For the Birds Radio Program: New Camera

Original Air Date: June 23, 2009

This year Laura started photographing birds with a DSLR camera. She shares some tips for starting out.

Duration: 4′14″


Photos This January I decided to go for broke, almost literally, and bought myself a good single lens reflex digital camera. Then in May I added a 100-400 millimeter lens with built-in image stabilizing. The investments are my own personal economic stimulus package. I decided that if the economy leaves me destitute, I’d rather be destitute with a great camera than without one. My setup is big and heavy, but the photos I take are so detailed and bright that when I’m outside, I am now more likely to be carrying my camera than binoculars. This has been the perfect year for me to start taking photography seriously—there happens to be a pair of Great Blue Herons nesting in a dead tree in the pond in Sapsucker Woods, and even though I am taking most of my pictures through a window at a pretty long distance, my camera’s 15 megapixels allow me to crop pictures with reasonably clear results—enough so that most of us at the Lab of Ornithology have gotten our best looks at the heron chicks through the photos. I spent one lunch hour watching one of the parents, maybe the father, fishing along the shore. He caught five or six small fish as I watched. As soon as he got into position to strike, I held down the shutter and clicked away—that’s how I caught him not just with the fish caught at the tip of his beak but also when he flipped it back into his mouth—a few photos even caught the fish in midair between his upper and lower mandibles. I took the new lens out for a spin for the first time when I was teaching an Elderhostel at Trees for Tomorrow in Eagle River, Wisconsin, last month. I managed to get photos—some just barely identifiable but others quite good—of a wide variety of the birds we saw, including herons, bobolinks, and several species of warblers and sparrows. When the class was over, it was great fun to give everyone a photo CD of “our” birds. Since then I’ve been taking the camera whenever I walk my dog, and I’m bringing it to work most days to keep up with the growing heron chicks. I’ve discovered that a few camera settings are especially important in bird photography. Most digital cameras make a beeping sound when you turn them on, take a photo, or use various functions—the first thing to do when getting the camera set up is to turn off the sound, usually in the settings menu, so your camera won’t scare birds away. Then change the automatic focus to a center spot, so you can always focus exactly on the bird—best in any animal photography is to focus on the eye. As important as fast shutter speed is—you usually want that set at a 200th of a second or faster—the aperture is even more important if you want the whole bird in focus, especially in low light. I’ve found that when cameras have a “landscape” mode, choosing that usually provides a balance between being fast enough while providing the best depth of field. And finally, and very important, make sure the “burst” function is enabled, so if you’re targeting a moving bird you can capture it in several shots in hopes that some will be in focus capturing an interesting pose. Photos I’ve been taking are linked from my flickr gallery to my webpage at