Handheld Bird Photography

posted in: Photography | 19

“I must start off by saying that I am primarily a bird watcher rather than photographer. I have a busy professional life but birds and nature have been my passion for more than 35 years.

“I would like to start off by describing the different kinds of persons who might take pictures of birds, a simplistic overview. There are the bird scientist (ornithologists) who would like to document characteristics of the bird and behaviour. The bird photographer is the one who would like to get that ‘perfect’ image of a beautiful creature. Then there is the birdwatcher, an amateur ornithologist, but one who enjoys birds and has often a lifetime passion for this activity. I belong to the last group. I have published some scientific articles (and hope to do more in the future) as well as tried my hand at getting that ‘great image’. But I am primarily a bird friend who respects birds and other creatures as sentient beings. So I am writing this article from that perspective, not one to get the best image but using photography as a tool to support an interest. Hence the birds always come first and the image last. Hence, although good images are desired, no obtaining images is accepted as long as the birds are not harmed. Not so great images, that show interesting behaviour, are also welcome. I also expect that I will crop images I take and process them extensively with some imaging software; often merging images to give a better idea of the observation.

Why Handheld Bird Photography

“I always consider what I am trying to achieve and why. If I am interested in really sharp/clear images, I will buy the best camera and long lens (good/high quality glass, minimum 500 mm with a good teleconvertor) my pocket will allow with a very good tripod. But for me this makes the equipment heavy and hard to use handheld. I prefer to watch birds using handheld camera gear. For me a static image has limited value – there will always be someone else who can take a better picture than me. I avoid tripod or monopods as birds dislike them and shy away. I almost never use flash as birds are disturbed by it. My primary objective is to try and make ‘friends’. I want to watch behaviour and want them to let me get close. Hence I have stayed with the lightest camera and lens that offers the longest reach.

My Equipment Journey
“I started out with a Nikon D50 SLR and a simple Nikon AF Zoom 70-300mm back in 2005. This was a cheap setup and allowed me to test if I wanted to move from just visual observations to also documenting bird behaviour. I was reasonably pleased. Initially with a tripod but quickly moving to the freedom and joy that handheld work offered. I knew I needed better glass and when the Nikon AF Zoom 70-300mm VR lens appeared I switched to that. Good lens and not too heavy but the reach was insufficient. By 2008 I moved to a Tamron AF Zoom 200-500mm, which I picked up 2nd hand, and a Nikon D90. This became my standard set up and was delightful. Heavier and required some adjustment but gave me the reach I was looking for. This kept me happy for 2 years but after a while the lens was getting ‘soft’ and I was looking for some VR support. In September 2010 I was on holiday in Australia to watch birds and picked up the Sigma AF OS Zoom 150-500mm (considerably cheaper than back home). The Sigma lens is a bit heavier and takes a little longer to focus than the Tamron but is sharper (I removed the tripod ring to lessen weight). In January 2011 my wife, seeing the quality of my work improve, approved my purchase of the Nikon 7000.

“I should say at this point that I am a single-equipment-person. In that I seldom keep old lenses once I am happy with the current set up as I am sure I will not use them. So I tend to give away to friends or sell off via my local camera dealer.

“The Nikon 7000 combination with the Sigma AF OS Zoom 150-500mm was a dream (I do not know much about cameras but have given more details about my preferred setting below when comparing with my considered alternative). I fix the settings (using the U1 & U2 presets) and set to Continuous high speed (CH), use the sports function, single point focus to track fast moving birds, set shutter speed and ISO on auto. I know aperture priority is considered the best shooting mode but I do not use that function at present. I usually take images at or close to the full zoom of 500mm. I have tried a number of teleconvertors to extend reach but the image quality with this set up is generally degraded.
Some images I have captured have been good enough to be accepted in a few local and international ornithology book publications and I have included some recent images here for consideration. I was surprised when I even got paid for some of my work. Made me consider quitting my job and going green (unlikely as I love children too much).

