After photographing wild birds in the Wind River Canyon for most of the last two decades, my award-winning hummingbirds my obsession, I thought it time to explain all that I've learned, even though a tiny, old woman long ago told me, "Never tell anyone how you do this!" Sounds very funny to me now.....
First off you're going need a good camera, and I don't mean the little lens on the back of your phone. I've had five of Canon's digital cameras, and as dumb as it sounds I found out just recently to buy a camera you can't afford; finding out that there is a reason pro-cameras cost as much as they do, the results are much better.
If you are at all serious about photographing wild birds, a great digital-camera will take you farther and you will learn more about Mother Nature than you ever thought you would. Make a commitment and learn something about this planet you live on you never understood. The natural world is fascinating!
You've invested in an expensive camera, but you're going to need a lens that will be able to "reach" those little birds. You'll need at least a four hundred millimeter lens, and don't skimp on quality; do you know how many cheap lenses that I've burned-up? Cheap glass is no bargain at all: trust me on this one. I've got two long lenses that lay unused because they quit working and cheap ones that are good-for-nothing. Lenses like I'm referencing start at 2K and can go up in cost very quickly. That huge white lens you see on TV at the ballgame has a price that starts at ten thousand dollars (the 600mm F/4 costs $16,000) and no, I will never have one. Purchasing the camera and lens for my art that I honestly never even fantasized owning, or ever thought I would own. I never buy anything without lots of research, and decided on the Canon 1D X Mark III; my new lens is the highly regarded EF 100-400mm 4.5-5.6 L IS II. After a couple of months of testing this combination it amazes me! and I've been doing this for half a century. The camera turned out to be grey-market; the firmware was in Japanese! but I saved a bundle of money on my car insurance :-)
Which takes you to the next big step; reading and research, and more reading and research, and yes even more..... I got a booklet sent in from England about my new camera and have read over it maybe ten times; I'm sure I got it down now. Far more important is reading about the birds you will be photographing. Every species behavior is completely different. Starting with Wikipedia is a good start, and I also have a big collection of books. Study, study study, you will need to be prepared.
You need that expensive camera to become so familiar that it becomes something you don't need to think about; it's an extension of you. So don't be afraid to practice, practice, practice..... If this all sounds rather redundant, it is really. And it's not going to get any easier any other way. Reading and practice will make you a better wildlife photographer. I personally take between 10 and 20 thousand frames a year! Only a very small number of these frames pass my "is-it-art" test. Studying famous works of art is also a good idea: you need to know what looks great after you "crop" your pictures into something memorable. You will need to learn to crop your photographs; birds never ever pose. Which leads me to my lecture on software.
I use Canon for a very good reason, they make everything, from cameras, lenses, cables, printers, batteries, flash, and a software package that is very good: Digital Photo Professional----always shoot RAW. Also, I use Lightroom and Topaz; Lightroom for the metadata on every photograph on my website; HogbatsPhotography.com. No other company makes all this pro-level equipment. But, there is lots of software out there, so use what you enjoy using. I started out long, long ago using Minolta film cameras.
Now the very best part of spending time in nature....observation. Observation is probably the most important thing in photographing wild animals. Reading and research is important, of course, but spending untold hours just watching is a fun way of learning about how these wild things live, and you never know what you will experience!
I used to set up my hummingbird feeders (4 parts water/one part real sugar--no substitutes: I make mine a little stronger) the middle of June because the Rufous and Calliope hummingbirds arrive the first week of July; more or less. But, I observed orioles (Bullock's) drinking my homemade nectar by the gallon. The males arrive first, so the nectar feeders now go up the first week in May; the openings need to be a little larger so they can get their beaks in slightly. We usually have three mating pair of orioles nesting nearby! At this moment we are up to our butts in baby orioles and baby hummingbirds; the nectar feeders empty in only one day and they hold one and a half cups!!
The above picture of a male Rufous hummingbird in-flight was taken yesterday afternoon. I cannot promise that you will be able to image hummingbirds in-flight right away; it took me a long time to get good at it: I've won first -place in Cody three times with my hummingbird pictures.
Camera settings are another choice all together and depends on the type of birds you are photographing and what kind of image you are intending; a portrait or in-flight? My advice is to always shoot faster than you think you need to, because you never know what will happen next. For instance....raptors most always poop before taking off. I'll bet there is something you really needed to know.
As for exposure settings I usually shoot manual----fast, faster and faster still. I am now photographing hummingbirds at 1/8000th and an F-stop at F/8, since this is the smoothest and sharpest point of most quality lenses, and it also gives me some added depth-of-field; but experiment all you can. Get to know your equipment! My ISO setting is either auto or set manually; it depends on my subject and the amount of sunlight.
The very best place to photograph birds is in your own backyard! Purchase a feeder or two (right now I am running 5 hummingbird feeders) and use sunflower seeds and cracked corn. So-called birdseed contains an awful lot of crap no bird eats. But I live in a wilderness, so adjust your birdseed accordingly. Also, your local parks are great for getting pictures of birds that you will never see in your backyard; National Parks are wonderful, if you can avoid the crowds that is. The above two pictures of baby Rufous hummingbirds were taken just recently; they were born here in the Wind River Canyon. The lower image shows him with his tongue out; maybe a statement?
Photographing wild birds has a satisfaction that is truly beyond measure, it will give you knowledge and confidence, and they can always use the help----join Audubon!
All content produced by Michael John Balog.