When all goes well, bird photography can be absolutely exhilarating. Yet birds are small and skittish creatures. Hence, a common problem faced by bird photographers, beginners and experts alike, is simply getting close enough to capture an image.
Even with longer lenses, attempts to photograph a bird often result in tiny specks in the final image, not to mention a very frustrated photographer.
However, never fear, there are several simple techniques that you can use in order to capture frame-filling images of birds. Using these approaches, you should be able to radically increase your success when it comes to bird photography. You don’t have to own a huge lens to do it, either!
1. The Slow, Low Approach
This technique is simple, and is often suprisingly effective. It goes like this – move slow, and stay low.
As I said earlier, birds are quite skittish. But if you move slowly enough, oftentimes a bird will eventually accept you as a non-threatening aspect of the environment, rather than as a dangerous intruder.
You spot your subject across the lagoon. You (slowly!) take a few steps forward. Then stop and wait. Take a few more steps. Once you’ve gotten significantly closer, I suggest that you get on your knees (or even your elbows), and shuffle forwards.
2. Position yourself and then wait
This is a favourite of mine, partially because it’s so non-invasive, and partially because it’s so successful.
The key fact to remember here is that many birds follow a general pattern of movement. Shorebirds, for instance, will usually forage while moving in a single direction. If you watch them for long enough, you’ll notice that they’ve shifted a good ways down the beach.
So, from a distance, observe the movement of the bird. Think about where it will be in five or 10 minutes. Then, simply place yourself in a position to photograph the bird when it gets to that spot.
3. Using a Blind
As hunters will know, a blind is a shelter that you sit inside, and will shield you from the eyes of animals. But blinds aren’t only good for hunting; they can be great for photography as well.
This one may seem out of reach. You might think that you don’t have access to blinds, nor can you afford to have one of your own. However, this often isn’t true.
For one thing, local parks may have blinds that you can use for free, or that you can rent. For another, it is often extremely easy to make a blind, one that you can use in your own backyard.
All that it requires is an old tent of some sort, or even a strong box. Cut a hole in the box or the tent, put it in your backyard, and voila, you have a fully-functioning blind. Let the birds have a few hours to get used to the blind, and they soon won’t even notice it.
I like to use this alongside my backyard feeders in winter. I put out some perches, and I am pretty much guaranteed that several birds will fly by and pose.
4. Using a Car
Your car can work as portable blinds, of sorts – oftentimes, birds hardly notice when cars are going by. Hence, you can approach birds on roadsides very closely without them taking flight. Then you can wind down the window, and begin your photography.
This often works best if you are in the passenger seat of the car while somebody else drives. This allows you to focus on the photography, while they focus on the driving. However, if you’re alone and on a public road, I suggest that you pull off and stop in a safe position (near the bird, of course!), before bringing out your camera.
You can also use a car to approach closely, and once you have stopped, you can slowly open the door and approach from the safe side of the car.
5. Take an Environmental Portrait
Now you’ve gotten four techniques for ensuring that you can get close to birds. But sometimes, it’s best to put away that telephoto lens and take a step back. Do not try to fill the frame. Instead, compose with the environment in mind, aiming to capture not just the bird but the beauty of the surroundings.
This works especially well if the environment complements the bird and thus enhances the overall aesthetic. I like to search for this type of image in areas that are already photographically powerful, where the scenery can carry the image on its own, and the bird simply adds something extra.