Professional photographer Melissa Groo’s guide to making memorable bird images
Melissa Groo, near her home in upstate New York in autumn, sitting in a field of goldenrod photographing Goldfinches.
AWARD-WINNING CONSERVATION PHOTOGRAPHER Melissa Groo has traveled the world photographing everything from African elephants to playful red fox kits—but birds are her special passion. Doing bird photography, “you enter a kind of meditative state,” she writes in National Wildlife’s December–January issue, now online. In that article, Groo offers professional pointers on how to make memorable bird images. As a special treat, we now offer this exclusive online gallery of 10 additional bird images—some of our favorites from the lens of a master.
“In any bird photograph, showing the eye in sharp focus is critical,” says Groo, “but you often have to deal with a lot of surrounding vegetation, as I did with this oriole shot. If you have not selected the correct ‘area focus,’ it can be all too easy to focus on something other than the eye. For bird photography, I almost always recommend using single-point focus.”
“Understanding bird behavior is crucial to getting the shot,” Groo says. “I knew that stilts, as a bonding ritual after mating, will cross their bills for just a split second, so I was waiting and prepared with a fast shutter speed of 1/2500 second. I also knew to keep on shooting even after the birds were finished mating—which many would consider ‘the main event.’”
“Even common birds such as gulls can be extraordinarily beautiful given the right light and pose,” says Groo. “When photographing birds in flight, keep the wind and light to your back and use the highest burst rate your camera offers (the number of consecutive images it can shoot). Also make sure you’re using continuous focus mode so your camera keeps focusing as the bird moves. The more photos you are able to take, the more chances one of them will offer a transcendent moment.”
“Try to include some habitat in your photo,” suggests Groo. “Images that show birds interacting with the environment hold visual interest and can tell an important story about a bird’s life. Depicting where birds live is an essential part of bird photography.”
“When you’re photographing two birds interacting, consider increasing your aperture to allow for enough depth of field to render them both sharp,” Groo says. “Also referred to as ‘stopping down,’ it means going from a smaller aperture number to a larger one—from f/4 to f/7.1, for example, as I did for this photo of two great horned owls. Try several different apertures, then check the images on your LCD screen to see which one works best.“
“For shorebird photography,” notes Groo, “there is nothing like getting low to create a powerful image that draws the viewer into the birds’ world. Use lowered tripods or ground pods, dishes with tripod heads that you can slide along the ground. For endangered species such as piping plovers, make sure you respect fenced-off areas and use a telephoto lens to keep your distance, especially when birds are actively nesting and raising chicks. I photographed these plovers from outside a fence with a 500mm lens and a 1.4x teleconverter.”
According to Groo, “a contrast in color between a bird and its background can create a stunning impact. Bright red, this male scarlet tanager simply glows against the dark, green backdrop. Study a color wheel to learn which colors are complementary—red and green or yellow and purple, for example.”
“Just before sunrise, there’s often a beautiful diffuse glow that’s ideal for bird photography,” says Groo. “It’s always worthwhile to get to your destination and be ready to shoot at least 15 minutes before sunrise. I’ve taken many of my favorite shots in such soft light, either just before the sun comes up, as with this photo, or within the first half hour or so after sunrise.”
“When photographing birds, your most important camera setting is shutter speed,” says Groo. “Birds are incredibly fast. Even when you think they’re standing still, these creatures are continually making small, almost imperceptible movements. To be ready for sudden, explosive action—such as this quick, combative encounter between snowy egrets over feeding territory—I’m usually shooting at least at 1/1600 second.”
“I cannot stress enough the importance of being ready to get the shot, even when you’re just in your car looking around,” says Groo. “In the case of this marbled godwit, I was driving through a wildlife refuge when I spotted the bird at the edge of a dirt road. I got out of my car and quickly laid down with my camera ready to go with the correct settings. Because my shutter speed was set to 1/1000 second, I was able to get a sharp shot of the godwit’s sudden, quick wing stretch. Often, you’ll have only seconds before a bird is gone, so, always be prepared!”
And one final, vital piece of advice when photographing any kind of wildlife: “Always put the welfare of the animal ahead of getting a great shot,” says Groo, who has written extensively about the ethics of wildlife photography, including this 2016 article for National Wildlife magazine. To learn more about Melissa’s work, visit melissagroo.com.
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