It never fails to happen. You’re running around town when you spot a bird. A bird perched in plain sight that you have to get a picture of. The problem? You didn’t bring your camera with you. All you have is your phone. You reach for your phone, fumble with the zoom function, and take a few pictures. You already know that even the best of them will probably be blurry, out of focus, or, worse yet, a picture of the ‘tail end’ of your bird as it flies away.
While it would be ideal to have your camera with you at the ready, sometimes it’s just not convenient to bring it along. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t get good pictures of birds using your phone. If you want to take better bird pictures using the phone in your pocket, these tips will start you on your way.
Work with the Sun
You don’t have to be a professional photographer to know that lighting is key to getting good pictures. You’ve probably looked through your pictures at one time or another and shook your head, blaming the light for being too harsh. Many times, we’ve struggled with either too little or too much sun. While phones offer a flash option, they’re of little help when taking pictures outside. The trick is to work with the sun. No matter what time of the day, you will get better pictures simply by turning your back to the sun. Standing with the sun at your back acts as a backlight for your subject, giving you better results with minimal effort.
Another thing to remember when using sunlight to get better pictures with your phone is the time of day. Birds are most active at sunrise and sunset, the two times of day when the sun is at half-light. Birds are most active at this time, and the light is ideal. It’s the perfect time to get some great pictures. The half-light makes for good color saturation, which will enhance your pictures. As mentioned before, try to shoot pictures at angles where the sun isn’t putting your subject in the direct spotlight. Working with the sun this way gives you a natural highlight as opposed to a glaring image in your pictures. As you work with the angle of the sun, keep in mind that you won’t get your best pictures in complete shade either. Working with the light optimally will give you your best results.
The Rule of Thirds
When it comes to technology, the easiest way to learn something new is to simply play with it. If you’ve toyed with your phone’s camera, you might have found a few unfamiliar features. One of those features is the ability to place a grid on the screen where you view pictures. The grid feature divides a shot into thirds both horizontally and vertically. This helps you place your subject into one of the thirds or within where the gridlines intersect.
See also: How to Set Up a Wildlife Cam
What’s the point of using this grid? It helps you focus in on your subject, decreases the empty spaces in your pictures, and results in more appealing pictures. The ideal position for most pictures will be placing your subject onto one of the four points where two lines intersect. This results in your subject being off center both vertically and horizontally. Using the rule of thirds does wonders for composition and positioning—which means better pictures with your phone.
Focus, Don’t Zoom in Your Camera
It’s instinctual for a birdwatcher to grab their phone out of their pocket in anticipation of getting a picture of that bird that pops up suddenly at a feeder. As much as we all know timing is of the essence, your best chance of getting a good picture is to stop for a minute. Check to see if your camera is focused on the bird and not the beautiful flower it’s perched next to. When it comes to focus on a smart phone, it’s as easy as a quick tap to your screen. Tap the screen right where your subject is. A box will pop up to indicate the focal point of your picture. You can then change the focus to another area by simply tapping that spot on the screen.
Avoid using the zoom feature of your phone. Yes, it’s frustrating knowing that you can’t get too close to a bird without scaring it away and losing the photo opportunity completely. As tempting as it is to put your fingers on the screen and zoom in on that bird, many bird and wildlife photographers advise not to.
The problem is in the smart phone’s lens, which is fixed. So, while you may think you are magnifying the subject, the results will not be like what you would see if you were to use a magnifying glass on an image. You’ll find yourself staring disappointedly at a blurry image. Optical zoom is still a novel feature, except for one or two particular iPhones, and so zoom remains largely digital; quality deteriorates as you zoom in. The solution is to get as close to your subject as is possible without disturbing them and driving them away.
Consider the Backdrop
Paying attention to the backdrop can make a world of a difference in your bird pictures. Just as you may choose one shirt over another for complimentary color reasons, you can look for complimentary colors when deciding how to shoot your subject. It’s going to be difficult to distinguish a yellow oriole among a bunch of yellow flowers. Angling for the bird by focusing on the greens nearby can provide a stunning contrast.
Bright colored birds will pop out in a light-colored backdrop, while less colorful birds will get a boost from spring green leaves or a bright blue sky. Take into account anything in the subject’s area that might distract the eye from focusing on the bird. Think about clearing away any debris, lawn tools, toys, or anything that takes the focus off the bird. Like any picture, too many objects in the background detract from the goal of the picture, that of catching the beauty of the bird in the moment.
Don’t Stop at One Picture
Anyone who has ever taken photos already knows that the ‘more the merrier’ is a good rule of thumb. It’s a terrible disappointment to go home after taking a picture of a bird and find out it’s too dark, too blurry, or way out of focus. The best way to ensure that you get at least one, if not a handful, of good pictures of a bird with your phone is to keep snapping.
Don’t stop at one snap and slip your phone back into your pocket. As long as your subject is there, keep taking pictures until it flies out of sight. Some phones offer users the option to shoot multiple pictures within milliseconds of one another. Some phones have a sport setting that enables you to take pictures faster, but may jeopardize lighting. Either way, having multiple pictures of the bird promises you at least one picture that’s a keeper.
The best way to learn how to take better bird pictures with your phone is to get outside and start snapping. Don’t be afraid to use one or all these tips. Vary your backdrops, experiment with different times of day, and get creative. There is nothing like practice to turn you into an old pro.