Dan Suzio’s Tips for Better Bird Photography: Prep for Hummingbird Day

January 16, 2018

By Dan Suzio 

     If you’re a birder, a hiker, or just an outdoorsy type of person, you’ve probably taken a few photos of birds. Or maybe you’re a serious photographer, lugging around a heavy telephoto lens and trying for the best possible shots. Either way, you may have been disappointed that your bird photos didn’t turn out as well as you had hoped.

     Bird photography isn’t easy, but there are a few basic points that can help you to get better at it. No matter what kind of camera you use, whether it’s a simple point-and-shoot, high-end Nikon or Canon, or cell phone, I hope these tips will inspire you to try some new ideas and end up with better photos.

Birds in flight

     Birds are such a big category it’s hard to know where to begin. So I’ll start with their most obvious characteristic: flight. People have always been fascinated with flight, and photos of birds in flight can evoke feelings of inspiration and possibilities. For a photographer, they can also mean unlimited possibilities for composition, as well as technical challenges. There’s no big secret to following and focusing on a bird in flight. It just takes practice, practice, practice.

     From a technical standpoint, there is one thing you can do to make your job a little easier. Following a bird in flight, and keeping it centered on a single focus point in your viewfinder, is hard to do. But modern cameras give you a choice of one or several focus points—dozens in some more expensive DSLRs. By selecting a cluster of focus points (I often use the 21-point setting on my camera), you can make it a lot easier to keep the bird in focus. With the multi-point options, most cameras will do a good job of focusing on your subject, as long as you can keep it within the focus area.

Getting closer

     One common problem with bird photography is that you can never seem to get close enough for the portrait you want. One way I try to deal with that, other than buying the longest lenses I can afford, is to shoot the bigger picture. A single bird perched in a tree can often be framed creatively with branches, or you can place a solitary heron at the edge of a marshy landscape. Or, if you can’t get close enough for a single bird, try for a group, for example, a flock of geese landing on the water or a handful of vultures circling over a desert mesa. Shooting from a car or from an established trail often allows you to get a little closer. Birds seem to be less threatened by cars, and birds near popular trails tend to be more acclimated to people.

    Birds at their nests can sometimes be good photo subjects, but you need to be extremely careful not to disturb them. Any time you find a nest, be sure to watch it from a distance and leave at the first sign of stress (for example, if a bird lands near its nest but doesn’t go in). Birds may abandon a nest if their eggs haven’t hatched yet or if the chicks are very young. It’s best not to try any photography until the chicks are older, when the adults can sometimes be extremely tolerant. A few years ago a pair of pileated woodpeckers nested at the side of a road outside of Healdsburg, and word quickly spread among local photographers. By the time the young were ready to fledge, they had an audience of up to a dozen photographers every day, which they seemed to ignore completely.

Feeders

     A well-managed bird feeder can create a lot of photo possibilities. Even in a small urban back yard, you can usually find a place for a feeder that will have good light for photography. Ideally, you’d have at least two feeder locations, one for the morning light and another for the afternoon. The bigger challenge is that you’ll quickly get tired of looking at photos of bird feeders.

     When you set up a feeder for photography, it’s important to give the birds a place to perch that’s close to the feeder but far enough away that you won’t have the feeder in every shot. Find an attractive branch and place it a few inches above and behind the feeder. It will be a natural stopping point for the birds, and when they land they will be facing your camera. Having other perches nearby will give the birds more places to stop and watch for predators while they pose for photos. A birdbath or other water source can also attract birds for some interesting photos. And any outside light can act as a feeder for insect-eating birds. Look for them very early in the morning, and you’re likely to find them gobbling up moths or other nocturnal insects that stayed out too late.

     Hummingbirds are very willing to use feeders, and that behavior can make photographing them easier than you might expect. If you watch for a while, you’ll see that a hummingbird will usually take a sip from a feeder then back away and hover for a couple seconds before going in for another drink. That moment of hovering is the time to shoot. If your hummingbird feeder has perches on it, I recommend cutting them off. You’ll have much better photo opportunities that way.

Using fill flash

     When you think about bird photography, you probably don’t think of using artificial light. But in fact a flash can be very useful when the natural light isn’t quite what you want. Fill flash, as its name implies, is a technique for “filling in” the darker areas—it’s not the main light source. It’s especially helpful with backlit subjects or with a dark subject against a lighter background or when the dynamic range of your subject is too much for the camera to record (for example, a black and white woodpecker in bright sunlight). Sometimes it can work to freeze part of the action, combining sharpness with motion blur, as with hummingbirds in flight. A little bit of on-camera flash can also bring out the iridescence in a hummingbird’s feathers, which might not be visible otherwise.

