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Photographing Birds

Lesson 12 from: Innovative Techniques for Outdoor Photography

George Lepp

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Lesson Info

12. Photographing Birds

Digital photography allows you to take incredible shots of birds and their movements. Get some bird photography tips and learn about shutter speeds and the equipment you’ll need to take your best images.

Lesson Info

Photographing Birds

When a stress this one more time that if you you can't apply the techniques in the computer and we have all these different things that we can do in the computer these days with the hd ours and the panorama is and everything but you can't apply those in the computer if you didn't incorporate them at the time that you took the pictures once again the software in here in your head you know that makes you look at something and say wow if I did that I can do this I can shoot it differently and then when I get home or next week or some day I'll put this together as a panorama so keep that in mind because it's really important a swede move along here and there's so many of these images that never were possible before we came to digital this particular shot of this little bee eater in this would be in botswana and the one d mark four gave me a one point three crop factor the four thousandth of a second stopped it and it's in its place faa gave me enough depth of field in order to get the whol...

e bird and the branch that's behind it and in order to get a four thousand two the second it f eight I had to use the sixteen hundred eyes so and we still have good color we have good quality the five hundred millimeter lens of courses giving us that reach to fill the frame with the birds so we don't have to crop it way down and then at ten francs for second this bird kept going flying off of this branch goal getting a bee and it would land back on the same branch and it just kept doing it so you start watching it on the corner of your eye and the minute you could see him in the corner of your eye you would push down the button and it would take you know ten frames for second and it's with natural light so there's no flash to recycle so we were able to get the photograph these photographs would just never have happened in the film days they just couldn't now this carmen beater caught this watch the wasp started to sting it and a little go and then grabbed it again so that it would get it in a different position so that it couldn't sting it and by having that ten frames per second and fifteen hundredth of a second I was able to capture the image is one of my favorite images I'm in a kayak I'm moving along and the log is moving with the tide going the other direction it's five images so I'm shooting a picture and another one and another one and another one and I'm using the sand dunes in the background this is on moral bay in california and every bird I was looking at me or doing what was supposed to be doing look at that little guy, this this guy was just perfect couldn't believe it, and even the last bird was doing something, but keep in mind that from the very beginning to the very end is like five between five and eight seconds, so everything has to come together and you don't know whether it's come together or not until you get it back and you take a look at it. But I made that luck is a big factor here, but I made the luck by knowing that that tide was going to be the biggest tide of the year, that these big logs would float, that I knew that the birds landed on these logs. When, when the tides were really high, I had the right lens, so I made some of my own luck. I was least therefore the luck, so keep that in mind when you're out there working with a five hundred millimeter lens with a one point four converter. Now this isn't that same lands it's the three hundred two way, but my elbows are here on the gunnels of the kayak that really allows me teo steady that lends down one of the things to remember here as if the tide is going out. You could find yourself sitting out there until the next tide very, very easily in that particular bay because in parts of the bay it's very muddy and the fireman would have to come and get you. So this is botswana in the okavango delta, and what we're looking for here are these little tiny kingfish was the malachite kingfisher's they're very, very beautiful, very, very colorful they're only that big and that's what we're looking for, so this guy is pulling me and a little uncomfortable with somebody that high up there behind me, but I had a new camera new lens I had the five the mark two had just come out and one hundred to four hundred millimeter lens, so we went off into the into that area and I came across the kingfisher at four hundred millimeters, this is the closest I could get to him this this crazy fish now for them to eat this fish, they have to flip it up and and eat it, they can't grab it and put it down their mouth or something like that. So he's kind of sit there wondering how he's going to get to this because he doesn't have it right? So while he was figuring that out, I got this close and took the picture, but I wanted a little bit different image of this I wanted crop it and now with more megapixels as we keep getting more pixels, this was the seventy mark two, which was twenty megapixels somewhere in that area, and this is what I wanted, but because I had the pixels, I was able to do that. So there's the original image, this is what I cropped it into, and this is what I wanted to twenty one megapixels. The one d s mark was mark three, so that is important. And people say, well, how many megapixels do you need? Well, I've got fifty megapixels now and I'm pretty happy with that. How far can you blow this up now for online like this, where we're looking at it, we could blow this up a lot. Look how small this crop is and this was with a twenty one megapixel camera that's a a whole generation back behind us, but we can still see all of the detail and you can see how he's perplexed because how is he going to get this fish go down is stunning, so we've now have the fifty megapixel nikon has thirty six megapixel sony is in the forty somewhere you know how many anybody know that forty, forty two megapixels so these cameras are helping us do some very in using things we can either make very much bigger prints or weaken crop now this is when the first the first day I had this camera in my hand, we took this marble out into the valley of fire by las vegas, and so we took the shot and on the back of my camera I said it out at sixteen times magnification. You, khun, blow it up that much and look and look at the back of the camera, and I was blown away by what I could see, and this is essentially what I saw in that view finder that's blown up at least sixteen times. So that's where we come to and that's what's working for us and all the cameras as they become higher and higher megapixels, they give us this better chance to crop and make the image the way we want. If we don't get it close enough, or if we want a picture with in a picture there's always a picture within a picture, there always is. So the other day, just last week I was photographing this hummingbird in the backyard with it the eight hundred millimeter lens with a two x tell a converter on it, and I just wanted to show you cropping and down the