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Photographing Birds and other Wildlife

photographer standing in front of evergreen trees with telephoto zoom lens aiming up
I'm lining up a shot of the squirrel at the top of the trees

Lately, I've really enjoyed photographing the birds and squirrels in the backyard. The same principles apply when photographing other wildlife. At the Whyte Ave Art Walk this past weekend, many people asked how to take some of these photos. I'd like to discuss some of the tips and tricks I've learned.

Skip ahead:

Camera Setup

black capped chickadee bird with flaired wings just before landing on a bird feeder
Black-capped chickadee landing on bird feeder

First, the simplest aspect is setting up the camera. This section is not specifically tied to birds. It is applicable to other animals or fast moving subjects. Birds move fast. So, a fast shutter speed is needed. In the example above, the shutter speed was 1/1000s and some motion blur is still evident. I have since increased the speed and recommend setting the shutter speed to 1/2000s. If you are still seeing unwanted motion blur, go for an even faster shutter speed (1/2500s, 1/3000s, 1/3500s...). On the other hand if your images look too static with no motion at all, you will want to reduce the shutter speed (1/1250s, 1/1000s, 1/800s...) to introduce a bit of motion blur. This can be very difficult to get exactly right.

back of camera LCD panel showing camera exposure settings of 1/1600s, f/5.6, ISO 12800 (Auto)
Exposure Setup

camera setting dial set to S for shutter priority
Set dial to S

As the name suggests we want to prioritize shutter speed over everything else. So, set the dial to shutter priority. In order to compensate for varying light and maintain proper exposure levels, the camera needs to be able to vary aperture and/or ISO. Automatic ISO does the trick and is easy to setup.

read LCD panel of camera showing automatic ISO range from 100-12800 current ISO of 6400
Auto ISO Range settings

I often shoot as the sun is setting or in the shadows. In these low light conditions, I set the upper range to ISO 25, 600. I'm not worried about noise ever since the addition of the high ISO noise reduction in Lightroom. I've done a write up on that feature earlier this year.

rear LCD panel of camera showing drive mode set to continuous shooting (H)
Drive mode set to continuous shooting: Hi

It's difficult to predict the movements of the birds, so I set the camera to continuous (burst) shooting - High so I can take lots of photos in rapid succession. When I see the birds moving, I push and hold the shutter. A speedy memory card is also important so the camera can write all the images without stalling.

camera LCD panel showing autofocus mode set to AF.C autofocus continuous
Auto focus mode set to continuous

Autofocus is next. In order to ensure the successive burst of images stays in focus, I set the autofocus to continuous. This makes sure the camera continues to adjust focus as the shutter button is held down.

camera LCD panel showing autofocus area setting on pin point dot in the center
Autofocus area set to center

The autofocus area may also need refinement. Instead of the entire frame, I set it to Center. A bit of experimenting may be needed to find the best setting for your camera and shot.

rear LCD panel of camera showing white balance setting on daylight
Set white balance to daylight

Lastly, the final aspect of the setup is the white balance. We're trying to eliminate as much delay as possible. So we want to move away from auto white balance. I usually set it to daylight. Although cloudy is also an option. It doesn't matter that much since it's easy to fix in Lightroom.

If your camera supports it, enabling the electronic (silent) shutter also goes a long way towards not spooking the birds.

The basic camera setup is now complete. Again, this setup should perform well for any fast moving subject not just birds. Keep reading for more details on my specific setup for the birds at the feeder in the backyard.

Bird and Bird Feeder Specific Tips

While I enjoy hiking and exploring in search of animals and scenery, it is so much more convenient to have the birds come to me. So with a bird feeder (or feeders), the backyard is nice and appealing to a variety of birds. Check out Cornell Labs AllAboutBirds for information on the species in your area and what they like.

camera clamped to handrail looking at bird feeder with remote shutter control attached
Camera clamped to handrail near feeder

The birds are very active around the feeder in the backyard so I set the camera up with a view of the feeder itself as well as the surroundings. I'm using a camera clamp to secure the camera to the handrail. Before I had the clamp, I used a tripod with the same results.

bird feeder with house finch perched on it blue sky and evergreen trees in the background
Uncropped view of the feeder

I set the focal length as short as possible to give a wide field of view. I also position the camera with the feeder at the lower left third intersection to capture birds mid-flight to/from the feeder.

house finch bird flying away from bird feeder
Often fast moving birds will be captured near the edge of the frame
camera clamped to handrail with wireless remote shutter control connected
Wireless remote shutter control
hand holding remote shutter control with a view of the camera across the yard
Remote shutter control from across the yard

Key to this setup is the wireless remote shutter control. This allows me to stand far away so as not to spook the birds while still being able to trigger the shutter burst.

