5 tips for taking better bird photos

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LAKEVILLE, Minn. — Mike Lentz works as a fulltime commodities trader, but wildlife photography is his passion. His obsession began in 2006 while trying to photograph hummingbirds at a feeder in his backyard.

“The point-and-shoot camera I was using had a one- or two-second shutter delay,” Lentz said. “I would take a shot then look at the screen. No hummingbird. This happened several times before I went into the house and told my wife I needed to upgrade my equipment.”

Armed with a DSLR, a 200 to 400 mm zoom lens and a 1.4X teleconverter, Lentz began to study and photograph birds and wildlife across the upper Midwest. What he’s learned through trial and error can dramatically shorten your learning curve.

Learn everything you can

“All bird species are different,” Lentz said. “For example, you might see cardinals just before dark at feeders during much of the year but they often feed during the day during winter.

“There is so much information available online these days. Many avid birders publish blogs, and so do some photography clubs. Read everything you can about the birds you want to shoot.

“Knowledge of bird behavior is particularly important for capturing shots of birds in flight. If you find an eagle on a perch, for example, you can learn to predict when they’re going to leap into the air. Pan with them when they do and shoot as rapidly as your camera allows.”

“I usually only shoot when the light is good,” Lentz said. During spring and summer, that means early or late in the day. Otherwise, the light is too harsh. During winter, though, the light tends to be soft all day and the snow reflects light onto your subject.

“You don’t need a high ISO setting or fast shutter speed when shooting a stationary subject. But when shooting a bird in flight I’ve found that I need a shutter of at least 1/2000 of a second to capture sharp images — maybe even faster for hummingbirds.

“I also recommend photographers experiment with various aperture settings. A lens might be optimized for f/8, but f/4 or f/5.6 might produce a more appealing image, especially when your subject is close to the background.”

“That’s the first bit of advice I give to novice photographers,” Lentz said. “Photography, like all art, is subjective. But I prefer clean images with a blurred background that allows the main subject to pop.

“Take time to walk around your subject when possible to make sure you’re capturing the best possible composition. This is easy to control when you’re shooting in your backyard but is more difficult when photographing wary bird species in more remote locations.”

“Try to get at eye level with the birds you’re photographing,” Lentz said. “That usually results in a more intimate image. I often sit on a mat when shooting waterfowl photos, but occasionally lie on my belly to compose a more interesting foreground.

“Avoid shooting subjects from a high angle if you can avoid it. That kind of image usually looks like it was shot at a zoo.”

“I use a single-seat popup blind for many of my shoots, even in my backyard,” Lentz said. “It’s the best way I’ve found to avoid spooking wary subjects. Put out some food and listen to a podcast while you wait for the birds to arrive.”

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