Bird photography used to be a real chore. George Shiras, now known as the father of wildlife photography, went to heroic lengths in order to get a semi-decent photo of a wild animal. Check out this set-up he used to shoot from a tiny boat (!) on Lake Superior in 1893. He’s balancing that huge box with one hand!
Sure, Shiras managed to get some beautiful images, but I think we’re all grateful that photographic technology has come far enough that taking picture no longer requires two men, a boat, and some lanterns. And thank goodness, because taking pictures is one of the most fun parts of birding.
There are plenty of reasons to take pictures of birds. They’re beautiful, obviously, and so there’s the artistic pleasure in capturing their various forms. Another reason is for “proof,” so you and others can be sure that the bird you saw was actually the species you claim it to be.
For me, the reason I photograph birds is the same reason I photograph my friends and family: I want to preserve good memories. I’m not that great of a photographer, but every bird photo I have brings me back to that time when I wasn’t in the office or sitting at home on the couch. I treat my bird photographs in probably the same way that other people treat photos of their kids: taking them out and showing them to anyone, at any opportunity. But, really, when . . . What’s that? Oh, you want to see some? No, I couldn’t waste your ti . . . Okay, okay! You convinced me. Here are some of my personal favorites.
I got some mad stink-eye from this Yellow-eyed Junco on the lower slopes of Mt. Lemmon in southern Arizona. Maybe he’s mad because I surprised him, or maybe he’s annoyed that he had to drag around all those leg bands!
A crappy shot from my car window, but the “best” bird I’ve ever found on my own: Maryland’s first-ever Pink-footed Goose. This was such a fun memory because I found this bird totally by accident—I had driven past the road I needed and was pulling a U-turn in some random housing development—and because lots of Maryland birders ended up seeing it.
I know Japanese White-eyes are not native to Hawaii, but, man, they’re beautiful birds. I tried and failed to get a good shot of one my entire trip until this bird popped up and posed at Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge.
All right, enough about me! Let’s talk about you.
There are lots of good resources on this here website about taking better bird photos. You can learn about all the gear you need. You can read tips and how-tos on getting the perfect shot. You can also understand the important ethics of being a bird photographer.
With all of that great information out there, what can a little ol’ birder like me have to offer? Just a word of advice, the only thing I’ve learned for sure about bringing my camera birding: Take lots of pictures. Take lots and lots of pictures.
These aren’t the days of George Shiras anymore. Each image no longer requires its own flashbulb and a ton of chemicals and a dude in a rowboat. We don’t even have to bring rolls of film to the store for developing. It’s all digital, baby! Take as many pictures as you want, and believe me, you should take as many as you can.
In the field, I always have this tendency to want to line up the perfect shot and just take it with one snap. In my mind, I’ve nailed it; no need to waste additional finger strength pressing the shutter.
That’s the wrong impulse. So many times I’ll get home after taking the “perfect” shot to realize that there was a stick in the way. Or I didn’t have the focus right. Or the shutter speed was too slow. Or any number of the tons of things happened that can disrupt a photo.
Trust me, take a ton of photos, even if you think you’ve already got the perfect frame. Just hold that shutter down. Or, stop and check your focus or change a setting, then take a few more frames. When you get home and you’re poring over the results, I guarantee that the one you like best isn’t the one you expected. Then, just delete the rest!
Like I mentioned earlier, photos—and having a lot of them—can also be useful for tricky identifications or handling big flocks. I always take pictures of shorebird flocks, for example. Trying to track a flying flock of those guys while keeping an eye out for the little identifications that differentiate species is tough, but snapping a photo to take a leisurely scan through later is much easier. Back at home, you can zoom in and out, and play with the color to help separate birds and look for outliers. You’ll improve your field skills this way, too, because it’ll help train your eye for the subtleties you’ll need in the moment.
So, if you don't have a good camera already, read up on which one to get, learn how it works, and then go use the heck out of it. Take pictures until your memory cards fill up. It’s not the way Shiras did it, but I guarantee he’d jump out of that boat and toss away those lanterns if he could take as many photos as you can. Get to it.