quality, even with a two x converted that sixteen hundred millimeters and that's what the projected flash, the unit that I have sitting up there on the camera, the the better beamer and I was only at a sixteenth of a second in order to get that ambient light to record as well. You know, you're looking for this medium, this this middle ground where the ambient light is going to show up and the flashes going to show up the flashes, mainly taking the picture, but the background doesn't want to be black. You don't want this to look like it's a night a night bird, and I'm getting a little bit of, uh, it's not red eye it's white I or whatever reflection in the eye from the strobe. So this looks like we're doing something on the make kong delta or something, and with a fifty caliber machine gun, but we're looking for this little this little tiny king fisher. We found him again. He's preoccupied, he's got himself a little reed frog, and but again, same thing he's got to flip it up, tio eat it, and the prague knows that if he you are, if he holds onto the read, he can't get it in, and he kept hanging on and hanging on until finally he is down to the last little bit, and then he ends up dropping it in the frog one, but the point here is, I'm it's sixteen hundred eyes, so I'm working from a boat. I have a five hundred with the two exits a thousand millimeters, with a one point three crop factor in the in the camera body that's, a angle of view of thirteen hundred millimeters, and we're still getting these kinds of images in the background. Keep in mind that you always want to be watching your background. You don't want your background to become so busy that it takes away from the rest of your subject, and this was just a beautiful means just sitting there looking around, but that telephoto throws the background completely out. Kind of neat. Look for that peak action. We have these motor drives now. Five friends, six frames, eight frames, ten french, twelve frames per second. So, as you see that bird coming down there, you just let it go. And these other areas, we talked about the action, see action sequence, panorama, as if something's coming across you, then let the motor drive run with it for a while, and maybe you'll be able to put it together as a panorama and have a number of images of that same animal, so let's, look at this long lens scenario with the eighteen hundred millimeters. So we have some video here, so we switched the video. I was doing stills, and this will give you a little bit of an idea. This is just a small clip out of a ten minute video that I have online, and which is essentially the life cycle of the eagles. This's at two and a half weeks. And again note that I zoom in, and occasionally this is all done. Post post process with the ken burns effect here were slightly slightly moving in, but that's thirty two hundred millimeters, but we're not touching the camera. We're using the camera range we're using, we're not touching the camera, we're focusing it. We're turning it on and off there, if anything is going to become a problem, is going to heat shimmer between me and the two hundred feet out there that can. Sometimes, as the day got along, we would sometimes have a problem with the chamber, so keep that in mind. So again, we're in botswana, we're having breakfast on a deck and the deck sits over top of the delta area. There, my wife gets up from breakfast, goes out to the end and looks around, and there were these two little bee eaters just sitting there on the branch looking at it, she quickly tells all of us we scattered and run and get our equipment and we get the photographs of course now you have this photograph what do you do now? I mean you've got it you got him, you know, doing everything from picking their beaks of moving their their wings out and so forth so I went and got the uh one point four and the two x and a twenty five millimeter extension tube's like a focus closer and I'm at eighteen hundred twenty millimeters I'm shooting head shots and this is why I mentioned to one of the people in the audience here that that having these tell the converters you know yes, you want to get the very best quality possible and you start with that with the cleanse as it is, but why not add things to it? And if you do the technique properly you can actually get very good quality and for what we've done here I'm pretty surprised that the quality were able to get so the next morning, of course, because she saw it the morning before I went out and looked around the corner and instead of two I got four so you always got to outdo him you know, there's always doing this particular time I only use the one point four converter on the mark four and was able to get a form it was pretty cold and they were huddled together to stay warm pretty neat. These air little bee eaters flying birds flying birds are difficult to shoot in the difficulty issue to photograph simply because we can't predict where they're going to be. Usually when you have the chance to predict where a flying bird is going to be, this is a military mccaw and it's, a restrain bird, and each day at this rehab center in the coast of california, they would let it go and it would fly about two, three laps around and then coming land back on the ladies arm. So I said, well, can I photographed that? Because that's, predictable and predictability was the essential thing here. So with a one to four hundred millimeter lens as it's flying around, I know where the lights going to be in when it comes around this side, the lights going to be on a properly and all fire away. I've been in the amazon jungle and we're going down a river and two kinds and big mecause and things come flying down the river from behind you. You could just say, yeah, that was nice there's, no predictability, so when you have this predictability, you can get some pretty nice shots, there are places there in that area close to where I was in the amazon there's ah, clay lick. And in that clay lick, the parents come in to pick out pieces of clay in the minerals that are in there. Francois ming, who will be giving a program here later this month. He was able to go in there and because of the predictability. But he got some absolutely incredible pictures of groups of parents coming in and leaving and things like that. So it was the predictability that made it possible. So sometimes you make your own predictability. I had an assignment from cannon can called me on the phone and said, we're going to do this brochure on this particular camera. We want to really show the auto focus on what we want is a colorful bird flying right at the camera and the it was captured, you know, with the predictive otto folk and I said fine. Ok, aiken what if I get a parrot that's flying directly at the camera? Very colorful. They said yes, do that. So I hung up the phone. And how am I going to do that? So I started calling around to see if I could find a parent that would fly for me. I found one. I found lots of them that could fly and we're trained, but they were all too fat and they would always say, well, in a couple of weeks I'll fly him and you can fly in a couple of weeks but this one was flying at universal studios and uh the trainer and another person brought him out and he would fly from one person to the other, but he said that I could fly on for three hours and that's all we can do and it exactly twelve