Tips for Photographing Forest Birds


how’s it going everybody welcome back to
the channel today what we’re going to be talking about is my tips for forest bird
photography. Over the last couple years I’ve worked in North American forests
and down in the jungles of Belize and I’ve really become fond of the forest
I’ve done breeding bird surveys nesting surveys migration surveys point counts
transects photography and everything in between and I think it’s one of the most
interesting habitats to photograph in there’s one really key benefit to forest
photography and it’s that say for example you’re doing waterfowl
photography or you’re doing birds in flight usually you’re restricting
yourself to the early mornings and the late afternoons to get that nice light
but when it comes to forest photography the trees and leaves act as a bit of a
diffuser and it creates kind of a dappled light effect and you can
photograph in the middle of the day during harsh sunlight if you have the
right forests and that’s one of the main benefits of forest bird photography is
that it extends your hours that you’re able to get great shots so what I’ll do
personally is I’ll stay more towards the outside and open areas in the early
morning and late afternoons and then when the light gets a little bit harsher
I’ll travel more into the forest and try to get some forest birds I’ve broken
this video up into three different sections
the first one is tips before actually heading out to do forest bird
photography second is tips while you’re out in the field doing forest bird
photography and lastly I’m going to share a few tips that I use on days that
are really slow and when it comes to the forest bird photography it does happen
every so often where you do have a bit of a slower day so I’m going to share
that with you guys and let’s get into it the first section before heading out no
if you guys can see on the camera my sweet biologist hand nice short sleeve
shirt here and then down the neck right here a nice contrast The first tip before heading out is I’d
like to choose my days of my locations very specifically. If I’m after a certain
bird that prefers a certain type of forest I’m going to try to target those
type of forests obviously but also I choose the day very specifically not
only for the weather what I’m talking about is actually people if you have a
park that there’s a lot of people throughout the entire week that might be
beneficial just because the birds are more used to people and you can get
closer and they are more familiar with having you know people running through people on
bikes photographers whatever and you might be able to get closer to your
subject for me personally I don’t like parks with a lot of people even if it
has the opportunity to get me closer to animals and better photos and stuff like
that it just seems like I’m a little bit more disconnected from the actual
process of taking these photos so for myself I rather go to the areas that I
have more chance of encountering a bear than I do a person. My second tip before
heading out is to check a bird app so either Merlin or you can go online and
use Ebird and just see what birds are in your area and that’s very important
because what I’ve noticed in the past is when I look through a bird list before
actually going out I tend to be more likely to encounter those birds that
I’ve been looking at and if you’re thinking about that bird in the back of
your head you’re subconsciously looking for areas that it might be it’s just a
psychological thing it’s kind of like when you learn a new word and then you
see that word everywhere it’s the exact same thing you’re just putting that bird
in the back of your mind it’s before heading out check a bird app just to see
what birds are in the area and that will give you a better chance to capture some
great images my third tip is the one that I’m guilty of a lot of times but I
try to force myself to do it a little bit more and that’s before you leave
your car ideally once you leave your house actually just change and check
your settings on your camera to kind of adjust them for the settings that you’re
going to need when you get out of your car because once you get out of your car
it’s fair game anything can happen this actually happened to me last week I got
to a wetland I parked and I even told myself I was like I should check my
settings make sure everything’s ok and I was like oh I’ll just do when I get to
the actual wetland because I’ll see what the conditions are and everything and as
I’m walking there I finally get there put my bag down as I’m reaching into my
bag an osprey flies right by and I wasn’t ready and I ended up getting one
shot as he was flying off you know settings were off he was taken off in
the other direction so for me it’s a missed opportunity if I was just there
maybe a couple seconds before or if I had my
camera handy I would have been able to get some beautiful shots of him flying
by and he was really close like the one I’m showing you right now is full frame
so he was extremely close and that’s just a missed opportunity and it happens
to me you know regularly where you get out of the car and then right as you get
