Photographing Birds and Wildlife: Let’s Make It Easier
First, lets talk gear. When people hear “gear and wildlife” in the same sentence they often think it is time for a second mortgage, but it isn’t always the case. I tell people buy what you feel comfortable spending in your budget range and with what you can comfortably carry as well. I am one of the Tamron Image Masters and all of my lenses are Tamron zoom lenses below $1300 new. I’m not knocking the more expensive lenses, I’m just satisfied with my results at that price range, which allows me to travel more. With the increased capabilities of the newer cameras, noise at ISOs of 3200 or 6400 isn’t really an issue. I like to shoot at f8 for good sharpness and depth of field, so it is a win-win for me. My current camera bodies are the Nikon D-500 and Z7 mirrorless. I find I get better results still with the D-500 for birds in flight. I have used Canon bodies, as well, with equally good results, Nikon just fits my hands better.
That brings me to a point and tip number one: buy a camera that feels good in your hands. If it doesn’t feel good, you won’t use it very often – it is like the golf clubs in your closet gathering dust. As for a tripod or monopod, buy the largest tripod or monopod you can afford and carry easily. I use carbon fiber that support up to 60 pounds, even though my system comes in under 8 pounds. I like the extra stability. As for a head for the tripod, I like a head that allows me to easily swivel and pan with my wildlife. Again, purchase one that exceeds your camera and lens’ weight, but is light enough to carry and within your budget. The weight of your gear is very important as you may be carrying it for some distance to where your subject will be, plus it could be an all day event, so fatigue weighs into the quality of your images as well. Often, if I am in a situation where a tripod isn’t going to be used, I will use a good strap, in my case the Black Rapid, to relieve my arms from holding the camera and lens constantly.
Secondly, let’s talk settings. When I am photographing stationary birds or wildlife from a tripod, or even a monopod, I tend to shoot in Manual Mode with an aperture of f8, and a shutter speed of 1/125th or faster. As for the ISO, if the light is changing quickly or the subject is in mixed light, I will use Auto ISO and select either Spot Metering or Center Weighted metering. If the subject is in even light or special lighting situations, like snow, I shoot in manual ISO and make adjustments for overall light. This allows me to capture images more consistently depending on the situation and I can always make adjustments in post processing if needed. For birds in flight or very quickly moving subjects I will use the Manual Mode, but I start at f8, and I will set my shutter speed to a minimum of 1/500th of a second. Even at 1/500th, you can still have some motion blur with fast birds, so I will start at 1/1000th or 1/2000th of a second, my aperture will still be at f8, and I will use the same ISO settings as listed above depending on the light in the scene. I find often with birds in flight light changes quickly from highlight to shadow and back again, so often the Auto ISO produces a higher success rate. I will add that, with birds and mammals that are backlit, you may have to add some exposure compensation to the Auto settings of +1 or even +2 to get the proper exposure.
As for focus settings, I am using Single Auto Focus for stationary subjects and Continuous Auto Focus for moving subjects, no surprises there I would imagine. I tend to use a single point of focus for stationary animals (focusing on the eye is critical) and I will use a Group or small Area focus for moving subjects. This allows the focusing system to lock on quickly and easily. The camera systems tend to track better when they have a slightly larger area to work with as well. Many of the newer cameras have extremely good focus tracking, especially the newer mirrorless cameras, so a Tracking Mode is worth considering, especially those that have “Eye Tracking.” As for my drive settings, I tend to use higher frame rates in short bursts. By this I mean I may hold the shutter down and capture 3 to 5 frames quickly; this allows for an animal blinking or short quick movements. For birds in flight I will shoot longer bursts, maybe up to 10 or so, before I release the shutter button.
When it comes to the Vibration Compensation, Image Stabilization, Vibration Reduction, or whatever the manufacturer may call it, I tend to always use it when I am handholding, and whenever the shutter speed is equal to or less than the lens length, i.e. 500mm lens, 1/500th of a second or slower. I use it in normal mode for stationary or slow moving subjects and the Panning mode when I am tracking an animals faster movements.
Now for the most important part of the equation, practice. I do a lot of my practicing at zoos, or rehabilitation centers as these animals offer opportunities to photograph animals that can’t be released into the wild for some reason and act as animal ambassadors for us to learn. I have found that it also allows me to photograph an animal that otherwise could be pressured and stressed in the wild with a photographer or photographers trying to get “that” image. I have set up a studio in my backyard, which has been certified by the Audubon Society as a Wildlife Sanctuary for my bird photography. Ethically operated game farms can offer those opportunities, as well, just do your own research prior to using them. I also want to stress that as photographers we should always set the example when we are in the wild as to how photographers should act – treating animals as wild animals and not pressuring them. Obey park regulations when photographing wildlife. No photograph is worth stressing an animal.
Most of all, have fun, experience nature, and share your images!