Great Egret Image: Melissa Groo

Enjoy this preview of content from the self-paced online course Bird Photography with Melissa Groo.

From Lesson 3: Gain an Audience with Birds

Bird photography is all about knowing your subjects and finding the best tools to immerse yourself in their world. In this lesson, instructor Melissa Groo helps you find birds, get close to them without causing alarm, and even attract them to your yard. You’ll gain the know-how and fieldcraft techniques you’ll need to achieve the first step in great bird photography: gaining an audience with birds.

One of my favorite places to photograph is at my home. I’m very fortunate to live in a beautiful spot in deep country here in central New York. My home is situated at the edge of a state forest so I get a variety of birds from finches and nuthatches to warblers and woodpeckers. I can always be on the lookout and have my camera nearby. Even when I’m inside, I’ve always got a door or a window open, and I’m always listening.

Having a variety of feeders and food will attract different birds to your yard. Woodpeckers, of course, love suet feeders. Cardinals and other bigger perching birds come to platform feeders like this one. Next to it, I place oranges for Baltimore Orioles and catbirds. I also scatter seed on the bench and ground for the birds that like to feed there, like towhees, juncos and other sparrows. In the winter, I put out a Nyjer seed feeder which attracts a variety of finches. Nectar feeders attract hummingbirds, but I also see woodpeckers and orioles drinking from these feeders.

I often photograph through my living room door, or even from an upstairs window for a different view or to bring me closer to the canopy of the trees. I shoot with the window open, as I know that will get me the best results. It can be a bit chilly in the winter, but it’s worth it. I set up on a tripod, and I keep my lens entirely inside to avoid spooking the birds when I move even slightly. Depending on how used to me the birds are, I can often get shots from outside on my deck, which offers new angles and opportunities for different shots.

I learn a lot just by watching the birds and how they behave, both near the feeder and around the yard. I learn about their courtship behavior, the begging behavior of their young, how dominant or submissive certain species or individuals are to others. Knowing where the birds like to perch helps to reliably predict where to point your camera. These photos of Baltimore Orioles, goldfinches, redpolls and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were taken through my window.

My favorite thing about photographing birds around my feeders is that it encourages me to get to know them on a much more personal level. I’ve really come to know many of them as individuals, and I can even predict their behavior. One such individual I’m come to know and love is what I like to call my cardinal. I maintain the platform feeder pretty much just for him. I see and hear him through all the seasons, courting his mate, feeding his young, and lighting up the snow in winter with his beautiful red hue. Not only do I know his behavior, but he seems to know mine. He doesn’t ever tolerate me anywhere but when I’m sitting on the porch swing. He knows I’m there but he’ll fly in if I remain completely motionless. Many of my favorite shots were taken right here at home. It gives me a lot of joy just having these birds around, and to be able to capture their beauty and personality in photos is truly rewarding.
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Finding birds to photograph can be tricky. Getting close to them is even trickier, so it helps to have a professional guide you through what she’s learned from thousands of hours in the field. In addition to teaching the techniques you need to locate and approach birds, Melissa will also guide you through her methods for capturing great wildlife shots from home. As an example of the helpful advice presented in the lesson text, Melissa has this to offer when setting up your yard to attract birds:

The reason to have bird feeders is less about photographing birds at the feeder, and more about photographing birds at the natural perches around those feeders. Place your feeders (or other bird attractors) near branches and other places where they might sit before or after visiting what drew them there. After watching for a while, you’ll have a good sense of where they like to go, and will be able to point your camera reliably for some great shots.

From Lesson 4: Craft Great Bird Photos

Excellent photos start with thinking about composition and lighting. In this lesson Melissa walks you through the elements of classic bird portraits so you can create them yourself, and then invites you to go to your creative edge by bending those rules.

-[Melissa] The classic bird photo, a beautiful bird in sharp focus standing out from a creamy background. This is the type of photo many bird photographers dream of capturing. Let’s talk through some of the basic elements that make these images so satisfying to look at. So let’s start out by just looking at the bird.

Here we have a beautiful male Chestnut-sided Warbler. The first thing to notice is that we’re at eye level with him. We’re not looking up at him, we’re not looking down at him, we’re on the same level which really brings us more into his world. Now the eye. Viewers are naturally drawn to the eye so it’s critically important that the eye be sharp on your bird.

