For amateur bird watchers, the opportunity to take part in professionally organised bird tours can be the most exciting wildlife experience of their life. Different bird tours cover a diverse range of destinations, from the lush lowlands of Bolivia and the magnificent Masai Mara of Kenya, to the picturesque eucalypt forests of Western Australia and the wetlands of southern Spain. And while many enthusiasts are content to take away just knowledge and personal memories, some are keen to combine a love of nature with another passion – photography.
Getting the Best Side of the Birds
Over-exposure from bright skies, rapid movement and unpredictable behaviour all make photographing birds notoriously tricky and it can take years of practice to achieve those pin-sharp, evocative images of the world's best wildlife photographers. But following a few simple rules can lead to some gratifying results.
You don't need the full kit-out of expensive equipment to get some great imagery, but you will need a decent DSLR camera for the best results. A 50mm lens will suffice, if needs be, but if you're going to get serious, a 300-400mm telephoto lens makes a dramatic difference. A tripod is also a valuable asset when shooting with longer lenses, but make sure you choose one that has an easily adjustable head so you can change angles in a hurry.
Choose your Priority
While it might be tempting to shoot on auto and trust your DSLR to compensate, switching the mode to ‘aperture priority’ gives you control of the depth of field, which is all-important when capturing striking bird portraits. Using an aperture of, say, f4 also means you'll be able to shoot at a faster shutter speed (at least 1/1500 sec and above) to get the detail and freeze movement.
Focus, Focus, Focu
If your camera allows it, setting to autofocus means that as long as you keep the shutter half depressed it will continue to refocus. When you're dealing with skittish subjects or birds of prey in full flight this is a massive benefit. You can then simply pan with the shot until you're ready to click the shutter at the optimum moment, without having to refocus.
The most arresting images are those that give all the attention to the subject without a distracting background to confuse the eye. Before you take a shot, look around to see what's behind your subject. While a very shallow depth of field will negate ‘noise’ to some degree, there's no substitute for a clean, neutral background.
Focus on the Eyes
While it's not always possible, if you can manage to capture a wildlife image with the eyes in sharp focus, you've hit the jackpot. If you're got a long enough lens, or you can get close enough to the subject, zoom in and switch to manual focus (or select your focal point if your camera allows it) to get the eye nearest to you dead sharp. Even if you're going for a full body shot, having the eyes sharp (then zooming back out) makes all the difference to the drama.
It's one thing photographing a bird in a tree, but to capture the magnificence of one in flight (especially the larger prey species) is quite another. The best tip is that it's invariably a numbers game – if you switch to ‘continuous’ shooting mode and get as many images as you can, you'll have more chances of getting the money shot.
Where you position yourself also makes a difference, and understanding avian behaviour means you'll be able to pre-empt (to a degree) which direction they usually fly into. Framing your image beforehand and allowing the subject to fly into your shot rather than chasing it is also a good technique.
The Most Important Virtue of All
The most important tip you'll ever get for photographing birds is to be patient.
The best bird tours are led by expert naturalists who will guide you through a range of habitats where you'll be exposed to a great number of species, but, when it comes to nature, nothing is predictable.
If you're after a particular shot you could end up sitting in a hide for hours without luck, while the next day you could be rewarded by multiple sightings in a few minutes. But take heart, because when it comes to wildlife photography, patience is usually eventually rewarded. The advantage of dedicated bird tours is that you'll be afforded the very best opportunities to place you in the path of a massive number of potential subjects. The rest is up to you.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in bird watching. As a passionate lover of birds, Marissa chooses the expert-led bird tours organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.