out of the car in the parking lot there’s a bird so I like to now adjust
my settings before I leave the house and I’ll have my camera sitting with me in
the passenger seat because I can just pick it up and on your way there
sometimes you can pull off on the side of the road if you see a raptor or
anything like that so yeah prepare your camera before you get out of the car and
ideally before you leave the house just to make sure you don’t have any funky
settings my fourth and final tip for before heading out is have your
binoculars handy kind of similar to your camera always have your binoculars on
you I think my binoculars have become probably one of my most important tools
that I use for bird photography you might be wondering why are binoculars so
important for bird photography and when I first started out I was using my
camera and my lens as my binoculars and if you’ve ever tried to do that it’s
really frustrating it’s much harder to acquire focus and sometimes I’m not
trying to take a photo I just want to see what the bird is and what you’re
doing is you’re essentially holding up your arms and you’re wasting precious
hand-holding energy to hold your camera up just to see what this bird is so what
I’ll do is I’ll have my binoculars with me whenever I’m trying to scout or whenever
I’m just trying to identify what a bird is I’ll use my binoculars it takes way
less energy you do it much quicker than trying to find it with a telephoto lens
and what I’ve noticed too is when I’m able to identify a bird I can better
prepare for that bird so if I’m you know walking down a trail and I see a black
and white Warbler down the road I know that black and white Warblers are gonna
creep up and down trees creep up and down branches and then fly to the next
tree and just continue doing that so if I see a black and white Warbler and I
see him moving in my direction I can better position myself and prepare
myself for getting that photo so I think binoculars are a must have if you’re a
bird photographer now we’re getting into some of my tips
that are used for forest bird photography and I’m going to talk about
settings but forest bird photography is a bit of a generalization because it
doesn’t really explain what type of forest you’re in so an aspen forest is
gonna let in a lot more light than a thick coniferous forest and the
difference between the two are huge in terms of settings that you’re gonna use
so I’m going to be generalizing these settings you may have to adjust a couple
of things depending the forest you’re in but overall this is what I use for most
of the forests that I go in so first off I’ll be using the Sony 200 to 600
millimeter for my forest bird photography and what I’ll do is I’ll
open up the aperture all the way to 6.3 and I’ll keep it at that I usually don’t
ever change that when I’m in the forest and next I’ll go to my ISO and I’ll set
my ISO to auto but I’ll bracket it so I don’t want it to go below or above a
certain point and what I’ll usually do for most forests is about 800 to 1000 as
the base and then as the high around 6400 that seems to work pretty well for
most situations you might be wondering well why don’t you go all the way down
in terms of ISO to say like 100 or 200 the reason I don’t like doing that is
because say you’re photographing Birds lower down like on the ground or at
mid-level of the canopy and their backgrounds are other trees other shrubs
or just the ground as the background the auto ISO is gonna work very well but say
for example you’re photographing a bird against the sky that’s higher up in the
canopy what might end up happening is depending your metering mode it might
actually adjust for the sky so what would happen is if I have my ISO at 200
you might think wow this is a really bright scene it might bump down my ISO
to 200 and then the bird itself is going to be completely dark so what I find is
limiting the minimum to around 800 to a thousand it definitely reduces the
chances of that happening and what that allows me to do too is that all I have
to worry about is my shutter speed so everything else is kind of working for
me I know my aperture is set to 6.3 I know my ISO is auto and it’s bracketed
so all I’ll have to do when I find a bird is maybe adjust the shutter speed and I
find for a for setting it just works the best there’s so many changing conditions
and changing light that you don’t have to think about three different settings
to keep changing I find focusing on one is probably the
best way to go if you’re wondering about metering modes the one I use for my sony
is the center center will evaluate the whole scene but put a little bit more
emphasis on the center of the image and I like that I think for forest bird
photography that’s perfect so depending your camera go online check what all the
metering modes do but yeah for Sony cameras I will usually use the center
and that seems to work fine for me in most of my settings if you aren’t aware
what metering modes will affect is it’s your exposure level down at the bottom
of your display when you’re taking a photo
so there’s zero right in the center which is supposed to be a well exposed
