9 expert tips for great bird photography by Susan Dimock

Susan Dimock

“It is important to tell a story and not just take a picture.”

Susan Dimock's love affair with bird photography began when she discovered some Sandhill cranes performing their courtship dance outside her mother's patio doors. Grabbing the digital camera she'd recently been given by her husband, she got shooting. Here, she shares nine valuable tips for fellow bird photographers...

1. Don’t panic if you can't afford expensive kit. Making do with what you’ve got is a great way to learn.

Having all the best gear is helpful but it’s not the be-all and end-all of bird photography. Patience, practice, determination, tenacity and a large dose of creativity are all just as key. I really learned my craft using minimal gear, and then I “bought up” as and when I could.

Today, you can get far more with far less due to the advancement of technology - it’s a great time to be a photographer. Of course the long lens is important but until you can get a really long one, learning to find subjects that are fairly accessible and understanding how to get close with less glass is part of wildlife photography.

And by the way, there are less expensive brands of lenses that are really great too. You don’t always have to buy the most expensive brands to get great results.

2. When you can afford the more expensive kit, a good long lens is definitely worth it.

Bird photography gear is expensive, so you should choose carefully what to invest in. In my case it was always my desire to get more distance than my earliest kit permitted. For a few years the Canon 100mm-400mm zoom lens was my workhorse and I took some pretty good pictures with it, but all the while I was pining for the Canon 500mm lens. Finally, I popped for the long lens and I was in heaven.

I now depend on my Canon D Mark III coupled with the 500mm, and have been very happy with the results. I also throw on a 1.4 extender for getting even closer though I sacrifice some aperture and speed when I do. There are many lenses that I would buy if budget permitted but I am content with my gear right now. You should assess what your current gear can and can't do, and then research and invest accordingly depending on what you want to achieve.

3. Whether you shoot handheld or with a tripod depends on the subject and the shot you’re after.

The times that I depend on a tripod are when I shoot fly-up flock blurs (example above) and the like. I use Induro and Benro tripods and a Manfroto gimbal head. The gimbal head is marvelous for moving without any jerking motions to follow your birds. There is often a lot of standing around and waiting with fly-ups so one really needs the tripod to do so. Also, of course the chances of getting the areas you want crisp increase a great deal.

The rest of the time I shoot handheld. Birds are a moving target and I really like to get out and move around a lot when I shoot, which isn’t possible when using a tripod. I chose to buy the 500mm lens because I knew that I would be able to handle it without a tripod. I wouldn’t be able to do that with a 600mm lens or more, because they’d be too heavy to shoot handheld.

4. For ground-level subjects, get down to the bird’s level for a more intimate and eye-catching moment.

If I’m shooting a subject that’s on the ground, what I like to do is sit down at the bird’s level and prop the lens up on my knees to use them as a tripod. This method works very well for me since I like to get down at the bird's level for a perspective that is much more intimate and eye catching.

I also like to lie down on my tummy and shoot, which is very effective in places like the Bandon Marsh or on the docks at a marina and such. One can’t be timid about the mud and muck, that’s for sure! In most cases this perspective is far superior - in my opinion - than shooting down or up toward the subject.

5. Choose your camera settings based on what type of shot you are taking.

Naturally, camera settings vary depending on what you want. A common setting for a bird sitting and preening would be perhaps f-stop 5.6, or 6.3 to 7.1. My 500mm lens starts at 4 and becomes 5.6 with the extender on it but usually to get the eye and beak in focus one needs to go to at least a 5.6. I like to have my ISO 100, light permitting, but these days 200 is just about as good.

With the 500mm lens I need to get my shutter speed up to at least 1/500 and much more for flight shots or freezing other behavior. For intentional blurs in shots like my fly-ups, my go-to shutter speed is 1/25-1/30. I like the effect this speed gets me. Depending on light, I adjust my ISO and aperture to get to this speed and am almost always on a tripod for this technique.

For a single bird my point of focus is always the eyeball. If that is not in focus then it is usually a non-keeper for me. When I shoot flocks, I focus on a single bird on the ground and wait for the fly-up...I then gradually move up with the birds. I like to have the birds on the ground in focus usually and then blurred as they fly up. It takes some practice but it's a great deal of fun… like a treasure hunt... you’re never quite sure what the result will be.

6. Seek inspiration from those who’ve gone before, then strive to do something different – the days of the specimen shot are over!

I think that most photographers these days are searching and striving for fresh and new perspectives. The days when one is excited about a ‘specimen’ shot are kind of over. This is because equipment is so good and so many folks take pictures. To be above the fray, one has to get creative and push their equipment to the limits.

I’m always looking for ways to make my bird shots into interesting art. The blurs are a good example, as is the texture layering that I sometimes do. Another trend is that we are doing “bird in environment” images more and more. It has become important to tell a story and not just take a picture - this aids greatly in education and conservation efforts.

To achieve more diverse images it is important to take some risks and not be afraid to experiment. Also, I believe it is important to not just shoot to please your social media fans. This can be a creativity-squelching trap. It is helpful to me to follow a lot of other photographers and to read a lot of quality blogs for inspiration. At first, I imitate some techniques but then I always try to come up with my own ideas and versions.

And... breaking rules has been helpful to me. Rules are only guidelines - think outside of the box!

7. Research your locations. Well-researched bird spotting locations, whether local or on the other side of the world, will reap rewards!

I encourage beginners to find places that are readily accessible to them, where they can count on the birds being close, such as aquariums, zoos and duck ponds. These are all great practice grounds and you can get wonderful shots.

It was a dream of mine to go spend a week at St. Augustine Alligator Farm in Florida. I wanted easy access to unlimited birds! I finally did go and had a blast and learned a great deal about bird behaviour. I love to go to refuges and have learned to research the right time of year to go.

We all have budgets and time constraints so we need to plan accordingly. There are many places for bird photography on my bucket list, but the great thing about birds is that we can pretty much find them anywhere close by - back yard birds are great!

8. Don’t expect it to be easy to earn money from bird photography, but it is possible.

Making money – it would be great. Yes, I believe one can make money with bird photography. Is it easy? No. I am still working at it. Again, that old determination and patience comes in handy. I see lots of photographers online making money - how much varies just like in any other field. I like what Galen Rowell wrote in one of his books on this topic: “How big is that rat knawing away in your gut?” he would say. In other words, how badly do you want it?

Succeeding in this area is just like any other competitive field - at the end of the day it’s about determination and hard work, and probably some talent thrown in there. That’s my philosophy, anyway.

9. Practice, practice, practice.

You absolutely have to practice to see what you can achieve. It was a lot of work to get my flock blurs right - many visits to refuges, many missed shots and a lot of searching for the birds and waiting around. There was a lot of disappointment when things didn’t work, but complete joy when they did. That’s the nature of the beast, isn’t it?

All images © Susan Dimock

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