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  1. #1
    Senior Member Canon_Bob's Avatar
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    How I Photograph Birds

    Hey all,

    I've been thinking about this post for awhile. I get a lot of PMs and e-mails from folks wanting pointers, lessons, etc. regarding avian photography. I finally decided that maybe the best way to help everyone would be to just detail out a series of images, so that everyone could see beyond the normal info in forum posts (like just the EXIF info, etc.). Knowing the camera settings is useless unless you understand why they were chosen. I have decided to take the five images below, and explain every conceivable detail of the shot on each one. I will cover all of the pre-shot setup, working the angles, and even how I "work" the birds for my images. I figure that would be the best way I could help everyone here who wants to be better at bird photography. I will also be posting a series later this week with flaws in the images. I will critique each one myself, and explain why they are flawed. This is not a critique forum, so I rarely offer critiques to other's images. I do, however, want to help eveyone get better if I can. I captured all of these images within a 2.5 hour window on Saturday morning. I do not have time tonight to add in the details on them, so keep checking this thread throughout the week. Each image will be explained in intricate detail:

    Wilson's Plover

    Image writeup added 6/17/08 at 7:30 pm Eastern:

    Image number 1, the Wilson's Plover:
    EXIF: Canon 1DsMII, Canon 600mm f/4L with 2x TC, 1/1250, f/8, ISO 200, -1/3 EV, off Gitzo 5540 tripod and Wimberly II head, 9:11 AM with light directly behind me. Single
    focusing point (center) was placed directly on the eye. Slightly cropped for composition. Auto-Focus. Image Sstabilization turned off. Aperture Priority Mode.

    The Wilson's Plover is a relatively small, but approachable shorebird. Their biggest photographical challenge is that they are very quick and rarely stay still for more than
    a few seconds. They are fairly common here in SW Florida. This is their nesting season, and I'm sure this lovely lady had a nest nearby.

    So the story behind this image is that I found her (I'm pretty sure this is a female) on my way back out after the morning shoot in Little Estero Lagoon. As you can see by
    the time of day in the EXIF, it was past 9 AM. that means the light is beginning to get harsh here this time of year, and the temperature begins to climb rapidly. I had made
    the decision to stay in the water I was out in the lagoon shooting other birds), and work my way along this raised bank that is next to a water channel that the tide rushes
    through. It provides a nice setup spot because the bank is about 3 feet high, and that means I don't have to go down too low for the eye level shots I prefer. It's also in a
    perfect up-light location to the bank. When I spotted her, she was not in a very good spot. I did, however, have plenty of time to set up, and get my camera settings right
    by taking a few sample shots of her and checking my histogram. Even though she was up on the bank, I still needed to lower my POV a bit, and did so by unlocking the front leg
    of my tripod and flipping it outward (thus, lowering my tripod about 18 inches WITHOUT having to lower the legs - a much faster technique than re-adjusting each tripod leg).
    As I'm setting up a shot, I always look at the POV, and potential background. In this case, the inclusion of the plants was intentional, but I wanted to make sure there were
    none behind her head. Problem was, she was walking much lower to the ground, thus, the background was in the way of my composition. All I had to do was make a slight
    whistling sound, and she stopped and perked up to listen. You are seeing the result.

    The elements that make this a nice image are the head angle (pay attention to all my images....I always go for a head angle slightly toward me), the catch-light in the eye,
    the depth of field, the sharpness of the image (even at 1200mm), perfect up-light position, and the nice environmental composition. Some thiungs that could make it better
    would include perhaps a bit of curves adjustment to give the bird more punch, and I think even just a bit more seperation from the head to the green in the BG would help.
    these are minor nits, though, and I'm overall satisfied with this one.

