Five Ways to Learn Bird Photography

Like to photograph birds but need some help turning snapshots into great shots? Here are three options:

1 - Attend my free bird photography seminar on April 7 at 7 PM at Teatown Lake Reservation in Ossining, NY.

2- Check out my Master the Art and Craft of Bird Photography on-line class.

3 - Join my December Bosque del Apache, New Mexico photo workshop.

4 – Check out my Make Better Bird Photographs blog post, which features tips on sharpening, daylight fill-in flash and links to some educational videos.

5 – Read this post: Best lenses for bird photography.

Explore the light,

Make Better Bird Photographs

Do you like making bird photographs – and processing your bird photography images? If so, I think you will like my on-line seminar/class, Master The Art and Craft of Bird Photography. I'll show you how to photograph birds in flight . . . to birds on a stick.

The class/seminar is about one hour in length and features my favorite photographs of our feathered friends.

Class Topics
• Introduction
• Learning
• Setting Goals
• A Bit of Blur
• Seeing the Light
• Story Telling
• Exploring Bosque
• Exposure
• Histogram
• Both Eyes Open
• Focus Point
• Light and Mood
• Basic Enhancements
• Think Like a Painter
• Daylight Fill-in Flash
• Birds on a Stick
• Art in Nature
• More Creative Images
• Gear
• Good luck

  Click here to order.

The seminar is a recording/QuickTime movie of my Keynote slide presentation, Master the Art and Craft of Bird Photography. You watch and learn at your own pace.

Click here to see a preview of the class - which features almost 150 images from my travels around the world.

That's me with my assistant during one of our bird photography shoots! :-)

In the seminar/class I cover shooting and a bit of processing, including, "Thinking Like a Painter." In that section I talk about sharpening selectively, illustrated above with a Photoshop screen grab (from the class). Process: Filter > Convert to Smart Filter > apply Unsharp Mask, mask out the background. Sharpening the background would detract from the main subject, as well as increasing noise, which can show up in out-of-focus areas in a frame.

Of course, you can also sharpen selectively in Lightroom – illustrated above with two Lightroom screen grabs – top showing selective sharpening (on eagle), accomplished by holding down the Opt/Alt key when using the Masking slider (moving it to the right) in the Details panel.

The concept: A painter would not sharpen an entire image, so think/work like a painter.

Speaking of thinking like a painter . . .click the image above to see a clip that did not make it into my seminar/class. I did not include it because: I cover Thinking Like a Painter in the seminar/class - and because I wanted to keep the class just under one hour. So enjoy - and always think like a painter. ;-)

In the seminar/class I also talk about using plug-ins to improve images. Above is a screen shot that shows the Tonal Contrast filter in Nik Color Efex Pro - a cool way to increase contrast for a more dramatic image.

Above is a screen shot that shows another Nik Color Efex filter - Darken/Lighten Center - that I use to draw more attention to the main subject.

I also briefly cover Daylight Fill-in Flash in the seminar/class. For more detailed info on fill-flash, see:
Daylight Fill-in Flash - Layers Magazine
Daylight Fill-in Flash - Outdoor Photographer Magazine
Daylight Fill-in Flash - X-Train

Above: A must-see for serious bird photographers: The Blast Off at Bosque del Apache, New Mexico. Below: grabbing a bite to eat in Alaska. :-)

Here are 10 quick bird photography tips:

1 - Focus on the eye. If the eye is not in focus, you’ve missed the shot.
2 - Make sure the eye is well lit. If it’s not, you have missed- the shot, unless you want a silhouette or if you are looking to create a sense of mystery in the scene.
3 - Expose for the highlights (small areas of bright feathers).
4 - Set your camera on focus tracking to track a bird right up to the moment of exposure.
5 - Set the focus point in your viewfinder to focus on a small area of the frame and set that point on the bird.
6 - Use a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second to freeze the action fast-moving birds.
7 - Set your camera to the fastest frame rate to capture subtle differences in the subject’s body position.
8 - Take full-frame shots and environmental photographs.
9 - Watch the background. It can make or break your shot.
10 - When you are composing a photograph of a flying bird, leave some room in the frame into which the bird can fly.

