We’ve talked about bird photography fairly often here on PhotoNaturalist, including posts on how to photograph birds in flight and how to photograph hummingbirds in the wild. Well, today’s topic is photographing perched birds, like in the photo above of a black-throated sparrow.
Bird photography can be frustrating at times, and it may seem like you always need a longer lens, but with a little patience and a few little tricks, you’ll be coming home with good bird photos in no time. So, here are a few tips to get you started:
#1 – Photograph them in direct sunlight
This isn’t always a requirement, but it’ll help you get a faster shutter speed (which helps freeze the bird’s sudden movements and increases your chances of getting a sharp photo as you’ll likely need to handhold your camera). And, the direct sunlight also helps you avoid those ugly harsh shadows which usually cause exposure headaches.
#2 – Wait for them to come to YOU
If you try approaching a bird, you’ll almost always scare it away well before you get close enough to fill even 10% of the frame. Even if you try to move as slowly and quietly as possible. But, if instead you just sit somewhere and wait for the birds to come to you, they’ll often get pretty close. Sometimes they’ll even get too close! Just be patient!
#3 – Use a blind or avoid sudden movements
Birds (and any wildlife) are extremely sensitive to movement, so if you make any sudden movements you’ll likely scare the bird away. Ideally, you should wait for the birds from a blind (to completely mask your movement). But, if a blind isn’t available, then try to be as still as possible.
#4 – Find a spot with a lot of good perches
When you’re looking for a spot to sit and wait for the birds to come to you, you should be looking for a couple of things. First, you obviously need a place with some good bird traffic 🙂 And second, find a spot that has a lot of good places for the birds to perch. A good perch is somewhat close to you (so you can fill the frame with the bird), and has a good background (it should be far away and contrast well with the type of bird you’re trying to photograph). Ideally, you also want some perches that are level with your camera, so you can capture some intimate shots of the bird.
#5 – Use a monopod or tripod for support
You won’t have time to lock in the ballhead on a tripod, but you can still keep it unlocked and use the tripod legs for some added support. Or, you can invest in a lightweight monopod. Keeping your camera still will increase your chances of getting a tack sharp photo.
#6 – Enable rapid shooting and take lots of photos
You’ll want to take a lot of photos rapidly for a couple of reasons. First, the bird will likely make a lot of sudden movements so you want to ensure you photograph him/her when they’re standing still in a good pose. And, second, since you’ll be somewhat hand-holding your camera, taking lots of shots will increase your chances of getting a sharp one.
#7 – Set your autofocus point to the center spot
Most lenses will autofocus the fastest in the center of their view, so set your autofocus point to the center spot. And, focus on the bird’s eyes because that’ll be the first place the viewer looks in the photograph. It’s critical for the eyes to be tack sharp.
#8 – Set your lens to autofocus on far objects
In a previous post, I mentioned how you can flip a little switch on your telephoto lens to make it autofocus faster on far objects. The switch basically tells your lens to only worry about focusing on far objects, and not waste time on close stuff.
#9 – Watch and learn about their behavior
When you’re out there sitting and waiting for birds to get close enough to photograph, take that time to observe other birds and look for patterns. Or better yet, read some books about them too. Learning more about their behavior can help you predict what they’ll do in certain situations. Or, for example, you’ll learn that some species will continually return to the same perch, offering you a pretty easy opportunity for a photo.
What did I miss?
Do you have another tip for photographing perched birds? If so, please share it with us by leaving a comment below. Thanks!
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About the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, computer scientist, and founder of PhotoNaturalist. You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of Southern California.