    So why did I choose those camera settings? Well, the light was great for using the 2x TC, so being that this is a small bird, that helped. Don't believe the hype you hear
    about the teleconverters not being capable of sharp images. Under the right conditions, they're fine. When using the 2x, you only get the center AF point (on a 1D camera
    body). Tripod is essential at this focal length, and I usually turn off Image Stabilization in these circumstances to assist AF in getting a sharper image. Contrary to
    popular belief, Image Stabilization really isn't needed when on a great tripod like the Gitzo 5540/Wimberley Head combo, and shooting a fairly static subject. I chose f/8
    (the maximum allowable when using the 2x on this lens) in order to enhance the subject through the use of Bokeh. ISO 200 is my basic default ISO on the 1DsMII, as there is
    little (if any) noise. the -1/3 EV was determined by the practice shots after viewing the histogram.

    I probably shot 30 frames in the sequence (including 3-5 practice images to determine camera setup). I liked 5 of them.




    Roseate Spoonbill


    American Oystercatcher


    Marbled Godwit


    Snowy Egret
    Last edited by Canon_Bob; 06-17-2008 at 07:04 PM.

  2. #2
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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    Nice shots all around. Look forward to reading about your technique.
    Erik Williams

    Olympus E3, E510
    12-60 SWD, 50-200 SWD, 50 f/2 macro, EX25, FL36's and an FL50r.

  3. #3
    Senior Member AgingEyes's Avatar
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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    Looking forward to your pointers !!

  4. #4
    Member tufcat's Avatar
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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    Bob, there are a few real good wildlife photographers that I follow, in several different forums, but your wildlife photos are the best I see. I think it is very nice that you would take time to share information to make others (of us) better photographers. I am really looking forward to your discussions. Thanx in advance.
    Keith Preble
    ActionVue.com

  5. #5
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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    I cannot wait for the tutorial to begin =)
    Shooting with an Olympus Evolt E-510 and loving it


    Equipment list:
    Olympus Evolt E-3, E-620, E-500
    Olympus Zuiko 40 - 150 F4.0 - 5.6
    Olympus Zuiko 14 - 45 F 2.8 - 3.6
    Sigma 50 - 500 F 4.0 - 6.3
    Sigma 70 - 200 F2.8
    Olympus FL-38 Flash x2
    Vivitar 285 HV
    Better Beamer Flash Extender

    http://www.jdtimages.ca/

    A Photographer that is fluent in Sarcasm.

  6. #6
    Senior Member AgingEyes's Avatar
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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    Thank you for the first write-up, Canon_Bob.

    I've been wondering what people do when they're out there. By that I mean:

    1. How do they find the locations they want to go photograph?
    2. Once they're there, do they walk around, stop and photo whatever they run into, move around again till the next subject? Or, they stay in one spot and hope for the best? If nothing happens, pack and go home?

    Although you said the bird usually didn't stay long and it moved fast, looks like this time you had plenty of time to set up and were able move into a position to get the best shot you could. Is that pretty common in your experiences? Any tips on how to approach the target before they go away?

    Personally, it seems to me that a lot of times, even if I see a subject of interest, there's not enough time to shoot before they fly away. This usually happens with the smaller birds. So I'm guessing, photogs of your calibre usually go to where you knew you would get some results, right?

  7. #7
    Senior Member Canon_Bob's Avatar
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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    Quote Originally Posted by AgingEyes
    Thank you for the first write-up, Canon_Bob.

    I've been wondering what people do when they're out there. By that I mean:

    1. How do they find the locations they want to go photograph?
    2. Once they're there, do they walk around, stop and photo whatever they run into, move around again till the next subject? Or, they stay in one spot and hope for the best? If nothing happens, pack and go home?

    Although you said the bird usually didn't stay long and it moved fast, looks like this time you had plenty of time to set up and were able move into a position to get the best shot you could. Is that pretty common in your experiences? Any tips on how to approach the target before they go away?

