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Bird Photography - A Close & Clear Image

I have a 75 - 300mm f/4.5 - 5.6 Minolta zoom lens (to fit a Sony Alpha 100 digital SLR). It is suitable for bird photos in my yard, especially if the sun is out and the birds are close by. Most 300mm zooms are priced between $110 - $450, depending on the quality and features. But if you can afford a lens around a thousand dollars, you could capture so much more detail and reach birds farther away with a basic 200 - 500mm zoom (check out sigma4less.com or bizrate.com). To go even farther, an ideal set up for photographing birds in the wild would involve a 600mm or greater zoom (which can cost into the thousands), a backpack for toting the heavy lens, a sturdy tripod and a smooth swivel head for birds in flight.

junco on perch

Auto or Manual Focus
I can get clear shots of nearby birds through clean windows by using a tripod set up on a window seat. If I want to photograph birds that are continually moving to various spots around my yard I use auto focus and approach the glass slowly and prop my arms against furniture or walls. The more pictures you take, the better your chances of getting a winner (I save only about 1 in 10 of my photos, if that). If too many branches surround a bird, you may have to use manual focus because the camera can easily become confused about what to focus on.

pair of doves in aspen

Flying and Perched Birds
To capture birds in flight at fairly close range I set my camera on a tripod by a window with a remote shutter release attached. I use manual focus to focus on our platform feeder and choose a time when many birds are eating, coming and going frequently. Bright sun is a must. I usually set the camera to speed priority at 1/2500 to 1/3200 second for clarity. I let the camera adjust for the aperture. At this high speed, the in-focus range is very narrow, so you have to hope you catch the bird flying through that zone. It takes a lot of patience and some observation of bird behavior to get a good shot. I have learned where certain birds like to perch just before they swoop toward the platform. I wait and press the shutter release just as they take off so the camera usually catches them right before they land.

blue jay in flight

Perched and feeding birds move their heads frequently, so a speed of 125 or higher is often required for a sharp image. I like to keep the field of focus more narrow in these cases (F5.6 - F10) so the background is soft and hazy, causing the birds to stand out.

northern flicker on fence

Tripods and Popular Perches
If you have a prominent perch that birds enjoy using, set up your camera on a tripod facing the perch so you are ready to get a sharper image. Hand holding a zoom lens can be a challenge at speeds below 80 and the greater the zoom, the more hand shake will be apparent, even with an image stabilizer. For an attractive photo free from man made elements, attach small branches or other stiff natural objects to posts, a platform feeder or lawn chairs near feeders and zoom in on birds as they cling and wait to feed.

Sitting Outside
To get closer to your timid subjects without the interference of a window, just sitting outside quietly a few yards from the feeders and bird bath may help the birds get accustomed to your presence after a couple of sessions. I have had some success with birds feeding about 7 ft. from me, but they don't like me moving. A more effective method may be to build a blind you can sit behind or drape a long cloth over your head. It is surprising how some kind of barrier makes the birds feel a lot safer.

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