The Wonder of Birds: How to take bird pictures with the ‘wow!’ factor

Starlings Sturnus vulgarus flocking before roosting this shape making in the sky is known as a murmu

Starlings Sturnus vulgarus flocking before roosting this shape making in the sky is known as a murmuration Gretna Green Dumfries Scotland December. Photograph featured in the exhibition The Wonder of Birds at Norwich Castle Museum (May-September 2014) - Credit: David Tipling

Acclaimed nature photographers David Tipling and Steve Plume pass on their tips for perfect pictures.

Winter birds and feeding - a few images from Great Blakenham. A robin. Picture Steve Plume.

Winter birds and feeding - a few images from Great Blakenham. A robin. Picture Steve Plume. - Credit: Archant

Where to go

'There is arguably no better county in Britain to photograph birds than Norfolk,' says David Tipling. 'Our coastal marshes, reedbeds, the Norfolk Broads, the Brecks, the Fens are all hotspots that at different times of the year offer great opportunities.

'The biggest challenge facing the budding bird photographer is how to get close enough for a decent-sized image. Bird reserves with hides such as those at Titchwell and Welney help and there are feeding stations at sites such as Sculthorpe Moor that can offer great opportunities.'

Suffolk-based Steve Plume also has the RSPB reserve at Titchwell Marsh and the Hawk and Owl Trust site at Sculthorpe Moor as two of his favourites. 'Start with the big reserves' is his advice: 'Snettisham, Cley, Strumpshaw, Minsmere, Lackford to name a few, these will offer a great choice of subjects including majestic marsh harriers and the beautiful bearded tit, avocet, bittern and more

Booming Bitterns photographed by Evening Star reader Steve Plume

Booming Bitterns photographed by Evening Star reader Steve Plume - Credit: Archant

'Look on line at sites such as the RSPB and Norfolk and Suffolk Wildlife Trusts and see what they expect during the year to plan a visit. And join web forums such as birdguides or birdforum for local info.'

East Anglia offers plenty of attractions... 'What a choice!,' adds Steve. 'We've everything from the commonest duck to the rarest raptor situated in towns, parks, the countryside, reserves or along the superb coastline.'

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Steve's particular favourites are: Lackford [near Bury St Edmunds] or Strumpshaw Fen for kingfishers, Minsmere or Strumpshaw Fen for bitterns and marsh harrier, Cley or Minsmere for bearded tit, Snettisham or the River Stour at Mistley for waders. 'In fact for practising flight shots and getting really up close to 1000s of waders in the winter you can't beat the Stour at Mistley,' Steve added.

'In good winters you might be shooting waxwing in towns; in summer terns over pools such as at any of the coastal reserves. Then there's swans and ducks at the local park, geese in the local river...'

A barn owl in flight near Hadleigh

A barn owl in flight near Hadleigh - Credit: Archant

What to buy

The sky's the limit. But there are some basic rules to follow.

'Remember everyone has to start somewhere,' says Steve. 'Don't be put off by the 'long lens brigade' or the 'equipment groupies' (I fall into both of these categories!). Photography is all about capturing your subject in the way you want to capture it.

Red Kite close up

Red Kite close up - Credit: Archant

'Some of the photography can be easily accomplished with the simplest compact as subjects quite often 'stay put'.

'Of course, if you progress and immerse yourself in wildlife photography then improved equipment will be high on the shopping list. Today's bridge cameras (cameras that don't have removable lenses but look like an DSLR) offer fantastic value, some having lenses that zoom far longer than the longest prime lens - some can zoom to more than 1000mm. There will be limitations - optical quality and speed of focusing won't be at the same level as the big primes - but for web posting will be more than adequate.'

The next step up is the DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) - which get their name because they look a bit like the 35mm SLR film cameras. Like those predecessors, you can interchange the lenses.

'Don't forget about the compact camera system bodies such as the Nikon 1 series,' Steve suggests. 'Having a small sensor it offers a magnification factor with the lens. By using an adapter, and mounting a relatively cheap Nikon 70-300mm lens, you can have the equivalent of about 170-800mm for a fraction of the price.

Steve Plume

Steve Plume - Credit: Archant

'These cameras have electronic shutters so it's possible to shoot at 30fps (frames per second), unheard of with a DSLR. Again it's not all positive, as its a small sensor image quality won't allow for big enlargements and the viewfinder goes black when shooting, so panning a moving object can be challenging.'

If you go down the DSLR route there is a huge choice to suit all budgets. But do be aware that the camera body is just the start! You need to budget for more: 'The main thing to remember is that once you make a purchase and a few peripherals such as a lens or two and a flash unit, you're set on a path that may be costly if you want to change.'

Steve's advice? 'Get out to a camera store and try as many as possible, as they will feel different in the hand.'

His own camera is a Nikon, chosen at the time because it 'fitted' better with his larger hands.

Rooks at a roost in Buckenham, taken by Wildlife Photographer David Tipling.

