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Bird-Annotated Map of White Rock Lake    Index of the last 8 years of photographing birds at White Rock Lake in Dallas, Texas, USA
There's some really good photography and Photoshop tips in my very popular How to Photograph Art and Pretty Much Anything Else.

addenda at the bottom
How to Photograph Birds

© 2014 by J R Compton

Flying, Facing with Fish - Photograph Copyright 2013 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

One of My Most Recent Bird Photos when I started this page: Two Egrets Dancing, and one has a fish.

1. Find some birds. Failing that, let some birds find you. They're nearly everywhere.

It doesn't matter what birds. Photographing even the most common birds in your neighborhood or where you hang out, will help you teach you about photographing birds. Look for birds wherever you go. You don't need anything exotic. You just need birds. Pet birds or zoo birds or neighborhood birds are birds.

Handy birds are much better for starting taking pictures of than anything you have to go someplace else for — although there's almost always some sort of bird presence at Sunset Bay on White Rock Lake inside the City Limits of Dallas, Texas, USA. See my annotated map of White Rock Lake.

Great-tailed Grackle Drying Its Feathers - Photograph Copyright 2014 by J R Compton.com   All Rights Reserved.

Our Most Common Bird:  A Great-tailed Grackle Drying Itself after a Bath

2. Start taking pictures. It doesn't matter what kind of camera or lens you use to start. If you can take pictures of birds with it, take pictures of birds with it. Figure out what you can and cannot do with that camera by taking lots of pictures of birds with it, but don't limit yourself to taking pictures of birds. Just like photographing common birds will help you photograph uncommon birds later, photographing anything else will also help you understand aspects of photography that will help you photograph birds.
3. Use whatever camera or lens you have. If the camera you have is fully automatic, that's fine. If your camera is fully manual, that's might be even better, although it'll be much more difficult. In the beginning, easy is better than difficult. Before you start scheming for a new camera or lens, use what you already have, so when you move to the next step, you'll know why you got it, and maybe you will be able to use it.

A Wide-angle View of Sunset Bay - Photograph Copyright 2014 by J R Compton.com   All Rights Reserved.

A Wide-angle View of Sunset Bay with a Pelican Flying

4. Be gentle around birds. Learn to walk slowly and carefully, so you don't scare them away.   Try getting closer or farther. Try everything you can think of. Some people think it's best to shoot from birds' level — taller for big birds and shorter for littler ones. You should get to a point when you walk through a bunch of birds or get close to one or several, you don't scare them away. Move slowly without sudden movements, like raising your camera to your eye to take their pictures. I pride myself on being able to walk among coots — the most skittish birds I know of — sometimes.
5. After you've taken a hundred* pictures, look at them carefully — every single one of them, even the awful ones. Fill your computer screen with each shot, one at a time. Are any of them in focus? Do you like the colors? The shapes? The composition? Does the tonality look real? Are you getting close enough to the birds to see important details? Training yourself to look at photographs will probably be your greatest skill, and it's not one that comes automatically. And yes, you need practice.

* or some other arbitrary number

 Pelicans Ready to Pounce - Photograph Copyright 2014 by J R Compton.com   All Rights Reserved.

American White Pelicans Having Chased Fish into the Shallows, Corral them and Get Ready to Pounce

The Attack - Photograph Copyright 2014 by J R Compton.com   All Rights Reserved.  

The Attack — American White Pelicans Attacking the Fish they have Corralled

6. Do your pictures of birds tell you anything you didn't already know about those birds? Photographing birds is a great way to learn about birds. If they're doing something you don't understand, try to catch them at it. Ask yourself any questions that come to mind, but don't criticize your work yet. Don't worry about mistakes, just be sure to make lots of them, because making mistakes is the best way to learn, even if you are just experimenting. If you don't ever make any mistakes, you'll never learn enough.

7. Inspect your pictures regularly — every night or day or week or whenever. Leave yourself enough time to really look at them. Look at your new ones and your old ones. What are you doing right? What are you doing wrong? Are you getting better or worse? If you really can't tell, ask somebody who is not a photographer.

 Forster's Tern Looking for Fishes - Photograph Copyright 2014 by J R Compton.com   All Rights Reserved.

Forster's Tern Looking for Little Fishes to Eat

8. Don't rely on somebody else to tell you what you are doing right or wrong. Figure it out by looking and looking and looking at your pictures and anybody else's you can find — magazines and the internet are full of them. You'll probably have what you consider some good ones and some bad ones. We all do. My bad ones outweigh my good ones by about 30 to one. Show your pictures to people you trust and anybody else.

