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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 almost always 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 around birds, 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, 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.

All photographers have our own prejudices. This is an opportunity for you to establish your own. The more your photographs represent your own prejudices, the better they will be.

 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. 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 50 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 chosen storage mediums.

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 entries.

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.

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

American Coots on a Partially-submerged Log

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-plus 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 their 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 here, 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 among us.

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.


Lesser Scaup FOS with One Eye Out -

Lesser Scaup with One Eye Out - 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, I think it's more important that something about the photo teaches us about the bird. Focus is not the be-all and end-all. 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 it in focus.

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.

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

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

According to the Oxford dictionary (American English) (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. Always have. Before I had a camera, I remembered images and designs.

Like I keep saying, I've been making photographs formore than fifty years, and I have even had them 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.

If someone wants to publish your pictures, ask for payment but demand credit. Later, when you get good at it, 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. But it doesn't float, and if water gets inside it, I'd probably have to get 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. I don't mind getting me wet, but my camera is expensive.

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.


More To It

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, after every series of shots. I spend an inordinate amount of time adjusting exposure. Sometimes back and forth and forth and back as I aim in different directions. 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 out to the logs or in closer to the pier. Especially early in the morning.

Mirrorless cameras are much easier to adjust exposure on, because we can see the direct effects that changing exposure causes, but that process is slow, and older Electronic Viewfinder cameras focused slower than dSLRs, but that is changing. I've used little Micro Four Thirds cameras for about ten years, always hoping it will become a standard. Lately, in 2018, even Canon and Nikon are heading towards manufactoring Full Frame (24 x 36 mm) just like the cameras that used full-frame 35mm film.

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. But it's just so much easier to let the camera do the thinking. And my Nikon D810 is better at it than I am.

I realize that some photo books suggest that beginners use only fully manual exposure and focus. I think that's nuts, but then when I started using cameras, they were all manually focusing.

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" so small. 888 pixels wide is bigger than most websites show pix — and bird pix are usually much smaller, but hugely smaller (can I say that?) than prints. Last time I had a decent printer at home, 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.

Kinda like slides, only we don't have to buy film.

When film cameras ruled, I shot Ektachrome 200 most of the time. Kodachrome 25 only when I needed the absolute best and didn't mind messing with tripods. 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 as sloppiness. But I eventually got a seriously decent tripod after many years without. Everything's so much better when I use one, but I come from a history of photojournalism that insisted upon speed and ease, not perfection. And lugging one around slows me down. But hand-holding longer telephoto lenses with these shaking hands is just asking for trouble, though I do it almost 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 what was then 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. And I look — and look carefully — at a lot of photographs. And they are everywhere, so there's really no excuse not to.

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.

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

I used to want to take great portrait photographs, but I never wanted to just be a portrait photographer.

Killing time in the U.S. Air Farce, I read the Encyclopedia of Photography A to Z. It's probably bigger now, with more pictures, and some of those are probably in color, but the basics were there. I actually know, and could explain to you in detail, if you were willing to listen that long, what is the Scheimpflug Principle.

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


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) pictures, many of which I consider failures.


some websites worth reading

Thom Hogan

The Mansurovs

Ming Thien

And there are many, many more. These are just my favorites.

All content of this site is Copyright 2013, 2014, 2015 and a couple of major updates in 2018 by J R Compton.
All Rights Reserved. No reproduction in any medium without specific written permission from J R Compton.