Birding & Bird Photography

Lately, whenever I check out any photography groups, I always end up seeing many bird photographs. With easy availability of cost-effective and sharp long-teles, this is now within reach of many. Everyone who had the passion for bird photography is now able to indulge in that. Get an advanced camera, mount a telephoto lens, switch to auto and start clicking! That’s what most photographers clicking birds do. Sounds easy, does it not?

 

(Magpie on Rhododendron – Nikon Df with Sigma 150-500 on manual focus mode. Photographed at Natadol, Uttarakhand)

 

Birding vs Bird Photography

Observing birds and understanding what they do, how they live is birding. People who indulge in birding in a serious manner are called Ornithologists. One of the most famous names in the birding scene in India was Salim Ali.

Birders carry binoculars or monoscopes and are usually armed with a field guide to identify various birds and observe them.

Bird photographers on the other hand love to photograph birds though sometimes the knowledge may not match that of the birders. Bird photographers usually carry cameras with superzooms or DSLRS with long telephoto lenses. From what I have observed, most bird photographers use focal lengths between 300mm and all the way upto 600mm on APS-C sized sensor bodies.

However, with easy availability of photography equipment most birders also now indulge in photography and similarly with easy availability of field guide and increased awareness, the bird photographers are learning more and more about the birds. The difference is greying out now !

… and no I am not a birder, just a photographer who occasionally indulges in bird photography when I have good company (somehow that sounds like my alcohol drinking statement)

 

Flycatcher

(Verditer / Flycatcher is a very small bird. I had to crop extensively even after photographing it at close quarters using a long tele lens)

 

Technical tips for photographing birds –

Sure, using a camera with excellent high ISO noise performance is easy, but for technically sound photograph of birds, there’s more –

  • I use aperture priority mode (Camera modes (PSAM and more)) with Auto-ISO setting (Auto ISO). The reason is that I use old Nikon manual focusing lenses and a long inexpensive Sigma lens. Having a slightly deeper depth of field helps me hide minor focusing errors. After all, tele lenses have a paper-thin plane of focus.
  • However, when I am following birds in their flight, I shift to shutter priority. This prevents inadvert camera shake. I do not go below the recommended ‘1/focal length’ shutter speed. More so, since I am also not used to holding the Sigma lens which I have with me. If you feel your hands shaky, especially with long end of your lens, do opt for still higher shutter speeds.
  • Manual Mode with Auto ISO is ideal if you want to use the lens in the sweet range of its sharpness (usually the middle few f-stops) and a fixed shutter speed.
  • Expose to the right side of the histogram (ETTR). I usually use a +1 EV compensation while doing birding. Any over-exposure can be corrected in post-processing. This helps in reduce high ISO noise (interestingly, by going still higher up in the ISO. I will write about it someday).
  • Avoid chimping (To Chimp or Not To). Too much of chimping can lead to missed shots. I have seen experienced bird photographers sitting in one post with their eye glued to the viewfinder for the complete duration a bird is in their view. 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. I am more of a manual-focus guy so I use this often.
  • Switch to back-button autofocusing. This permits the right thumb to autofocus and the index finger release the shutter. Doing so ensures that the focus doesn’t hunt around at the critical movement of pressing the shutter release.
  • Practice panning. Smooth panning with correctly chosen shutter speed will give the results most photographers yearn for (Panning).
  • Armed with memory cards, number of shots is no longer a limitation. Use continuous shooting modes (also called burst modes). Yes, the shutter count goes up and also the resale value of your camera goes down, but then did you buy the camera just to resell it? Forget the shutter count and use burst modes. However don’t go overboard. I have seen photographers clicking hundreds of pics, at their highest frame rate, of a single composition, which I doubt will ever be useful.

 

Magpie with Magpie

(One magpie sharing its food with another magpie – activities like these are intriguing. Instead of photographing birds sitting on a perch, this is what bird photographers should be aiming at.
A request – I am not a bird photographer, so please consider that when you comment on poor quality of my bird photographs)

 

Tips for excelling in bird photography –

The other day, I was told that to photograph large predator birds, I should try on a sunny day and around noon time. Reason – it is hard for their prey to see them against the bright sun in the background.

Another successful photographer told me to watch out for my shadow also. Sometimes my approach would be subtle but with slanting light, my tall shadow would move fast enough to scare the bird away.

Here are some more tips for excelling in bird photography –

  • Become a birder. 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.
  • 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.

 

Buzzard

(Oriental Honey Buzzard – Birds in flight can be tricky to capture. Trick is to not zoom in extensively and then crop at a later stage. Predictive focusing, hyper-distance focusing or continuous/tracking autofocus helps)

 

Some good field guides to consider –

  • Birds of Indian Subcontinent – Carol Inskipp, Richard Grimmett, Tim Inskipp. (Recommended by Sudipto Roy, the same avid birder and bird photographer who helped me in identifying the birds in this article. The electronic version of this book also has bird calls for easy identification)
  • A Field Guide to the Birds of India – Krys Kazmierczak (Illustrated by Ber Van Perlo)
  • The Book of Indian Birds – Salim Ali (The general opinion it that this is a little outdated but still good for identifying the birds)

 

Where to photograph birds in Uttarakhand?

Just step outside of your house and you’ll start seeing them. You don’t have to travel to special locations to photograph them. Keep a feeder, a water bath and hand a birdhouse… and you might find them even in your backyard! This is applicable to any part of India. Yes, even in the most crowded of the cities!

Coming back to Uttarakhand, there are places which are well known for their birds and some places which are not known to many but frequented by birders. Here are a few of them (in Uttarakhand) –

  • Sattal lake region
  • Natadol village area
  • Nandhaur Wildlife Sanctuary
  • Neel Dhara Bird Sanctuary
  • Pangot region
  • Binsar region
  • … and all the national parks from the state

 

Shrike

(Shirke – another cute little bird, photograph of which required a lot of cropping)

 

And remember –

  • Be very very quiet, don’t disturb the birds.
  • Be extra careful during the breeding season of the birds.
  • Do not handle eggs or young or try to climb trees just to peep into their nests.
  • Don’t litter around. Carry all your waste back with you in a cloth packet. (Plastic makes noise and scares the birds away)
  • Groups of 4-5 serious people or less are recommended.

 

Time and Season?

Birds can be found all round the year and at all times of the day. However there are some times which are more favorable. Most birds are quite active in the early morning hours, when they wake up and go out looking for food. Since other disturbances are less, these can be observed in their natural behaviors. When the sun is high up, it is a good time to catch large predator birds. In cold places, going late in the afternoon for birding is also fruitful.

For most places in India, I recommend early spring time. The birds are quite active and the trees are still not covered with dense foliage. When the trees get covered with dense foliage, it is hard to spot them.

 

Magpie on roof

(Magpie on roof – I can’t help it if magpies are common in my region and being a big bird they are easily captured by beginners in this field, like me.)

 

Photographing birds is easy, especially with the superb cameras with their high ISO performances and new breed of inexpensive telephoto lenses. Most people on social media platforms with long teles, claim themselves to be ‘bird photographers’. Photographing birds is easy, just point the camera and click… but bird photography is not ! Those social media sensations with their captures of birds are not ‘bird photographers’. That requires becoming a birder first!

So, grab your camera, get hold of a field guide and become a birder as well as a bird photographer!

 

Further Reading:
Birds in Allen Forest
Camouflage
Tricks to using long teles
Photographing butterflies

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