    Personally, it seems to me that a lot of times, even if I see a subject of interest, there's not enough time to shoot before they fly away. This usually happens with the smaller birds. So I'm guessing, photogs of your calibre usually go to where you knew you would get some results, right?
    Great questions. So here again is what I do:

    answer to question 1:
    How do I find the locations to photograph? Well, I started by just jumping on the net, and finding the places everyone else goes. Nothing wrong with this way, except that I was sitting there in a crowd of bird photographers taking the same picture that everyone else did. So how did I change that? I started looking for the differences. I'll use Ding Darling as an example here. Everyone sets up on the road to shoot. So instead, I started going down and laying in the mud along the water's edge. The POV is spectacular, and the images are completely different from what everyone else gets. So....even though there were many photographers there on any given day, none of them were willing to get the angles that I was getting. The really funny part to me was that people would actually take pictures of me laying in the mud! None of them get it.

    After a while, I began scouting and exploring on my own. GPS is a nature photographers best friend. I also discovered that birds are creatures of habit. Learn their habits, and they're very predictable and easy to find. They are also a lot smarter than people think, and have a good memory. When they get to know who you are, and that you're not a threat, you'll be amazed how close you can get. I have a pair of Sandhill Cranes that nest near my home. these birds have known me for the past 2 years. I can literally approach to within touching distance of them. If I bring a friend out to photograph them, we're lucky to get within 50 feet! Strange, but true.

    The most impotant thing to study about locations is the direction of the light at different times of the day, with special attention paid to uplight shooting locations, and background. Another frequently forgotten consideration is wind direction. Birds always take off and land into the wind. Kind of an important variable if you're interested in flight shots.

    Answer to question 2: I rarely stay in one spot very long. I usually pick an "area", and then work that heavily during my 2 or 3 hour window of optimal light. I usually return to my car after a morning shoot, tired from lugging 40 pounds of gear, dirty from laying in mud, wet from wading in the water, and thirsty :-)

    THe only time I sit still is if I'm shooting a specific thing like a feeder setup, or a nesting location.


    Now, regarding your last bit about how the birds fly off on you. There is definitely an art to "working" a bird subject. First rule is that you are big, they are small. The smaller you make yourself look, the less threatening you become. No sudden movements! Move very slowly, straight toward them, with frequent stops to photograph. I usually shoot, move a couple slow steps toward them, then stop and shoot again. When you have to move around them to get up-light, give them a very wide berth! Always remember that until they get used to you and know you are no threat, they just consider you another predator. They will send very clear signals when you are disturbing them. Always stop, and back off when they do. You have to have lots of patience in avian photography.

  8. #8
    Learning more with every "click" mjs1973's Avatar
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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    This looks to be a great thread Bob. Thanks so much for taking the time to post all this info. I look forward to getting some time to go over all the info you post here, and hopefully I will come up with some questions for you. The is waiting for me now, so the reading will have to wait another day.
    Mike

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    "I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view."
    Aldo Leopold

  9. #9
    Senior Member Canon_Bob's Avatar
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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    Hey all,

    I can't re-edit my first post because I responded later in the thread. So, I'll complete the instructions in this post (over a couple days), and then respond to questions after that. Hope this series will help!

    Image 2, The Roseate Spoonbill.

    EXIF: Canon 1DsMII, 600mm f/4, f/5, 1/640, ISO 200, +2/3 EV, Off Tripod while standing in waist deep water, 07:22 A.M., Sun coming in from angle to the right. Auto Focus using a single focusing point in the top of the VF.

    As Roseate Spoonbills go, this one is not a phenomenal specimine. It looks to be maybe a three year old, just coming into adulthood (Paul - correct me if wrong). The older Spoonbills tend to have deeper colors, yellow shoulders, and pronounced ridges on their bills. This one is a very light pink, with little or no yellow, and no ridges. Still, when a Spoonbill shows up, you photograph it!

    I spotted this one asleep in the middle of the lagoon at first light. There were no other Spoonbills around, so I can only assume that it's flock had already taken off, and this one just overslept. I had to wade a long ways to try and work my way uplight for my desired light angle. Unfortunately, the Spoonbill woke up and began showing signs of uneasiness as I was working my way toward a better light angle. I had, of course, been taking shots as I was working my way around to the correct light angle. He finally showed the final sign that he was about to fly off....the pre-flight poop! I snapped two or three more frames and off he went.

