Saturday, November 19, 2011

So ya think ya want to be a Bird Photographer?

Posted by Mia McPherson
Dancing white morph Reddish Egret, Fort De Soto County Park, Florida
Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/1250, ISO 250, Nikkor 70-300mm VR at 250mm, natural light
Awhile ago a question was asked by a new member and aspiring bird photographer on a nature photography critique forum where I am a member that struck my funny bone and I just had to reply to their inquiry. The person basically wanted to know what the secret is to photographing birds and after thinking about it for a few moments I replied to their question, not just once but three times and honestly I could have posted much more to answer them.

I’ve taken the liberty of editing my own words to present this topic here on Birding Is Fun. Some of what I have written is serious and a few statements are tongue in cheek. I'll let you be the judge of when I am serious or not.
Landing adult Long-billed Curlew, Antelope Island State Park, Utah
Nikon D200, lens resting on my Noodle, f7.1, 1/1000, ISO 400, +1.0 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light
The most important thing is this:

There is NO magic or undisclosed secret to help with bird photography, it takes skill, it takes patience, it takes time in the field plus it takes tons of practice, hard work and determination.

American Coot, Salt Lake Couny, Utah
Nikon D200, on tripod, F7.1, 1/500, ISO 250, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light
Some important points:

The first thing I would suggest is to get a good bird guide or reference book.

The “Children's Golden Guide to Birds” is great for its intended audience but if you can afford to pay for your gear by yourself then you should look for a more grown up field guide. The illustrations, pictures and contents can help you enormously with bird identification.

Some of the bird guide books I would recommend are (in no particular order):

The Sibley Guide to Birds – David Sibley
National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds
American Museum & Natural History - Birds of North America
The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America - Donald & Lillian Stokes
Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America - Kenn Kaufman
The Birder’s Handbook – Ehrlich, Dobkin and Wheye

There are many more excellent bird guide/reference books.

Read up on species in your local area, find out when they are there and what geographical locations they may be present in. Some birds do migrate, some don't. Some migrating birds are more abundant in spring migration in certain locations than they are in the fall and vice versa.

Learn to recognize birds by sight and sound and find out what season you might expect to see them. And even better, study their behavior in the field because that can help you take some great action photos.

Remember this phrase "You won't know if you don't go", get out in the field as often as you can.

Practice good birding ethics:

Know when you are getting too close to your subject by observing the bird's behavior, you can tell when you get too close because they become alarmed. You don’t want to pet the bird, you want to photograph it.

Don't mess with nesting birds. Don’t remove leaves so you can get better shots of nestlings, the adult used that spot for a reason; for instance, protective cover. Watch where you step, some ground nesting bird’s eggs are so well camouflaged you might step on them or the chicks. Don’t disturb nestlings or cause the parents undue stress. Remember that we won’t have subjects to photograph if we don’t look out for their welfare today. Take a bigger crop than usual to stay a good distance away from chicks or young birds.

Follow local, state and federal guidelines & rules about how close to approach your subjects and about what lands you need to stay off of. Signs that say “No trespassing”; well, they mean it.

Pack out what you carry in. Even better; carry out trash that may have been left behind by careless people for the sake of birds and other wildlife. A pelican with a soiled disposable diaper in its bill isn't a pretty sight and a bird with a missing foot caused by fishing line cutting it off is utterly disturbing.
American Oystercatcher juvenile in low light, Fort De Soto County Park, Florida
Nikon D200, handheld, f5.6, 1/160, ISO 320, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light
25% of the original frame
Two places to read about good field ethics: Principles of Birding Ethics published by the American Birding Association and NANPA's Ethical Practices (pdf)

There is NEVER a case where a photograph of a bird more is important than the safety, health and well being of the subject. Ever.

Swainson's Hawk juvenile, Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, Montana
Nikon D200, lens resting on my Noodle, f7.1, 1/1000, ISO 250, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited
Become intimate with your gear:

I’ve heard other experienced bird photographers jokingly tell aspiring bird photographers to “sleep” with their gear to become familiar with it. Maybe they weren’t joking!

You can probably learn quite a bit from books on bird photography, photo workshops or instructional CD's but they are no substitute for "Practice, practice, practice". Then when reviewing images, pick them apart to find out why they didn’t work.

I'm self taught so I can't speak about taking workshops but they do seem to help some people. Learn your camera & gear intimately, know when you are pushing it to its limits.

Know the level of your own skills and keep striving to improve them. With the advent of digital photography you don't have to pay for film or developing so fire away!

