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Practical advice for bird photography

  • A female cardinal perches on a branch in a mix of colorful vegetation.

    A female cardinal perches on a branch in a mix of colorful vegetation.
    HENRY DETWILER PHOTO

 
updated: 4/7/2021 4:02 PM

Photography is a wonderful way to experience the joy of birding, to capture birds singing and flying, and to share their elegance and beauty with friends. Spring is an excellent time to practice the art of bird photography, with migrants passing through, and most subjects in their breeding finery. This column will offer some practical advice on getting started in bird photography.

If you don't already own a camera, a "point-and-shoot" superzoom is a good choice to begin with -- Sony, Nikon, and Canon each offer contenders for the "best" bird camera. Superzoom cameras have a lens that allows you to take wide-angle shots (like a landscape) and then "zoom in" to take enlarged shots of a distant target (such as an American Kestrel). Since many birds are fairly small, ideally you'll want to choose a camera with a lens of at least 25x magnification. And while the current crop of superzooms go all the way up to 125x, higher magnifications may require a tripod and extremely well-behaved (motionless) and well-lit subjects.

Early morning offers soft, rich lighting for your subjects, and is also the time when most birds are active and singing. If possible, take your photos with the sun shining over your shoulder to light up your subject. Try to get as close as possible, or let the bird come to you. Feeding stations and parks are good spots to practice your new sport, and as with birding, patience often wins the day.

Set your camera to Auto (A), frame your subject in your camera, and try to make sure the eye(s) are in focus. When snapping your photo, hold the camera rock steady in a two-handed grip and gently depress the shutter release. Take lots of pictures -- you can always discard your extras. When you first start out, you'll probably have your best success with loafing birds (ducks in a park) and large perched birds (raptors on poles). As you gain experience and learn how to use your camera, try to capture "action" shots, like flying, feeding, and singing birds. Taking these types of pictures usually requires fast exposures (1/1250 second and better) or in the case of flying birds, good "panning" techniques. Lighting is another creative element in most types of photography. You can experiment in different kinds of weather (fog, clouds, and rain), or perhaps try to capture a Barred Owl or Woodcock at night using your camera's built-in flash.

Once you've downloaded your new avian pictures to your computer, photo editing presents a whole new learning curve! Free software like Paint.Net, GIMP, Google Photos, and Photos (for the Mac) allows you to sharpen, crop, brighten, and otherwise enhance your photographs.

Current regional sightings

Spring migrants are arriving! Louisiana Waterthrush has been reported in Pomona; look for them also along rocky streams in Giant City State Park and in the Shawnee National Forest. Tree Swallows and Purple Martins are on the move. And last, but certainly not least, a Neotropic Cormorant has been gracing Lake of Egypt.

If you're looking for additional ideas about where to go birding in southern Illinois, please consider my new book, "Finding Birds in Southern Illinois." It's available in print and PDF versions at www.southwestbirders.com.

About the author

Carbondale is my hometown, where I started birding 50 years ago. I spent an exciting 16 years as a bird guide, and have penned bird-finding books for several Arizona, California, and Illinois counties. I currently reside in Arizona, but visit southern Illinois when I can. You can reach me at henrydetwiler@earthlink.net.