Rooks at a roost in Buckenham, taken by Wildlife Photographer David Tipling. - Credit: David Tipling

One of the 'must-have' extras is a good support for your camera. If you are using a long lens or work at slow shutter speeds, it's a must to avoid the dreaded 'camera shake'. 'A monopod or tripod are essential, and if you're in a hide then a camera bean bag,' he said.

'My only advice is that if you have bought high quality equipment don't scrimp on the support.'

So you've taken your pictures. What now? A computer is essential for storing, processing and uploading your images. There are lots of programs that can be used to manipulate images, from free web-based ones to high-end commercial. 'Some manufacturers like Nikon offer a branded one and in the near future will supply a free program to all its users,' says Steve. 'The most popular one has to be Photoshop Elements and will cover every need.'

So how do you get used to your new camera. 'My suggestion is to start simple, 'play' with birds in the garden, if that's not possible try the local park or walk,' urges Steve. 'Use the common species to get to know your equipment. Sitting in the garden with starlings, blackbirds or blue tits will offer a number of challenges, from feeding on the lawn, perched in trees or flying through.

Wildlife photographer David Tipling.

Wildlife photographer David Tipling. - Credit: Archant

' And larger species such as pigeons, gulls or even swans and geese are perfect for honing flight shots.'

Try these techniques

• Manual or automatic?

It's tempting to stick with the automatic mode of your digital camera, but it has drawbacks. One of these is exposure - if there's a large bright area in your picture the camera can be 'fooled'. Someone standing by a window will turn into a silhouette. To get round this, says Steve, is use the 'exposure compensation button'.

'It's usually marked with a +/-. Where's there's a big white background add exposure from a 1/3 to two full stops. Experiment!

'The inverse is the same if the subject is bright, such as a swan or gull on the water,' Steve adds. 'As you advance you can use spot metering or manual mode which will in effect do the same in a different way.

'So if your camera allows it move it off auto and play in the world of aperture, shutter or fully manual modes - this will need experimentation and the effects are easy to see.'

• The eyes have it

Always make sure you focus on the eye of the bird. The reason is simple: 'Look at a bird photo and you will sense yourself gravitating towards the eye - so if it is not sharp then the picture may not work,' says David.

'So make sure your point of focus is on the eye of the bird. Autofocus can encourage lazy composition and you might end up focusing on the bird's body by mistake. This may be fine, but if you are using a shallow depth of field, the bird's body is likely to be beautifully sharp while the eye might be slightly out of focus and that will detract from your picture.'

Steve agrees: 'For stationary subjects always focus on the eye, it's the key focus point.'

• Go low!

'This will bring a more intimate feel to your shot,' David says. 'Try this simple experiment with a tame bird, say a duck on a park pond: Shoot from above while standing and then lay down and shoot at eye level. The eye level shot will be far more engaging and give a more intimate feel to the picture. Shooting from above creates a more 'detached' feel.

'Using a shallow depth of field [ = the part of the picture in focus] when using this technique can provide really eye-catching results as you throw out of focus any foreground or background, creating nice washes of colour and all attention is focused on the bird.'

• Trick of the light...

'Don't just shoot with the sun behind you',' David advises. 'Shooting into the light at the start and end of the day can produce some really eye-catching images. The mood of a picture is often dictated by the angle of light.

Experiment with back and side lighting, it opens up a whole new creative world.

'Chances are you will produce lots of pictures that just don't work but now and then by breaking the rules and going for a more striking image that euphoric moment will come when you check the back of the camera and realise you have shot a winner!'

• Composition and cropping

David: 'It helps for a balanced feel to the picture if your bird is looking or flying into space rather than flying or walking off the frame. Resist the temptation to crop too tightly unless there is good artistic reason to do so. Of course rules are there to be broken and in some compositions a bird walking or flying out of the frame can work, it creates a tension in the picture that artists often take advantage of, but for a photograph to work in this way it normally has to have a lot of additional interest in the frame.'

• Fast or slow?

'The shutter speed plays an important part too,' says Steve. 'The rule of thumb it to use the shutter speed at no less than equal to the focal length - so if you're shooting at 300mm ensure the shutter is 1/300th sec (if your camera or lens has the ability to reduce shake such as VR on Nikon or IS on Canon this may be reduced further).'

• On the move

'Panning, or following a moving bird, needs practice,' says Steve. 'Find a site that offers plenty of subjects. Any seaside location will have plenty of gulls - have a friend or partner offer some titbits and you'll soon have the skies full of willing subjects!

'Focus is equally important when taking flight shots. Multiple focus points will help keep a moving bird in focus. I tend to use nine or 21 focus points on moving subjects.'

• Experiment!

'Don't be afraid to experiment with depth of field and shutter speeds,' David urges. 'Really slow shutter speeds of, say, 1/15th sec of - for example- a flock of geese taking off can result in art!

'Equally a shallow depth of field (plane of focus) can produce nice smooth backgrounds where emphasis is placed on your subject. 'Less is more' is a mantra I use often when describing composition, so try and avoid fussy backgrounds and other distracting elements that will lead your eye away from the subject when viewing the finished picture. This might mean moving a little perhaps an inch or two up, down or left or right to avoid a distracting twig or background object. Using a shallow depth of field and a long lens will go a long way to creating nice smooth backgrounds.