Also, take note of the highlight in the eye. That’s called a catch light. It’s a spark of light that illuminates the eye and somehow really helps that bird come to life. Your bird’s head angle is an important consideration too. Ideally the head is turned at least very slightly towards you. This makes for a much more engaging photo. As you can see in this image, the Chestnut-sided Warbler’s head is just very slightly turned towards us.

Finally, let’s look at the light. Whether it’s direct or ambient, the light falling on the bird should be evenly distributed. Ideally, without blotchy patches of shadow and light. Consistent lighting makes for a very clean image. If we look at a few other classic images, you’ll notice that these elements tend to hold true no matter what species you’re showcasing. I think something that many people don’t realize, at least at first is that the background is just about as important as the bird.

In a classic bird portrait, the background is thrown out of focus, creating a sense of depth that really separates your subject from the background. This separation is called shallow depth of field and is created when the aperture, the opening in your lens is wide open. But successful bird photos don’t always have to have that creamy background. In fact, more often than not birds are positioned with a lot of vegetation surrounding them. Like in this photo of a Blackburnian Warbler. Here the background was super close to the bird, but at least by using a shallow depth of field, the background is thrown out of sharp focus and I’m able to keep the viewer’s attention on the bird.

Wherever you’re taking photos, I want you to pay special attention to what’s behind your bird. Branches, other birds, buildings, horizon lines. These things can all create clutter that can detract from your bird. Oftentimes, you’ll get home to your computer, look at your photo large and go, oh no, it looks like a branch is poking out of her head. I know because I’ve had this happen lots of times. But there are ways you can address this in the field before you even press the shutter.

Here’s an example, where I was dealing with distracting branches that were both intersecting with and crowding this heron. By simply moving myself a few feet to my left, I was able to create separation between the bird and the branches that resulted in much more pleasing image. Sometimes it’s about just staying still and waiting for the bird to move, even just a little bit. This female warbler at first had a stick right behind her head, so I waited a moment until she moved, then pressed the shutter. It really made for a more pleasing shot. I really want you to remember to think about this when you’re looking through your viewfinder. Are there any branches or other things that might end up looking like they’re intersecting with the bird in a distracting way? Can you move yourself? Or can you simply wait for the bird to move? It’s important to also really think through the color of the background. A contrast in colors between the bird and the background can really enhance the image.

In this photo of a Scarlet Tanager from my backyard, notice how the green background really makes that red bird pop. Now let’s look at how to artfully position the bird in the frame. One guiding principle is the rule of thirds. Imagine that the frame is divided into three parts, both vertically and horizontally. The rule of thirds suggests that a visual composition is most pleasing when the subject is placed off center along these lines.

Here I intentionally composed my shot positioning the tanager left of center. The rule of thirds still applies if you turn your camera for a vertical framing, like in this photo of an egret. As you can see, you don’t have to have a strict adherence to the lines. Sometimes just being in their proximity is enough.

For this I purposely framed the egret in the upper right to feature the reflection and the bands of color on the water. Another important element of composition is to leave your bird room to breathe. Don’t stuff it into the frame, especially if it’s moving. Here I captured an egret in mid stride and left room for her to walk into. Whether your bird is flying walking or swimming, leave more room ahead of her than behind, so the viewer perceives that the bird has space to move into. I also recommend thinking about the bird’s virtual legs when framing your shots. Let me explain what I mean by that. With this Tricolored Heron, I left a room below the bird as if I could see the full legs.

If I’d framed this bird too tight, it would look like I’d cut off the legs, which is much less visually appealing. So a rule of thumb, if your bird’s legs are hidden behind vegetation, or underwater, leave room for those virtual legs. One last thing to remember when composing your shot is to carefully check all the edges of the frame. Run your eye around the outline, is there anything poking in there that shouldn’t be? Ideally, you want the composition to be clean and thought out all the way around. So there you have it.