How do I use my Setup to do Handheld Bird Photography?
“I use the Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 AF OS with the Nikon 7000. Many who carry my setup for the first time (when I loan it in the field) say it weighs a lot, but for me, it has become manageable after a while. Remember for me I am not worried if do not get pictures – birds first, pictures last. I usually go out in the field or jungle alone as I enjoy the solitude. I often visit the same locations so that I get familiar with the wildlife and the birds get used to me (I wear almost the same clothes each time). I carry nothing else with me to keep my weight down, no bag, no accessories except for my mobile (in case the hospital needs to reach me, on vibratory mode). I keep camera and lens as hidden as possible, held by my side. Of course handheld at 500 mm continue to remain a challenge in terms of shake/movement distortion. Hence I lie down, lean against trees, hold my breath, widen my stance, etc to reduce shake.

“On the average I make two trips weekly to watch birds and will also use the camera in the home garden intermittently. I often take between 200-300 images during a 3 hours trip and will discard the majority. I find that obtaining a variety of images, some not great quality as taken at short notice, allows a better understanding of bird behaviour. Much patience is required; no sudden moves and lots of patient watching and waiting. Not uncommonly birds will allow a close approach or come to scrutinise me when I choose to remain still for 30-40 minutes. I occasionally vocally imitate bird calls and some birds will approach to investigate. I think using call playback is unacceptable and feeding birds unethical and harmful. The set up I have is excellent for taking images of small, rapidly moving birds and those in flight. For flying birds I keep my zoom at 200mm and track birds to get focus. As I follow, in focus, I keep shooting while I extend zoom to 400-500mm to capture images.

“This style of bird photography is as much about bird watching as it is about the photography. I learned much from my ‘sifu’ Madoc (Guy Charles Madoc 1911-1999) LINK. I picked up a copy of his Malaysian bird book in 1975 and learned how to respect birds, and how to watch/understand behaviour. I recently wrote a tribute to him in the local nature society publication. I learned from him to take time, to sit quietly by a path or road side. To allow the bird to recognise that you are ‘safe’. It is probably important to mention that, unlike the industrialised world where they have taken the trouble to respect wildlife, much of my country and parts of Asia have some growing up to do.

My Continued Journey
“I salivate at some of the beautiful pictures produced by the Nikon 800mm lenses (and better Nikon cameras) and also the digiscopers but am pleasantly addicted to meeting nature and birds up close. The cost equipment is not major consideration for me but weight and shake factor are. I have experimented with the Nikon EDG scopes and Digiscoping. But the lack of autofocus with the EDG system is a deterrent and, like digiscoping, requires a tripod based approach.

“I believe mirrorless cameras are the future for hand held work. Hence recently I have begun to try out this option. In the past 1-2 months I have picked up a Nikon V1 with a FT1 adapter and mounted the new Nikon 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G VR DX. I am just beginning to experiment with this and suspect that in the future, once the camera improves, it will be an exciting modality. Sadly at present there is no autofocus for V1 with my Sigma 150-500mm OS. The extremely portability of the V1 system attracts me and its reach, with smaller zoom lenses, is similar to the larger set up. Some bird watchers are beginning to get some success LINK.

“I have listed below my setting in both my current set ups, with my personal take on advantages and disadvantages for handheld bird photography (remember my limitations as a photographer). As well as offered some images for comparison from both in similar settings.

Final Comments
“These have been some simple rambling on my part. I hope they have been useful to others and I welcome ideas. I am sure many are better bird watchers and photographers than me and they can offer good advice. I hope these comments will enrich our appreciation of birds and nature.

Dato’ Dr Amar-Singh HSS
Ipoh, Malaysia
August 2012

Note: “I have published a book on birds “A Friendship with Birds (A Guide to the Identification & Appreciation of Common Birds in the Gardens & Cities of Peninsular Malaysia) to help others appreciate birds more and work towards developing a relationship, a friendship, with them and nature. I am a senior consultant paediatrician with the Malaysian National Health Service and run two large regional departments – a paediatric department and a research centre.

“I post many of my image observations at two main sites: LINK and Bird Ecology Study Group.

“Example of a publication using handheld images: Feeding habits and behaviour of the Ruby-cheeked Sunbird (Chalcoparia singalensis) in Perak, Malaysia LINK.