I know numbers 7 and 8 offer opposite advice. Life is like that.

9. Throw away your bad shots. A photographer admitted to me recently that they threw away most of their shots. I told them, "So do I." We all do. Way back in the last century when there was still film, I bought 36-shot rolls, because film was cheaper per shot that way. If I got one really good shot every 36, I thought I was doing well. More than that was a bonus, but don't get used to it. If you keep everything, you'll fill up your hard drive(s).

Be selective about what you keep. I clear out my hard drives every month. If I don't like a shot by then, I probably never will, but when I started, it took me a lot longer to figure out which ones were good and which were not. I usually shoot a couple hundred frames for every one of my daily Amateur Birder's Journal dates.

Oh, by the way. Hard drives are rated by MTBF (mean time between failures), and they ALL fail sooner or later. The more you run yours, the quicker it will fail, and they always fail when you least expect them to. I did in a big one just a couple months ago. It's inevitable. Luckily even trashed data can sometimes be saved.


Pigeon Incoming - Photograph Copyright 2016 JRCompton.com/birds   All Rights Reserved.

Pigeon Incoming   Juen 16 2016


10. Keep taking pictures. Try interesting things; try stupid things (I recently drove to the lake well after dark to see where what birds were. I've been doing this photography thing for fifty years, so I knew what to do — and how, but I still only got about one in ten that were worth anything.); tripods are helpful in situations like that; try things you know will work, and try things you have no idea whether they'll work. Even try things you're pretty sure will not work. Take lots and lots and lots of pictures of birds.
11. If you think reading a book or a page on the web will help, try it. There's lots of free advice out there. Other pages offer contrary opinions. That's a good thing. Photography books are for looking at the pictures when you just can't look at your own, but you'll learn more about photography from taking and looking at your own pictures, because there's something you can do about those, and when you do it, you learn.

Check out my How to Photograph Art or Pretty Much Anything Else page, because it tells about photography, not just of art.
And I have a bunch of photography links there, and there's jillions more.

12. The number one cause of bad PHOTOGRAPHS is moving the camera during exposure. Learn to hold your camera still. Use at least a 1/125th of a second shutter speed if you can change that. If you can't, remember that the more light there is, the better your chances. Gray and cloudy or rainy days are much more difficult for us all, but birds don't disappear when the light is lousy. They all gotta eat, so they come out.

Often too-low a shutter speed looks a lot like bad focus.

The best way to avoid moving your camera during exposure is to use as high a shutter speed as you can.

I almost always set my camera to a shutter speed of 1/2,000th for birds, but in low light, it resets itself to whatever it can get away with. When you can hear the slowness of the shutter — "kaaaaa-plunk" instead of a quick "click," you know your shutter is too slow.

Some believe we should never photograph anything at less that 1/125 a second. And that rule is for objects that do not move, because we always are. Another rule is to always shoot at a minimum shutter speed of 1 over the focal length. For a 300mm lens, that's an absolute minimum of 1/300th.

13. The number one cause of bad VIDEO is moving the camera during shooting. The subject should provide movement in your videos, not you — although you will probably have to pan sometimes to follow action.


American Coots on a Log - Photograph Copyright 2014 by J R Compton.com   All Rights Reserved.

American Coots on a Partially-submerged Log


14. Most photographs are either over-exposed or under-exposed. That exposure business is a real bugaboo. White birds look white to our eyes, because our eyes can render that near solid white with details. When we render a white bird as solid white, it is probably overexposed. Close down the aperture or use a higher shutter speed to ever-so-slightly darken that solid white, so it shows the subtle gray details in every bird.

Or do the opposite when the subject, like these coots, is mostly dark. They also have bright white beaks, which further complicates the exposure.

This is a hard lesson to learn. The only good answer is practice, practice, practice. Some cameras let you automatically shoot one under, one what the exposure meter in the camera thinks is just right and one over. You can do the same thing manually, but do it quickly. Birds who see photographers fiddling with their cameras often fly away.



Lesser Scaup FOS with One Eye Out -

Lesser Scaup with One Eye Open - November 2014Photograph Copyright 2014 by J R Compton.com All Rights Reserved.

Some people believe the most important aspect of a good bird photograph is getting its eyes and beak in sharp focus. And while I usually strive to get eyes sharp, it's more important that the photo teaches us asomething about that bird or all birds. Focus is not the be-all and end-all — I once refused to judge a photo competition at the Heard Museum near McKinney, where the organizers had appointed someone to get rid of all instances of out-of-focus areas, before the judges could even see those pictures. I wanted to see all the entries. I lost. Or maybe I won, because I didn't have to drive out there on my own dime.

