Searching for birds requires a special level of dedication, focus, and persistence. All of which pays off in rare treats of serene connections with nature and accomplishment.
Birds’ size and speed present a unique challenge for watchers and photographers. Capturing the unique beauty and brilliance the skies have to offer requires birdwatchers— be they amateur “birders” or professional ornithologists— to develop a number of skills, particularly the ability to read the body language of nature and know what to expect from any situation they find themselves in.
Putting a finger on the pulse of nature like this takes patience, a measured calm to be receptive to the vast subtleties, and a strong grip on how to get the most out of your camera equipment.
The good news is that developing all of these skills can be easy, therapeutic, and fun.
The Fine Details of Scale
One of the primary considerations in the success or failure of capturing phenomenal bird photos is the size of the birds.
Bigger birds are easier to capture. Your camera can have a smaller lens and still be effective in catching bigger birds, primarily due to the fact that they are somewhat slower and more ponderous than small birds.
However, smaller birds are proportionately faster and demand a bigger lens in order to get a full-frame shot. These bigger lenses are heavier and, as a result, panning by hand is difficult and cumbersome. A mono pod or a gimbal head (a pivoted support that allows a photographer to rotate the camera on an axis) can be very helpful in trying to capture smaller, faster birds, so long as the equipment doesn’t draw attention to itself and spook the birds away.
Another option to consider is buying a camera with a crop factor. The main appeal of this is that the crop factor constrains the ratio of the focal length.
As a result – when you fit a lens to a camera with a smaller sensor the lens is often said to have a larger equivalent lens size.
I’ve included a table below that shows the equivalent lens sizes for different crop factors. The column on the left is the lens focal length on a full frame camera.
Know Your Subject
How do you know what sort of camera to bring when you go birdwatching? Obviously, it depends on the size and speed of the birds you’re looking to photograph. But how can you differentiate slow from fast, particularly if you’re an amateur enthusiast? And how do you go about filming them?
The larger the bird, the slower-moving they will be. Pelicans, herons, vultures and other birds in that size range will— more often than not— be easier to snap a good shot of, even when you’re starting out. Some smaller birds— like hornbills and turacos— are also relatively slow-moving. More than anything, capturing breathtaking bird photos is a matter of patience.
A good number of birds live their lives on a regular, predictable routine. Once you— the photographer— discover their favorite places, perches, roosting areas, and the like, you’ll have the upper hand in knowing where they’re bound to return.
Obviously, identifying these routines and preferred locations has to be done from a distance. So long as humans are at a safe distance and quiet enough not to draw attention to themselves, birds may become alarmed and fly away, but they’ll most likely be back. The key is to keep a specific twig or perch in focus. A higher aperture number— F9 or F11— can keep a bird in focus, whether they’re landing or taking off.
Due to the fact that birds are a very active animal— be they fast or slow— shutter speed can still lead to blur. A faster shutter speed is typically a requirement for flying birds. Small birds tend to fall within 1/1200-1/1600 range while medium-sized birds hover around the 1/1000 shutter speed.
Location, Location, Location!
In real estate and business development, one of the core concepts that defines the success and worth of an establishment is where it’s placed. The same is true for the natural world.
One of the key factors in successful bird photography is blending into the background so as not to disturb the birds and then capitalizing on the elements and the individual bird to get a stunning shot.
Visiting South Luangwa between January and April will reward bird watchers with breathtaking vistas of lush green and the busy life of birds.
In the summer, South Luangwa transforms into a lush forest haven for the birds and a treasure trove for bird lovers looking to get an eyeful of all the park has to brag about. During the summer, most of the birds nest and breed and watchers have a special opportunity to capture striking one-of-a-kind photos of their intricate hidden lives.
Regardless of when you make the pilgrimage to South Luangwa, the stunning majesty of what you’ll see in the skies and the trees will forever change how you see birds… and the world you share with them.