Winter and early spring are ideal times to get out an take part in a very challenging, but very rewarding activity: Bird photography.
Bird Photography Locations
There are many places that become great sites for birds. In the wintertime, head out into the country where there are large tracts of farmland with some fence posts. Be patient and you will very likely see Snowy Owls. They have great faces and are challenging to photograph. Try to get them in flight, particularly in a turn, what professionals call a “gesture”, rather than just sitting on a post, but get the shots. Remember that if snow is your background that you will have to overexpose, two stops is a good start, to make the snow white instead of middle grey.
You can also head into areas known for a large population of birds that are accustomed to humans. Lynde Shores near Whitby is a great place to go. Take seed along with you, because the birds are known to expect humans to show up with food.
Another great place is your yard. You can put up feeders in locations where the birds have some cover and in a short time, you will have winged guests in your yard. This is a commitment because once you start putting food out, your feathered neighbours start to depend upon you. Also expect that the presence of food may bring you other neighbours as well including highly acrobatic and dedicated squirrels, perhaps raccoons on a break from safecracking your garbage cans as well as the odd skunk or opossum. If you have a deck or even an unobstructed window, you can set your camera and lens on a tripod and just be ready. If you shoot through a window, be sure to invest the time to clean the glass on all surfaces with diligence and check for reflections that will ruin your shots.
Birds are naturally skittish around people. As such, being slow and methodical in your movements will help you a great deal. As much as you love your kids, they go together with bird photography not at all. Children are boisterous, fast moving and loud. A guarantee to see nothing close enough to photograph. Dress appropriately. In winter, you will be out there for some time, so dress properly. Where proper boots, gloves and keep your head covered. In the spring, plan for wet and often muddy ground and for cool breezes particularly before the leaves come in. Once the leaves have opened completely, bird photography gets a lot harder.
Bird Photography Equipment
This is one situation where there is no substitute for a long lens, and by long, I mean really long. Both Sigma and Tamron do superb lenses in the 150mm to 600mm zoom range and you should expect to be shooting near the maximum all the time. Handholding a 600mm is a challenge and for birds in flight, you will be looking for a shutter speed that is nice and high for sharpness. I suggest striving for 1/1600 or so to start. You can shoot wide open, the bird is likely to be far enough that depth of field is not an issue, and don’t be afraid to raise your ISO to get those high shutter speeds. Even with lenses with some form of stabilization, the size and weight means you need high shutter speeds for sharp images.
While you can shoot handheld in many cases, a tripod is going to be an asset even if only to take the load off your arms, shoulders and neck. Professional bird shooters tend to swap their ball heads out for a special head called a gimbal that makes for super smooth pans, rises and falls. I strongly recommend carbon fibre leg sets because they are lighter and handle getting bashed around better. They are also easier to clean when you set the feet down and the legs sink six inches into a muddy bog. If on a budget, the Cameron CF-700 is a superb carbon fibre tripod with a very decent ball head. For a gimbal head, there are good choices available from Jobu and Wimberley. A good gimbal head is not inexpensive, and you might want to see how important bird photography is to you before making the investment. A word of caution though, once you have gone gimbal for birds, shooting off anything else becomes a case of lunch bag letdown.
Bird Photography Workshops
There are often workshops advertised to help you get close to the birds. This can help, particularly where the guide is well accredited and gets you into the right place. Some locations have rescue birds who are more tolerant of people and you can still get really great images this way. This is a hobby for most of us and we aren’t being paid by the National Geographic for Andean Condors in the wild.
Until next time, peace.