19 Responses

  1. Howard

    What a wonderful primer by a true lover of birds. We all have our different approaches to birding and photography, and I respect most of them. Dato’ Dr Amar-Singh’s approach, however, has clearly had an impact in the SE Asian birding community, and those who have not yet settled on a particular way of combining bird observation and photography could do a lot worse than start with the detailed briefing he has provided here.

    • Amar-Singh HSS (Dato, Dr)

      Dear Howard

      Please just call me Amar. Thank you for the kind words. I hope posting my ideas would stimulate thinking as well as offer me ideas to grow (from the discussion). There is so much to learn from each other as we work to appreciate and protect birds. The proliferation of technology and people using it to document birds means that many more can contribute to the art, science and joy of bird watching.


  2. Sonja Ross

    It’s very interesting to read about your approach to bird photography. I run a photography group as a sub-group of BirdLife Melbourne, and next time we have a discussion session, I will share some of your thoughts with them. Thank you for sharing your approach. Sonja

    • Amar-Singh HSS (Dato Dr)

      Dear Sonja

      Thank you for responding. I was in Melbourne with my wife to watch birds and enjoy the wonderful people 2 years back (one of the friendliest cities). What was great was the respect for nature and hence birds were friendly (easy to approach). If you or the group have ideas on how we can all move forward, be delighted to hear them.


  3. K V Dinesh


    Been following your pictures and wonderful explanations on OB, feel wonderful about your approach to birding. Me too bird for the joy of it and have stuck to handheld ultrazoom cameras (i.e. no SLRs). Your write up is very helpful since I too subscribe to birds first and photos next. Wish you rewarding birding, always.

    K V Dinesh
    Mysore, India

    • Amar-Singh HSS (Dato Dr)

      Dear Dinesh

      Please just call me Amar. Thank you for the kind comments. I think we are all on a learning curve, both in our growth in knowing how respect birds/nature, as well as how to document it with minimal disturbance.




    This well written briefing is much overdue and so glad it finally came from the ‘horse’s mouth’ of good repute. What took you so long, brother?

    Your approach in watching and photographing birds is commendable. So is your publication ‘A Friendship with Birds’ very useful for beginners into birding and bird-photography.
    If presented ten years ago, would have saved the frustrations of many bird-photographers in providing positive and educational fodder to photograph birds in an enjoyable, more ethical perspective. Also positively function as unselfish team mates with knowleagable birders with a no camera handicap.
    Treating avians and their habitats with respect and learning from each other and compliment each other’s limitations benefit all.

    We only have one pair of hands allowing bird -photography using only one system at a time, be it handheld-DSLR or using tripod and digiscopy. As such, have to choose the best that meet/suit our needs and passion most.
    Camera technology is advancing leaps and bounds and wont be long that the use offlash photography may one day soon considered to be outdated and bird-photographers won’t have to get upset when birders roll their disapproval eyes at them!

    Yes, I do marvel at those who show crystal clear action shots especially of raptors,swiftlets and water/oceanic birds something my digiscope system cannot handle. We cannot be good at everything but to each who does best and aspire to bring the best out of oneselves, we can but admire and respect, enjoy looking at their works and even to encourage more.

    Which brings to question ourselves, what do we really want out of birding and or bird-photography? What kind of satisfaction? A Bird twitcher, photo-collector,contributor or all?

    As AMar has put himself in the third category -the best desired category to be emulated I would say, is but one of the most enviable categories to be in, to enjoy all that nature could give through birds. But…Possible ONLY if one first learn to respect and treasure what nature provides through your eyes.

    Thank you Amar, for all your time and contributions.


    • Amar-Singh HSS (Dato Dr)

      Dear Daisy

      Thanks for responding. I fully agree about the many different approaches & technology. Each person will find an approach that they are comfortable with. What we need is to collectively work towards a better, ethical responsibility towards birds. This should include minimal disturbance, no harm to nestlings, avoid call playback and feeding, maintain habitat, and hopefully cultivate a relationship which I believe many birds are able to do with us. Right now their genetic memory in our region sadly speaks of the danger man brings.


