Photographing Birds

Recently I got a chance to accompany some photographers on a trip to a nearby forest. They were planning to photograph birds and so I thought of en-cashing this opportunity. It has been quite sometime since I did bird photography. I am not a long lens guy but for this trip I carried an old Nikon D200 with Sigma 150-500 mounted on it.

Bird in Flight

(Bird in flight, carrying grass and twigs for building nest. Nikon D200 with Sigma 150-500mm lens, 1/250 sec, f/8, ISO -200, optical stabilization switched on)

Once we reached the vantage point to observe the birds, I was impressed. There were birds everywhere. Small and large. Some which I had frequently seen as visitors to my house and others which had migrated thousands of kilometers to reach here. Weather was perfect. Breeze carrying the smell of early morning mist was serenading me and the view of these beautiful birds was delighting me. What more could a person ask for the first day of a new year?

I took out my camera and clicked a few pictures of a nearby bird, later I learnt that it was a heron. One of the persons in our group happened to be an accomplished ornithologist and he gave the complete name for the bird. I do not remember it now. After clicking a few more snaps, I checked the preview for exposure correctness and to set any compensation if required. Horrors! The images were underexposed. On closer examination of the settings I realized that the metering mode was set to center-weighted (Metering Modes) and I was clicking images with water in the background reflecting bright light. The exposure compensation from yesterday’s photo-shoot was still set to -2/3. I had made the most common mistake of not checking my camera settings (Common mistakes while photographing). Better late than never. I corrected the settings. Switched back to 3D Matrix metering and switched off the exposure compensation. 3D matrix helps in such complex lighting situations but do check the histograms for correctness of exposure.

Once the things were fine, I got a few good shots of the birds there. The lens was heavy and I was shooting hand-held. No tripods or monopods. I had not used this lens for quite sometime now.  However I was glad that I had this lens for days like today. I took some pictures of some more herons, king-fishers, some small ducks and a few others which I can not identify. We saw a rufus, magpies and some pheasants too.

Birds in Flight

(Flock of birds in flight – Nikon D200 with Sigma 150-500, 1/250 sec, f/10, ISO – 200)


Tips for photographing birds –

  • Learn about their habits
  • Learn to identify the birds. One of the persons who was with me, could identify the birds by their call itself.
  • Walk slowly and quietly. Learning to approach them without scaring is a bigger asset than having a fast long lens. Learning to get close also reduces the amount of atmospheric dust or haze that exists between the bird and your camera.
  • Avoid chimping (To Chimp or Not To). Do however preview your images for exposure and other settings. I identified my mistake after just a few shots.
  • Learn to use hyperfocal distance and manual focusing. AF-C is good but sometimes predictive focusing and focusing using hyperfocal distance is beneficial.
  • Practice panning. Smooth panning with correctly chosen shutter speed will give the results most photographers yearn for (Panning).
  • If you are not used to heavy lenses, use high shutter speeds. I did not go less than one stop below the recommended ‘1/focal length’ shutter speed today. I am not used to holding the Sigma lens which I had with me.
  • I use aperture priority mode (Camera modes (PSAM and more)) with Auto-ISO setting (Auto ISO). When I am following birds in their flight, I shift to shutter priority.
  • Armed with memory cards, number of shots is no longer a limitation. Use continuous shooting modes (also called burst modes).
  • Capturing birds in action is more attractive than birds quietly perched. Learning about their habits helps in this.
  • Do not shoot birds in flight when they are high up or against the sun. The undersides are usually not as beautiful as their upper body and against the light, the photographs lack the required punch.
  • Pay attention to background. The birds should stand out from their background.
  • Do not disturb their habitat in any way.
  • Do not disturb the birds either. If they do not want to fly, don’t scare them into flying. No loud music, no shouting… in fact – no talking itself!
  • Many photographs will turn out blurred or not too good. Don’t be disheartened. Birds are fast moving creatures and so blurred, out of focus or wrong depth of field images are common. Just don’t delete them while photographing. Do so on your computer.


Another interesting incident – We saw a crocodile come out of the pond and quietly approach some peacocks. The peacocks saw the crocodile and disappeared in the bushes. I took the photograph just to journal the incident and to show to my daughter.

Crocodile and Peacock

(Crocodile and Peacock – a terrible image but still something to ‘show and tell’)

Today I also saw a pair of black and white kingfishers (Pied Kingfisher). They were beautiful. I took this simple picture of two of them perched on a branch. Another photographer who was with me, was ready with his camera when one of them started to fly and he captured some really good moments.

Pied Kingfishers

(Pied Kingfishers – Nikon D200 with Sigma 150-500)


Another related article –

Photographing butterflies

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