How to take Pictures of Birds

February 21, 2015

     We live in the middle of the Wind River Canyon.   There is no mail service out here and we have no phone; a few of the neighbors do.  The cold that folks are experiencing in the northeast part of the country is harsh, but we've seen forty-two below zero around here.  When I need to stock the pantry with soup and salmon, it's an eighty mile round trip!  It's a twenty-five mile ride just to get the junk mail.  And right now I'm writing this in the middle of a white-out blizzard with a screaming wind, and don't really know how long my satellite connection will last, or if my wife will make it home tonight.

     I love taking photographs of the wildlife that also make this magical canyon their home, and maybe raise the awareness as to the special nature of this isolated ecosystem.  Someone of importance asked me recently how to take pictures of birds; I didn't realize at the time just how Lazuli Bunting-"Mr.Turquoise"-Wind River Canyon, WYLazuli Bunting Photographed in The Wind River Canyon, Wyoming. long this was going to take, and I made a promise I'd share some "secret pointers."

     First off, most birds don't like their picture being taken any more than my mother-in-law did, so you're going to have to be quiet and move slowly, so you'll not startle the birds you're trying to photograph.  Keeping your mouth shut for several hours may be difficult, but it's only the beginning.  I've written before about wearing the same hat and coat every day, so they'll begin to realize, "That's him again, and he isn't interested in eating us."  This may seem a bit anthropomorphic, but trust me, they need to trust you!  

     I make a simple double whistle when I'm near any of my "regular" bird visitors; this is also to let your prey know it's you again.  And there will be an again, and again, and again.......because the perfect portrait, of your favorite bird, could take years of patience and waiting:  It took me nearly ten years to get an award winning photograph of a Black-chinned Hummingbird in flight, and I'm still not satisfied.  And you shouldn't be either, if you want to photograph Mother Nature's most interesting marvels.

     Every bird species has its quirks of behavior, and you need to learn about the birds if you want to photograph them.  Some will be easy to get near, like the Mountain Chickadee, Wrens, and my favorites, the Hummingbirds.  Others will be shy and crazy difficult to approach, and you'll yell words that children shouldn't hear.  My favorites, of the most difficult, is anyone in the raptor family, the Great Blue Heron, Orioles and Mountain Bluebirds.  But to be honest, most birds don't trust mankind, and do you really blame them?   Mountain Bluebird, In Flight, WyomingMountain Bluebird in Flight

     As to shooting anything from a blind, it does work well, but that doesn't mean I like them;  I almost always work "in the field."  But I have used my cabin as a blind, because some birds will come to you, so it's always a good idea to learn what your "local" birds will eat; did you know that some birds like oranges?  I have birds that eat snakes, birds that eat spiders, birds that eat sunflower seeds, some like cracked corn, another loves potato chips, and one of our favorites "loves the dead."  If you learn what they eat, you can photograph them.  

     Since most of Mother Nature isn't easy to get very close to without luck, you'll need a long lens to go with that camera that shoots many frames-per-second.  This is the biggest drawback to photographing any wildlife; you'll need a big lens and a fast camera.  I don't like it, but that's how it works; on this planet anyway.  I personally suggest starting low and working your way up, as it were.  As your skills get better and better, you'll outgrow your existing equipment, and you'll need to "trade up."  Unless you climb the mountain, you'll never reach the top.  Oh, and you'll need a solid tripod, but I rarely use the anaconda I have; I prefer the fast hand held style of shooting, even if it's heavy, it's a good workout.

     The settings on your camera are somewhat a personal style, no matter what the "experts" will tell you in their expensive books.  I use a spot focus and a spot metering, because all I care about is getting that animal or bird correctly exposed.  If the bird ain't right, who cares about the background anyway?  Get that wild animal focused and right, the rest is your creative spark on Black-chinned Hummingbird, female, Wind River Canyon, Wyoming - 1st Place 2014 Cody Art ShowBlack-chinned Hummingbird, Wind River Canyon, Wyoming-Winner of 1st Place Award 2014 Cody Art Show! your computer.

     Only one big thing left in getting that picture of your Blue Jay, the eye-hand coordination thing; it's not even that easy to explain.  You see, the bird must be "in-focus" no matter what bug may be trying to bite you!  All your attention is on your subject; now hold down that shutter button and if your knowledge of your camera's settings are correct, you now could have hundreds of digital files to go over in a morning's shoot.  

     The one great benefit, and drawback, to being a photographer of wild birds and animals is this; you get paid mostly in sunshine, so bring a good hat and something to drink.  And remember what I've taught others; don't get too close to something that could potentially hurt you, or eat you......

Always respect their right to live peacefully, and we'll all get along better.

Michael John Balog

Hogbats Photography