o'clock we started at nine and exactly twelve o'clock the bird landed and would not fly he was a union bird, so here I'm sitting there and the trainer and this other fellow he would have a treat for the bird and we could have the bird fly anywhere we wanted to because he would always come to that particular person. So the predictability this is the shot they used in the brochure he's going to land on his arm that's sitting on top of my head so he's looking he's coming right at me and that's what they wanted, but a lot of times we'll take an assignment and this can you do this? And was they sure and we'll and we'll hang up and we'll say, how are we going to do that? I've done that a few times this is again last week I took the one hundred, four hundred. I set the flash on it to one sixty fourth power manual as you goes us smaller and smaller in your increments of one thirty second one, sixty fourth, the flash duration gets shorter and shorter and shorter because you have less and less light. So I said it all the way down to one sixty fourth power, I kicked up the s o two, two hundred, the bird is quite close and I'm using that better beamer on there, so that concentrates it and I was able to capture the the hummingbirds coming into the theater, and they would kind of hover there for just a moment and their auto focus. Now on our cameras are so good that I'm able to pick these guys out of the sky and it's just neat to me. I mean, I'm is I'm a cz improv old with the fact that I could do this. I mean, anybody could do this. It's pretty neat. It's not very fancy equipment began the predictability, the knowing of natural science to know that when you have a bird like this, this is rufus, hummingbird and it's. Very feisty. It has a an area around that it's going to protect. And in this particular meadow up in the iraqi mountains, it would land on the tallest flower stem here, this green jensen. And it would sit there and watch for anybody to come into his territory, and we just go off and run him out. And so I said, well, he's going to come back so I pre set upon it had the flash figure out my exposures and everything. And just as he landed is when I fired off the camera. It's a six hundred millimeter lens. This is again last week predictability, this's a little fir tree, that's in the backyard, and he's landing on it. But he's quite a ways out, and I wanted to fill the frame with it. This is what the five d s I didn't have. The five yes are at the time. And I didn't even have to crop these, but but you can see here the quality, the combination of this projected flash, the eight hundred with two with a two x converter on it. Sixteen hundred millimeters it's, just a lot of fun and the bird is flashing the gorge it the color. This is gorgeous att the very front here and it's up to him to flash it or not, flash, it is how he shapes his feathers. Is to whether you'll see the color or not it's not pigment there's no pigment there it has to do with the refraction of the light coming from from those feathers it's pretty neat and he was obviously of flashing at some other bird or something healthy he was flashing at me I like the do the natural types of shots of the birds I also like the ones where they're like jewels stop in mid air and so forth that the first one of the little female that stopped in mid air like that that's the duration of the flash was something like twenty thousand of a second something of that nature in these cases here it's much slower but you can see I've got an exposure here for the ambient exposure and then when the flash goes off there's two different explosions going on here one is the ambient one is from the flash but I like to get them here they're in the lark spur it's a very natural type of a shot so I like to try to capture those when I can so I'm in botswana I'm photographing of a bunch of cattle eat grits up in a tree and off to my left is upon and in that pond these ducks duck lands over there and he's the strange ducks with a with a knob on his bill it's called him not bill duck and they start fighting and I just swing around and with my seventy that I had at the time that which is eight frames for second, I just start taking pictures and this goes on and on and on, and I take all of these photographs of this fight going on, and I thought that was pretty cool. These are some of the better ones out of that batch, and I was looking at the bunch of pictures I had one hundred and one image is still after editing it out, and I'm saying, wow, I took him from the same spot with the same lands, what happens if I put them all together with quick time? The same thing that we used to do a time lapse with and we'll see what happens and is that it? Will that make a movie? So I did that and see if this doesn't tell you more about what was going on there, then a single shot way that was one hundred one actors that you just looked at. Now if you have a batch of images like this, think about that for a minute now you could do this on purpose, but I think if I was to do this again with the cameras, these cameras did not have a video capability in them, and I would have switched this on the video it's sixty frames per second and kept them in there, and then I could have slowed down a slow motion. We're seeing every aspect of it, but the fact that I think you could tell what that fight was like more from this little stop action movie than from those four single images, so think about that something like this happens, and later on you can sometimes bring something out of it, but the best thing is if we would've known or had the capability at the time that it happened to even do it better than that. So this new lens from canon focus is down to three point two feet, and I was thinking, wow, three point two feet, and if I put a one point four convertir out, which I'm getting really good quality from it, uh, so I put myself right next to the theater, sitting on a chair with a little blind thing that I called it a half blind over there, so the birds don't know that it's me and they land on the theatre and because I'm so close because I'm with eight hundred and ninety six millimeters is the angle of view of that lens at four hundred with a one point four convert at three point two feet, I'm shooting the head of a finch pretty cool, I've never been able to do that before. With each new capability that comes out, we have some other new capability that we didn't have before, and it starts to get the creative juices running. I was in florida at one of the alligator farm or the there's two places when one is in orlando, one is further south, but walking around the boardwalk there with that one hundred to four hundred again focusing down there close, I was able to do some very nice images, and again we're at eight hundred ninety six millimeters, and then a couple of these birds would sit on the railing, and I just keep moving little closer, moving a little close there, moving a little closer, and then I just slowly move up and I would then I'm now three point two feet away from them just work and focus, and I'm shooting a part of their face. I have a little flash on the top of the camera so that I can fill in a little bit of flash, but eight hundred ninety six millimeters at thirty two feet, I mean three point, two feet, lots of fun. I'm not sure whether that's a great eager a cattle egret aura, one of the greats

