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Richard Crossley is the author of the de facto birder's bible, The Crossley I.D. Guide to Eastern Birds. He's also a serious bird photographer, as one look at his book reveals. I asked for his advice on how to go about getting started in bird photography. He told me the best thing is that literally anyone can do it. "Birds are out there for everyone, whatever your equipment or wherever you live. The opportunities are limitless and everywhere—you just have to look for them." Here are Richard's top tips for beginning bird photographers.
1. BEGIN CLOSE TO HOME
"I always think the best place to start is where you know best," Crossley says. "That is usually at ‘home,' be it your deck, garden, local park or another favorite place. (City parks and local nature reserves are great places too. They often put food out to attract birds, and the birds are more approachable.) We know these places well—where the light is good, the patterns are nice, there are interesting colors, nice plants and other things that make images interesting."
"Most people have their favorite places," he continues. "Some put feeders and water drips into their back gardens. This not only brings more birds but also lets you manicure nice backgrounds. You can set blinds so that the birds can't see you, allowing you to get much closer. If you want to go all the way, build an upside down house like mine with lots of windows next to the trees: open the windows and blast away. One of my daughters has a water drip right outside her bedroom on the ground floor; you can imagine how that plays out when something good shows up!"
2. BE QUIET AND GO SLOW
"Birds are fairly predictable," Crossley says, "so once you learn their habits you can consider the best way to take nice images. Sitting patiently or stalking birds both work. The important thing to remember is to make no sudden changes in noise or movements. Just think of what scares you; talking people do not, but a sudden noise makes you jump. The same applies with movement—take it slow and gradual. Size is intimidating, so the lower you are the better. As you approach, get lower so that you are less threatening. For swimming or walking birds, eye level shots are superb, so be prepared to get down and dirty. Also get ready for lots of funny looks from passersby. Birds become more comfortable with time, so keep low, move gradually, make no sudden volume changes and be patient so that birds have time to come to you. They will come closer and your images will improve."
3. SUPER-TELEPHOTO LENSES AREN'T REQUIRED, BUT THEY DO HELP
"I like 7x or 8x binoculars for spotting and identifying birds," Crossley says, "but they are not vital. Nikon Monarch binoculars are good optically and won't break the bank. Binoculars double as a tripod when lying down. I handhold nearly all of the time for mobility and flexibility. Birds move quickly and so should you or you will miss many shots. This is crucial for me and lugging a big tripod takes away a lot of the enjoyment. There are times when I use a tripod, but I usually consider it a hindrance rather than a help."
"I also have a 300mm F4," Crossley adds. "Midsize lenses they have their pros and cons. They are lighter and better for scenic bird images, but they can lack in reach for close-up images of small birds. If I had to carry just one lens, anything from 200mm to 400mm offers a lot of flexibility, and with a teleconverter can get you some great close-ups. And the price point is much more reasonable, too."
4. CHOOSE IDEAL LIGHT
"The rich saturated light of early and late is always beautiful," Crossley says, "but I love high overcast skies too. This is in part because I can shoot all day, but also because the images are more typical of what I see than those with heavily saturated colors. The worst light is bright midday sun with its harsh contrast."
"Most people like the sunlight directly behind them for nice clean images," he says, ‘but for those with a more open mind, side lighting can work well when the bird is in certain poses—like when the bird's head is tilted so that the face is perfectly lit. Images shot into the sun can also be dramatic, particularly if there are other highlights such as water droplets visible within the frame."
5. PUSH BEYOND THE BASICS
"What is a good bird photograph?" Crossley asks rhetorically. "Many like side-on images, with the bird standing still and looking slightly towards you with a nice, flat, out of focus background. They are popular in the USA, but I personally find them boring. There is no story or depth to the image. Personally, I love action that tells a story about how and where the bird lives."
"The best photos typically involve an action that tells a story," he says, "such as eating, carrying prey or landing. These images are harder to capture but when they come along make sure you take lots of photos. I love flight photography, too. It is certainly a challenge, particularly for small birds, but that is part of the fun. I don't hunt with a gun but the dynamics of it are very similar. We see birds flying almost everywhere so there are lots of chances to give it a go. In most cases anticipation and speed is the name of the game. You don't have time to change your camera settings so try to have your camera all ready to go. I usually have the exposure set manually because the background is always changing. If I know my target bird I will already have adjusted for the color of the bird. I know my camera settings at all times and I am often adjusting them in anticipation as it hangs by my waist. I am always on high alert!"
"We are often able to anticipate a bird taking off," Crossley says. "They will stop feeding and freeze, assume an alert pose or copy previous actions—such as going to a bird feeder. Recognizing these situations is a huge advantage. I usually have my camera on the ‘ring of fire' setting so that the autofocus can find and stay on the subject, but it is fairly accurate too. Try to keep the camera at or slightly ahead of the subject."
"The larger the bird," he adds, "the easier it is to track and photograph. City parks are a great place to find swans, ducks, geese and gulls. Takeoff and landing images with water splashing everywhere are always crowd pleasers. Fast shutter speeds are nearly always preferable."
"There is a tendency for bird photographers to shoot wide open to stop motion blur," Crossley says, "and many like the shallow depth of field that results. It is often difficult to get the bird in focus for full frame images this way, though, so it is preferable when close up to shoot with a smaller f/stop. I sometimes shoot as slow as I can to maximize the depth of field while still fast enough to create a sharp subject. I also like slow shutter speeds for blurs with nice patterns, or partial blurs that tell a story about movement. Birds in flight that have detail in the body but blurred wings can look great—just like a blurred flowing stream does."
"Judging shutter speeds is difficult because birds move at different speeds," he continues. "Freezing the wing tips is the hardest part, and speeds of over 1/2000th of a second are often necessary. However I will sometimes shoot at 1/500th of a second or slower when I don't mind some wing blur. The bird's eye must always be in focus, otherwise the shot is a throwaway. The same rule applies for flight blurs which I tend to shoot at 1/60th of a second or slower."
"Most people set their cameras to servo autofocus," Crossley says. "I typically do this with Nikon equipment, though with Canon I've been more successful using one shot and occasionally manual focus settings. As for ISO, shooting at a higher ISOs gives you a lot more creative advantages, but at the expense of image quality. This, like just about everything else in bird photography, is about choices. Whether you paint a picture in great detail or abstract is up to you."
To see more of Richard Crossley's beautiful bird photography, to learn more about birding or to purchase a copy of his book, visit his web site at www.crossleybirds.com.