First is the choice of equipment based on budget and purpose. Generally, the more expensive equipment, the better the image. I find it best to work with main brands such as Nikon or Canon. In Thailand Canon has better service and slightly cheaper lenses along with many dealers.
I used to do digiscoping but stopped. I find the versatility of the DSLR and the handheld lens being a better option. I get onto the birds a lot quicker and can also shoot birds in flight. Since I dropped my camera for digiscoping in a salt pan I decided to let go of that method.
I ended up with the 400mm F5.6 Canon L lens after much contemplation. I have now used this lens for a number of years and am very pleased with the results. The lens need a fair bit of light at F5.6 but it is very quick to focus and excellent for birds in flight. I also enjoy the light body as it makes for an excellent walk about lens.
The 300mm IS F4.0 with a 1.4 converter is another good choice as is the 100-400mm IS F4.5-5.6 zoom lens also by Canon.
Because my lens donít have IS (image stabilizer) I need to find ways of holding the equipment steady (ISO gains at least 2 F stops when handheld). This is best achieved by leaning on a tree, a car, a rock or whatever I can find. A tripod is of course the best solution but then I am stuck with it.
I normally only use tripod from a blind as I donít like carrying the tripod for longer periods. Also, unless you have a very good tripod head it can be quite difficult to shoot birds in flight.
Another way of getting faster shutter speeds is to push the ISO. Different cameras can tolerate different ISO settings. One ISO step gives one step higher speed but gain noise/grain. I only use a high ISO when I have no other choice as a grainy picture that is still sharp is better then a picture that is blur but has no noise.
With my now rather outdated Canon 30D I find 200 and 400ISO to be best but will at times use 800. The noise is easily corrected in NeatImage (a free download) anyhow.
I normally use Aperture priority as that allows for highest speed possible. Seldom are light conditions inside the forest conducive for higher F stops. F5.6 also ensures the bouquet (blurred background) as I focus on the bird with a narrow dept of field (Dof). Of course, if I am very close to the bird I have to change the F stop to maybe F8-11.0 in order to have the whole bird in focus. Again, it is the age old question of compromise between light, speed and photographic skills.
Sometimes I use Speed priority. Especially when I know I can only handhold the lens down to 1/250 with comfort. This may not allow for enough light but atleast I get a sharp image that I can later deal with in PS.
In very sunny conditions I sometimes simply set the camera at Program priority.
Another way is to use flash but I hardly resort to using flash as it is more then likely to show the bird in an unnatural way. Having said that, I still enjoy some flash photography inside the dark forest where there is no other way. I then experiment with flash settings and different speeds and ISO.
I shoot in RAW whenever I know there might be high quality images worthy of keeping and one day possible publishing. Otherwise I revert back to JPGs as these files donít take that much space.
Most of the time I am not outright taking pictures of birds but I am bird watching.
I stay on the go and often end up with a lot more images then a stationary bird photographer. The surprise element is there and the challenge of being ready and quickly asses a situation for opportunistic photography is part of the Ďhuntí.
When I prioritize photography my approach is different. I will use a pop-up blind whenever possible. This mostly requires knowing the whereabouts of the bird (a nest, a waterhole, a feeding area) and quietly waiting for the bird to show.
It may include bringing earth worms strategically placed to bring in the bird.
I donít have an electronic remote shutter release but using one would allow for lower shutter speeds. As it is, I can only comfortably manage down to 1/30s using my tripod. I still get some keepers down to 1/10s but I also get a lot more throwers.
I use a traditional tripod head and probably should invest in a better head at some point. Using a lens with IS doesnít help with a tripod as the IS only works with camera shake while handheld.
Another good way of getting close to the birds is by using the car. I do this whenever possible. Especially with water birds or birds in open areas. They donít seem to mind the large sized car but as soon as I step out theyíll fly off.
Driving slowly towards the bird and then turning off the engine is my strategy.
Focusing: I always try to focus on the eye of the bird. A picture without a sharp eye is seldom a keeper. I use one focal point in the middle but sometimes will hold the focus by keeping my finger on the shutter release down halfway and moving the bird to the side of the image. I prefer the bird not smack in the middle of the picture but more to the side with the face towards the remaining 2/3ds of the image.
Photoshop: No image is done until it has been processed in PS.
I spend very little time on my images and only have a few regular steps.
1. I crop my image the way I like it. I donít like only the bird so I always include some of the environment if possible.
2. If the image has dust spots or smaller details that make it look messy I will use the Clone Stamp Tool and take these things away.
3. I resize the image to what I want for online posting. I normally do this by using 800 pixels at width dimensions.
4. I will use the shadows/highlight tool found in Image/Adjustments toolbar.
This tool takes a little tweaking around with as each image is so different as
far as what it can tolerate. Sometimes I donít bother to use this tool
4. Image/Adjustments/Levels are next. By bringing the arrows towards the middle the desired contrast is achieved.
5. Next I use the lasso tool around the bird. I am not too picky with how close to the bird I apply it but will go to Select/Feather and apply Feather Radius at 5
pixels. Then I will go to Filter/Sharpen/Unsharpmask and apply around 100%
and 1.0 pixel. A little tweaking to personal likening is necessary. The higher
ISO the less USM can be applied.
6. Lastly I save the image at quality 8 and make sure I change the file name.
Usually I simply add Ďsmí after the original file name.