Bird photography is challenging, to say the least. Birds are fast, small, change direction constantly and, worst of all, are often very far away from you and your camera. But, now that summer’s in full swing, it’s the perfect season to grab or rent a super-telephoto lens and get out into nature and learn how to up your birding game to the next level.
For advice, we turned to the newest member of the Olympus Visionary program, professional wildlife photographer Scott Bourne who, as luck would have it, specializes in bird photography. As a photographer with over four decades of experience, you may know his work from one of his NINE photography books, his posts in various magazines and newspapers, or as the co-founder of This Week In Photo, founder of Photofocus, or as the co-founder of the new Photo Podcast Network.
Wow, what a busy guy.
So with further ado, let’s get to know Scott, find out about his bird photography gear, and then learn about his amazing Five Tips that will help you become a better bird photographer.
Steve’s Digicams: Hi, Scott. Thanks so much for sitting down with us today. First, congrats on becoming a part of the Olympus Visionary program. How long have you been shooting Micro Four Thirds and what won you over to Olympus gear?
Scott Bourne: Thanks it was the highest honor I’ve received in photography and thanks for the interview. I have long been a fan of your site.
I got interested in Micro Four Thirds in 2009. I was very intrigued with the idea of a smaller, yet powerful camera. I used their gear whenever I could. They came out with some great lenses that kept me interested, but then in 2013 they came out with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 and that REALLY got me interested. I was so intrigued with Micro Four Thirds by then I authored a lynda.com title with my pal Rich Harrington called “Learning To Shoot W/ Micro Four Thirds Cameras.”
But it wasn’t until they announced the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO Lens with an EFL of 600mm, and the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II Mirrorless Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera that I was able to seriously think about a full-time, permanent switch. This gear is “bird-photography” capable and that is what I was waiting for. My health and age have limited my ability to go on long birding expeditions with the big/heavy DSLR gear I had been used to.
What’s your current favorite M.Zuiko lens?
Oh man, that is a hard one but I’d have to say the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO Lens. It’s as sharp as any big telephoto I have ever tested. It’s small and lightweight and for the first time in my career I can actually hand-hold a big telephoto lens and shoot all day (although I do sometimes cheat and use a monopod just to rest the lens on to save my arms.) At f/4 it’s a fast lens and works well in low-light and paired with the OM-D E-M1 Mark II it has the best image stabilization in the business.
What’s in your kit when you go out for birding and bird photography and what camera mode(s) do you use?
I own more Olympus gear than I am listing here but you asked for the birding kit. So this is my main bird photography kit right now – I might make minor changes here or there depending on what I am doing and where I am going – it’s more than I need but this gear is so lightweight and small that I can bring it all.
- Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 Pro Lens
- Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 40-150 f/2.8 Pro Lens
- Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm f/4.0 Pro Lens
- Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm f/2.8 Pro Lens
- Olympus MC 14 1.4X TC
- Olympus FL-900R Flash
- Olympus FL-LM3 (dust & splash-proof flash) x2
- Olympus EE-1 Dot Sight
- Olympus HLD-9 OM-D Battery Grip
- Olympus BLH-1 Spare Battery
- Gitzo GM2561T Series 2 6X Carbon Fibre Traveler Monopod
- Platypod Ultra (+ Multi-Accessory Kit)
How did you get into bird photography?
I have always loved birds, ever since I was a little kid. The first book I remember receiving was an Audubon guide book. But as a serious photographer only 15 years ago. It came from two places. I was doing a lot of outdoor photography, mostly wildlife, and some landscape but when the opportunity came up, I would focus on birds. Then I decided I really needed a challenge and I could think of nothing more challenging than photographing small creatures which can fly and generally don’t want anything to do with humans 🙂 From there it was all consuming. Avian photography gets into your blood and once you’re hooked – you’re hooked. There’s no escape. I have tried.
I love the idea of photographing birds, but I gotta say birds may be the hardest moving objects to photograph, especially when they’re in flight. What are you TOP FIVE BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS for beginners, or anyone coming from landscapes and portraits?
That’s a great question. I’d start by focusing on perched birds – birds in flight is really in a special category of difficulty.
Read everything you can about birds. This tip is good for any subject, but especially birds. I wanted to photograph eagles in flight. I found out they often defecate right before they fly. The more you know about any subject, the better off you’ll be when it comes time to press the shutter.
2) LOOK AT LOTS OF BIRD PICTURES
Writers read if they want to become better writers and photographers look at photographs if they want to become better photographers. Look at avian images in books, magazines, and on the Web. See what the photo buyers are selecting. Use those images as your benchmark and then go get some of your own.
3) START BIG
Practice with larger birds such as pelicans, gulls, and herons. Also practice at local zoos. Captive birds will give you a chance to study behavior, hone your skills, and become familiar with bird photography (and your gear) and guarantee enough keepers that you won’t be frustrated.
4) BACKGROUND, BACKGROUND, BACKGROUND
It’s counterintuitive but it’s all about the background. Start with the background and then find the bird. If you don’t have a clean background, you don’t have a good bird photo. Pick your backgrounds before you decide what to shoot. When I photograph birds against a clean blue sky, I often get the most compliments. Also, the further your subject is from the background, the better. Busy backgrounds detract from the subject.
5) TRACK THE SUN
I’m not much for photography religions, but if I were, this would be the one I’d practice. Photograph birds with your back to the sun. Especially when you’re just starting out. Birds look best when front lit. Sidelight may be the landscape photographer’s friend, but it’s the avian photographer’s enemy. Keep the sun at your back, or in other words, point your shadow at the birds. Believe it. Practice it. Live by it. You’ll get better shots.
Thanks again to Scott Bourne & Olympus for providing these super-helpful Bird Photography tips and a look behind the scenes at how the artist approaches his craft.