Now you know the basic elements that make up a classic bird portrait. I do wanna stress that these are not hard rules. I definitely don’t want you to feel that you’re locked into these elements to create a beautiful photo or to express yourself artistically in your own unique way, but they do provide a helpful foundation for your photography.
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Getting out of automatic mode on your camera can be intimidating. Melissa walks you through some of the most essential settings you’ll need to take your bird photography to the next level. For example, here’s an excerpt of what she has to say about focus modes:

Use continuous focusing mode most of the time for photographing birds. (This is called AF-C on a Nikon, Servo mode on a Canon.) Birds are almost always moving, and your camera will keep refocusing on the bird as it moves, as long as you keep your focus point on the bird. Use one-shot focusing if you want to lock focus on the bird, and then recompose the image without changing that focus.

From Lesson 6: Capture Birds in Flight

One of the most challenging aspects of bird photography is capturing birds in flight. Melissa devotes an entire lesson purely to helping you build skills to master this technique.

-[Melissa] We are here at the park. It’s a beautiful evening and we are gonna be working on birds in flight photography. There’s a lot of bird life here. And the conditions are really right because the wind is coming out of the west-northwest and the sun is going down. It’s about five, 6 p.m. And we’re kinda waiting for that sun to get really low. So we get that beautiful, golden light at end of day.

Having the wind and the sun at your back is really crucial in flight photography, because birds fly into the wind. So you want to be positioned in such a way that the wind is coming from behind you. The birds will be flying at you and they’ll be lit from the front because the sun is also behind you. So we’ll see that in motion tonight when we’re actually working on the birds in flight but let’s quickly go over a couple of settings on the lenses and talk about positioning your body.

In terms of on the lens, there’s a couple of things that I make sure. I turn my VR off, which is my vibration reduction. Also called image stabilization. I turn that off because of the shutter speeds we’re gonna be working at. Which are gonna be over one 1000th, 1600th. It sort of becomes irrelevant and some people actually think that it can cause a little bit of a lag in focus acquisition. So I have that off. And then in terms of the focus delimiter, it’s at full or six meters to infinity. And I’m gonna set it so that it sets six meters to infinity because I don’t want it to be searching for anything within six meters near me. And having that sort of canceled out is going to make it ostensibly easier for the camera to acquire focus because it’s looking farther than six meters.

So I have set the focus delimiter to be six meters to infinity. So let’s talk a little bit about how you’re gonna be holding your camera. I find that what’s most useful for me is to angle my body a bit to my subject and I pull in my elbows to my ribcage and really sort of make my body into a tripod in a way and sort of arrange the angles that it’s comfortable for me. And I am going to be smoothly panning with the bird sort of moving my body as I pan.

I also tend to keep both my eyes open rather than closing my left eye because in that way, I can actually see what’s going around outside of the frame of my camera. So that it really help me predict better if a bird’s coming into the frame, what’s happening all around. So I also am very careful when I’m pressing the shutter to be sort of slow and deliberate rather than having a jerky movement. I try to keep my breathing sort of calm and shallow. Sometimes I actually hold my breath when I’m pressing the shutter but I don’t necessarily recommend that to others. And I am trying to get the camera up very quickly on the bird in flight. And it takes a lot of practice to do that. And it’s a good thing just to, even if you don’t press the shutter. Just practice getting that camera up and on the bird as quickly as you can. So those are some basic tips.

Let’s go get set up on the shore and start looking for birds to photograph. So we’re approaching the shore here and I’m trying to think about where to set up. I’m looking at the angle of the sun, I’m thinking about the fact that the wind is really traveling this way northwest. Let’s head over there and see how it looks. I’m shooting at f/8, because I’ve got the teleconverter on. So I at aperture f/8 and ISO 1600. And my shutter speed is 1/2500th. Again, shutter speed is always the thing that I’m first thinking of. And trying to really freeze those birds in motion.

So on my Nikon I’ve chosen Group Area focus mode. It’s five different points that are gonna be able to grab that bird. And I think it’s gonna be better than just my Single Point focus right now. We’re working off of blue sky so that there’s nothing that can grab those other focus points. So this is one of those rare times when I will move off of Single Point focus. So we’ve got an Osprey hovering right here. It’s a bit behind us. So its flying into the wind and its kind of gone past the point at which we’re interested in photographing it.