  5. Taher Kagalwala

    Dear Dr. Amar.

    It was a pleasure to go through this authoritative write-up that you so humbly call your “simple rambling”. I am amazed at the amount of thought and hard work that went into your article, and your simple conservation-friendly attitude that all bird-watchers must adopt. I have been an ardent, albeit silent, fan of yours on OBPix. Like you, I am a Pediatrician too, but could satiate my love of birds only in the past few years when I earned enough to purchase the necessary equipment for bird-watching-photography. I use a Canon 550D with the same lens (Sigma 150-500) as you. I hope to learn much from you.

    Thank you for your nice write-up. How can I access your book?

  6. Raj

    Hi Amar,
    I have been following your images in OB Pix and have always admired the quality and educative content. Given that I too use a D7000 with a Sigma 150-500mm OS (hand-held) this write up is a great learning for me. I love the freedom handheld photography gives me. Thanks and look forward to more such contributions from you.

    • Amar-Singh HSS (Dato, Dr)

      Dear Raj

      Thanks for responding. Yes, handheld work has really given the freedom and mobility that I want when in the jungle or just pottering around when appreciating birds in the neighbourhood.
      Looking forward to learning from your experiences as well.


  7. Lim ST

    Hi Dr Amar,
    I am a novice, i have seen many birders using call playback to attract birds. You seemed to be strongly against that. May i know what is the reason behind, what adverse effect does it have on the birds?
    Enjoyed reading your write up in several different websites. Thank you.

  8. Amar-Singh HSS (Dato, Dr)

    Dear Lim

    Thank you for asking a good question and for the kind comment.
    The issues is debatable. Some support call play back and even use it for commercial purposes (bird guide) to ensure the client gets their quota. Others, like me, want to keep the disturbance to birds to the minimum. I have tried some simplistic call playback much earlier but did not like what I was doing. 6
    If you do a simple net search for “Sibley Guides” and “proper use of playback in birding” you will find a good discussion on the pros and cons, with evidence. My experience suggests that birds do not like flash and imitation of their calls. Calls may threaten or distract a bird.

    I am always open to change and discovering I am wrong (which I am often). In the past 4 decades I have seen bird volume decay significant. Anything we can do to halt it is important.

    Finally there are no novices. Each of us will have unique experiences that contribute to enrich us all.


    • YC

      …and to add to Amar’s statement that there are “no novices” let me add my two cent’s worth… similarly there are no experts – we are all students seeking knowledge.


    Dear All,

    Another cent to throw in for good measure for BESG a wishing well and just thinking aloud.

    My trips abroad to several Asean countries lately, checklisting birds in known birdy areas and making comparisonswith all those impressive birdlist accumulated over the many years have shown a drastic drop in bird volumes and species count including birds in specific areas of interests in Peninsula Malaysia.

    I was thinking aloud and wonder how nations can take stock of their fast depleting bird habitats, rethink their priorites and how birders/photographers/educators/scientists/good governance can make the difference to slow down the inevitable losses.

    These are my one cent thought.

    Germany -at least one developed country I have been told have completely outlawed the caging of all sorts of birds. Ornithological history of personalities like Reinwardt, Kuhl speaks loud and existed in preDarwin’s time as Howard correctly described, making their country so much advanced and ahead of times as compared to Asean countries- still juveniles and seemed to remain comfortable in nappies-refusing to grow up.

    If each Asean country would take on seriously a national campaign, set a compulsory dateline and progressively phase out caging of birds is a positive step that I believe collectively can make the difference.

    Two things will happen:

    1) The pet trade will eventually dwindle off as pet owners become aware that it would be a matter of time when dateline approaches, they have to either donate, sell or have their pets confiscated. This will at least discourage current bird pet owners to acquire more and discourage/prohibit their children’s generation to own birds as pets.

    2) When the demand for cage birds lose luster, so will bird poaching too.

    Where are all these surviving caged birds to go when dateline approaches?

    My proposal answer is upgrade existing bird sanctuaries and bird parks. Create new, spacious, well maintained bird sanctuaries and engage professional science officers who not only create employment but capable to turn ex-bird poachers into reponsible bird keepers.