Try to avoid these bird photo faux pas:
Left: bird is flying away from you (in some cases);
Right: tail is amputated.

Like photographing birds at zoos - but don't like the wire fences that ruin your photographs? Try the photographer's disappearing act, as illustrated above. Use a telephoto lens, place the lens (w/out a lens hood) directly on the fence where there is an opening, and shoot at the widest aperture. This set-up creates a very shallow depth of field, so the fence disappears. This techniques works best when the fence is black or in the shade.

In the top photo, I darkened the edges of the frame to draw more attention to the main subject.

Below: The technique works for big cats, too! :-)

How cool! Steve Bailes from Spartenburg, SC sent me a note with the following cool tip. Check it out! Thank you Steve!

Looking forward to your bird seminar.  One trick you may not know that I learned from birdwatching. 

Sometimes there is a bird that just won’t come out in the open for a photo.  I use an Audubon app on my I-phone. 

When I was at the coast, I knew the sound of a painted bunting but it was across the marsh.  I simply took out my phone, pulled up the bird and played the vocalization (which it heard from 50 yards across.)  As soon as it heard it, the bird flew and landed within 20 feet, ready for a photo.  Since I was near some bushes with dead branches, I guessed where it would come and set myself so that the sunlight would hit it when it landed. 

This isn’t a photography trick, just a bird trick, but it works very well in the springtime and early summer to draw birds into close range.

• • • • •

PhotographerSusan Wilkinson makes a good point (on a Google+ post) about bird vocalization apps. Take it away, Susan.

Steve's use of a bird app's vocalizations to call in birds is a common practice and one that I have used as well. I just want to make a point that I think should be mentioned.

"First, it is important to point out that the use of playback is prohibited in many parks and refuges. It is also illegal to disturb any endangered or threatened species (and playback can be interpreted as disturbance). Any potential negative impacts of playback are more likely to occur in areas with a lot of birding pressure, so avoiding playback entirely in those places is a good idea. Where and how to use it in other situations is up the individual birder."
Credit: Sibley Guide 

Many federal, state parks and wildlife refuges do not allow the use of such apps. Also, there are many avid bird watchers and photographers who frown upon the use. 

Here's a few links for anyone that is interested in the use of these apps:
American Birding Association
Sibley Guide
Ethics of Bird Calls

Thanks for sharing all your wonderful tips and beautiful images, Rick. 


Here's a look at the gear I use for my bird photography:

New Canon 100-400mm IS lens
Canon70-200 f/4 IS lens
Canon 24-105mm IS lens
Canon 400mm DO lens 

Tripod/Ball Head
Induro CT 214
Induro BDH 1

Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite
Canon ST-E3 Speedlite Transmitter

Like black and white bird photography? Learn about how color filters (in plug-ins) change the tones in a photograph. Experiment with different color filters to see which one is best – for you.

Also know that contrast becomes more important when the color is removed.

Like on-line learning? Click here to see all my on-line classes.

Explore the light,

Learn About Composition & Light On My Workshops and On-Line

Composition is the strongest way of seeing. The main difference between the opening image for this post and the image below is composition. The picture below is a composition mess.

The opening photograph illustrates an important composition technique: separation between the elements in a scene. Most of the time, separation is a good thing.

Composition is important, but so is light. Light, after all, is the main element in every photograph, so we need to learn how to see and capture the light. The two elements that make this photograph pleasing are a good exposure and nice light. My # 1 lighting tip: expose for the highlights.

I teach composition and getting a good exposure on my workshops.

If you can’t make a workshop, check out my KelbyOne on-line training classes on composition and light.

