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How Bird Photography Works

Bird Photography Tips
Catchlight helps bring a bird's eyes to life.
Catchlight helps bring a bird's eyes to life.

Most of us who photograph family and friends with our digital cameras rely on automatic settings to achieve success. With bird photography, however, one must learn how to manipulate a camera manually, knowing where the controls are while one's eye remains on the viewfinder. To get the best shot of a bird, several factors must work together. You need a good camera, a steady hand or tripod and good light. Ideally, your camera will sit steady on a tripod, but you can also use your car window, covered with a small sandbag, as a surface to rest the lens. Even when all other factors are favorable to good bird photography, a shaky hand or a small movement of the camera can render your images fuzzy and out-of-focus.

For those with an artistic eye, the composition of a photograph comes easily. These folks just instinctively know that photographing a bird with a red chest near a bush with red berries will help bring out the colors on the bird. But the rest of us may have to work to develop an artist's eye. The first step in doing this is to study good bird photography. Look closely at superior photos that appeal to you and ask yourself the following questions: What is it about this photo that I like? What is the foreground like? What is the background like? What is the relationship between the two? By closely studying such photographs, you can start to internalize the sensibility that will show up in your own photos. When you study these bird photos, also pay close attention to the light -- the light should be even and soft, not harsh. This means there aren't any dark shadows or intensely bright areas of contrast.

So how do you get the best light when you're out in nature and can't control the environment? The secret is to do your photography in the early morning or late afternoon. The times most-often noted by professional photographers as ideal are within two hours after sunrise and within two hours before sunset -- this is when the angle and intensity of the light is just right to bring out the texture and colors of your subjects. The worst time to photograph birds is noon, when the sun is overhead, unless it's a cloudy or overcast day.

You have the right equipment, an understanding of composition and a good idea of how to get the best light. But none of this matters if your subject spots you and darts away when you approach. To avoid this, you can try using a blind. In bird photography, a blind is something you hide behind so that skittish birds won't see you and fly away. There are three types of blinds: natural blinds, manufactured blinds and homemade blinds.

Natural blinds include trees, bushes, tall grasses and even your car. Manufactured blinds are found at sporting goods stores and are used by both bird hunters and bird photographers. Most will be tent-like structures with camouflaged colors and an opening for your camera lens. Homemade blinds can be a cardboard box or even simply a blanket on a clothesline with a hole for the lens. For more comfort, consider using a picture window covered up except for the lens opening. However, for this method to work, you need to attract birds to your yard. Keep reading to learn how to do this.