    Birds are designed with wings and to fly and be free.

    It is perhaps time to consider:

    1)Is it right to use avians to sing in cages for the pleasure of men and be amused and or be used for commercial gain?

    2) Purchasing of caged birds to be released symbolically as an act of religious repentance?

    3) Ban the import of exotic birds for sale to private/commercial owners.

    4) Bird societies to collectively lobby and colaborate with government agencies to map out a masterplan and implementation of schedules for the phasing out of caged birds. Make this long term project a priority if we are to hope that one or more generation of children will have a better chance to still see some nice birds in the wild.

    In Malaysia, we have an ex-Prime Minister that had this to say about the country. ” We have world class infrastructure but 3rd world mentality”.

    Another PM came along and campaigned for Yayasan 2020- meaning that Malaysia is to be envisioned for development by year 2020.

    It is only less than 8 years from now. Dare I wish and dream caged birds will get their freedom too like Malaysians recognise today as Independance Day 31st August 1957 from British rule?


  10. Lim Swee Im (Datin Dr)

    Daisy, I share your sentiments re birds are meant to be free & to fly. Respect your passion to protect birds & wild life. However, I realise we live in a far from utopian society with much war & conflict & poverty. Much as I would love to close pet shops & set birds free, I also see the faces of pet shop owners as being ordinary folks struggling to make a living. My heartache & despair at seeing so much poverty far outweighs my pain of seeing caged birds. Sorry Daisy. Im, Ipoh

  11. Daisy O'Neill

    Dear Swee Im,

    I respect your opinion based on your sentiment/compassion of human lives and your goodself or any other persons entitled to hold their personal opinions.

    The real world is full of ugliness and sufferings from one end of a continent to another.
    Destruction is mainly brought upon by man themselves, the root of cause- greed and jealousies taking more than they need. Turn on the television and one hears of wars, natural disasters, poverty and sufferings often brought upon by poor governance all the time.
    When there is insufficient to feed an over world population or nature is compromised by the folly of humans, Mothernature takes over and comes in waves of tsunamis, earthquakes, destructions etc.. to correct the balance.

    There are many countless ways of earning a decent living. One need not have to live on pet trade alone.Humans are versatile creatures ,very capable of survival when put to test and duress. Am sure you must have seen documentaries of Angel Mountain in Philippines where the ‘rubbish people’ were living off those dumpsites. This is only one of a simple example of survival. Do I pity them?

    Deep recession is mother of invention and sometimes teaches humillity/lesson in those who turn arrogant during good times.Remember the times when your roof leaks, plumbing emergencies, electrical repairs and small business entrepreuneurs don’t show promptly but only interested in big jobs that pay big money during their good times?
    Or retail businesss such as pet shops who leave their pet for sale in poorly, soiled unkept confined spaces? Pet lovers will call it cruelty.

    I can be soft at heart but I can be hard at times where situation dictates and have no sympathy for those who brought sufferings upon themselves of their own doing,having compromised the convenience and welfare of others/animals/flora fauna or otherwise.

    I cannot see the outlaw of caged birds to happen in my life time, not in our part of the world because our nations have not evolved to that developed stage yet. Still have plenty of hungry mouths to feed,lack the social systems where every citizen’s welfare is taken off and no homeless left sleeping in the streets.

    We are still very much at infancy but it is not too late for those who are more fortunate conservationists like ourselves, the learned, knowlegables to begin the serious thought of drafting a master plan or individually begin advocating the outlaw of bird-caging practice in our part of the world, while those who remain still hungry, impoverished learn to have to live one day at a time or that is destined for them and that Mothernature will takes care of or use compassionate humans like Mother Teresa to divinely intervene.

    All very possible in those who have faith and believe or choose and wish to intercede in the name of the Lord. AMEN!


  12. Sarah

    Not bad at all! Especially considering you are primarily a bird watcher. a few shots were a little shaky but those cameras are so sensitive to movement! I think you did an extremely good job.. lots of detail about the specs as well.

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