    So, even though this is not the "perfect" Spoonbill specimine, it is still a nice image. The head angle is right, there's a good catchlight, and that early morning light is really nice. I chose a vertical crop for this to include the reflection, even though the original was a horizontal frame. The slightly raised foot adds a bit to the composition.

    The negatives are obviously the slightly off light angle, and the fact that it just isn't a spectacular Spoonbill. But it's still a keeper.

    The camera settings were chosen again by validating the histogram. I chose f/5 to add just a bit more DOF for the reflection, yet maintain a nice bokeh effect. POV was slightly elevated to add the reflection.

  10. #10
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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    Excellent thread Bob, thanks for sharing your techniques and tips. Your photos have always amazed me so of course I'll be reading this thread thoroughly.

  11. #11
    Seasoned Amateur WesternGuy's Avatar
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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    Canon_Bob, great thread. It will take me awhile to read through and absorb.. One of the "problems" that I have is that on the private farmlands around the city, the sloughs where you find waterfowl are fenced off and, because of the size of the farms, it is often difficult to find out who owns the land, so I sit in my car beside the road with the engine off, wait until they are used to its presence and slowly lower the window and start shooting away. Works quite well, particularly if the sloughs are close to the road.

    Again great thread and fantastic images. Thanks for all of this.

    Cheers,

    WesternGuy

  12. #12
    Ex-Modster Old Timer's Avatar
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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    Members like you are what make PR the best learning forum on the Internet. Thanks for this wonderful thread Bob. I admire your images and appreciate your wiliness to share your knowledge.
    Don't forget about the Gallery. Are your photos there??


    Nikon Samurai #13

    "A photographer is known by what he shows not by what he throws. The best photographers have the biggest trash cans." Quote from Nikon School sometime in the early 1970's.

  13. #13
    nature/wildlife co-moderator paulnj's Avatar
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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    Awesome post Bob.....

    Not only are your images stellar, but you follow it up with great info!!!!!
    CAMERA BIRD NERD #1




    BIRD NERD O'CANON

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  14. #14
    Senior Member Canon_Bob's Avatar
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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    Hey all,

    Sorry its taking a while to complete this series. Busy work week last week for me. Anyway, continuing on:

    IMAGE 3 - The American Oystercatcher

    EXIF: Canon 1DsMII, Canon 600mm f/4 with 2x TC, f/8, 1/800, -1/3 EV (verified correct by Histogram), off tripod with legs flipped out so as to bring camera down to this POV, kneeling in knee deep water, sun over left shoulder, 08:48 AM (sun starting to get intense). AI Servo mode with single center point selected (only option with the 2x TC on the 1D body). Note that auto focus is only available with the 1D Canon bodies when using the 2x TC. Manual focus must be used on the rest of Canon's bodies.

    So here we have a juvenile American Oystercatcher. You can identify him as a juvi due to the fact that his bill has not become completely orange yet. These birds present a challenge photographically because they have very bright whites, and a very dark green head. Most attempts people make at photographing them result either in blown whites, or an underexposed green head.

    I was already out in the water when I noticed him working along the shore. I didn't have to move too far to get up light from him. For some reason, he was not letting me as close as I usually get to them, so I pulled out the 2x, and went to work. In ideal light, the 2x is fine. The flared wings definitely adds to the composition here, as does the pleasing background. The key to this image is the exposure. Very important to meter on the white, but push the histogram well into the fifth bar (fourth bar on Nikon). That way you ensure to properly expose that green head!

    Positives: Perfect exposure, background, head angle, flared wings, nice catchlight. Decent composition.

