I’m no expert, and I lay no claim to originality for the following suggestions, but they all work, and are worth knowing.
Probably the most important tip. It helps if you are – like me – a birder with a camera, rather than a photographer that shoots birds. An understanding of behaviour and habitat will allow you to get close to your subjects, and be in the right place at the right time to photograph them.
Related to the first tip. The closer you are to the bird, the better the image will be (other things being equal), because you’ll get more detail. Whether you get closer physically or optically is up to you and your bank manager…
Make the best of the gear you’ve got
Related to the previous tip. If you don’t have a sympathetic bank manager, don’t worry. It is eminently possible to take very appealing bird pictures with cameras and lenses at the budget end of the market. If you aren’t already a member, sign up at birdforum.net and search the gallery for Mike From Ebbw.
He’s using a 300D and Sigma 135-400mm and producing images which make people go Wow!
Related to all the above. Many birders – and the best bird photographers – understand the importance of fieldcraft, but many don’t even know what it is.
Essentially it is the ability to move through the landscape in a way that lets you get close to the bird. It’s about knowing when to move slowly and when to move quickly; how to make use of cover – basically, it’s about how to approach a bird without appearing to be a threat.
A very useful skill, and an awful lot less expensive to acquire than a new long lens!
Pick your shot
Get out out of the habit of snapping away at every bird you see, in every situation. While there’s nothing wrong per se with pointing the camera at the vent of a warbler 60 feet above you in a tree (after all, digital costs nothing), it will not result in an attractive picture, and as you discipline yourself to be more selective, you will improve your eye for the better shots.
Light is everything
The better the light is, the better the picture will be. Good light allows for faster shutter speeds, lower ISO, lower noise, more detail, better colours and contrast.
It’s certainly possible to make a good picture in poor light – don’t stop trying just because it’s grey outside – but be realistic about your expectations, and make the best of the times when the light is being kind to you.
The Golden Hour talked about by landscape photographers brings much of benefit to bird photographers too. This is the time around sunrise and sunset when the light is warm, soft and diffuse with little risk of blown highlights.
Geoff Simpson makes great use of the Golden Hour, and his pictures are all the better for it.
Be in no doubt that in-lens image stabilisation (IS, known as VR and OS by Nikon and Sigma respectively) is a huge asset.
It is probably at its best when hand-holding, where it provides the photographer with the ability to obtain good sharp pictures at shutter speeds far below what are realistic without IS (all but vital to me, given how often I’m out on cloudy, low-light days), but it helps stability when in windy conditions too.
While IS can make all the difference, it isn’t a miracle cure – you still need to learn good hand-holding technique.
Learn to hand-hold
It is hard to keep a camera and long lens steady without the appropriate technique. Elbows stuck out at right-angles are not going to help with stability!
Instead, get into the habit of locking your elbows tight into the torso: this improves the stability of the shooting platform (you!) to a significant extent. This article provides a pictorial demonstration of what I mean, and is in fact how I learned.
Obvious, but worth repeating: even with image stabilisation, the higher the shutter speed the better, unless you’re aiming for a aesthetic effect like motion blur on flapping wings.
Many lenses available today use ultrasonic technology to drive the autofocus in lenses. Canon calls their implementation Ultra Sonic Motor (USM), Sigma has their Hyper Sonic Motor (HSM) and Nikon gives you the Silent Wave Motor (SWM).
It is fast; theoretically far more accurate than older, geared focus motors; more reliable, and quiet – all benefits to the bird photographer. So if you can, use USM lenses. It’s no coincidence that all of Canon’s best bird lenses have USM.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the single biggest thing which makes the difference between a good bird image and a great one is the background – or more specifically, separation of the bird from a smooth, uncluttered background.
If you can’t set up an “outdoor studio” like Nigel’s it is still very important to look for opportunities to look for a good, distant background. Even so-so shots are much improved by a clean background.
Focus on the eye
Another well known tip worth repeating, if the eye is sharp then the picture is far more likely to work.
Especially with waders, but also when photographing any birds on the ground, getting down to their eye level can transform a picture from OK to something worthwhile.
So don’t be afraid to get down on your belly.
No further comment necessary, really. The way I look at it, every trip out with the camera is another practice opportunity.
Take your time
If you photograph birds as a hobby, remember to enjoy it and keep in mind that it’s not life and death. It can be hard not to rush taking photographs because – birds being birds – you’re sure they’re going to fly off before you get the shot.
But so what if they do?
Discipline yourself to take your time, breathe slowly, line the shot up properly for light and composition, make sure you get focus on the eye… then press the shutter.
If you get the shot after that, it will be better for it. If not, there’s always the next time.
Be honest about your photographs. If you find yourself wondering whether a picture is any good, it probably isn’t what you’d hoped for. Figure out what went wrong and try to get it right next time.
Think about out what makes other people’s pictures work
I am inspired all over again after a visit to the websites of some of my favourite photographers and I spend a lot of time trying to work out how they do it.
Many of these photographers leave the Exif in their pictures, which can be of great value in seeing how their camera and lens were set up.
Not a how-to, but a simple observation that you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear in post processing.
If you’re honest about your pictures of course, this won’t be an issue: but unless what comes off the camera is not “thereabouts” don’t waste too much time trying to fix it, because there’s only so much software can do.
Enjoy it! If you don’t get the picture this time, that’s OK: nobody died, and there’s always another time.