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Few things are more exciting and satisfying than capturing the beauty and behavior of birds in a well-made video. At the same time, taking good wildlife footage can be challenging. Consider these tips when filming birds in the field.
Use a tripod
Using a tripod makes an enormous difference when filming birds. A sturdy tripod with a fluid head is best, but any tripod helps to reduce the shakiness associated with handheld video. In a pinch, you might be able to rest your camera on a rock or tree trunk to achieve some stability.
Choose high-quality settings
Try to record at least at 1080p (full HD) resolution. Make sure you have enough space on your memory cards for the high-resolution video you will be shooting. Frame rate is a matter of preference, but 30 fps is a common standard. Higher frame rates capture more information and can be worthwhile if you’re not sacrificing resolution, especially for flying birds.
Learn your gear and your settings
Being comfortable with your equipment is very important for being able to act quickly and take advantage of opportunities in the field, so be sure to learn the main features of your equipment. Similarly, knowing what settings to use and being able to adjust them quickly to account for changing lighting and movement helps you capture more quality videos.
Getting close to your subject is one of the most important aspects of capturing high-quality video. Carefully moving a few meters closer to a subject can make the difference between a useful video and a tiny bird in the frame. But as you contemplate ways to get closer to a bird, always consider whether your actions might disturb your subject––the well-being of the bird should always come before getting "the perfect shot."
Shooting from low to the ground gives you a better angle on most birds and makes you less conspicuous to them. Many tripods have legs that can be tilted out to provide a lower profile. Getting low also offers more protection from wind, which can be a big problem for shooting stable video; using a sturdy tripod also helps with this.
Find good light
Just as for photos, well-lit video is more aesthetically pleasing. In general, try to have the sun behind you when taking video. Morning and evening light usually look nicer than midday lighting, which can be strong and harsh.
Compose your shot
Try to be mindful of how you compose your shot before pressing the record button. Try not to cut off any parts of the bird, unless it doesn't fit in the frame. Also try to position the subject so that it's neither in the exact center of the frame nor too close to the edge. A bird that's about 1/3 of the way from one edge of the frame and facing towards the larger part of the frame (for example, the Henslow’s Sparrow below) tends to be more aesthetically pleasing.
Follow the bird or let it leave
Often your subject will be moving and you will have to make the decision to follow it and refocus or allow it to leave the frame. Either can produce nice results, but try to decide ahead of time or your panning will be jerky and awkward when the bird starts to move. If you decide to stick with a "static" shot and let the bird leave the frame, try not to touch the camera during the shot (unless refocusing becomes essential), and allow time for the bird to completely exit before pressing the stop button. Keep in mind that cheaper tripods usually produce jerkier panning, and you may be better off with static shots.
Keep the focus
Keeping your subject in focus makes for a better video. Try to get a sharp focus on the face of the bird at the start of the cut. If your camera offers an option to magnify a part of the screen before starting the video, this can be a big help. If you choose to follow the bird as it moves, you will probably have to adjust the focus throughout the cut, though bear in mind that this can introduce additional vibrations into your video, so try to do it smoothly. Depending on your camera, you may have autofocus that can track the bird. This can sometimes yield good results, but make sure that it does before relying on it too heavily.
Take more video!
Video is most useful for illustrating behavior, so the more time you spend on a subject, the more likely it is to do something interesting! Taking multiple videos or longer videos (even if you end up cutting them down before uploading) can be fruitful. Also, if you are able to move closer or farther away or have a zoom lens, taking some wider shots with more habitat as well as more focused shots provides some nice variety.
Hooded Merganser © Dorian Anderson/Macaulay Library (ML75782071)
Don’t forget about the audio
Even though you might be focused most on what you can see in the frame, remember that audio can be an important part of a video as well. Attaching an external microphone to your camera can help improve audio quality. Try not to talk or move around while filming, and keep in mind that autofocus or image stabilization can also cause a lot of unwanted noise.
Keep track of the metadata
Each video submitted to eBird becomes a Macaulay Library "media specimen" with associated metadata: date, location, age/sex of the subject(s), behaviors exhibited, and equipment used. There are a few things that you can do in the field to make sure that you have all of this information when you’re ready to upload your videos to eBird. First, start an eBird checklist as soon as you begin filming birds in the field. This captures the date and location of your filming session and ultimately serve as the tool for uploading your videos. Also, make sure the clock on your camera is set correctly, so that the time and date on your video files matches up easily with your eBird checklists. Visit our tagging media page for more information on adding metadata to your uploaded videos.
Prepare and upload
Trim your video before uploading it to the Macaulay Library through eBird. See our video upload guidelines page for more information.