    Negatives: Looks like I need about a half degree of CW rotation. Might want to increase contrast a bit and do some selective sharpening as well. He also has just a bit more glare on the bill than I like. Certainly nothing major, though. I'm sure he'll sell well.

    The camera settings were again dictated by the histogram. -1/3 EV was chosen because the test shots were showing "flashies" in the viewer.
    Last edited by Canon_Bob; 06-23-2008 at 01:13 PM.

  15. #15
    Nature/Wildlife Forum Co-Moderator Loupey's Avatar
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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    Excellent write up, C_B!

    Thank you for taking the time to do this. The willingness to share by members like you and all the other "regulars" here is what makes this such a rich learning environment.

    Glad to have you here with us.
    Please do not edit or repost my images.

    See my website HERE.


    What's a Loupe for anyway?

  16. #16
    Senior Member Canon_Bob's Avatar
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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    OK all, here are the last two:

    Image 4 - Marbled Godwit

    EXIF: Canon 1DsMII, Canon 600mm f/4L, f/4, 1/2000, ISO 200, +2/3 EV, AV Mode, single focusing point held on bird's eye, light directly behind me, auto-focus, 8 AM (about an hour and 15 minutes after sunrise). I was standing out in the lagoon in about 2 feet of water, shooting back toward shore. Off tripod.

    Marbled Godwits are not terribly common here, but I do get them occasionally. This one was a fine specimine, and allowed me to get nice and close. One of the biggest challenges in photographing this species is that they are prone to "beak glare". That long slender bill definitely attracts glare. You have to be patient and watch for just the right angle to capture them. They are also usually fairly busy preening when they are not feeding, so this is an unusual one for being so stationery.

    Something that I think seperates this fron the normal shot of these guys is the point of view. Not just the low angle to the subject, but also the fact that I am shooting from the water back toward the shore. Most images of shorebirds are just the opposite. Little things like that separate your images from the masses.

    I think the positives here are great light, perfect light angle, nice POV, great head position, and a wonderfully blurred background.

    The only real negative is that there is no action here. A raised foot would've been a nice touch.

    Camera settings were driven by the histogram by taking test shots as I was working in on the subject.



    Image 5 - Snowy Egret

    EXIF: Canon 1DsMII, Canon 600mm f/4L, f/5, 1/800, ISO 200, +2/3 EV, AV Mode, single focusing point (top of vf) held on bird's eye, light directly behind me, auto-focus, 7:21 AM (about an 35 minutes minutes after sunrise). I was standing out in the lagoon in about 2 feet of water, Light directly behind me. Off Tripod.

    This one is actually my favorite of the bunch. I love white birds in the early morning light! That golden yellow warm sun is just awesom in my opinion. Event though the bird is fairly common, the light makes this image. I obviously worked my way uplight from this fellow, and then waited for a nice head turn to get the nice catchlight without the beak glare.

    Positives: The light! Head position is nice, and I do like the angled body with the head looking slightly back. This is nearly a full frame 17 megapixel image. Only slight cropping to straighten.

    Negatives: I'd have liked a better leg position. I also think another half stop would have been nice for the DOF. The light, however, more than compensates for these minor imperfections.

    Camera settings driven by histogram. f/5 chosen for a bit more DOF. Should've been at 6.3.





    Hope everyone has found this helpful. Sorry it took me a bit to type it all up.

    -CB

  17. #17
    Sue
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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    Bob, you amaze me

  18. #18
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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    Wonderful shots Bob and a helpful and inspiring write up. Thanks so much.