image and then you can either go overexposed or underexposed depending on
the image that you’re taking for myself personally what I exposed for is the
bird all the time so if I’m photographing something higher up in the
canopy I don’t mind having those blown out highlights I actually find it’s a
really cool effect I personally I like it I think it’s artistic I think it kind
of makes it look a little bit more surreal and it just adds a certain
effect and it it kind of gives you the sense that you’re in the forest when you
see a photo like that there’s also some people who think that one overexposed
pixel is one too many and they’ll try their best not to over expose the image so you
can always in those situations expose for your background so your sky and then
in post you can always raise your shadows and hopefully bring in more
light to your bird and get a proper exposure my second tip is probably the
tip that has increased my bird photography the most when it comes to
forest birds and that that’s to bird along ecotones and if you don’t know
what eco tones are it’s the area where two different ecosystems overlap so that
area where they overlap that’s an ecotone and in these eco tones what ends
up happening is something that ecologists and biologists call the edge
effect and what the edge effects states is that in these areas where two
ecosystems overlap that’s where you’ll have the greatest diversity of life and
it makes so much sense because in these areas where two ecosystems meet that’s
the area where birds and Wildlife can have access to both resources from both
ecosystems so a great example of this is a nice field or a nice grassland meeting
the edge of a forest so in that area that’s where you can have the highest
diversity and in those areas another thing that happens that’s great so let’s
go back to our forest and grassland example if you’re moving through the
forest there’s only a certain amount of light and then once you get to that
forest edge and you hit that grassland that’s where all the light is starting
to come in and that’s where you get the highest plant diversity and plant
diversity equals insect diversity which equals bird diversity which equals
predator diversity so those areas are really important for birds and wildlife
and it’s the area where you’re gonna get the most chance at getting great photos
go along those areas don’t just truck into the forest I used to do that when I
first started birding I knew nothing I was just trekking kilometres and
kilometres into the forest and trying to find these birds but what ends up
happening is that you only find a couple really select forest specialists that live
that deep. These eco tones will also create these micro climates and micro
habitats that you can actually find some very specialized birds in those small
areas one thing you can do go back on your old photos the ones you really like
and try to see where you took them I did this with my photos and I realize that
most of these were along edges of two different habitats or very close by so
if you’re going between a forest and a river or you’re going between primary
succession forests and a secondary succession forest you’ll probably be
getting more opportunities to photograph different species of birds so trying to
focus more along these eco tones if you do any other type of photography – not
just Birds if you do a macro like snakes and small mammals and butterflies those
areas are great – so focus on the Eco tones and don’t worry as much
unless you’re targeting a certain species to go deep into the forest
my third tip while out in the field is be very strategic with where you’re
actually stopping to take breaks if you need to take a call answer a text you
want to stop to rest a bit be strategic don’t just stop in one
place what I started doing is instead of just if I’m thirsty or whatnot
and I want to stop I won’t just stop I’ll actually walk until I find an
interesting area. Interesting areas could be a number of different things one is
if the light is coming through the forest really nicely in a certain area
that’s an interesting area to stop in another good area to stop is if you see
some really nice perches like if there’s some moss hanging off of it or some vines
stuff like that and if they’re a good place to stop is if you have fruiting
shrubs or fruiting trees stopping in those areas there’s not a guarantee that
a bird is actually going to come through but if it does you’re gonna be ready and
you to get a great shot. Tip number four has to do with birding on a trail so
most of these forests have trail systems running through them and where do you
position yourself when you find a bird along a trail I’ve experimented with
this quite a few times say for example you’re birding down a trail and you see
there’s a bird on the right and he’s hanging around the trees
do you put yourself on the left side of the trail or the right side of the trail
what I’ve noticed is putting yourself on the left side of the trail is bad for
two reasons one it increases your angle to the bird and you’re more easily seen
from the bird and two what you’re doing is if the birds on the branches the
background is most likely going to be other branches or other trees and it
