by Brian E. Small

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As you learn more about bird photography, you will soon discover there are many different and exciting ways to photograph birds. I encourage you to always strive for improving your photography today so that tomorrow you will be taking better bird photographs. I have learned to apply a number of simple techniques to photographing a variety of bird species and I want to share 3 of them with you.

As your skill level improves, you will find that you need to use different photographic methods because birds have unique and varying behaviors. They also live in a wide diversity of habitats and come in many shapes and sizes. Let's take a closer look at some of the best ways to photograph Bushtits and Bald Eagles and everything in between.

Flight Photography
There is nothing quite as thrilling in nature photography as taking great photos of flying birds. A beautifully composed, well-lighted photograph of a bird in flight expresses so much of what fascinates us about birds. Not only is it a tremendous photographic challenge, but also it offers you the chance to truly communicate in your photographs the essence of what birds are all about.....flight!

Generally speaking, your best chances for flight photography will be of larger and slower moving subjects. I would suggest you start with herons, egrets, cranes, geese, hawks, eagles, seabirds and gulls. Also, remember the number one rule of flight photography; use the fastest shutter speed you can to stop the motion of a flying bird.

For single bird flight portraits, you will most likely need at least a 400mm telephoto lens. A lightweight 400mm f5.6 telephoto or a 300mm telephoto with a matched 1.4X teleconverter is a great way to start. These lenses will give you a reasonably large image size and allow you to handhold your camera equipment as you track a flying bird.

The speed and mobility you gain with a lightweight set-up like this will go a long way towards helping you take exciting photographs. For flight and action photography, you want to always stay alert and try to anticipate when a great photo is about to appear in front of you. Expect things to happen and then be ready to react when they do.

You can also take dramatic flight photos of large flocks of birds with a medium magnification zoom lens. An 80-200mm or 75-300mm zoom are perfect for massive flocks of Sandhill Cranes or Snow Geese at refuges like Bosque del Apache, New Mexico or the Klamath basin of California.

If you own autofocus camera equipment, now is the time to put it to work. The ability of an autofocus lens to track and maintain focus on a flying bird will far surpass what you can do using manual equipment. With autofocus equipment used properly, you can expect 75 to 80% of your flight photos to be in sharp focus!

To get started, I would suggest that you practice using your equipment without film. Just follow and focus on flying birds with the lens. You need to learn how to pan the camera with the subject while trying to hold the autofocus sensor on it at the same time. This is definitely a skill that takes practice and you are better off not wasting a lot of film until you are ready. Once you feel comfortable with your ability to hold focus with either manual or autofocus equipment you are ready for the challenges of flight photography.

Getting Closer
Birds are creatures of habit, and by knowing that, bird photographers have an advantage. How many times have you seen a flycatcher return to the same perch time and time again or a group of shorebirds return to the same small feeding area every time after they take flight? We can often get close to birds that have favorite feeding areas, perches, roost sites or territories. By patiently observing how individual birds behave and what their preferences are, you can learn how to get close to them. In fact, with some patience and a little luck, some birds may actually come to you.

A great way to get close to birds is to visit public places where birds are already used to people. Small parks, beaches, lakes, wildlife refuges and national parks are some of the best places to photograph because many of the birds are already accustomed to people, cars, dogs and other photographers.

Chances are that you were a birder long before you ever picked up a camera. Well, to get closer to birds I also suggest that you return to the days of being a birder and just watch what birds are doing. Look for birds that are preoccupied with feeding, preening, courting, bathing, singing or sleeping. You can often get very close to birds if they are more interested in what they are doing than they are in you. The rule here is go slow.

As you slowly approach your subject, try to walk a zigzag path and try not to look the bird in the eye. Also, be sure to stop at intervals during your approach and take a few photos each time. This will allow the bird to become accustomed to your presence and also get used to the sounds of your camera. Another advantage is that as you move closer, you will be taking pictures that depict the bird in its' habitat before you get to frame filling range. If the bird leaves before you get as close as you would like, at least you have already gotten some photos in the bank.

When you are moving closer and closer to a subject you want to always be alert to what the bird is doing. Is it watching you or has it begun to call? Does it look alarmed or has it stopped feeding or singing? Give the bird a chance to settle down and resume its' normal activities before you proceed closer. Most importantly, remember that the welfare of your subjects should always be your number one priority.

Lastly, don't give up because persistence will pay off. I have tried approaching a hundred individuals of the same species and never gotten close enough. However, it seems there is always that one bird that will tolerate you and let you get as close as you want when all the others wouldn't.

Using a blind is perhaps the most effective way to take photographs of some birds. Notoriously shy birds like raptors, ibis, rails, kingfishers, ducks and others will rarely tolerate you walking right up to them. If you research your subjects and plan ahead, you may be able to use a blind to your advantage and get close enough to take those spectacular bird photos you dream about.

A photographic blind can be as simple or complex as you want, and it can be used in many different situations. I prefer a simple lightweight and portable blind that I have made out of camouflage material and PVC pipe. I have used it to photograph migrant songbirds at a water-drip, woodpeckers at nests, raptors on preferred perches and for the birds in my yard.

If you ever want to attempt photography at a nest, using a blind is a necessity. Not only will it help you get the photos you are after, but it will allow you to photograph the birds without causing undue stress or harm during this sensitive period.

The beauty of using a blind is that birds will often become accustomed to it very quickly. As long as you and your equipment are hidden, most birds are not bothered by the presence of a blind. However, you may have a situation where you need to leave a blind in place a few days until your subjects get used to it. This is where an inexpensive homemade blind may come in handy. If your blind got stolen or destroyed by weather you would not be out much money.

Another important consideration is where to position your blind. Be sure to account for lighting and background when you put your blind in place. Once you are in it, you really don't want to get out until you are done photographing so try to place your blind so that the sun is behind you most of the day and you have a background you are happy with.

You can make a blind out of a variety of materials yourself or you can purchase one from a number of commercial suppliers. If you want to buy a ready-made blind you can call Nature's Reflections at (916) 989-4765, DB Design at (707) 887-2605 or L.L. Rue at (800) 734-2568. These manufacturers carry a diverse selection of blinds and can aid you in picking one that is right for your needs.

These are just a few of the methods you can use to take great bird photos. If you are innovative, creative and motivated, you too can find many different ways to photograph birds. The thrill you get from trying new techniques for bird photography and seeing them work, can really be a lot of fun. My advice is to get out in the field as often as possible and learn as much as you can about your subjects. Once you are familiar with how birds behave and how they will react to you, you are ready to meet the challenge of taking great bird photos.

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