Class Materials

Bonus Materials

George Lepp - Syllabus.pdf
George Lepp - Gear List.pdf

Bonus Materials

George Lepp - Innovative Techniques For Outdoor Photography - Notes.pdf

Ratings and Reviews


I watched the entire class, and found it to be a very negative experience - in contrast to all of my other experiences with Creative Live, which had been very good. The problem with this class was the instructor. Mr. Lepp, rather than giving us practical, useful information, and techniques for approaching the subject of Outdoor Photography, instead used his time to show off his seemingly endless array of incredibly expensive and cutting edge gadgetry. For the first half hour or so, Mr. Lepp seemed pleasant and interesting, but it quickly became apparent that this class was NOT about anything relating to the art of outdoor photography. Instead, it was basically a seminar highlighting exotic equipment for the 1%. I have well over $25,000 of photographic equipment, but the arena in which Mr. Lepp plays begins somewhere around the $100,000 mark, and then requires a staggering ongoing budget for chartering helicopters, hiring guides, and constant upgrades to remain on the bleeding edge of gadgetry and accessories. From his gyroscopic mounts to his 40" printer, Mr. Lepp has it ALL and continues to spend, spend, spend. I admire his deep pockets, but I would have appreciated some real insight and technique and useful knowledge on actually getting great shots. (And I must say... Mr. Lepp's work... did not impress me to the degree that other teachers on CreativeLive have.) I believe those giving positive reviews here were more or less wowed by the sheer magnitude of his extensive, well-funded travels and his off-handed way of revealing the endless contraptions and combinations of gear he uses. The passion here is clearly about the gadgetry, and NOT about finding an original and creative voice in the arena of outdoor photography.

R. Hetrick

Amazing class! I particularly loved the macro and how to correctly take panoramic photos sections. George was not only a great teacher but he was super funny too. Would be happy to take any of his future classes.


George really prepared a lot of information for his class. It is true, he does have a lot of expensive equipment and we may not be able to do some of the things he does with a smaller budget, but it is good incentive for us to plan for the future. He seemed to share new information constantly and stay focused and I was able to take a lot of notes. He talked about many kinds of equipment as well as software and websites he uses. I am pretty impressed that he is so up to date with recent technology. He especially loves macro/micro and stacking hundreds of images for minute focus on really large enlargements (for example, over 600 photos for one butterfly wing). That can get boring if you are not interested in doing that. I can take those tips and apply them to landscape photography though. I think it is more helpful for someone already doing outdoor photography and looking for new inspiration or new techniques as opposed to someone new to photography in general.

Student Work