A photograph needs to communicate with its viewers about the subject, and just focus doesn't do that, although it usually helps.

Sometimes with some birds, I'm really happy if I can just get one in focus — or part of one.

There are thousands of rules. Ignore most of them.


July 2007 Female Wood Duck with Wings Up - copryight 2007 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved.

One of my earliest bird photographs from July 2007:
Male summer Eclipse Wood Duck stretching his Wings Up and Neck Down.
I know that feeling.

other stuff

When I taught Photography at El Centro College and in the Air Force before that and to individuals out in the world since, I suggested they buy The Golden Book of Photography, because simple and cheap as it was ($1 new then; probably 25¢ or less now if you can find it), it had everything anybody needed to learn about photography, and back then, it was all film and paper processed with nasty old chemicals.

The internet is littered with HOW TOs about photography.

Any one you find, will do, for awhile.   Then keep looking.   As with books, only the ones that appeal to you will help you.

Pick one. Learn what you can. Then pick another.  Public libraries are cheaper than bookstores, and anyone can look — all you want.

My favorite answer is, "I don't know." I am, after all, still an amateur.

According to the Oxford dictionary (American Enlish) (US), the word amateur is "from late 18th century: from French, from Italian amatore, from Latin amator 'lover', from amare 'to love'. I love photography. I love this stuff.

I've been making photographs for 53 (as of 2016) years, and I have had some published, including in Life Magazine, Jet and both Texas Observer and the much less interesting Dallas Observer, which has more often stolen than paid for, credited or even asked permission to publish my photographs, especially of rock 'n rollers and Bluses singers, before I got into birds.

If someone wants to publish your pictures, ask for payment but demand credit. Later, when you get good at it, and they want more pix, ask for more money. 

When I'm feeling bad, soon as I remember to take some pictures — hardly matters of what — I start feeling better.

The weather has to be pretty bad to not photograph something. My best camera and lens is weather-proof. It doesn't float, and if water gets inside it, I'd probably have to get it fixed or buy another one. So I sometimes wrap it in plastic or partially invert a garbage bag around it to make sure nothing wet gets in it.

But when I want or need to stay home, there's always lots of stuff to photograph there, if I can think and see it. At home I take pictures of whatever strikes my eyes, and I call those pictures "Home Still Lifes." Many of those illustrate my ThEdBlog.

Sometimes it's really nice to photograph things that don't move.


There's more to it, of course, but this is a start.


 Male and Female Black-necked Stilt - Photograph Copyright 2015 JRCompton.com/birds   All Rights Reserved.

Male and Female Black-necked Stilts at Mitchell Lake in San Antonio, Texas




from an email to a friend who complimented me on my "use of light:"


I've thought a lot about your comments on my use of light, and I think what that means is that I'm getting better at post-production in Photoshop. White birds have always been my bugaboo, but then switching from them to almost anything else may be the real challenge.

First those quick changes require paying a lot of attention to the LCD image — they call it "chimping," like a monkey watching TV, I guess — after every series of shots. I spend an inordinate amount of time adjusting exposure. The light changes extraordinarily depending upon which way we aim the camera. Especially in Sunset Bay, where correct exposure can change by four or five stops from one end of the lagoon to out at the logs to in closer to the pier. Especially early in the morning while the sun is rising.

Mirrorless cameras are much easier to adjust exposure on, but that process is slow, and Electronic Viewfinder cameras focus slower than dSLRs, although that may be changing.

Robert asked me recently how I set my camera settings, and I told him I usually leave ISO on full automatic, because I'm shooting for JPEGs online, not prints, and I can get away with it. And really, anything that makes it easier, makes it better. But when I really pay attention to the light, I adjust the iso up and down often. It's just so much easier to let the camera do the thinking. And my Nikon D810 is better at it than I am.

Then sometimes I have to rein it in. I may have to actually set one specific ISO for awhile, just to get a feel for it.

Something else that affects apparent exposure is focus. Again, I can get away with blurs, because I'm "printing" small. 888 pixels wide is bigger than most websites show pix — bird pix are usually much smaller, but hugely smaller (can I say that?) than prints. Last time I had a decent printer, its max size was 13 x 19 inches. I probably got away with a lot then, too. But I don't want to be in the print business when the internet offers the best of all possible worlds by letting us show work with light coming through it. By comparison, prints are awful.

