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How to Photograph Small Birds

The smaller birds can be very interesting subjects for nature photography. You find small birds in many places. The best place to photograph them is in their natural habitat. For example, this catbird was photographed in Corkscrew Swamp.

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Here are some tips for photographing small birds in the wild:

  • Observe and learn the habits of your subjects. If you’re visiting a state park, you can find out a lot by talking with a park ranger. Ask her what area of the park you’re likely to find a particular species of bird and find out when they’re most active.

  • Disable the beep that occurs when your camera achieves focus. The beep may frighten the bird you’re trying to photograph. You can disable the beep on most cameras using a menu option.

  • Design your approach based on the species you’re photographing. For nesting birds or protected species like burrowing owls, respect your subject — don’t get too close, or they may abandon the nest. The only cure for not scaring birds is investing in a longer lens. A focal length of 200mm is ideal for large wading birds, but you’ll need at least a 400mm lens to photograph shy birds or birds of prey.

    If the birds start fidgeting or squawking, you’re too close.

  • Listen. If you know the song the bird you want to photograph sings, you can start looking for where the bird is when she sings. You can learn bird sounds and other information about birds at WhatBird.

  • Use natural cover. When you find an area frequented by the type of bird you want to photograph, set up shop. Trees or bushes are a good place to hide. Make sure the distance from your hiding place to the birds you want to photograph is within range of your longest telephoto lens, and that your hiding place is not the home to some other, potentially harmful animal, such as a snake.

  • With a photographer buddy, take turns driving through an area where small birds are frequently sighted. When your friend drives, you can look ahead — small birds will light on fence posts, barbed wire, and low tree branches. When you see a bird, tell your friend to stop. After your buddy makes one pass through the park, switch places.

  • Change your camera to Aperture Priority mode and choose an aperture of f/4.0 to f/6.3. This gives you a limited depth of field that draws your viewers’ attention to the bird.

  • Focus on the eye of the bird that is closest to the camera. If the eye nearest the camera is in focus, the entire picture appears sharp because viewers will be drawn to the eye before they look at anything else in the photo. If the eye is out of focus, the entire image appears to be out of focus.

  • Switch to Continuous Auto-Focus mode to photograph birds on the move. When you choose this mode, the camera updates focus as the bird moves.

  • Switch to Continuous Drive mode. In this mode, the camera captures images as long as you have the shutter button fully depressed. This is another way to hedge your bets when photographing active birds.

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