Landing Black-billed Magpie with nesting material, Antelope Island State Park, Utah
Nikon D200, lens on my Noodle, f7.1, 1/1250, ISO 400, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR at 380mm, natural light

By becoming intimately familiar with your gear you can develop instincts for the settings you will need in almost any situation which will increase the likelihood of getting better images. You need to be able to change your settings very quickly as birds aren't high paid fashion models strolling down a runway, birds are wild and move whenever, however and where ever they want. An added plus is that birds are not Prima Donnas.

Be aware that light can be your enemy or your friend when it comes to bird photography. Learn to work with it rather than fighting it.

Practice, practice and practice some more.

Remember that your digital camera has a buffer and it will fill up exactly when the bird strikes an amazing pose. Been there and done that and I have missed too many shots to count because of a buffer filing up.

I shoot a lot without a tripod, I handhold my 70-300mm VR and my 80-400mm VR, most of the time I am resting my 200-400mm VR on my Noodle or shooting handheld in bursts. Perhaps less than 5% of my images are taken using a tripod. I know plenty of bird photographers who shoot handheld and get sharp images. Tripods can be handy though if you don't have IS or VR or if you expect to be on the birds a long time and don’t want to be a regular visitor to a Chiropractor.

Bathing Laughing Gull in breeding plumage, Fort De Soto County Park, Florida
Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/750, ISO 250, Nikkor 80-400mm VR a 400mm, natural light
 If the techs aren't good, the image is soft and the exposure is bad nothing you do in Photoshop is going to make a poor image great. 

Seriously, would you rather spend two hours trying to fix an image in Photoshop that is poor in quality which even after that amount of time invested still isn't going to be great or spend that two hours in the field trying to create that great image right out of the camera?? That is an easy answer for me, I would rather be in the field. Getting it right in the camera saves time on post processing later.

Review each of your images prior to deleting and ask yourself "What could I have done to make this image better?" Learn to develop a love/hate relationship with culling. Mistakes are merely learning opportunities. I love it when I nail shots all day long, I hate it when I have messed up more images than I care to count and then spend the rest of the day kicking my own behind.

Learn about proper exposure, white birds should look white and not muddy or gray in appearance. Black birds should look dark but not so dark as to not show any feather detail.

Know what the color a bird actually is for post processing later. An American Kestrel; for instance, shouldn't look like it lives at a nuclear power plant by glowing far too brightly or if it is WAY too colorful to be natural and realistic. A Snowy Egret should not look like it fell into a vat of pale grey paint. A Double-crested Cormorant should be dark but not so dark that you cannot see fine feather details.

Develop a callus on your behind because when you mess up (and you will) you'll spend a lot of time kicking your own butt. Or invest in a pillow which you can carry at all times while photographing. Those semi-circular travel pillows work well, I’m told.

Feeding Roseate Spoonbill, Fort De Soto County Park, Florida
Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/1250, ISO 200, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light
Bird photography is NOT glamorous. Trust me on that.

All of the photos you see where a bird photographer is smiling into the camera wearing clean, dry clothes were probably taken before they started photographing that day. I often look like a wreck after a great day of bird photography.

If you want to get that "low angle" bird photographers so often talk about be prepared to get dirty, learn how to belly crawl through mud, sand, grass, bird poop and things you don't even want to think about. And when there is an algal bloom in the shallow water get some nose plugs or a portable oxygen tank. That is “if” you want to breathe.

Think of sand crawling as a free or low cost Dermabrasion. Get your tetanus shot updated.

After laying in the sand whether it is wet or dry you will end up looking like a sugar-covered donut. You will have sand on your face, in your ears and in places sand is not supposed to be. Think of it as a bird photographer’s equivalent to adorning oneself with glitter or tribal paint.

When it is hot while shooting you will sweat, NO amount of antiperspirant is strong enough. Your brow will sweat and it will run down into your eyes blinding you temporarily. Carry a kerchief, wipe your eyes as needed or you might miss some great shots.

Carry an extra set of clothes and shoes for days you really get down & dirty shooting or you may have to make the drive home smelling like seagull poop. At the very least carry a heavy towel to toss over your car seat or it may end up stinking like an old tuna can.

If you are shooting handheld or pointing your gear up towards birds in the sky for long periods of time invest in a heating pad because your shoulders will scream at you. Or buy a partnership into a local massage parlor.
Hoar frost covered Bald Eagle, Farmington Bay Wildlife Management Area
Nikon D200, lens resting on my Noodle, f7.1, 1/400, ISO 400, 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, +0.3 EV, natural light, not baited
Get long johns, great gloves, heat packs and the warmest coats you can get if you are going to photograph in cold weather or you might freeze something off. Warm, waterproof hiking boots are an essential if you want to be able to wiggle your toes are after hours of standing in snow, on frozen ground or ice. Protect your digits from frostbite or you will be clicking the shutter button with your nose. I’ve sat for two hours in 20 degree weather waiting for hoar frost to melt off of the plumage of a Bald Eagle just to get a few lift off shots. Yes, I am addicted to bird photography.

