I've always been interested a lot in observing birds. Sitting with a pair of field glasses or binoculars and watching out for a single little bird for hours and hours...that was when I was 12 years old. Now after 6 years I can combine it with photography and get some decent shots out of my hobby. Birds are wonderful. Camera can capture them in such astounding detail that you'd be surprised you saw the birds every day but failed to notice the true beauty of their eyes.
I'd like to share some of my tips. I've gotten as close to little birds as you'd have to go to even touch them. It was unfortunate I didn't have a good camera then. Otherwise I could have built a colorful portfolio. (back then, 2 years ago, I was in a forest area full of animals from leopards to woodpeckers - everything in between too. Right now, stuck in a city)
The first thing that people often neglect is the fact that birds are just like animals, like dogs or cats. They don't look like they really understand much like dogs do, but believe me, they understand better. The more defenseless a creature is, the more intelligent they are. If you behave creepy or try to stalk birds around, you'll neither enjoy your work nor get many good shots. You have to bear in mind you love the birds and you are interested in just observing them, not trapping or troubling them. Just think about it and it somehow reflects in your body movements. Birds notice that. Every time I've gotten after the birds trying to catch them somehow, it has never worked. But if you are genuinely interested, you can get REAL close to them.
Another important thing is - don't wear bright clothes. I've seen birdwatchers who look like a lit Christmas tree in the midnight sky in a forest. That is definitely not the right approach. Wear a green shirt and brown pants. It usually works best if you're hiding in the bushes. Avoid red/white/blue. Nothing shiny either (watch, for example) and never try to cover your face. Obviously they know you're there, well hidden you are. The dull colors don't help blend into the surroundings but rather help NOT to scare the birds away.
As for the camera settings, use Av mode and set the aperture to widest you can if it is a small bird. Set the ISO to 200, etc and check the shutter speed you get by pointing to some branches. If it is 1/250 or faster...you're good to go. Always be ready to use the EV settings in between shooting.
For sunny days the camera exposes the birds correctly.
If it is cloudy, you better double check the EV settings.
Set EV to +1/3 or more if the bird is dark and surroundings are bright. This might blow the background but at least the subject remains correctly exposed.
For storks, etc (white birds), set EV to -1/3 or lower. Doesn't matter if background is underexposed. You can do a shadow/highlights in Photoshop later.
Not sure what to do? You may use exposure bracketing with -1/3, 0, +1/3 settings. Annoying but it would help you understand this EV thing like nothing else ever can. And you'd not lose any shot either.
If you have birds in your backyard, set up a perch with green plants a little farther away from it so that it can serve as a green, blurred background. If the backdrop is artificial, you may want to use a zoom blur to take care of that. Always track down the nesting places of birds and wait for them nearby.
Sometimes you just have to wait and wait. If you run after birds they would always stay a step ahead and a little around the bushes...there goes your shot. So just be patient. Let them see you're no threat and that they can feel free around you. This hardly takes 15 minutes if they are nesting close by or there is a water source they must visit.
NEVER go in pairs or groups. It is always less productive. But safety first. If the place is too wild, better go in pairs and watch where you step. Where there are birds, there are snakes. I ask one friend to accompany on such places to spot the birds and threats while I can focus on the camera. So I haven't fallen off cliffs or stepped on snakes yet. I get too engrossed in birds.
(As a tip, let a girl accompany you. They alert the whole forest if they see a snake. Might even stun a lion and buy you time to escape. Interesting screams.)
Those are the basic tips. The rest...just cannot be told. Once you develop that understanding, you can just almost push a macro lens into the bird's face without much objection from the latter!
The close up shots below were taken at a very close range. About 3 to 4 feet. The bigger birds were about 10 feet away.
More coming up...when I find time to upload them. :/
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Photo credits: Pratik Panda.