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Fieldcraft is all about working with nature so you can take great pictures without disturbing your subject.

• Be an early bird

'Some of the best opportunities and light come soon after dawn,' says David. 'Most birds (raptors are an exception) are most active at daybreak. When the sun is low at both ends of the day colours are enriched, and by shooting into the light you can create beautiful silhouettes if shooting against the sky.

'If you can shoot into the light against a dark background then your bird will become backlit, this works best with light- or white-coloured birds as the light will irradiate through the feathers. Don't ignore cloudy days though, particularly for white birds when the subtle feather details of - for example - egrets can be shown to beautiful effect.'

• Stick to paths and read the signs...

When visiting reserves or the countryside, stick to paths where indicated, Steve points out. 'It's tempting to wander across that field or through that long grass but you won't know what you may be treading on or damaging,' he says.

'Most areas will have natural paths made by deer, fox, badger and the like. If these are accessible, use them.

'And pay attention to any signage such as closure of common access land during the breeding season. It's not there to be ignored but to protect the wildlife.'

• Research your birds

Researching your subjects, finding out as much about them and their habitat it will pay dividends when you want to get the best from them. Steve adds: 'When learning use the local reserves, you'll find a wealth of knowledge and experience in the hides and the paths. Most people will be willing to help a novice whether it's photography or subject information.'

• Cleared for take-off...

'Learn the tell-tale signs birds give when they are going to take off or exhibit another interesting piece of behaviour, so you can anticipate a moment of interest,' says David. 'For example, ducks, geese and swans will always give a signal to the birds they are with of an impending take-off - normally this is a bobbing of the head. 'Birds of prey will normally defecate and ruffle their feathers, and any big bird will position themselves to take off into the wind. By learning these signs you give yourself a far greater chance of capturing action, as you will be ready.'

• What to wear

Don't go overboard with the camouflage gear, but don't wear bright yellow cagoules either... 'Clothing plays an important part - you don't need to dress up like the military but wear sensible clothing,' says Steve. 'Try dull and drab colours - blacks, browns, greens will help you blend in. And wear appropriate footwear and trousers - traipsing through woods in shorts and sandals isn't advisable but, that said, they are perfectly suitable on the coast.'

• Don't be 'dinner'!

'You won't be the only one there and I'm not just talking about humans!' says Steve. 'If you don't want to be bitten by the resident insect population use a precaution. I can recommend Avon Skin So Soft - it may look odd spraying it on but does appear to repel most would-be diners.'

• Patience is a virtue...

'Be patient,' Steve adds simply. 'If it was easy it wouldn't be a challenge. Sometimes waiting is the only way; seeing the subject in the distance is encouraging but try to stay quiet and still as it will encourage them to move closer.'

And what not to do

Both David and Steve sum up their approach in one simple phrase: respect your subject.

'You should never harass a bird by getting too close or repeatedly chasing it,' David stresses. 'During the breeding season steer clear of nests and parents with chicks. Distracting a parent can allow predators such as crows to dive in and grab chicks or unattended eggs.'

Steve, too, is very firm on this point. 'There's a classic saying which should always be at the forefront of your thoughts: ''Take only pictures, leave only footprints, kill only time',' he says. 'The subject is paramount - every possible attempt must be made not to put the subject in harm's way or under stress, especially during the breeding season where unreasonable behaviour could scare parents from a nest or cause them to abandon breeding.'

Such activity not just bad for wildlife, it could land you in a lot of trouble with the law. 'Natural England have a list of what are referred to as 'Schedule 1',' Steve points out. 'That means these birds must not be photographed on, at or near the nest site, or be caused harm or distress. It is illegal to do so and anyone found to contravene this could be faced with a fine or jail sentence. Check the subject before embarking on a photo session.'

And don't forget courtesy for other photographers. 'If they appear to be photographing something don't charge up,' pleads Steve. 'You may spook the subject they've been tracking for some time.

'I suffered from this recently where I spent more than an hour crawling on a heath to track feeding birds getting within four metres of them at times - only for some photographer to walk up behind me, stand by my feet and start shooting away - which obviously moved the bird further away...'

To sum up

Buy the best you can afford, experiment with birds in your garden or the local park until you get the hang of everything.

Know about the technical side, but don't get overwhelmed. Remember: 'Get the exposure and focus right and you'll start getting the shots you want,' says Steve. 'The main thing is to have your camera with you as you never know when you'll get the opportunity for that shot.'

And always - always - respect the birds and nature.

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You can see David Tipling's stunning photograph 'Murmuration of Starlings, Gretna, Scotland, 2012' close-up as part of The Wonder of Birds exhibition at Norwich Castle. His superb photographs also feature in the book Birds & People, by Mark Cocker.

Check out Steve Plume's work on or keep reading Weekend!

The EDP is media partner for The Wonder of Birds exhibition, which runs at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery to Sunday September 14. This major exhibition brings together nature, art and culture in a wide-ranging, thought-provoking and fascinating exploration of the cultural impact of birds on our lives.