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Louis’ Guide To Bird Photography 101

The idea of this blog posting is to convey to everyone who knows me or is at the very least familiar with my existence, my guiding principles to bird photography. Obviously not everyone will agree with me, not everyone shoots the way I do or ever will. The idea of this blog is to help those who want help, who need help, who want to improve their results.

First off I feel I should convey to everyone that though I’ve only been photographing birds since November 2014, I have been a Professional Photographer since 1986. When I use those words they are based on the fact that my livelihood since 1986 has been by working FT as a paid photographer.

I started my career in the Navy as a Biomedical Photographer. Working from 1986 – 2004 in Naval Hospitals performing tasks such as Intraoperative Procedures, covering Public Relations Events, Studio & Environmental Portraiture and loads of other things.

Additionally I subsidized my income by photographing Weddings, Engagement Sessions, Bridals, Sports League Photography, etc.

I picked up my first film camera in December of 1978. That was the very beginning of my love for photography.

By now some of you are asking…..”What does this have to do with bird photography?”, not a thing. But I felt the need to establish why I can actually write this article and why I have strong opinions on how to photograph birds.

The fact is I’m old school. I’ve shot Large Format, Medium Format and 35mm. I’ve processed my own BNW, Color Negative and Color Slide Films.

Now let me share with you a few things that I was taught:

  • The lower the ISO the better the sharpness, the better the grain, the better the contrast range and the better the color!

This is important! Many people today love to push using Auto ISO. I don’t and wont ever do so. There is a term we hear about constantly especially with Lightroom users.


High ISO is destructive! The higher you push it the more destructive it becomes. You will loose color, you will loose sharpness, you will GAIN noise, and you will gain contrast.

Now if that doesn’t bother you then just keep doing it. Lol

It does bother me. So as a result of that I have a working ISO range that I shoot in.

400 – 800 ISO about 90% of the time.

1600 ISO about 7 % of the time.

100 ISO, 3200 – 6400 3% or less of the time.

This parameter as I call it doesn’t change for the reasons I previously mentioned.

Now here is how I think when shooting regarding ISO. As everyone knows digital noise is a fact of life. Our sensors are either FX or DX format. They come in a certain pixel dimension. Noise comes in a certain size. The more that you crop an image the more the noise becomes pronounced because as you crop the pixels maintain their size and you just make them bigger and bigger the more you crop.

What does this mean? Well if your photographing a bird that’s far away and you also shoot high ISO then crop…….guess what your photo is going to look like crap! Sorry I know that’s a bold comment, however it’s true.

When I’m out shooting and my subject isn’t close enough and or my ISO is higher, guess what I don’t do?! I don’t take the picture lol

What’s the point? Will it meet my standards? Will it make those who view my image say, Wow that’s fantastic…..not hardly lol

Nikon D500, Nikon 600mm f4 Lens, Nikon 1.4x Teleconverter

Focal Length: 1275mm

Exposure: 1/4000sec @ f5.7

ISO 1600

Mode: Manual

This capture of a Female Northern Harrier is an example of what I would say is a subject too far to bother with shooting. Whenever I take the risk of shooting something like this and I get back to work on it the result is always the same, “IT’s CRAP”.

Oops there I go again being blunt.

Now here is my image with a little bit of cropping and processing. Doesn’t look to bad does it?

Now look again. Same image even close! What’s missing? Sharpness and the details of the bird. Why? Because the bird was comprised of very few pixels and it was a 1600 ISO capture. By cropping in on the image the noise was enlarged on a bird which had very few pixels of information to begin with. What you mostly see in this image is large sized noise.

This is why I have another parameter. It’s called lens to subject distance. I know for a fact that the closer I can get to a bird the larger that bird will be in my frame. As a result the bird will be sharper, the bird will contain more details, the bird will have better color and my noise will be less pronounced.

This happens because the bird now contains far more pixels. What do pixels contain? They contain file information!

Please follow along in the upcoming weeks as I share more and more information about how I photograph birds.

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