Remember to wear sun protective clothing in the summer or you might toast your buns... or something else.

You may end up at the end of a shoot appearing to others like you have rolled around in the mud. If you got great shots that day, would it really matter?

There seems to be a "uniform" that pro photographers wear, ignore that. Wear what you are comfortable in. Impress them with your photos not your clothes. I could wear a clown suit and still photograph birds.

Resting Red-breasted Merganser, Fort De Soto County Park, Florida
Nikon D200, handheld, f7.1, 1/640. ISO 200, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 360mm, natural light
Be prepared:

Be prepared to be frustrated. Be prepared to get many more blurry shots than you get that are sharp.

Be prepared to get numerous images where you clip the wing tips, feet, bill, head, etc.  Your sharpest shots from that series will be those clipped images. I kid you not.

Be prepared to sit for hours waiting for "the" shot. Be prepared to have missed it because you reached for your travel mug of coffee (or other beverage) at the precise moment the bird did something fantastic.

Get a bumper sticker that says "Caution, Frequent Stops - Bird Photographer on Board" or be prepared to get rear-ended. Realize that non bird photographers don't know why we drive erratically at times, they just think we are insane.

When photographing birds flying directly over your head be sure to keep your mouth closed as you never know when they might decide to flush out their systems.

Be prepared for biting insects, buy cases of repellent, it is no fun to be eaten alive by nasty little critters. In some locations you may need pepper spray and not just for 4 legged animals.

Look before you sit, fire ants are not fun. Neither is sitting in goose poop or a mound of poison ivy. While keeping your eye on the sky for birds please do watch where you are stepping, I had a close call recently that can be seen here because my eyes weren’t watching where my feet were going. Carry Benadryl, bandages and you may even need some wet wipes to clean up scratches or cuts. I repeat, update your tetanus shot.

Carry something to snack on or your stomach grumbling will scare off the birds. I'm serious!

Don't leave your spare batteries or memory cards in the car, you will be sorry. I have been. The birds will fly into view in huge flocks just as soon as you have filled up your memory cards or your battery goes flat.

Juvenile Burrowing Owl parallaxing, Antelope Island State Park, Utah
Nikon D200, lens resting on my Noodle, f5.6, 1/1000, ISO 250, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited
Interactions with Non-bird Photographers:

People might think you have “shifty eyes” when in fact you are simply scanning the sky, ground, grasses, trees, shrubs, lakes, rivers, fence posts, clotheslines, brush piles, hedgerows, compost piles, beaches, sand dunes, marshes and even the city dump looking for potential subjects. I think you get my drift.

When a non-bird photographer shouts “Duck” you might be looking for waterfowl as a ball bounces off of your head.

Non-bird photographers will say "That camera must take good pictures" and what they don't realize is that without us behind the viewfinder clicking the shutter button that the camera would just be an expensive paperweight.

Be prepared for non-bird photographers to look at you like you have horns growing out of your head. They don't understand bird photographers. You may as well be an alien.

Bird photographers do speak a different language, conversations are sprinkled with words like bokeh, aperture, depth of field, ISO, shutter speed and so on. Non-bird photographers don’t understand it and that doesn’t even take into consideration the terminology about the birds themselves. Eclipse plumage, juvie, molting,  primaries, coverts, supercilium, vent,  orbital rings, etc.. Say Harrier to a non-bird photographer and they might think “airplane”, say primaries and they might think of “political elections”, mention vent and they might just vent to you about something non-bird related.

If you talk to a non-bird photographer for five minutes about the ID of a bird their eyes will glaze over. If you talk to a non-bird photographer for 10 minutes about the technical difficulties of settings, light, composition and the other aspects of bird photography their pulse will slow and their breathing will become shallow, call 911 because they are certifiably bored to death.

American White Pelicans, Farmington Bay Wildlife Management Area, Utah
Nikon D200, lens on my Noodle, f7.1, 1/1500, ISO 400, -0.3 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 200mm, natural light
Other FYI’s about Bird Photography:

Be prepared to see the MOST amazing things while out photographing birds. Also be prepared to make a lot of lifelong friends with other bird photographers and birders.

Be considerate of other bird photographers when you approach them while they are on birds. I've spent long periods of time getting close to my subjects just to have some rude person walk up quickly to "grab a shot" who flush the birds I had so patiently approached.

Most bird photographers are great people who won’t mind if you approach in a slow manner and don't flush the birds. Ask them about approaching them in a quiet voice, but if you yell I sincerely hope that you have good traction on your shoes.