When film cameras ruled, I shot Ektachrome 200 most of the time. Kodachrome 25 only when I needed the best. Slide film gave us an enormous range of tonalities that were only really visible when we shined images on white walls. JPEGs offer amazing quality and adjustment opportunities online, and we can usually add text explanations with a minimum of hassle.

I can fudge focus sometimes and some of those times I can get away with it, and sometimes it just shows my sloppiness. But I'm thinking seriously about a acquiring a decent tripod after many years without (Got it, and it sure helps.) Everything's so much better when I use one, but I came from a history of photojournalism that insisted upon speed and ease, not perfection. And lugging one around sure slows me down (I got a really light one). But hand-holding longer telephoto lenses is just asking for trouble, even if I do it every day.




I am fairly well educated on the technical aspects of photography, but very little of that is from classes. I've only ever taken maybe five classes, and only maybe two of those emphasized lighting to any degree. Although Mr. Bailey's Commercial Photography classes at East Texas State University were probably the best classes I ever took, despite his foibles.

Most of my understanding comes from doing and redoing and reading. I read a lot about photography. Always have.

Best is to take an intermediate class in any aspect of photography — even portraiture — we take bird portraits, after all — from someone who knows what they're doing, and ask gobs of questions. Ask questions every single time one pops into your mind, and if the teacher won't allow instant answers, save them up and ask after class. Good teachers anwer questions when they're hot.

I worked at a portrait business for six months once, but the guy running it never once taught me anything about making portraits, because I was already a better photographer than he was, and he was worried I'd put him out of business. Would not have been difficult, but I left anyway, and I never learned anything from him. That's his fault.

Killing time in the Air Force, I read the Encyclopedia of Photography A to Z. It's probably bigger now, with more pictures, and some are probably in color, but the basics were there.

I take at a lot of pictures, and I try to learn from most of them. I think it was Mr. Bailey at ETSU, who insisted we ask questions of every photograph that catches our attention: Where did the light come from in this picture? Did it help? What would have helped? What should the photographer have tried? Etc.

I spend more time looking at my pictures — especially my many failures, than anything else. I also look at other people's published (used to be magazines; now it's online) photographs, many of which I consider failures.


websites worth reading


Thom Hogan

The Mansurovs

Ming Thien


What camera should you get?


You really do need a digital camera. You need instant feedback about your images every time you take one. Getting film processed and printed — besides being very expensive and time-consuming — does not provide the instant feedback you need to learn quickly whether you're doing it right. Every time you try.

I think people who want to use film and paper to make images are similar to those who want to focus auto-focus lenses manually. They think there is an elegance in doing it slowly. I don't subscribe to that theory, but I have met several people who have been convinced that that is the way to go. Not to avail yourself of the technological improvements of this century is, I think, not ideal. But I also believe people should do what they want to do.

I do understand the need for an automatic and/or semi-automatic camera to have a manual mode. It's handy sometimes. So is full authomatic. But if you are in a hurry to capture something that's going to move out of your view soon, auto-focus, auto-exposure and auto anything else can be very helpful.

An inexpensive Point & Shoot camera probably won't be fast enough.

You need a fast-reacting camera. One that won't still be busy focusing while the bird has flown away. You need a camera that will focus almost immediately. There are probably other cameras that might, but a Single Lens Reflex camera will probably be the easiest type to find easily and inexpensively.

Single-lens Reflex cameras that have APS or APS-C format sensors (that Nikon calls "DX.") are probably the best, easiest to find and least expensive — but not cheap — first birding camera. Probably every major camera manufacturer has one that will be right for you. You just have to read about it, play with it in your own hands and take pictures with it. Then inspect those photographs carefully and reviews of the camera and lens.

And it's good for all the other reasons you might want a camera, if you find that taking photographs of birds is not your thing.

If you think your phone or tablet or whatever gizmo you already own will be good enough to photograph birds with, you should try it for awhile. Good bird pictures are taken with those devices every day — along with millions of really bad ones — but usually by people who already know what they are doing.

Try it. You may find it's as good as you need. Or you may learn that you need something better.


A Beginner's Guide to Bird Photography

Birding with a Point & Shoot Camera

Secrets of Digital Bird Photography

Stokes Birding Blog

These were the first sites I got for "review of the best first camera for birding."

All content of this site is Copyright 2013, 2014 and 2015 by J R Compton.
All Rights Reserved. No reproduction in any medium without specific written permission from J R Compton.

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