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How Bird Photography Works

Bird Photography Equipment

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, personal preference should dictate your choice of cameras, but Canon and Nikon cameras are consistently noted as favorites among professional bird photographers. The best type of camera to use is a DSLR, which stands for digital single lens reflex. The SLR format means compatibility and adaptability -- you have more control over the settings, and there's a wide variety of interchangeable lenses available.

Here are some factors to consider when choosing your camera and lens:

  • Manual vs. automatic: For the average consumer, a point-and-shoot camera with automatic default settings is ideal because these cameras don't require a lot of knowledge and training. But when it comes to photographing birds, you need more control to overcome poor lighting conditions and fast-moving subjects. The more default settings you can override with manual controls, the more your camera will operate like a professional's.
  • Speed: One camera may shoot three frames per second, but another may shoot only two frames per second. This may not sound like a big difference, but in the fast-moving world of birds, the frames per second can make the difference between capturing the image you want or just capturing the tip of a wing.
  • Telephoto lens: In much of photography, a 35 mm lens is sufficient. The 35 refers to the focal length and how much you can zero in on your subject. Lenses smaller than 35 mm are wide-angle lenses -- they allow you to capture wider scenes, but you can't focus on faraway objects. A 70 mm lens, however, gives you a narrower scope that focuses on distant subjects. Many bird photographers use lenses that are between 400 mm and 500 mm, but these larger lenses are typically expensive, heavy and difficult to maneuver.

Capturing a moving image, such as a bird in flight, takes more savvy than capturing a stationary one. Cameras rely on light making an impression on the receiving surface, and the longer you keep the camera open, the more light will enter through the shutter. If the camera lets in too much light, the image becomes washed out, but if the camera lets in too little light, the image is too dark.

Besides the speed of the shutter opening and closing, the amount of light that enters the camera is also dependent on how big the opening is -- this is called aperture. By creating different combinations of shutter speed and aperture, you determine how much light gets into the camera and for how long. When photographing a still image in low light, you may want a slow shutter speed and large aperture, but when photographing a fast-moving subject like a bird against a bright sky, the shutter speed needs to be quick. Keep reading for more bird photography tips.