Don't jump in front of another photographer to get your shot. Or be prepared... for anything. Just saying...

Be aware that you may have to sell your first born to be able to pay for your "dream" lens. Just kidding... well… Ok, maybe not.

If you hear someone say "I'd kill for that lens"... run like the wind. Seriously.

Calling Willet on mangroves, Fort De Soto County Park, Florida
Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/640, ISO 250, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 4oomm, natural light
When your spouse or significant other asks why there is a second mortgage on the house immediately pretend you have lost your hearing completely and quickly hide that expensive lens.

Get used to getting up at o'dark hundred, you want to be there for early morning light. Early birds get the worms or in this case the early photographer gets the bird.

You will dream about birds, it won't be as bad as the movie "The Birds", but it might get scary night after night. If you wake up after one of those dreams with a tickle in your throat do check for feathers.

Weather forecasters lie. If they predict "partly sunny" you'll get thick heavy clouds with little light. If they predict a mostly cloudy morning chances are the sun will be shining. I wish I could get paid to be wrong so often!

If you don't have patience bird photography might not be for you.

A sense of humor helps. Without it you may go batty and bats do not have feathers despite their ability to fly.

Red-tailed Hawk in flight, Tooele County, Utah
Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/800, ISO 400, +1.3 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited
 Be prepared to become addicted to birds.

Once you have been bitten; or is that “beaked”, there is NO turning back.

You will have withdrawal symptoms if you don't go out to photograph often enough. The symptoms will include your shutter button finger developing a nervous twitch and your left eye lid closing whenever a bird flies by. There are more but I don’t want to scare you.

There is no such thing as Bird Photographers Anonymous. I don't need support for my addiction thank you very much! Just point me towards the birds.

Hi, I am Mia and I am a bird photography addict!

So, do ya still wanna be a bird photographer?


  1. Mia:
    This is great! I shared your blog version with several people and all enjoyed it very much. Terrific photos too.

  2. Loved this article! Great content!

  3. Thank you Steve, I had a lot of fun writing this post.

  4. I've already learned a lot about bird photography from reading your blog. This post was packed with great info. and fantastic images. Thanks Mia!

  5. What a fantastic post Mia - you really nailed it! I've saved the page for permanent reference. Now I know I need a new camera so it's time to let the convincing/justification commence...

  6. Bird-photographer unplugged!!!
    Best bird photography article ever!!!

    Well done Mia.

  7. very cool - I love it (and the photos are just gorgeous!)

  8. Thanks to everyone, I had a great deal of fun (re)writing this post for BirdingIsFun!

  9. Amazing photography!!!!

  10. Wonderful post, Mia, with great photos and commentary. Lenses are now my big issue, I have come to realize that no matter how patient and dedicated, you can't get truly great shots without a great lens.

  11. Brilliant photos. I especially liked the Long-billed Curlew - since I spend so much time trying to get that perfect photo of the Eastern Curlews which migrate here.

  12. As a relatively new photographer, I really enjoyed your immensely informative narrative, and the photos? They are out of this world! Thanks so much!

  13. Great post, Mia! I saw myself in nearly every paragraph. Well done!

  14. Thanks so much Jerry, Martha, Mick, NewMexiKen (great nick)and Michael!

  15. Thanks for sharing the info and the photos. These were wonderful.

  16. Thanks, Mia! Great advice and wonderful photos!

  17. Mia, wonderful article, had to laugh at the comment that if a photographer is clean and smiling the image had to have been taken at the beginning of the day in the field. :) Lovely images too!


  18. Love it! Love it! Love it! I, too could almost see myself in a lot of those siturations. A great read, Mia.

  19. Hi, I am Larry and I am a bird photography addict! Just ask my wife.

    Thank you so much for this post Mia. This is truly the best post I have ever read about being a bird photographer. It's nice to know that there are other crazed people like myself out there.

    I believe that learning bird behavior and patience are key to good bird photography but you take us to an entirely new level.

    Your photography is truly exceptional and I really mean that. The clarity of your photographs is something I strive for but seldom reach with a digiscoping setup.

    Someday I will put out for that expensive lens and possibly reach nirvana.

    I appreciate immensely your paragraph on good birding ethics. THAT is of ultimate importance because, as you state, "there is NEVER a case where a photograph of a bird is more important then the safety, health and well being of the subject, EVER!"

  20. Oh, I forgot, thanks for the info on your noodle! I am going to make myself one!

  21. Many thanks for your very kind comments Kathleen, Scott, Heather, Bob and Larry.

    Larry, thanks for mentioning the ethics portion of my post, I feel it is critical that ALL people who view, photograph or simply enjoy birds to be aware of good birding ethics. What we do today affects the birds today and all the tomorrows to come.