Bird Photography

Spring has finally arrived and hopefully summer is not to far away. At this time of year, I start to think of photographing birds. Mainly for two reasons, it is warmer and I am will to go out at photograph just about anything and second I usually hit a warmer climate in April to get my photography going.

Feeding Time

This April, I am headed for Florida, to photograph all sorts of different birds, plus a lot of other areas of photography. This got me to thinking, what will I need to photograph birds this trip. I need to be portable, but the birds can be small and somewhat far away so I will need my telephoto. I shoot with a full frame camera, so my telephoto will need to be stronger than if I was using a crop frame camera. My selection for a telephoto lens would be in the 300 to 500mm range, the stronger the better. Most birds will be 30-40 feet away or further unless you are well hidden in a blind or camouflaged. With a crop camera it is still nice to have the longer lens, but not a necessary, since you have the magnification of the crop sensor. I like using zooms, the one I use is a 200 to 400mm zoom with an f/stop of f/4. This works well for me on larger birds, the smaller birds it is a little weak. I like the f/4 so that my depth of field is very shallow, keeping my background out of focus. If I need to get a little closer I will add a 1.4 converter or a 2x converter. This will slow the focusing down, but will bring everything closer.

Quick Get a way

Wide angle lens can be nice to bring a long when photographing large groups of birds in flight, that are closer to you. It is also nice to show where the birds are located and how they live and where they live.

Another item needed is some sort of support. Either a pretty heavy duty tripod ( see Really Right Stuff with a gimbal head on it (I use a Wimberly Head, it helps to keep you steady and the gimbal head lets you follow the bird, it takes some practice, but after a while you get pretty good at following the bird.

Another way to support your camera is to shoot from the car and use the car as a blind, with some padding such as a bean bag on your sill to cushion the lens, the car works well to hide you, just make sure you turn the car off to get sharper images and if you get out of the car do not slam the door or you could scare the bird away.

Reddish Egret

The best times to shoot is early morning and later afternoon, the sun should be at your back so the birds are lit up nicely with that early morning soft warm sun and the afternoon sun. Watch the shadows, once they get pretty harsh it is a good time to quite and take a break, usually shooting from 11 AM to 3 PM the light can be pretty harsh and the only way to get any good bird shots is if they are in the shade.

One final thing that you will need photographing birds is patience, wait for them to come to you, watch their flying habits, when feeding they usually go to a particular branch then come in to eat and leave. So watch the birds see what their habits are, it will give you a better chance to get that exciting shot. Come back to the same spot over and over, the birds may be there one day and not the next, hopefully they are there when you are. Research the birds you want to photograph so that you know their habits and behavior, once you know what they will do, that will give you the better chance of success. Have fun and enjoy the outdoors and I hope you get to photograph some interesting birds.


High Dynamic Range Photography

High Dynamic Range Photography (HDR) is used to expand the Dynamic Range of your camera. Your eyes are able to see such a wide dynamic range (about 24 f/stops) compared to your camera (11 to 15 f/stops). So to extend the range of what the camera sees you need to take multiple frames so that you can expand the range of the sensor. This is usually accomplished by taking a normal exposure and then one or more over exposure and underexposure. My normal HDR is one stop over and 1 stop under plus the normal. If it is an extremely contrasty day I will go to multiple exposure starting at 1 stop, then 2 stops over and the same under. (Using a tripod does help to keep the images lined up but is not absolutely necessary.) What you want to accomplish is to have detail in your highlight areas and in the black areas. You can use the histogram to make sure you have detail in those areas. Make sure the blacks have detail and the white have detail which would show on the histogram as not coming up to the edge of either side.

It is interesting to see that different cameras have different dynamic ranges. The older the camera like my Nikon D3 has a dynamic range of 12.2 or my point and shoot P7000 has a range of 10.8. While my newer camera the Nikon D810 has a range of 14.5. So you can see that the newer cameras have better dynamic range than the older ones. Here is a list of cameras and their dynamic range as measured by DXO (

Nikon D810, 750 14.5 f/stops Nikon DF 13.1 f/stops Nikon D3 12.2 f/stops

Sony A7 14.2 f/stops

Canon 50D 11.4 f/stops Canon 5d Mark 3 11.7 f/stops Canon 7D 11.7 f/stops Canon 7D Mark 2 11.8 f/stops Canon 6D 12.1 f/stops

An interesting note that the Nikon’s have a slightly larger dynamic range than Canon, although pretty close. Nikon and Sony are close since Nikon uses Sony sensors.

