenge to photograph because they rarely sit still for long.
That challenge is what makes bird photography so fun and rewarding. When you get home and find you got that awesome shot it makes the trip even more rewarding. You have a memory of the trip that you can keep forever.
Equipment You Will Need
Besides the obvious need for a camera, what kind of camera will you need? For starters, it would be best to have a DSLR or mirrorless camera that can use interchangeable lenses.
Even though I own two cameras I use my Canon 70D crop sensor camera for my outdoor work. This is my backup camera for portrait work. It is an older camera that is more than capable of taking great wildlife photos. And it saves me from having to take my main Canon 5Ds full-frame camera out into the elements where it could get dusty or wet.
My main lens when I head out into the outdoors is a Sigma 150-500mm lens. The crop factor of the 70D is 1.6x. The crop sensor of the 70D gives the lens an effective zoom of 240-800mm.
Sigma has updated this lens to 150-600mm. If you would like to get one you can purchase it here. There are two models of this lens, the Contemporary and the Sport. The differences between the two are weight and weather sealing. For most of us who don’t take our lenses out in driving rainstorms or dust storms, the Contemporary will work just fine. It’s also around $800 less expensive.
That makes it the perfect zoom lens for taking photos of birds and being able to zoom in close. It is very much needed because birds aren’t known for sitting around while you walk in range to take a photo with your 55mm kit lens.
Your settings will depend on whether the bird you are photographing is sitting still or flying.
Flying birds are the most challenging. You can pretty much forget manual focus for flying birds. Besides, you are going to be using your hand that would be manipulating the manual focus ring to work the zoom ring. This is especially true if the bird is flying toward you.
You’ll also want to change the zone on your autofocus from a single point af focus to a zone af focus. This makes it easier to keep the bird in focus while it is flying. My lens has a variable aperture of f5-6.3. It’s not a great low-light lens, but you can adjust for that somewhat by bumping up the ISO without too much noise.
You’ll need a fast shutter speed to freeze the wings in flight. When shooting birds with this lens I pretty much shoot in aperture priority mode.
One thing you’ll need when doing bird photography is patience. Animals rarely do what we want them to do right away. It takes patience to sit perfectly still while holding your camera up with a 6lb lens until you can get the shot.
I had to practice a fair amount of patience to get this osprey to look at me. It was facing the other direction when it landed on the limb with the fish. I got a little too close and I get the stare in the image above. I think I was being warned that dinner would be defended, so I shot a few more images and then backed away.
For a real challenge try to sneak up on a blue heron and get a shot like the one above. These birds are well-known for having extraordinary eyesight. Many times you will never know this bird is even around until you hear it scream as it flies away. I was really lucky to get the shot above of a heron that was unaware I was watching it. This is where patience comes in. In bird photography, you may have to find a spot where birds frequent, get there early and camouflage yourself well, and wait. Other times you may be able to sit quietly and get photos of songbirds and other less skittish breeds.
If you want to try out bird photography for yourself get out there and give it a try. Maybe some of the tips in this article can help you get started.
If you want to learn more and take your photography journey to the next level you might like Tony Northrup’s DSLR Book: How to Create Stunning Digital Photography. This book and video course will help you on your journey to be a better photographer.