  19. #19
    Kentucky Wildlife
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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    Thanks so much for all the insights, Bob. It is very generous for you to share like this. These are instructions to not only be read, but studied.
    You are sort of a hero to me too. I consider myself a pro, because I take it seriously and sell a lot of images to magazines, but I've learned a lot from this site, and really appreciate someone like you, with a specalized knowledge beyond mine, willing to go into such detail and share hard-earned secrets.
    Beyond the technical things I learned, I noticed some similar things I do when photographing water and shore birds that I think are worth noting, if nothing else, to reiterate their importance.
    One is that you shoot from the water, not from the bank, often going to great lengths and occasional discomfort to get the right angle of sun and POV. All animals and birds are less cautious of a photographer when he or she is in or on the water. (I use a Poke Boat.)
    You are a real pro, because you work at it, in the planning, in the knowledge of your subject's habits and habitats and in the patience and stealth of the execution. I also suspect you have the ideal environment for photographing shore birds.
    You're right: most people just don't get it. You can't simply walk around and get shots like this. You've got to work at, sometimes take chances and try to go beyond the beaten paths.
    Another is you time your sessions to take advantage of early light. Light is everything when shooting outdoors, and those slanting rays can't be beat. It puts soft, yet strong light directly and evenly upon the subject for great contrast and color saturation, and I'm not surprised that most of your shots were -1/3 EV. Underexposing slightly really ads richness. I must admit, however, that I do it sort of out of a sixth sense through experience and simply bracket most of the time. I don't understand how to read a histogram, and would appreciate it if you or someone would explain it, here or maybe in another thread.
    Thanks, again, Bob. I hope you will bless us with another series with another lens.

  20. #20
    Learning more with every "click" mjs1973's Avatar
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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    Quote Originally Posted by Ron Kruger
    I don't understand how to read a histogram, and would appreciate it if you or someone would explain it, here or maybe in another thread.
    Thanks, again, Bob. I hope you will bless us with another series with another lens.
    Hey Ron,

    There is a good article on the histogram and how to use it in the Learn section. Here is a link.

    http://www.photographyreview.com/histogramguidecrx.aspx
    Mike

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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    Quote Originally Posted by mjs1973
    Hey Ron,

    There is a good article on the histogram and how to use it in the Learn section. Here is a link.

    http://www.photographyreview.com/histogramguidecrx.aspx

    i've never foung histogram useful before. Now it may help me much. Thank you.

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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    Bob I have a question for you.....I am quite new to photography so please dont mind if I ask you a simple question. I have recently purchased a Digital EOS Rebel XSi camera with 2 lens 18-55mm and 55-250mm. Just the other day we were out in the open and I fixed the 55-250mm lens to take a picture of a bird but since the bird was at a distance I was not able to get a quite close up. Can I add a telephoto lens say 2x or 3x or 4x on to the 55-250mm lens to get more close up short ? Do I need to use a UV filter on the telephoto lens ? Your reply will help me next time. Thank you.

  23. #23
    Senior Member Canon_Bob's Avatar
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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    Quote Originally Posted by hanalwala
    Bob I have a question for you.....I am quite new to photography so please dont mind if I ask you a simple question. I have recently purchased a Digital EOS Rebel XSi camera with 2 lens 18-55mm and 55-250mm. Just the other day we were out in the open and I fixed the 55-250mm lens to take a picture of a bird but since the bird was at a distance I was not able to get a quite close up. Can I add a telephoto lens say 2x or 3x or 4x on to the 55-250mm lens to get more close up short ? Do I need to use a UV filter on the telephoto lens ? Your reply will help me next time. Thank you.
    While a teleconverter will give you more focal length, it comes with a steep price. You will sacrifice image quality (IQ), and speed. In most cases, I recommend against using a teleconverter on zoom lenses. I use my teleconverters sparingly on fixed focal length lenses with acceptable results. In the end, though, there is just no substitute for the longer fixed-focal length lenses when it comes to wildlife photography.

    With your 55-250, you'd be best served trying to work your way in closer. I'm afraid that if you purchase a teleconverter for use with that lens, you will probably be disappointed with the results. Hope that helps.

  24. #24
    Junior Member lionman's Avatar
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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    wow your photoes look amazing thank you for these beutifull and magnifecent birds in all there glory
    ROAR!!!

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    Re: How I Photograph Birds

    I like Roseate Spoonbill the most.


    It's looks so really beautiful...

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