4 TIPS FOR BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY

BY JAMIE MACDONALD, OLYMPUS TRAILBLAZER
Shot with the OM-D E-M1 and the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm F4.0 IS
PRO + MC-14 Teleconverter

Bird photography is something I have recently become more fascinated with since the introduction of the new M.Zuiko 300mm f4.0 PRO lens. I had been photographing birds from time to time over the last few years using the M.Zuiko 75-300mm, and M.Zuiko 40-150mm f2.8 PRO, but never has it been as much fun as it is now thanks to the reach the 300mm f/4 offers.  In the following article I will go over some of the things that have provided me with great success in photographing birds with the OM-D cameras and M.Zuiko lenses, including the new 300mm f4.0 PRO lens, along with the MC-14 teleconverter.

1GEAR SELECTION

Let's start off with the gear I am using for my bird photography.  My primary camera has been the OM-D E-M1 with the HLD-7 battery grip attached. Why the E-M1? Why the battery grip? Let me explain.

I chose this camera body combo because the shape of the E-M1 vs. the E-M5 Mark II, or E-M10, allows for a more stable grip when handholding the bigger Olympus lenses. Not to say that you can't do the same with the other camera bodies, but for me the ergonomics of this combination just made sense. Also the E-M1 is LOADED with custom function buttons, and I take full advantage of that!

 

So what about lenses? There are several GREAT options for birding in all conditions when it comes to the Olympus line, and I have three that I love to shoot with. The three I use are the M.Zuiko 300mm f4.0 PRO, M.Zuiko 40-150mm f2.8 PRO, and the M.Zuiko 75-300mm. The two pro lenses are of course my top choice because they are both of the highest optical quality, have fast apertures relative to their focal lengths, and they can both take advantage of the MC-14 1/4x teleconverter.

Red Bellied Woodpecker Oakland County Michigan
Shot with the OM-D E-M1 and the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm F4.0 IS PRO + MC-14 Teleconverter.

2HABITAT AND SUBJECTS

So you have the right gear...Now what? Now you seek out a location for photographing birds!

The location you choose for photographing birds is going to be entirely dependent upon what types of birds you're photographing. You can start in your own yard, and get photographs of birds like finches, Robins or other local birds to your region. Some birds thrive in neighborhood settings, while other birds require a more rural or a wild location away from busy neighborhoods.

A good start in determining where you can find a specific species of bird, would be to get online and visit the Audubon website. I also recommended looking on Flickr for birding groups particular to your area.

Once you have determined the type of birds you would like to start photographing, now you will start to scout out the locations you have educated yourself on. For example, I discovered that Baltimore Orioles are frequently found along the Grand River in West Michigan. This also happens to be a region where my family and I camp every year. Armed with this information I struck out along the shoreline of the Grand River in the late spring as the Orioles started to arrive on their migration. It is here where I had the most success and photographing Baltimore Orioles.

Male and Female Wood Ducks Eaton County Michigan. Shot with the OM-D E-M1 and the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm F4.0 IS PRO + MC-14 Teleconverter

You'll have greater success photographing birds if you understand more about their feeding, nesting, breeding, and general habits. Below are some of the websites I use to gather that information about the birds that I want to seek out and photograph.

http://www.audubon.org/bird-guide
https://www.allaboutbirds.org/

Male Ringneck Pheasant Jackson County Michigan
Shot with the OM-D E-M5 MarkII and the M.Zuiko 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO + MC-14 Teleconverter

3CAMERA SETTINGS

Let's start out with camera modes.

If there is plenty of light, I prefer to shoot an aperture priority. This way I can focus on the depth of field since my shutter speed will be good based on available light. When I am able to shoot in aperture priority, I can get a much shallower depth of field which makes my subject pop out from the background more. It is the separation that takes an image from a standard image, to one that really shines. Just look at the image above of the Baltimore Orioles. It was shot wide-open at either f/4 or at f/5.6 and that allowed for a shallow depth of field (the 300mm and 420mm focal lengths contribute to that as well). When the available light is good, and I am shooting wide-open, my shutter speed is generally high enough to freeze subtle movements that may occur.

If you are attempting to shoot birds in flight, then you will want a faster shutter speed than 1/800 of a second which brings us to the other mode that I shooting.

When I do not have the greatest amount of light available, I will then switch to shutter priority. I also set the camera to auto ISO. In my camera I have the ISO set to max out at ISO 3200. With the settings, I will adjust my shutter speed to 1/800 of a second, in the camera will automatically adjust the ISO, And Aperture, to help me maintain that 1/800 of a second shutter speed.

A couple other settings that I use that I feel are worth mentioning are: 

  • Single point focus (centerpoint)
  • Function button set to 14 X magnification
  • Image stabilization on
  • Anti-shock shutter enabled, and low speed sequential shooting on.

I want to mention that 90% of my bird photography is taken on a tripod. I cannot emphasize enough how important a good tripod is to your wildlife photography. Do not go cheap, spend good money and get a good tripod. It will be one of your most important investments in your photography.

4COMPOSITION AND ENVIRONMENT

So now that we have the basics out of the way let's finish this off with a few tips on selecting your environment and composing your photographs. A good place to practice photographing birds is in your own backyard, or at the local zoo. While these are great places to get your feet wet in bird photography, my personal preference is to photograph birds in the wild. Nothing offers me more satisfaction or sense of accomplishment as finding a bird in its natural habitat and getting a wonderful photograph of it.

I spent several weeks scouting locations where a pair of bald eagles had been sighted and made several trips each day in hopes of finding them along the river. It was on a cold snowy February day that I happen to be making my second trip scouting when I stumbled upon this eagle perched in a tree above the river. So while it may be that you come home with no photos some days, you will find that persistence and determination payoff.

I am always conscious of having too many branches or objects in the scene that take away from my subject. This is about as busy as I would let a photograph get in regards to having branches behind my subject. Luckily, I was shooting at 300mm - which allowed the branches in the background to get defocused enough as do not detract from my subject.

You can minimize background distractions by moving your body in relationship to the subject to help clear the background, by shooting with a wide aperture, by shooting with a long focal length, or by any combination of those three.

Bald Eagle Eaton County Michigan
Shot with the OM-D E-M1 and the M.Zuiko Digital ED 75-300mm F4.8-6.7 II

An example of composing in framing a shop with no background distractions is this tufted titmouse. I had to maneuver several different times to get this shot with very little background interference. This took over an hour to accomplish as any movements that I made would spook the bird and it would leave its perch and come back after a few moments. Again, persistence pays off.

Tufted Titmouse Eaton County Michigan M.Zuiko Digital ED 75-300mm F4.8-6.7 II

So a few basic rules about composition that I follow are:

  • Include some of the environment in the photo.
  • Make sure there are not too many distractions in the scene such as branches protruding from the bird's head, or a background that is so busy it takes away from your subject.
  • Make sure that your bird's eyes are in focus.
  • Try to make sure your exposure allows your bird's eyes to be visible.

I also want to mention a little bit about environment. As I mentioned above your back yard and local zoo are great places to learn the techniques you need to photograph birds. But once you learn what bird species are available outside of the suburbs where you may live and where to find them, you will learn to appreciate Bird photography all the more. I also want to mention that as the seasons change so do the birds in your area. It is exciting to see new birds common each season that offer completely different opportunities and challenges in my bird photography. Again, using the websites I shared above, you can learn which birds you can expect to see throughout the year in your area.

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