     I use fill flash most often in direct sunlight or mixed sun and shade, situations where there’s often too much contrast and the shadows are too dark to show much detail. My main light source is the sun, and I add the flash to soften the overall contrast and lighten the darkest areas. My goal is always to improve on the natural light without going overboard. How much extra light does your flash need to provide? A good guideline, and a useful starting point to experiment with, is to adjust the flash so it’s one f-stop below the existing light. So, for example, if your exposure based on existing light is f/8, you want your flash to provide just enough light for an exposure of f/5.6 (while leaving your lens set at f/8). That way the shadow areas lit by flash will still be darker than the overall scene while the brighter areas will be relatively unaffected.

Prefocusing

     How do you focus on a moving bird, especially one as fast as a hummingbird? No matter how experienced you are, or how quickly your camera can autofocus, sometimes the bird is too fast for you. If you’re shooting at a feeder or other predictable location, that’s when it makes sense to prefocus on where you expect the bird to be, for example, a flower that hummingbirds are feeding on or a perch that birds frequently use. To prefocus, you can use your camera’s autofocus and then switch it to manual or use back-button focus (an option in some cameras that separates the autofocus function from the shutter-release button) or simply focus manually. Of course, this works best if you’re using a tripod–if you move the camera, you’ll need to refocus.

Lighting and composition

     In addition to the practical or technical questions, there are aesthetic decisions as well that will make a big difference in the quality of your photos.

     In almost any portrait, whether human or animal, the eyes are the most important feature. We all respond to eye contact, or at least the perception of eye contact. In the case of a hummingbird at a flower, that means positioning yourself slightly behind the flower so the bird will be facing you when it approaches. For a bird on a branch or other perch, it might just be a matter of waiting until it turns its head in the right direction. Shooting from the bird’s eye level, so you’re not looking up or down at it, adds to the feeling of eye contact and a connection between the viewer and the bird. In addition, the light source, usually the sun or open sky, should be in front of the bird, with no strong shadows on the face, and the eye should be sharp. If you can shoot from a bird’s eye level and ensure that its face and eyes are well lit, in sharp focus, and making contact with the viewer, you’re most of the way there to making an excellent photo.

     Good composition is very subjective, but in general you’ll want to avoid placing the bird exactly in the center of the photo and leave some extra “breathing room” in front of its face. Pay attention as well to what’s in the background. Watch out for branches, bright leaves, or other distractions that appear directly behind the bird, are too close to its face, or look like they’re sprouting out of its body. To isolate the bird in sharp focus against an out-of-focus background, look for (or create) situations where the distance from the bird to the background is greater than the distance from the camera to the bird.

     Finally, don’t be afraid to crop your photos. There’s nothing special about showing a photo exactly as it appeared in the viewfinder, and in fact most photos can benefit from at least a little cropping. Bird photography tends to happen fast, and there’s rarely enough time to find the exact composition you want. That’s especially true with birds in flight— sometimes it’s all you can do to keep the bird in the frame. Even when you get better at following a bird in flight, a photo of empty sky with a bird in the center can be a little boring. If it’s not centered, you definitely don’t want to feel like the bird is about to crash into the edge of the picture. Flight shots tend to look best with more sky in front of the bird than behind it. Other times you might find that a horizontal photo looks better when it’s cropped to vertical.

 Keep experimenting, find what works for you

     Early in my career, I heard a photographer say that any time you look at a roll of 36 slides and you like all of them, you’re doing something wrong: you’re not taking any chances, not trying anything new. One of the great advantages of digital photography, compared to the days of 36-exposure rolls of film, is that you can shoot as much as you want without worrying about the additional cost although you will spend a lot more time editing. That means you can try all sorts of different exposures and compositions to find what works best for you.

     In a recent workshop, I had one participant whose camera and flash settings made absolutely no sense when he described them to me. But his exposures looked great, and that fact served to remind me there are always multiple ways to achieve the results you want. You should take my recommendations as a starting point for your own experiments and don’t worry about the “right” way of doing things. If the results are good, you’re doing it right.

Dan Suzio is a professional wildlife photographer who leads bird photography workshops in Ecuador and is the author of Death Valley Photographer’s Guide: Where and How to Get the Best Shots. His work can be seen at www.DanSuzio.com.