The most important gear for bird photography

Bird photography: Roseate Spoonbill in Bradenton, Florida, March 5, 2015.
Roseate Spoonbill in Bradenton, Florida, March 5, 2015, by Roman Kurywczak.

We’re always on the lookout for tips that will help you improve your bird photography, so we are delighted to be able to offer the following insight-filled essay by nature photographer and Sigma Pro team member Roman Kurywczak. Enjoy! 

As a bird photographer, I am often asked what the best gear is. The answer is simple: It is you, the photographer!

Years ago, fast and expensive lenses played a major role in capturing tack-sharp images of birds, especially in flight. These lenses were necessary because we had a limited selection of slow film with an ISO rating of 100-400, and ISO 400 film was very grainy. New digital cameras make it easy for today’s photographers to use ISO 800 and above, providing them with the fast shutter speeds needed to capture flying birds.

So why are people still having such difficulty? They often ask, “Why don’t my images look like that? It must be the gear.” It’s not. A few simple tips (that have nothing to do with gear) will allow anyone to capture these types of images.

Bird photography: Osprey in Bradenton, Florida, March 14, 2015.
Osprey in Bradenton, Florida, March 14, 2015, by Roman Kurywczak.

The most common mistake people make is all about the direction of the sun and time of day. When you are trying to photograph stationary or flying birds, keep the sun at your back. This simple tip helps avoid shadows that appear if you shoot across or against the sun.

The most dramatic images of birds are captured within the first and last hours of light, so you should aim to be out for two hours after sunrise or two hours before sunset. When the sun is low on the horizon, shadows are soft and the light illuminates the bird and bathes it in a golden light.

Think about it. People who don’t photograph head out to the beach when the sun has that golden glow, as we are attracted to the warm color and softness of the light. As it rises in the sky throughout the afternoon, the color starts to turn white and casts harsh, dark shadows. By then, the show is over, so it is time to put away the camera gear and scout. All this is in your control as a photographer!

Bird photography: Great Blue Heron in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, April 12, 2015.
Great Blue Heron in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, April 12, 2015, by Roman Kurywczak.

Another common mistake that photographers make is shooting up or down at the subject. Whenever possible, try capturing eye contact with birds, as this makes for the most appealing images. If the bird is on the ground, you need to get on the ground. This is why I prefer hand-holding my lens, as it easily allows me to kneel or even lie down when I have to. Photographing birds up in the sky isn’t as easy, so this is where lenses with a long focal length of 600mm really shine. Using the lens at its maximum reach often helps me minimize that upward shooting angle.

Bird photography: Great Egrets in Bradenton, Florida, March 13, 2015.
Great Egrets in Bradenton, Florida, March 13, 2015, by Roman Kurywczak.

The final piece of the puzzle before I get into gear is choosing the right ISO for my camera. My suggestion is that you start at ISO 800. Why? Birds fly 20-30 mph on average when going about their normal business. Those speeds can get up to 60 mph during a chase or fight, with raptors achieving almost 200 mph in dives. Speed is key, and an ISO of 800 or higher allows you to achieve the fast shutter speeds required to freeze the bird’s action. Most camera bodies on today’s market can handle ISO 800 without producing too much unwanted noise.

Following these three tips will quickly improve the quality of your avian images and are totally in your control.

Bird photography: Limpkin in Brandon, Florida, April 13, 2015.
Limpkin in Brandon, Florida, April 13, 2015, by Roman Kurywczak.

All of the images above were captured using the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary or Sport lenses. Their relatively lightweight design (4.3 lbs or 6.3 lbs) makes them an extremely airline-friendly travel lens. These lenses outperform most zoom lenses in every way, rivaling or surpassing the sharpness, speed, and accuracy of 500-600mm primes. Even at 600mm, they will allow you to capture even our smallest feathered friends with incredible detail.

The days of avian photography being only for those with fast and expensive prime lenses are over. And the perceived performance difference certainly isn’t justified in a price that is 6-12 times more! These lenses represent a fundamental change in the world of bird photography. Combining today’s budget-conscious gear options with the simple tips I provided (along with a bit of practice) will allow a new generation of bird photographers, or older ones looking to get back into the game, to improve the quality of their images quickly. — Roman Kurywczak

Photographer Roman M. Kurywczak.
Photographer Roman M. Kurywczak.

About the author

Roman Kurywczak is a full-time nature photographer and proud Sigma Pro team member who conducts lectures and workshops across the globe. His boutique tour company, Roamin’ with Roman Photo Tours, caters to very small groups (only 4) to provide the ultimate learning experience for participants.

His down-to-earth and easy-to-follow teaching style makes him a highly sought-after lecturer. The author of several instructional eBooks on nature photography, Roman strives to share his passion for photography as others have shared with him. He has been married for over 26 years with two sons and lives in New Jersey.

Learn more about Roman’s workshops, lectures, eBooks, and galleries.

See photos of birds in our online galleries.

 

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