The creative process behind making great bird images
Having been involved in various aspects of nature photography for some 37 years now, I learned a variety of techniques from many masters of nature photography. I improved my own skills by reading their books and practicing what I read about.
Some of my favorite books include Joe McDonald’s Designing Wildlife Photographs, and A complete Guide to Wildlife Photography- How to Get Close and Capture Animals on Film. The Art of Photographing Nature by Martha Hill and Art Wolf, John Shaw’s Focus on Nature, The Nature Photographers Complete Guide to Professional Field Techniques, George Lepp- Beyond Basics I & II- Innovative Techniques for Outdoor / Nature Photography, Boyd Norton The Art of Outdoor Photography, Jim Zuckerman Creating Dynamic Photographs with Visual Impact – The Art of Effective Composition, Tim Fitzharris Wild Bird Photography and last but not least Arthur Morris The Art of Bird Photography I & II.
I spend a lot of time in the field trying to get close to birds to be able to photograph them under ideal conditions. I often see people taking images with their cameras where they pay absolutely no attention to the quality of the light, the direction of the light or the background. All they are interested in is capturing an image of the subject.
Having taken tens of thousands of images, I have discovered for my self that by following the steps outlined below I could improve my bird images. Following these simple steps will improve your images as well.
The best time of day to photograph birds is early morning (first two hours after sunrise) and late evening (last two hours before sunset). This is because this is when birds and many other species of animals are most active and the quality of light is most pleasing. The light is soft and warm and usually does not require exposure compensation.
During the mid day the light is harsh and the contrast is such that most digital cameras can’t handle it. Digital cameras have a contrast range of 5-6 stops. In order to get detail in the highlights, typically requires under exposing the image. An under exposed images can be lightened in Photoshop, but that does not reveal the original color. Lightening the image will also create digital noise in the dark areas. To optimize exposure, you have to use the whole tonal range of the sensor. Ideally you want to expose to the right, without clipping the highlights. Use the highlight warning and your histogram to set your exposure.
When I read Arthur Morris’s books Birds as Art I & II things finally clicked in place for me with regards to light. Art is “obsessed” about direct frontal lighting. The concept is simple; you want the bird in front of you with the sun coming right over the top of your head, ideally in a straight line- sun, head, and bird. You want your shadow pointing right at the subject. In low light situations- early morning and evening when the shadows are long, you have to be careful that your shadow does not fall on your subject or any part of the image. Get low and work at a slight off angle so the shadow does not appear anywhere in the image. Direct frontal lighting yields an evenly lit, very pleasing image. Since the bird is front lit, there will be no shadows cast by parts of the bird upon itself.
The focal length of the lens used controls the background. A long telephoto lens for example has a very narrow angle of view thus showing much less of a background behind the subject than a short telephoto lens. Thus in order to get rid of distracting backgrounds I use the longest lens I have, AF-S Nikkor 500 mm f4D IF-ED II. The long focal length lens with a slight shift in position lets you select a portion of the background that makes the subject stand out.
Learning to create pure backgrounds can improve the artistic quality of your image. To produce a soft background, it is not enough to simply use a long telephoto lens at its widest aperture. The proximity of the subject to the background is critical. The farther the background from the subject, the softer and more pleasing it will appear in the final image. On grassy field beaches or mud flats you can maximize the distance between the subject and background by getting low to the ground. When photographing birds in a tree, select an image where the bird is sitting on a tip of a branch with no distracting braches in the background.
Sharpness comes from shooting sharp. The longer the telephoto lens you are using, the greater the magnification, the harder it is to get a sharp image. In addition to magnifying the image size, telephoto lenses magnify subject movement. Use a sturdy tripod. I use a Gitzo GT 3530LSV 6X Carbon fiber tripod with a Wimberley head to help me stabilize the camera, yet allow me to track a flying bird. Use the highest shutter speed you can without adversely affecting the noise in the image. With the Nikon D2X I typically shoot at ISO Equivalent setting of 400. With the Nikon D300 I can shoot at ISO Equivalent of 400, 640 or 800 depending on light levels. To freeze the wings of moving birds, the higher the shutter speed, the better. Hawk owls in flight need 1/1500 to 1/2000 sec to freeze the motion. To minimize vibration, compose the image you want then place your left hand and arm on top of the lens at or near the center of gravity. Push your face up against the back of the camera and hold it steady with your right hand. Tweak the focus manually if needed and gently depress the shutter release button. This method uses your body to dampen vibrations caused by the mirror/ shutter slap in your camera.
New digital cameras like the Nikon D3 and D300 have up to 51 different focusing points to choose from. This allows you to fine tune the focus point. Time permitting, for critical sharpness focus on the eye of your subject.
I prefer to shoot my images in RAW rather than jpg. This allows me total control over tonality, color exposure and sharpness when I convert my files in Nikon Capture NX2 and fine tune it in Photoshop CS 4. Though most photographers I know are self thought Photoshop users, proficiency can be expedited by reading the many Photoshop books on the market today. Some of my favorite books are by Scott Kelby- I have 4 of his books Photoshop for Digital Photographers (CS, CS2, CS3 and CS4). I really enjoyed reading Rob Sheppard’s books Camera RAW for Digital Photographers only. Revision 2 for CS3 as well as Landscape and Nature Photography with Photoshop CS2 and the Magic of Digital Nature Photography. John Shaw has two excellent e books John Shaw’s Photoshop CS2 Guide and John Shaw’s Photoshop CS3 Guide.
In conclusion, I recommend you read everything you can about the subject you are trying to photograph, the techniques associated with the use of your equipment as well as about Photoshop techniques.
Go out and try these recommendations and I hope they improve your images as much as they improved mine. I hope to see you in the field or perhaps I will see you in one of my bird photography workshops.