3 Guidelines For Better Bird Photography

Bird photography is something I have recently become more fascinated with since the introduction of the new mZuijko 300mm f/4 PRO lens. I had been photographing birds from time to time over the last few years using the mZuiko 75-300mm, and mZuiko 40-150mm f/2.8 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 mZuiko lenses, including the new 300mm f/4 PRO lens, along with the MC-14 teleconverter.


 

#1 Gear 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. say 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? We have 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 mZuiko 300mm f/4 PRO, mZuiko 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO, and the mZuiko 75-300mmII. 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.
My other main piece of is the Vanguard VEO 265CB carbon fiber tripod with their awesome  BBH-200 Ballhead

 

#2 Habitat 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 as you can see in the images below.

Male Baltimore Oriole found along the Grand River in Ottawa County Michigan
E-M1 + mZuiko 300mm f/4 + MC-14 Teleconverter

Female Baltimore Oriole. Ottawa County Michigan
E-M1 + mZuiko 300mm f/4 PRO

And of course you don't necessarily have to venture out into the woods to get great bird photos. Often times your own county may have a Metropark or other outdoor location full of wonderful birding opportunities. Here in Michigan a place I often frequent, Kensington Metro Park, is full of incredible variety. I have even been fortunate enough to photograph bald eagles  at this location.

E-M1 + mZuiko 300mm f/4 + MC-14 Teleconverter

So now that you have a few locations that you would like visit to photograph birds and you know that the birds you want to photograph can be found in these locations, you need to now do a little bit of research on the habits of these birds. 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/
(A Michigan based site) http://mibirdingnetwork.com/

 

#3 Camera Settings


OK, so we now have the gear, we have the locations and birds we want to shoot..How about the camera settings? Whenever we talk about camera settings it is easy to get overly technical. I prefer however, to keep things as simple as possible, so I can just go and enjoy photographing birds. So this section of the article will be pretty straightforward and simple enough for anyone to be able to follow and use.

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 two images above of the Baltimore Orioles. These were 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. Once my shutter speed is faster than 1/800 of a second I don't have to worry too much about movement. Now 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 two 1/800 eight hundredth 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. Shooting in this mode is not my favorite way to shoot, but sometimes we have to make the decision on whether or not we want to not take shots or sacrifice some image quality in order to just get the shots. Admittedly, I can take an ISO 3200 shot and make it 100% acceptable in post processing. Again, I ask you to look above at the image of the female Baltimore oriole. That photo was shot at ISO 1600 and in my opinion is a wonderfully sharp and detailed image easily able to be printed at a moderately large size.

Remember earlier in the article when I mentioned why I use the E – M1? One of the reasons was the many function buttons the camera has. To switch back and forth between shutter, and Aperture priority modes I use one of these function buttons. You can save a bunch of camera settings to a single button, such as being in shutter priority, having a max ISO of 3200, and a minimum shutter speed of 1/800 second. And have it all accessible by hitting a single button. 

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.
 

Before we move onto the next section I want to mention that with 90% of my bird photography I am on a tripod. I cannot emphasize enough how important a good tripod is to your wildlife photography. Do not go cheap, spent good money and get a good tripod. It will be one of your most important investments in your photography.

#4 (Bonus section!) Composition 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,excitement, or a sense of accomplishment as finding a bird in its natural habitat and getting a wonderful photograph of it. Take for example the image below of an American bald eagle that I found right here in my home county of Eaton County Michigan.

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.

Over my several weeks of scouting for these birds I had seen them on two prior occasions, but was never afforded an opportunity to take a good photograph of them. To me this is an example of a successful photo of this bald eagle. I am always conscious I've 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 D focused 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
E-M1 + mZuiko 75-300mm

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's book the bird and it would leave its perch and come back after a few moments. Again, persistence pays off.

Tufted Titmouse
Eaton County Michigan
E-M5 + mZuiko 75-300mm

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 words. 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. I will close out this article by sharing a few of my favorite photos from the past couple of years below. If you ever have any questions about how I made any of the shots feel free to email me and I will be glad to discuss birding with you.

Have a great day, and thank you for following in my adventures.

Jamie A. MacDonald

 

Male Ringneck Pheasant
Jackson County Michigan
E-M5 MarkII + mZuiko 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO + MC-14 Teleconverter

Female Ruby Throated Humingbird
Eaton County Michigan
E-M1 + mZuiko 75mm f/1.8

Bald Eagle
Ottawa County Michigan
E-M1 + mZuiko 300mm f/4 PRO + MC-14 Teleconverter

Male and Female Wood Ducks
Eaton County Michigan
E-M1 + mZuiko 300mm f/4 PRO + MC-14 Teleconverter

Red Bellied Woodpecker
Oakland County Michigan
E-M1 + mZuiko 300mm f/4 PRO + MC-14 Teleconverter.