Bird photography is a popular type of photography but it is not as easy as some of the other types of photography that you can do while traveling. The first problem isthe equipment. The lenses used for bird photography tend to be big, expensive and heavy! For the camera, even though the smaller mirrorless cameras are getting better, the big, heavy, but fast DLSR is still the go to lens for shooting birds. The other problem is knowing where, when and how to find your subjects.
For these reasons, I do most of my bird photography fairly close to home. I have driven 4-5 hours to some of the better areas in Florida. So that is like a trip across several states in other parts of the US.
The advantage of going to places nearby is that you can get to know the place, learn where the birds feed and nest and when they are most likely to be there. Bird photography is a crap shoot, as is most wildlife photography. The time and conditions can be perfect but some other aspect of bird life may have forced your subjects to be somewhere else. So the best method is to go back to the same places over & over and learn as much about the birds in those places as you can.
Trying different times of the day will result in different behaviors and different birds. Generally, birds are the most active at dawn and at dusk. They usually feed as the sun is coming up and fly to their nesting area as the sun is setting. The best lighting for bird photography is as these times as well. When I go out in the morning I am at the spot I want to shoot at by sunrise. I shoot for 1-2 hours at the most. As the sun gets higher in the sky the shadows start getting very dark on the birds and it is very difficult to get that specular highlight in the eye or eyes that gives the bird that alive look. Of course, the time of year also plays a big part in what you will see at a location.
One of the things I like and hate about bird photography is the chance you take that you may not get a single shot and you may get many at any one location on a given day. This is definitely not boring! You just have to be ready for both the slow days and for the bonanza days!
So what do you do if you want to do some bird photography at a location that is not so close to home? First do your research. There are many pages on Facebook for specific birding spots. Those pages are tremendous for giving you an idea of what is being seen currently at that site. There are bloggers, like me, who write articles about the various locations in their area. Do a Google search for birding locations in the area you are traveling to. Once you get to a birding location, talk to the other photographers there. Ask if they are from the area and most will be more than happy to give you advice about that location and maybe even others nearby.
As mentioned above the photo equipment needed to make images like the ones on this page is a bit more than a iphone or a point and shoot camera. If you really are looking to end up with images that have details and show the bird rather than a small bird in a big environment then you need a telephoto lens.
You will see photographers at some popular birding sites with tripods and huge 600mm and 800mm lenses. That is all well and good but you can get good quality images with a bit less aggressive lenses. I use a Nikon 200-400mm lens on a full frame Nikon D810 camera. This is a biggish lens but it is not so heavy that I cannot handhold it for a couple of hours (with a little help from a camera strap for a break for my arms from time to time). Even though I have a fairly lightweight carbon fiber tripod and gimble head, I usually only use that if I know I am going to be standing in one spot for a long time. Carrying that rig around with the camera and big lens does get tiring. So if I am going to a location where I will be walking around, my shots are all handheld.
Shooting birds in flight, for me, is much easier when I am handholding the camera. I can find them in the sky and stay with them even at an angle over my head!
If you are flying to a destination where you want to do some birding photography there are a couple of ways to go when it comes to camera equipment. You can bring your 70-200mm lens and if you are using a cropped sensor camera you can get pretty close images. If you can add a 1.4 or 1.7 teleconverter that will help. Since the lighting conditions are usually pretty bright the loss of a couple of f stops from the teleconverters is not too critical. I used this set-up for many years until I decided bird photography was a serious thing for me. That is when I bought the 200-400mm lens.
If you really want to use a longer telephoto lens, you can rent one and have it shipped to your hotel. Lens Pro to Go and Borrow Lenses are companies that rent all types of lenses. Or you might be able to find a local lens rental shop, with some research of the area.
One last recommendation…if you are super serious about getting some great bird shots in a particular area, consider looking for a workshop being held by a local photographer/guide. Do your research and check up on anyone that has put out the word that they are doing this. Make sure they are reputable as well as ethical when it comes to how they go about getting their and your bird images. This person should know photography but also how to best find birds without baiting or other methods of luring birds in.
Be ready to walk, look and listen and enjoy the outdoors in any location where birds are going about their daily lives. That and the birds have kept me sane with the breaks they give me from my otherwise hectic life.
Please check out my website for some of my favorite bird photography sites in Florida as well as many other images that I have made on my many repeated trips to these locations!
Enjoy and I hope to see you on the bird photography trail!
That is all for now!