Once you have your exposures, you then need to take them into a program to combine them together for one image. You can use Photoshop, or you can use a separate program, my favorite is Photomatix ( There are others out there, Nik ( has one that works well and so do a lot of other companies, just google HDR and you will find them. Import the images into the program and it will create a single image with the expanded dynamic range.

I actually shoot 3 bracketed shots for most of my photography (except for sports or high speed movement). This accomplishes two things, first it gives me 3 exposures to choose from to get the best exposure, or I can merge them into a HDR image. So whenever possible I will shoot one stop over and under, plus normal on just about everything I shoot. It may take up a lot more card space and Hard-drive space, but in the long run it has its benefits. I will say that using my D800 or 810 has cut the need for HDR down because the cameras themselves have such a high dynamic range that I usually will just use the best exposure I have, but it is nice to have the option to make the HDR. So way not try shooting more HDR’s and get the benefits of the expanded dynamic range.

Sunrise and Sunset Photography

As winter winds it way thru, I start thinking of upcoming photography trips. One of the main reasons for the trips is to get some landscape images. The best time to do this is either in the early mornings for sunrise or late afternoon and sunsets. Nothing is more spectacular than watching the sunrise or set, especially when there are some clouds on the horizon.

There is not a lot of equipment needed for a sunrise photo, your camera, tripod, cable release, flashlight and a wide angle to telephoto lens. The important task is to find a location that will work for sunrise or sunset. I use an iPhone app to locate where the sun will either rise or set. The apps are Sunseeker or The Photographer’s Ephemeris. They both work well, Sunseeker does not need a cell signal to work as much as The Photographer’s Ephemeris does, since it uses google maps. So if I am in a location where the cell signal is low then i use Sunseeker, otherwise I use The Photographer’s Ephemeris. Once I know where the sun rises or sets, I will look for a location with an interesting background or something that would make the image more exciting. I will usually do this driving around or using google earth to find possible locations and mark them down and check the time that the sun will be rising or setting.

Let’s start with sunrise, I am not a morning person, so this is the harder one for me, but worth it. You need to plan for the amount of time it will take to get to your location and to get set up. Usually I like to get there at least 1/2 hour to a full hour before sunrise, the minutes before the sun comes up can give you spectacular color, especially if there are clouds in the sky, plus you need time to set up your equipment, since it will be dark a flashlight come in handy, and you don’t want to have to rush to get set up, so give your self plenty of time to get ready. You want to have a fairly low ISO setting, which is why you will need a tripod and cable release. I will usually shoot in Aperture preferred Automatic and start with a 0 exposure compensation, but as the sun rises, I will watch my histogram and will start cutting exposure depending on how large the sun is in my frame, I will shoot a lot of frames and most of the time, I will shoot HDR, with an exposure of 1 stop over, Normal and 1 stop under. This serves a couple of purposes. One would be if my exposure is off, I have three choices to choose from, or I can combine all three into one image using an HDR plugin such as Photomatix. I will shoot a lot of different compositions and hope for a colorful sunrise, sometimes you will get lucky other times you might not, you could also get complete overcast or even rain, I will still usually go out there, because you never know what the clouds will do, they could break just at the right moment. I will continue to shoot till about an hour or so after the sun has risen. Then I can go back to my room or go get some breakfast and go through my images.

Clingmans Dome Sunset

For Sunset it is about the same but reverse. I usually like to get there an hour or more before sunset, especially if there are cloud nearby, I will try different compositions and will bracket the same as my sunrise images. I will continue shooting till after the sun has gone completely down. I won’t pack up yet, because now you want to wait for the after glow, which will sometimes happen about 30 minutes to an hour after sunset. The sun can light up the back of the clouds to give you some amazing color, so while everyone else is packing up to leave, I will wait and hope to get that amazing color.

A couple of warnings when doing sunrise and sunsets, do not stare at the sun for long periods of time through the camera lens, you can burn the back of the eyeball, the lens will focus all that light to a pinpoint and you can really hurt yourself. It can also burn your sensor on your camera if it get pinpointed in the camera, it does not happen to often, but it only takes just once. Make sure you have a flashlight, the trails can be dark either before or after you finish shooting and you don’t want to hurt yourself, coming from or going to the sunrise/set.

So go out and get up early and stay out late at night to get those beautiful sunrise’s or sunset’s and make sure you enjoy yourself while you are doing it.

Rock and Sunset