might be a little bit too close and you might get some distracting backgrounds
but if you put yourself on the right side of the trail you can use those
right trees as a shield so the bird can’t see you as well and what you can
also do is when that bird comes out to a snag or a branch its background is all
the way down the trail so it’s basically infinity and you’ll get these nice
smooth backgrounds and it increases your chances of better photos and being more
camouflaged from the bird so when you’re birding along the trail try to stick to
the side that the bird is actually on and use some of those trees as a little
bit of a blind to get you to photograph those birds a little bit more easily let’s talk about slow-birding days one
thing that I like to do is called follow the chickadees here in Eastern Canada a
lot of the mix flocks that I encounter are usually composed of different
Warblers and fly catchers but one species that’s usually always there is
the black capped chickadee so what I’ll do is I’ll listen for a chickadee and I’ll
look for a chickadee and if I find one I’ll follow that chickadee and hang
around in that area not all the time but sometimes other birds will be behind it
and it’ll follow through or another thing you can do is find that chickadee
and see what direction he’s moving in and kind of walk in the same direction
usually other birds will pop up they seem to like chickadees they do nice
alarm calls and they’re very vocal so I found most of my mixed flock Warblers
with Black capped chickadees might be a little bit different in your area you
might not have chickadees in the area but find a common bird sometimes just
find any bird and hang around in that area and hopefully something comes
through and changes your luck tip number two is I’ll increase my walking pace so
I’ll cover more ground but more importantly is I’ll make a little bit
more noise and sometimes when you’re skulking around and you’re walking very
slowly Birds won’t fly off birds won’t show themselves because one they might
not see you or hear you and two they might just think you’re a predator and
they might hunker down when you’re walking at a quicker pace a faster pace
making maybe a little bit more noise sometimes birds are gonna fly up to a
perch and analyze and try to identify are you a predator are you not so
sometimes you can get these really cool head poses and body poses from birds
kind of looking at you inquisitively that’s one of my tips is walk a little
bit faster like I said you can also cover more ground and hopefully get to
some different areas that have more birds but on slower days you just got to
try different things and hopefully something good happens third thing I
want to talk about is pishing and call playback if you don’t know what pishing
is its just making a pishing noise with your mouth to draw a bird out from the
forest or draw a bird out from a bush so you’ll go like sometimes smaller
songbirds are very interested in that and they’ll pop up and they’ll kind of
look around try to find you so a lot of people use
pishing to get birds to come out of the bushes and get a better photo of them
and call play back is just playing a song playing a call on your phone and
hoping a bird is gonna respond is called play back okay I guess it depends the
situation personally I wouldn’t just go into a forest and say you know I want to
see a Black-throated Blue Warbler and then play the song and hope that one
pops up I think if you see one and it’s not during the nesting or mating season
it’s probably okay to do it to a limited extent but another thing you need to
think of is you might be in this moment seeing a black throated blue Warbler and
playing the song then somebody else down the trail might not see it but hear the
song and then put that into their bird list and it kind of affects data a
little bit quite honestly I try to limit myself
I’ve been doing less and less of it since I first started birding pretty
much because I don’t really care like I’m not upset if I don’t get a shot I’m
not upset if a bird is not coming out of a bush I don’t care if I get this
shot I’m just happy to be out and if I see the bird I see the bird if I don’t I
don’t there’s other days I don’t need to put a bird in distress or anything like
that to get it to pop up so I can get a nice photo limited stay out of the
nesting and mating season and you should be okay and just think of others think
of the species that you’re trying to call out is it safe
I hope these tips have been helpful for you guys if you have any other
suggestions I’m sure there’s a ton more post them down in the comments below
what do you do for forests birding, forest bird photography do you use flash do you
use any other accessories tripods are great too actually hadn’t mentioned
tripods but you can use a tripod to get down to those lower shutter speeds very
beneficial the only thing is you have to lug it around but kind of a good
trade-off if you’re able to go to like one one-hundredth of a second or
something and get a sharp photo so let me know in the comments what do you use
what do you do and I’ll see you guys in the next video happy birding

