Bird Photography Tips on a Budget

  • Don’t Buy a Premium Telephoto Lens – What puts off most people from starting a hobby such as bird & wildlife photography? It’s simply the cost. A Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM Super Telephoto Lens will cost you about $6,000. Apart from the price, the other negative aspect is the weight. This beauty weighs in at 8.5 pounds! Imagine trekking through the forest or the jungle for several hours lugging this weight on top of your other photography gear.
bird photo tips

“Male Kestrel Falcon” captured by Sheribeari (Click Image to See More From Sheribeari)

  • Do Buy a Budget Telephoto Lens – A Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM telephoto lens is still somewhat pricey but extremely effective. This lens weighs in at only 2.8 pounds. Thus with this option you have an 80 percent saving in the cost and a 66 percent saving in the weight you have to carry around. The purist photographer may argue that this lens won’t have the clarity and allow the same amount of light into the camera, essential when taking shots in low light conditions. This is not true if you follow the techniques described below.
  • Do Buy a Premium Camera Body – You can compensate for any deficiencies in the budget telephoto lens by using a state of the art digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera body. I bought the Canon EOS 50D 15.1 MP last year and have been amazed at the results. There are three features explained below, which make this an outstanding camera body for bird and wildlife photography.
  • Sensor Cleaning – Whenever you switch the camera on or off, the automatic sensor cleaning kicks in. This removes any particles from the sensor, which might otherwise result in artifacts or grain in the final image—a serious weakness in most of the early DSLR models. This allows you to use a much higher ISO setting without getting a grainy image.
  • High-Speed Exposure Burst – You have the option to shoot a burst of exposures at 5 frames per second. This is a real advantage when taking flight shots. Chances are that if you take a sequence of 15 shots in 3 seconds, at least a couple of the images will be usable or even outstanding.
budget photo equipment

“wow …..look out here” captured by David Hobcote (Click Image to See More From David Hobcote)

  • Automatic Focusing via Servo Drive – You have automatic focusing using a servo drive. This means that as you track a bird in flight across the sky, the focus will be automatically and continuously adjusted right up to the point when you depress the shutter and capture your image.
  • Use a high ISO and Short Exposure Time – Most photography purists would argue strongly against this tip, but my experience will convince you of its validity. By selecting a high ISO, you increase the sensitivity of the sensor, thereby allowing you to optimize the exposure with less light and a shorter exposure time. I typically use an ISO of 1,000 with an exposure time of 1/2,000 sec. This eliminates camera shake and gives you sharp, crisp images without having to use a heavy and cumbersome tripod. This is especially important when taking shots of birds in flight.
  • Eliminate Grain and Sharpen Your Image – Any grain which might show up in the sky area or on water surfaces can be easily eliminated by using a software programme such as NeatImage. Then sharpen your image using “Unsharp Mask”. Both steps together take only a few seconds when processing your images in your image processing software.
  • Crop Your Image, Optimize Contrast and Lightness – Finally, it’s good to optimize the composition of your image by cropping and optimizing the contrast and lightness using image processing software such as Photoshop.
bird photography

“Bohemian Waxwing (silkitoppa)” captured by Agust Jonsson (Click Image to See More From Agust Jonsson)

  • Stalk your Subject with Patience and Respect – When out in the field taking wildlife shots, it’s important to approach your subject with patience and not to get too close. Otherwise the subject will already have taken flight before you’re ready to take the first shot. My rule of thumb is to be able to leave the scene without having disturbed the subject.

About the Author
Ken Billington is a professional wildlife photographer, and the owner of the site Ken Billington’s Bird & Wildlife Photography. View a selection of the 2,500 high resolution images and convince yourself that the tips in this article make sense.

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3 Comments

  1. IndiaBirding says:

    Enjoyed this article. It was very informative and I will now stick with my 400mm canon lens.

  2. Rob says:

    Seriously? You recommend a “budget” lens that costs over $1200? I’d sure love to have your budget. Thanks for nothing.

  3. Don says:

    Grain and high ISO has nothing to do with how clean the sensor is. It has to do with the quality and design of the sensor. A clean sensor will eliminate sensor spots, not grain.

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