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Nature’s View – Top Secrets of Bird Photography, Story and photographs by Jim Clark

By July 18, 2014No Comments

What the Pros Don’t Want you to Know

With the professional bird photographers hot on my trail, I’m going to reveal, right now, the top secrets of bird photography. I’m ready to sacrifice myself for the betterment of every one of you who want to photograph birds. All are welcome, but if anyone asks, I had nothing to do with this.


Jim Clark, uh, I mean Ansel Wolfe Lepp.
P.S. You never heard this from me.

Great Blue Heron Fishing11142014 Chincoteague NWR VA (c) Jim Clark_93Lighten the load and fly away
One secret I’ve shared with my workshop students when photographing wading birds and raptors is to assume that once the birds lighten their load (defecate), be prepared to photograph them as they take flight. Although this is not 100-percent guaranteed, I’ve discovered that, more often than not, the heron or eagle is going to lift off. Be ever aware that once a “squirt” happens, put your finger on the shutter button to catch some flight action.

Name that tune
By the age of ten, I could identify birds not only by shape, size and color but by their songs as well. Having this knowledge has helped me tremendously in photographing birds. The image of the yellow-breasted chat happened because I first heard it singing in a field this spring. I was then able to slowly make my way to where it was staking out its territory.

Virginia Rail 05152014 Blackwater NWR MD (c) Jim ClarkThe same goes for the Virginia rail.

You can take advantage of your ability to recognize bird calls and songs and put yourself in a situation to photograph the birds.

Join a Neighborhood Watch

Professional bird photographers are skilled at identifying the type of habitats birds frequent. The more you know about the bird’s neighborhood, the more you can figure out where you should be. So don’t only be a bird watcher, but become an “ecosystem” watcher as well.

Rapid-fire advancement and the nictitating membrane
Watch professional bird photographers when they are capturing action, and you can’t help but notice that their cameras seem to be smoking. That’s because they use the fastest frame rate possible. For my camera of choice, it’s between 9 and 11 frames per second. When a great moment is unfolding, keep pressing down on that shutter and let the camera help you capture some amazing action.

One advantage of doing this is to get the birds with eyes wide open. Birds have a nictitating membrane—a transparent “third eyelid”—which allows them to protect their eyes but still maintain visibility. There’s no doubt that you are going to get images where the nictitating membrane is covering the eye. But by using a fast frame rate, you are ensured of getting images where the membrane doesn’t show.

Yellow-breasted Chat - Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve, VA (c) Jim ClarkBe a birder first

So there you go. The ultimate secret to great bird photography is being a birder first, photographer second. And yes, grasshopper, that means patience. Remember that lost art? Patience is the key to great bird photography.

A past NANPA president, Jim Clark is the nature photography instructor for the Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia, and is a contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer magazine. Jim currently serves as photographer in residence at the Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve near his home in Leesburg, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son, Carson. Jim was also major contributor to the book, Coal Country. Visit Jim’s website at, blog at or like him on Facebook.

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