To help you find the best light, anywhere around the world, check out my latest app, Rick Sammon's Photo Sundial. The app also includes my best tips for photographing at sunrise and sunset. Weather and phases of the moon info is included, too.

FYI: I made these photographs this past weekend in Alaska while co-leading a photo workshop with my good friend Hal “Bull” Schmitt, director of the Light Photographic Workshops.

Hal and I are co-leading a Death Valley Photo Workshop in 2015. Join the fun in the sun? The workshop will focus on landscape photography, model photography, HDR, Lightroom and Photoshop.

Explore the light,


Learn From Hal "Bull" Schmitt On Our 2014 Alaska Adventure


Hal "Bull" Schmitt is one of my favorite digital photography instructors - which is one of the reasons why I am looking forward to our Alaska Digital Photography Workshop in 2014.

Schmitt reminds us of important things to consider when it comes to our photography:

S - Situational awareness – be aware of everything that is going on around you.
C - Create a checklist. (Check out Hal's checklist for you.)
H - The Histogram is your camera's built-in light meter. Use it. Always.
M - Master the Manual mode. It is the best way to learn about exposure.
I - Import into Lightroom carefully. Always know where you photos "live."
T - A good tripod is one of your best photo investments.
T - Learn technology, but don't let it get in your way of having fun. If you are not having fun, you are doing something wrong.

The idea of compiling photo concepts from the letters in Hal's last name was generate by Peary Spagth, one of my Iceland photo workshop participants. Peary put together the following piece on my Iceland workshop. As Perry says . . .

shows Eagel 1.jpg

Rick reminds us of......

Being Aware of the Quality of the Light - The "AQ" of Light.
When we are about to photograph a scene or a subject, we remember to slip our favorite CD into our mind's CD player. 
Our favorite CD, of course, is "CD-RICK".
"CD" reminds us of the two most important elements of light:
And "RICK" reminds us of the other important elements of light:
Kinetics (Movement)

Speaking of light, you can learn more about light, and composition, on my two Kelby Training classes: Light - the main element in every photograph, and Composition - the strongest way of seeing.

• • • • •

If you can not join us in Alaska, all my workshops are listed on my 2014 Workshops page.

This post is made possible by my sponsors. Please visit their web sites.

Explore the light,

P.S. When I asked Hal to send me his best photograph of an eagle, he sent me two: the one that opens this post and the one below. Both great shots!


Day 4: Alaska Photo Workshop Week

Click image to enlarge.

In preparation for my Alaska Adventure digital photo workshop, listed on my 2014 Workshops page, I'm designation this week on my blog as Alaska Photo Workshop Week. Each day I will post a few images, taken on my previous Alaska adventures, along with some tips.

Hal Schmitt, my friend and lead instructor at Light Photographic Workshops, and I are co-leading this adventure. We will help you make and process wonderful images in Lightroom and Photoshop - and have a ton of fun.  

Day 4: Set Goals 

I am big on setting goals, which is something I talk about in my recent interview on Kelby Training. When you set a goal, you'll have a greater chance of making meaningful images.

For example, my goal one morning on a past Alaskan Adventure with Hal was to get a full-frame shot of a bald eagle complete with its reflection in the water. Setting that goal, I only framed my shots in a relatively small, very calm section of the bay in which the boat was anchored. Shooting in one section of the bay reduced the number of variables, mainly differences in light, exposure, rippled/calm water and the background. Once the correct exposure was set, all I had to do was point, focus and shoot . . . in that small area.

While the bald eagles that I were photographing were landing in that section of the bay, many other bald eagles were flying around the boat. There were flying against different backgrounds, in different light and at different distances. Sure, I missed a few shots, but I did achieve my goal.

Of course, you can have image processing goals, such as creating dramatic black-and-white images. All the plug-ins I use to create black-and-white images are listed on my Save on Plug-ins page.

Set goals my friends. It's kinda fun. 

I hope to see you here on my blog tomorrow - and Hal and I hope to see you in Alaska.

Explore the light,

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