A Neophyte’s Guide to Bird Photography

In 2015 I went on an African safari.

Just before the trip I acquired, free on Air-miles, a Nikon Coolpix P600 bridge camera with a 60 x zoom. This is a middle quality “bridge” camera, not a fancy DSLR.

I enjoyed that camera so much in Africa. I was almost delirious at times! The vast number of animals and “photo-ops” was endless. The zoom enabled me to also see and photograph many beautiful birds. 

Colin with a Red-winged Blackbird

Now I’m in love with “wildlife photography”! But back home in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia,  I realized local mammal watching is “thin pickings”  –  there are no “herds of wildebeest cavorting across the plains” – so I developed an interest in birding.

It helped that I also had a good basic understanding of birds:

Duck-like; crow-like; raptor-like; sparrow-like; and miscellaneous.

And so I began!

Slowly I discovered good spots for birds and began to see and photograph all the indigenous bird of the area. Three years later, I have photos, some great, some just ok for ID, of 119 different species. My Nikon coolpix is fantastic for capturing good shots at any distance, and yields a respectable number of great photo’s. Image quality has a limit due to the smaller sensor, vs the DSLRs. So I attempted to “upgrade” to a mirrorless camera. ‘Nuf said, it was a bust, but it taught me a lesson which has inspired me to add “A Neophytes Guide To Bird Photography”. 

Wood Duck

Here are the issues:

  • You need reach, or “zoom”. Birds rarely move close and “pose” for photographs, (although every once in a while! I once came across a Pileated Woodpecker, less than 10 feet away, who spent five minutes pounding the heck out of a log!). But as a guide, greater than 40x zoom is often needed.
Pileated Woodpecker
  • Decide what the prize is. For more than adequate and sometimes great shots for ID and pleasure, a bridge camera with zoom 40x or greater is all you need. I cannot recommend Coolpix cp600 enough, but the competitors all have equivalent cameras and I’m sure they are good. For way under $1000, you get a light, compact camera with all the quality and zoom you’ll need. And it’ll take the landscape, family, pet, holiday and sunset shots as well.
Female Wood Duck
  • Do you want National Geographic shots? OK, but you will need 10x the lucre to get the zoom; the  lens will be 18 inches+ long; you will need a tripod and weight training to lug it all around.  A friend has made this leap and the photo quality is truly awesome. So it’s worth it if you want this quality, but it comes at a big price in money, weight and convenience. And I reiterate you’re getting really good shots with a bridge camera. If you want to see the hair on the flea on the feather on the back of the kingfisher as it cleaves the water in a dive, start saving – you won’t get much change out of $5000 for starters. Join a gym and do your homework!
Spotted Towhee
  • And when looking for equipment, don’t talk to Jo at Jo Schmo’s cameras and discount bathtubs. Find a bird photography expert. I bought a top quality mirror-less camera, but it does not perform well for bird photography. When I discussed this with the person who sold it, after I hacked through the B.S., it was clear her knowledge base did not include bird photography. “Oh 20 x zoom should be fine.” – NOT!

“Birding tips?”  Just start!

I spent a very enjoyable first year finding good spots and new birds. Basically any park with water and a forest can keep you busy. I would come home with hundreds of shots, quite clueless re: the birds ID and then proceed to sort out who’s who, using  a Merlin Bird IDapp, plus Petersons “Field Guide of Birds of Western North America”. 

Blue Heron

Sea-shores in the fall and spring are great because there’s many easy to spot bird species.

Hang Feeders and you quickly get on first name terms with Hummingbirds, Chikadees, Song sparrows, Juncos, Stellar Jays and Tohees. But pleasant surprises show up as well, especially if you hang suet.

Black-headed Grosbeaks

I am not a joiner so I haven’t enrolled in birding groups. But I’m sure it would be helpful. 

After a year, you get familiar with common species and start to get a “nose” for where to find interesting stuff. From here, it’s wide open.

Learning the birds calls and songs become essential, especially in the forest where warblers, flycatchers, woodpeckers, vireos and many LBJs, (little brown jobs!), hang out. I find it hard, but this is the way you join the pros!

Barn Swallow

It is addictive. There are people who want to spot every single species there is and an OCD syndrome develops, incorporating globe-trotting and insane spontaneous trips: “There’s a rare sighting in Dawson City, Yukon! Is there a flight out of Vancouver tonight?” 

For me, money, time, family and perhaps, common sense, precludes this degree of commitment, but already I am itching to go farther afield for new experiences, or should I say, birds. 

Northern Flickers

Finally, as a MAC user, I use the “info” function in “iphoto’s” to name the different species, (this function is much better than in the newer “Photo’s”, IMHO).

It’s amazing how quickly the number of species racks up. 

I’ll keep you posted!

Contributed by Colin Rankin  2018

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