Tips for Nature Photography–Keeping it Simple!

Some tips for doing bird photography!

My set up: I use the Canon 7D Mark II with a 100-400mm  lens. The Canon 7D Mark II is a crop sensor camera which is preferred by birders because it effectively increases the focal length of the telephoto lens. For example, my 400 mm lens gives me close to 600mm focal length. This set-up is light enough to carry around all day, and easy enough to use even in the kayak.

Update: The 100-400 Canon IS lens was an amazing upgrade, and still light enough to use all day. Now I am using the Canon mirrorless R6 with the 100-500 lens.

My settings: Aperature Priority with a wide open F-stop, which gives me a blurred background. I may bump the F-stop up a notch or two in order to make sure the entire bird is in focus, especially with a larger bird like a heron. Spot focus, AI Servo, medium burst speed which gives me several frames per second. Use a high enough ISO to get a fast shutter speed (1000+ if possible). Check exposure compensation and adjust, especially if shooting into the sky.

Tip #1: Using a tripod isn’t necessary most of the time. If you’re fairly steady and light is good enough for a fast shutter speed, don’t bother! Keep your arms close to your body, with your left hand bracing the base of your camera and lens. You can use the door frame of your car or a tree to steady yourself if you’re waiting for action.

Tip #2: The car makes a great bird blind. Drive the back roads where there is little traffic. Use your ears as well as your eyes to find wildlife. Look ahead beside the road for perched birds or quiet animals. Pull over before you get too close. Use your flashers if necessary. Turn off the car engine to prevent vibration when shooting from the car.

The kayak also works well for nature photography since you will be low on the water. Professionals may belly-crawl through the marsh or lay on the beach to get their shots, but sitting in a kayak is almost as good for getting eye level with birds on the water. Most birds with the exception of ducks will let you get close and observe them doing their thing if you don’t make sudden movements. You may see warblers and sparrows working the edges of the lake, and herons and egrets hunting for prey. For some reason they don’t seem to recognize you as a threat, or as a human, when sitting in a kayak.

Tip #3: Take a lot of shots. You don’t know which one will show something surprising. Use high or intermediate high speed continuous shooting. Don’t miss that shot when the bird flips the fish into the air to catch it head first for swallowing!

Tip #4: When there’s a “crow party” or a disturbance, pay attention! There’s a predator and some interesting photos to be had.

When out birding, I use my ears as much as my eyes. I know the bird songs and calls. When there’s a cacophony of screaming birds, there’s a reason! It pays to check out what the enemy is: an owl? A Cooper’s Hawk? A snake? Photos that tell a story are always more interesting than just a perched bird.

Tip #5Be Ready! This is the most important piece of advice that can be given. Nature Photography is unlike other kinds of photography because you can’t make appointments with your subject, and you can’t pose them when you do find them—so you must be ready when an opportunity presents itself. It won’t last long!

Tip #6: The long lens works well in the garden–almost like a Macro for bugs, bees, dragonflies and hummingbirds.

Tip #7: Light is everything! Get the light behind you as much as possible to avoid shadows. Keep the subject completely in the sun or in the shade. Early in the morning and late in the afternoon or evening (the golden hour) is the best light for nature photography. Overcast days are fine, too, if you can still get a good shutter speed.

Tip #8: Get out there and shoot everyday if possible. There is always something worth discovering. It’s exciting to go out looking for nature, because you have no idea what you will find. When I leave the driveway, my camera is always right beside me, ready for use. I live on a country road, and I’m always looking for action—a hawk perched in a tree or doing aerial battle with another raptor close by, a fawn hiding beside the road, a singing Indigo Bunting, etc.

Tip#9: Get to know your own “patch,” and what lives there. For me, it’s the intersection at the bottom of our hill, with the creek beside our country road. I know the Kingbirds that nest there, the resident Yellow Warbler, and the pair of Brown Thrashers. There’s often action there, and I like to pull over, turn off the engine, and watch and listen for opportunities. I have a couple of other back roads I visit almost every day also, as well as Montour Preserve.

Tip #10: Avoid distractions in your photo—shadows, twigs, something in the background, another creature (bird, bee, animal). Keep it simple and uncluttered if you can. If you can step to the right or left to get rid of the distraction, then do it.

Tip #11: Use the rule of thirds when cropping your photos. Leave room in front of the bird when cropping, and show some of the habitat without making it too messy.

Lauren Shaffer

Lauren Shaffer wrote 146 posts

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  • Bob Appleget

    MIz. Shaffer

    Stumbled across you blog looking for information on shooting the eagles at Conowingo Dam. I make two or three trips a year to the Manheim/Lancaster area and will have to make sure one of them is between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year.

    Although I shoot a lot of birds I am not a birder. With that said we shoot the same camera and spend time on the flat water in a kayak. I am using the latest version of the Canon 100-400 and hoping that Canon will put their current push to mirrorless cameras to one side long enough to get the 7D Mark III to market.

    I have paddled the middle section of the Susquehana and know the weather can be a bit rough in November and December, but what if a man were to paddle over to the island and shoot the eagles off of it?

    Thanks for what you are doing.


    • Lauren Shaffer

      Would love to see a mirrorless Canon that would be on par with our set-up! I’ve started using the 100-400mm lens also, and I love it although it’s a little heavy to carry around all day. I’ve never seen a boat near the island, so not sure that it’s permitted. If it is, you’d probably have a lot of company!

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