38 thoughts on “Tips for Photographing Forest Birds

  1. I agree, I prefer to shoot in places where human's are nonexistent or very rare…It's hard to beat being out in the true wild! Im very fortunate living in Arkansas because I live between two large National Forest and there are places as to where you can get miles from anything even an old dirt road…It is fascinating to me to see virgin timber and to actually experience true silence and no longer be the top of the food chain 🙂

  2. 1:43 – Tips Before Heading Out
    5:51 – In-the-Field Tips
    13:24 – Tips for Slow Birding Days

    Let me know any tips or tricks you use when birding in the forest!

  3. If you keep up on forest fires they are excellent places the following spring with all the fresh plant growth, especially the ones that are a mile or more off the road because that eliminates 95% of the people because they simply will not walk that far without a trail…nice tips in this vid…thanks!

  4. 200-600 and 600mm prime…….i checked both lenses..i don't recommend 200to 600 lens…best you go to buy 100 to 400 or 600mm prime lens..sharpest lens for wildlife..

  5. Absolutely agree about the binos, compulsory when going out birding, otherwise you halve the fun. Great vid, thanks !

    (However, don't really agree with pishing and bird calls).

  6. Nice tip on raising the minimum setting in Auto ISO when shooting up toward the sky. Also agree with you that center-weighted metering (at least on Sony FF mirrorless cameras) works nicely for birds, despite the fact that few other bird photogs that I know use it – while it does favor centering the bird in the middle of the frame, it saves bracketing or manual EV adjustment time and permits more frames for differing poses, which I think is a reasonable tradeoff.

  7. Just subbed, great vid for a newbie Sony user, 2018 happy iPhone camera user, jan 19 daughter got A7Rii with 55 1.8 zeiss & it blew my mind ( I’m allowed use ), since she got 28-75 & 17-28 Tamron + 200-600 & A9, still allowed use, I think where I going wrong is ISO, my best shots were on A7Rii with both on auto ISO, I don’t know why but it’s birds I started photographing hence here & love it, as an amateur or pro would possibly bypass this vid would it be possible you could do an in-depth vid on setting for this type of stuff, saving for my Sony camera but kinda lost as what to get, starting to change settings so High ISO NR now off & playing around with range limit for same, any help would be greatly appreciated, congratulations on 1000 & so sorry to go on & on

  8. Very good tips! I noticed that I never used my tripod in the forest as it was too much of a hassle so I went and bought a Sirui monopod with Manfrotto tilt head one day before heading to photograph young long-eared owls I've had heard the previous night. It's steady enough to take photos late in the evening and you only have to extend one leg instead of three. It's also much lighter which is nice when doing most of the bird photography trips with bicycle.

    Now if I only knew what would be the perfect backpack for biking which would fit my A7iii and 150-600mm Sigma. If someone has any idea tell me! My current backpack makes my back sweat although I'm sure it cannot be fully avoided with any bag.

  9. awesome tips man, this is really helpful! I had never thought of many of these things, especially the tips you give on positioning. I definitely know that following chickadees for mixed flocks is one I have used

  10. Thank you so much to share your valuable experience. here I have two questions: how do you think about monopod. how do you think to ware camouflage. Thanks.

  11. hi stefano : ) great tips !!! are you using a filter on the sony 200-600 lens ?
    for the video – are you using a tripod ? what kind of head for the tripod are you using ? cheer's : )

  12. This is a really great video, got me excited to try some stuff out! Just like priming with Merlin, etc. before going out, priming with all these tips is going to be super helpful for me. Appreciate it!

  13. Lol, I too avoid areas with too many peeps. What I find is they will stop and ask me what I'm shooting…or comment on how big my lense is! Lol. And they do it when I just happened to spot a bird! Ugh. I actually had an older woman walk up to me, ask what I was shooting while spraying herself down with some sun protectant! Worse part? The wind swept the mist of her spray right into my eyes! Lol. It was aweful. Had to wipe my eyes with my microfiber cloth so I could see again 😉

  14. Thank you so much your so right about the edge of the echo system thing. This video has been the best information and tips I can actually get a lot of use out of. Again thank you so much for the information and im going to subscribe right away.

  15. Really great video. I really have to go out and look for birds in the forests. Also the tips seem to be useful. Unlike in most lther videos where they tell you to use this and that shutterspeed and ISO…

  16. Dont know how i didnt see this from you before. really great info! got me thinking a lot smarter about my choices 🙂 Thanks!

  17. hi. nice tips. very useful. need your opinion to choose between sigma vs tamron 150-600 for canon 7d mark 2. thanks in advance

  18. Thank you for the information. What's the best focus mode for birds. I am having the difficulty to get the best focus mode specially the flying birds.

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