Once the camera is setup and in position, all that is needed is patience. Get some coffee wait for the birds to get hungry. Over time, I've learned how the birds behave. Some spend quite a while at the feeder. Others fly up and leave almost immediately. Some visit the feeder dozens of times a day. Others feed in the morning and then go elsewhere throughout the day.

Other Wildlife Considerations

All of the previous discussion on camera setup is generally applicable to other animals.

red fox in the wilderness
Red fox

Like people, animals usually move in the direction they are facing. Allow some space in front of them. When framing the shot, try to avoid zooming in too much. This does two things. It helps give a buffer in case the animal moves unexpectedly giving time to react and follow. It also helps make the photo look better. The classic rule of thirds serves as a great guide. As an example, the red fox above is uncropped. I was expecting the fox to move down the hill so I lined up to give lots of space in that direction and fairly tight behind.

squirrel on a stone planter wall
Can you guess where the squirrel is going to go?
tail of a squirrel jumping off a stone planter wall
I got it wrong

It doesn't always go according to plan. Sometimes, the critters move very fast and highly unpredictably. I will re-iterate the need to shoot with continuous (burst) drive mode.

Post Production and Editing in Lightroom

close up view of a big horn sheep
Big horn sheep

Birds and animal photos require a few things to keep in mind as part of post production and editing. The first thing I do with any photo, not just animals, is crop and rotate.

Cedar waxwing birds eating berries on a tree with the crop and rotate tool visible in adobe lightroom
Be sure to enable the gridlines when cropping and rotating in Lightroom
bird flying above bird feeder with crop overlay in adobe lightroom
Don't be afraid to crop heavily

Crop out any distracting or extraneous objects such as the white support pole and red rope holding up the bird feeder. Next, I crop to provide some space in front of the subject. If the edge of the frame is very close while the back of the head has lots of space, it will feel cramped. It doesn't feel right because we can't see what the subject is looking at.

Compare the two images below. Both are from the same starting image of the big horned sheep. All I have done is adjust the cropping.

big horn sheep with cropping very close to the face
Close crop
big horn sheep with space in front of the face
Crop with more space

adobe lightroom's mask tool
Create new mask

After cropping, I use the masking tool to select the animal. The first four (Subject, Sky, Background, People) use Adobe's AI wizardry to select the applicable parts of the image. Select Subject works most of the time. If needed, a bit of add/subtract can be done with the brush tool.

tone control settings for the selected mask in adobe lightroom
Mask specific settings

We want to emphasize the subject to help it stand out from the background. A slight boost to the Exposure brightens it up. Next, the Texture and Clarity sliders serve to bring out the detail of the fur, eyes and horns. I also bump up the Dehaze a little bit even though there is no haze. This is to counteract the adjustments we're going to make to the rest of the image in the next phase.

adobe lightroom basic tone control panel
Global tone control - note the Presence section

Close the mask tool and return to the general tone control section. Take note of the Presence section. Negative values for Texture, Clarity and Dehaze serve to soften and almost blur the image. We've done the opposite of the mask. The result is an image with the subject popping more while the background is softened. Another way to think of this technique is the bokeh effect from the wide aperture is accentuated. Rounding things out, I boost the vibrance for more vivid colors.

Let's compare before and after.

big horn sheep in adobe lightroom with all sliders reset
Original RAW image with no adjustments
big horn sheep with sliders showing adjustments made
Final edited result

The same techniques work with birds and other animals.

squirrel with pine cone in his mouth on a fence. RAW unedited image in adobe lightroom with tone control panel showing all sliders at 0
Original RAW image
squirrel with pine cone in his mouth on a fence. edited image in adobe lightroom with tone control panel showing all sliders at various values
Final result
chickadee in an evergreen tree
Original RAW image
chickadee sitting in an evergreen tree
Final result

In closing, I encourage you to get out there and give it a try. Patience and practice are the keys to improving!

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