We’re looking for anything this way. So the sun is shining on the bird and it’s flying towards us. So we’re gonna hang out here, sort of see if anything comes our way or if this Osprey loops back and starts fishing in this area again. Okay, I see an Osprey out there. It’s a little bit far but I’m gonna try to get some shots. It’s hovering in place and because the wind is so strong, it’s able to do that really easily. And that’s the great thing about photographing birds in flight when there’s a strong wind. Oh, it’s diving. It’s flying back this way now but I don’t think it has a fish. So maybe it’ll be hunting right here. We’ve got it right here.

It’s much closer. It’s against the blue sky and I’ve got five points enabled which are grabbing focus very, very easily. We’ve got such a great contrast with the sky. And I’m just tracking it, just following it the whole time with my lens and I keep bumping the focus even without pressing the shutter because I’m just trying to have my focus keep up with it. And wow, it’s really coming like, oh just did the shake. It’s right almost over us. There’s something coming here. It’s a crow.

The Osprey is really bright bird right? And my settings were set up for the Osprey and for the whites on the breast. When we have a dark bird enter the scene, we have to think a little differently about exposure and try to bring in some more light so that those blacks aren’t blocked. So I opened up to get a little bit more light by dropping my shutter speed and I was able to get a few shots of the crow flying in that still have some detail in the blacks. I probably could have opened up a little bit more but they’re alright. So one thing that I’m always doing is checking my exposure by looking at my LCD screen, especially when it comes to birds that have white on them like Ospreys do.

I really wanna make sure that I’m not blowing out the whites. That I’m retaining some detail. And the way that I do that is by checking to see whether I have what’s called the Blinkies. Which is when I enable the highlights on my camera to actually be blinking when I’m over exposing and then I can pull my exposure back in. Some people like to use Histograms. That’s not something that I typically lean on. But Histograms can also be a very useful way to check your exposure in the field. Okay, so we’ve got a gull coming. I think it’s a Ring-billed Gull, not sure. It’s coming pretty nice and close. And I’m starting to notice that we’ve lost a little light. I guess it’s just a cloud has made the sun a little bit hazy. And so I wanna bring some more light into the scene. So I’m going to lower my speed to 1/1600th of a second. I’m at ISO 1600, and I’m at f/8. Which is my widest aperture with the teleconverter in the 200 to 500 millimeter. So I don’t have any wiggle room on my aperture but I could raise my ISO if I need to. So I’m finding that the Osprey are really a little bit farther away than I’d like for this particular lens, the 200 to 500. Even with the 1.4 teleconverter attached. And also that combined with the fact that the light is diminishing a little bit because the sun’s getting closer to the horizon and we’re also getting some clouds.

So I’m gonna switch to my fixed lens. My prime lens 600 millimeter, and I’m gonna put it on the 1.4 teleconverter on my D850. And that’s gonna bring me more reach and I’m gonna have a wider aperture, which is gonna bring in more light for the situation. So let’s switch lenses. So I’m working at 1600 ISO, 1/2500th of a second, f/5.6. And I’ve got it on Group Area mode. And we’ve got an Osprey right here. Wow, practically checking us out. Flew right over us, was very cool. So I’m looking at my photos. I got some nice sharp ones of him right overhead. They are looking a little bit dark. But that was really exciting because he was right over us.

That was perfect. And I think I’ll be able to work with the exposure a little bit in raw conversion. And that’s why I always suggest shooting in raw when you’re photographing birds period but especially birds in flight. Because it’s so tough to get a good shot that you really wanna have as much wiggle room as you can with the exposure and working with exposure in post-processing. So I think I’ll be able to recover that.

So that was a lot of fun. We had some good opportunities with Ospreys. And the conditions were great ’cause we had the wind and the sun coming from the same direction. And the wind was strong and so it really sort of kept the birds in place or made them fly more slowly. And so we got some good situations with hovering and hunting. And I think I got some neat stooping shots of the Osprey actually diving down. And so yeah, overall, I’m really pleased with how it went and I enjoyed the experience and sharing with you.
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In this excerpt from the lesson text, Melissa walks you through the most important planning considerations for having a successful day photographing birds:

“When trying to figure out a good location, there are four main things to consider.

  • Dependable Subjects
  • The Sun’s Position
  • Your Position
  • Gear Needed”

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