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Bird Photography Tips – Farewell, Welcome and Parting Tips (full story)

©Ethan Meleg
Lawrence’s warbler, ON
This hybrid of golden-winged and blue-winged warblers was a prize to capture in low shrubs, which complement the bird rather than distract from it.
Gear/Settings: Canon 1D Mark IV, 500mm f/4 IS II+1.4x, ƒ5.6@1/160 sec., ISO 800

By Ethan Meleg

I’ll jump right in and start off with a big announcement. After five years of writing this bird photography column, I’ve decided to retire from it. This is my last one. The demands of a young family and other priorities have left me with less time to focus on bird photography and write about it. Don’t worry, you’ll still get to flip to the end of each issue and catch my Out of Focus humour column, which I will continue to write. A hearty thanks to each of you who have read this column over the years!


It’s my great pleasure to introduce Glenn Bartley as the new bird photography columnist for Outdoor Photography Canada. Glenn is one of the finest bird photographers in the world and is excellent at sharing his expertise. He resides in Victoria, BC and travels the world to photograph birds. He has published several books and instructional guides about birds and bird photography. Glenn’s addition to the OPC team takes the magazine up yet another notch!

As my farewell column, I’m going to seize this final opportunity to share the tips that I consider to be most vital for success in bird photography. These will reinforce some of the things I’ve shared here over the past five years.

Become a better birder

The best investment you can make in the craft of bird photography is to learn more about birds. Being able to identify different bird species will make it easier to find them, so investing in a good pair of binoculars and keeping those in your gear bag is a good idea. Understanding bird behaviour will help you get closer and anticipate what the bird is going to do next. That’s a skill that will ensure you’re in the right place and ready to capture more bird photos!

©Ethan Meleg
King vulture, Costa Rica
This photo is all about the direct eye contact. If the vulture’s head were turned away, it would not be a successful shot.
Gear/Settings: Canon 1DX, 500mm f/4 IS II+1.4x, ƒ5.6@1/1000 sec., ISO 800

Get a longer lens

I hate to say it, but size matters when it comes to lenses for bird photography. Most species of birds are relatively small and wary of people approaching them closely. A long lens gives you reach to stay a comfortable distance away, fill the frame and control artistic elements in the photo. You will be surprised at the difference when you make the jump from a 300 or 400mm up to a 500 or 600mm. Unfortunately big lenses come at a great expense, so start saving!

Practise on common species near home

The ring-billed gulls or Canada geese hooked on French fries in a nearby city park are perfect subjects to hone your craft. You can spend hours shooting them at close range until you’ve mastered techniques for proper exposure and sharpness, and being able to capture fast-action photos. This is not only fun, it’s also excellent training so you’re ready for that once-in-a-lifetime trip to photograph birds at an exotic destination.

Watch the background

A busy background with a mess of sticks and bright highlights distracts from the bird itself. Pay attention to what’s going on behind and around the bird. Strive for surroundings that complement or enhance the bird.

©Ethan Meleg
American white pelican, Salton Sea, California
I spent hours waiting to capture this pelican in action with warm sunset light.
Gear/Settings: Canon 50D, 500mm f/4 IS+1.4x, ƒ5.6@1/1600 sec., ISO 250


Beware of high contrast and dappled light

The two most common exposure pitfalls in bird photography are: 1) an underexposed bird against a bright sky background and 2) highly distracting, dappled light around the bird. To solve the first one, try to photograph birds against lower backgrounds such as distant vegetation, and be sure to expose for the bird, not the background. To solve the second problem, photograph birds in surroundings that are evenly lit; shoot at sunrise and sunset, and on overcast days.

Get the head turned towards you

Millions of otherwise fine bird photos are ruined simply because the bird’s head is turned away and there’s no engagement between the viewer and the bird. The solution (this is one of the best bird photography tips you’ll ever learn): the moment before you click the shutter, make a squeak noise to get the bird to turn towards you. This is my patented “E-squeak,” so please think of me every time you do it. Whenever possible, try to have the bird’s head either parallel to you or slightly angled toward you.

Shoot like it’s your last chance

If you’re in a great situation with cooperative birds, shoot like it will never happen again — because, chances are, it won’t! As long as your presence doesn’t harm the birds, stay longer and keep photographing. This is your chance to experiment and come up with a truly unique photo, or get that once-in-a-lifetime click.

All the best, and a big welcome to Glenn Bartley!

To read more of this not-to-miss issue please pick up the Spring 2018 issue today online or at your local newsstand. To never miss an issue you can subscribe here

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